Tending Our Roots
Families are no longer waiting until children are older to introduce their countries and cultures of origin. Five stories by families whose summer travel helped their children develop a sense of themselves.
The generation of adoptees now entering pre-adolescence are trailblazers. The families of these eight- to twelve-year-olds are, on the whole, exploring their children’s heritage earlier and more intensively than families once did. They’re not waiting until the teenage years or young adulthood to take a homeland tour, attend a culture camp, or make an orphanage visit. Today, more parents are choosing to share these vital identity-building experiences with their children before the challenges of adolescence are upon them. We asked five families to share their experiences with us—and were struck by how similar their concerns and recommendations were, despite the different paths to adoption and diverse heritage experiences they chose. We hope you’ll find their advice helpful as you begin to think about planning your own family’s summer travels.
An Organized Homeland Tour
We’d always talked with our sons about returning to Central America one day. By the summer of 2001, when Michael was 11-and-a-half and Christian 10-and-a-half, we thought they were old enough to withstand the rigors of international travel and appreciate their birth cultures. And we wanted to make the trip before the identity-building teenage years.
We felt it was important for our sons to share the experience with other children and families like ours, so we opted to travel to Guatemala on one of The Ties Program’s tours for adoptive families. Our trip featured a wonderfully diverse set of activities. Among the highlights: visiting a zoo and children’s museum in Guatemala City, taking a boat across Lake Atítlan, and climbing the Mayan ruins of Tikal. We visited an orphanage in Zaragoza run by a dedicated Costa Rican nun, as well as a school/clinic run by a retired minister in Guatemala City. In Chichicastenango, our boys played basketball and soccer at a local school, and we enjoyed a delicious meal and lots of joking in both Spanish and English on a visit with a family.
We did see poverty, but our children also saw middle-class families on vacation, shopping in the markets—in short, doing the same things we do back home. They came away understanding at the most basic level that families and kids around the world are more alike than different.
Finally, they had the powerful experience of walking down the street and, for once, having everyone look like them! Everyone we met was friendly and supportive of—if occasionally perplexed by—our decision to adopt Guatemalan children.
One of the trip’s highlights came on our last night in Guatemala City, at a beautiful restaurant with Mayan décor, lit solely by candles. Our children, some dressed in Mayan garb, were chattering away to one another. A young American at a nearby table looked over and commented on how perfectly our group of Guatemalan children spoke English. When I explained why, he pronounced our visit back to their homeland “very cool.” The Ties Program is indeed a very cool way for children to connect with their heritage.
–Lehea Potter Kuphal lives with her family in southern New Jersey. Michael and Christian, now 13 and 12, and speak often about their Ties trip.
A Domestic Heritage Trip
A child doesn’t have to be adopted internationally to need to find her roots. My Long Island-raised daughter and I have always talked about her birth city of San Antonio, Texas. Though she speaks with a New York accent, she is proud of her Tex-Mex background. By the time she was 10, her curiosity had blossomed fully. We know very little about her birth—she was escorted to New York from Texas at five days old—so I was curious about her birth city as well. With the clear understanding that we would visit to learn about her roots and not to actively search for her birthparents, we planned a short trip to San Antonio.
In San Antonio, we did the usual tourist things—visiting the Alamo, strolling the Riverwalk—all the while learning about Texas history and exploring the city’s thriving Mexican culture. Emily relished the Tex-Mex food (the spicier the better), and bought a cowboy hat that she wore throughout our stay. We had never been to a city with such a large Hispanic population. Emily’s was just one of many Hispanic faces. It was hard to keep track of her as she ran from activity to activity.
Being so close to her birthfamily, it was impossible not to think of them. A few blocks from our hotel stood the county courthouse where Emily’s adoption had been finalized. Somewhere, buried in a file room in that building, lay the information about Em’s origins—so close, yet still unavailable to us due to the closed nature of adoptions at that time.
Three days into our trip, at Emily’s request, we visited the adoption agency. When we got there, Emily went into a quiet mode. Finally, she asked one question: “Was I ever in this room?” The answer told us something about the first five days of her life: Yes, she had been there on the way from foster care to the airport. Another thought played in my head: Her birthmom had been in that room once, too. I felt closer to her than ever before.
In the past, I’d been told that the information available to us was limited. Now, with adoptions more open than before, the agency staff offered to review the record for answers to any of Emily’s questions and even to try to find her birthfamily.
Since the visit, Emily has had a new calm about her. She has yet to formulate her questions for the agency. Knowing that she can ask has, for now, reduced much of her need to know.
Being part of the majority culture, even for a few days, was a powerful experience for Emily. She still talks about moving to Texas as an adult and kids me about how hard it was to find her among all those Hispanic faces. Pride in her city and heritage has been important to her sense of self. We hope to return to Texas soon.
–Leslie Kizner and her daughter live in Long Island, New York.
Our Week at Heritage Camp
Wearing a long skirt studded with beads and bits of twinkling glass, my daughter, Kiran, proudly carried the Indian flag; beside her, a boy named Bradley held an American flag. We were gathered with other families for the opening ceremony of East Indian Heritage Camp (EIHC) in Fraser, Colorado. As we sang the American and the Indian national anthems, a lump formed in my throat and I felt a deep pride in my family and my country. Where else would there be such an open-armed celebration of both adoption and cultural diversity?
I’d heard of family heritage camp only a few months before. Kiran had turned eight in June, and my husband and I felt that, while she was too young for sleep-away camp on her own, she was old enough for heritage camp. Perhaps most important, she was still at an age when it is exciting to take trips with Mommy and Daddy.
I wanted Kiran to see other families like ours, to help normalize the idea of her adoption and the reality of our bicultural family. There are only a handful of adopted children in our New York City suburb, and even fewer Indian adoptees. Sometimes, strangers will notice us together and ask, “Are you her babysitter?” That certainly wouldn’t happen here. At EIHC, white parents with Indian children are the norm.
Many events involved Indian games and festivals. One morning, we performed Rangoli, a ritual to welcome the day. We also staged a celebration of Holi, a springtime festival marking the letting go of grudges and negative emotions and making a fresh start.
For part of each day, the kids were split into same-age groups for activities led by Indian-American counselors. One of the highlights of camp for Kiran was meeting sisters from Denver who were originally from Cuttack, the city in Eastern India where she was born.
I believe that heritage camp gave Kiran something that even a trip to India could not: the sense of having a peer group. Her fellow campers were Indian-American kids. Like Kiran, many of them were more likely to reach for the hot dogs at lunch than for the traditional Indian chappatis, dal, and rice. She also got a glimpse of her future—attractive Indian-American teenage girls who helped her with her hair and makeup before the final evening’s “Spice of Life” party.
I am sure that, as Kiran gets older, she will have questions about her birth family and culture. She may have to cope with feelings of grief and loss. But her experience at heritage camp with other young Indian-Americans will, I believe, help her realize that she is far from alone.
–Nelly Edmondson Gupta lives with her husband, Rishi, and daughter, Kiran, in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
A Unique Language and Culture Immersion
Our daughter, Shana, attended a local Korean culture camp founded by a group of adoptive parents from the time she was six years old. It was a great way to meet families like ours and become familiar with the food, dance, and other aspects of her birth culture. By the time she was 12, she had developed a deep interest in all things Korean. She was ready for a camp that focused less on adoption and more on language and culture. It was Shana who spotted the ad for Concordia Language Villages in Korean Quarterly.
We saw Concordia’s Korean Language Village as the next step—a more rigorous education in Korean language and culture. There, not only do children have the opportunity to wear a hanbok and to practice t’aekwondo, but they do it all while speaking Korean—and only Korean—with the help of native and expert teachers of the language.
When we picked Shana up from the Korean Language Village the first year, she asked straightaway, “I’m going next year, right?” She’s returned each summer since. Korean isn’t offered at Shana’s school, so she’s attended the camp’s month-long, high-school-credit sessions for the past two summers. She’s also received tutoring during the school year from one of her counselors.
Last year, after spending a month in Seoul with the family of a girl we’d hosted, Shana noted that so many Koreans wanted to practice English that she didn’t speak Korean as much as she would have liked. At the Language Village, kids pick up Korean naturally because they are immersed in it. And the counselors do a great job of demonstrating what life is like in Korea today. They play contemporary music as well as traditional music. One year, they even set up a computer station like a Seoul cyber café.
Over four summers, Shana has developed friendships with kids across the country. Finding others who value Korean culture as much as she does has given her a lot of confidence.
-Sandy Lee lives with her husband, Robert, and daugther, Shana, in Minnesota.
A Visit to My Daughter’s Homeland, Orphanage, and Birth Family
My heart ached the day my six-year-old daughter told me, “Sometimes I don’t feel real.” I had adopted Elena at age two-and-a-half in Romania, and we had always taken part in Romanian adoptee reunions, picnics, and parties. Still, she was missing something that I could not give her. She had no sense of life before adoption.
Although I always knew I would take Elena back to Romania one day, I imagined such a trip would wait until she was a teenager, or even older. But after talking with an adoption therapist, I concluded that my daughter, at eight, needed to see where she came from now. We bought our tickets, made arrangements to stay with a host family in Bucharest, and planned a two-week visit.
Visiting Elena’s orphanage was a life-altering experience. Before that day, when Elena spoke of her babyhood, it was always prefaced with “When I was two,” as if her life began when she came to America. Seeing the happiness of the orphanage staff who remembered her, her crib, and her favorite chair, gave my daughter a picture of her early life. She discovered that she was, and had always been, “real.”
Every parent wonders if her child is ready to meet her birth family. I had met Elena’s birthmother at the time of her adoption, and I knew she would greet Elena with nothing but happiness and good wishes. But as we drove to her birth family’s village, I could see Elena’s bravado ebbing away.
When I saw the joy on her birthmother’s face, I knew Elena would be okay. She took great pleasure in passing out gifts to her siblings, who introduced her around the village with pride.
I advise families planning a trip like ours to give their children a sense of normal daily life in their birth country. In addition to visiting major tourist sites, go shopping at a neighborhood market. Visit parks and schools. Stay with a host family. Elena came away with a tangible sense of what it means to be Romanian.
Since our trip, I’ve noticed a change in my daughter. She’s much more comfortable with who she is, more settled, more accepting of why her life unfolded the way it did. I’m glad my daughter is growing up knowing that nothing about her past is out of bounds. Our bond is stronger, not weaker, because I was willing to share, and even welcome, her “ghosts” into our home, thoughts, and lives.
-Jill Lampman lives with her daughters, Elena, now 14, and Becca, age 5, in Vancouver, Washington, where she is on the board of the Northwest Adoptive Families Association.
Making the Most of Your Heritage Trip. Advice from an experienced tour leader
Why and When to go:
Traveling to your child’s country of origin before adolescence is a kind of preventive medicine. Children who fall in love with their culture of origin feel good about themselves.
It is during the early elementary years that children are most open to new experiences and travel, just as they are more receptive to learning new languages.
If children don’t see their birth country for themselves, they may wonder if there is something wrong with it or you are hiding something.
Children understand best when they participate in their birth culture, see it, touch it, and smell it.
Early travel experiences allow children to answer questions from classmates and peers with confidence.
While you’re there: Approach cultural differences from a positive perspective. ("Isn’t it interesting how this is different from ours at home? Let’s find out why it’s designed this way.") Model understanding and adaptability.
Help your child understand. Identify things that are similar to what you see at home, and things that are different. The list of differences will come down to a few items, but the list of similarities will be long —"People say hello," "People are nice," "Kids play in the park.”
Talk about what you will see, do, and experience before the trip. Poverty is likely to come as a shock to children who have little contact with it in their own country. Spend time talking about inner-city America before talking about inner-city Beijing or Guatemala City.
Consider traveling with a group. Children can trade adoption information and questions with each other.
If you decide to visit your child’s orphanage, find a way to give something back—educational programs, books, toys, clothing.
–Dr. Jane Liedtke is CEO and Founder of Our Chinese Daughters Foundation (www.ocdf.org), a non-profit that brings Chinese culture to children adopted from China. She adopted her daughter, Emily, from China in 1994.
Heritage Camps, Days, and Tours
Which type of heritage experience is right for your family? Will you choose an organized tour or heritage camp, or will your family make the trip on your own?
Many organizations specialize in adoptive family travel. You can learn more about the travel and heritage options mentioned in this article online:
Concordia Language Villages, www.concordialanguagevillages.org
Colorado Heritage Camps, www.heritagecamps.org
The Ties Program, www.adoptivefamilytravel.com
Our Chinese Daughters Foundation, www.ocdf.org
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