July 29, 2021

International Adoptees: How Their Birth Culture Impacts their adjustment into their adoptive family

I’ve noticed over the 25 years I’ve worked in International Adoptions, that children who are adopted by families who speak the same language or come from the same culture tend to have an easier transition to their new home and family over the first few months. They share a language and can easily communicate their needs, feelings and concerns. They also share a familiarity with foods, music, and often some family traditions. They do not have to try to figure out even the basics of conversation and adjust to a completely new environment.


I had a family arrive home with their toddler and they struggled to figure out why he just looked around, didn’t try to talk or smile. He seemed sad. They recalled him ‘laughing and babbling to staff’ who spoke in a language foreign to the family but familiar to the child. When I visited, a few days after they arrived home, I greeted the child in his native language and immediately got his attention. He reached out to me and laughed as I chatted to him. He did not have a huge vocabulary as a small child, but he clearly responded when I could speak a familiar language to him.


To a child coming into a new family and moving to a new culture, it is truly a culture shock! The child is adjusting to a new approach to life by her new parents and family. Life in a foster home or orphanage in another country is going to be very different from a home in the suburbs of Salt Lake City or Orlando. The difference in cultural experience affects each part of our lives. A child brought up on a rural farm in Iowa, will have a different experience than a child brought up in the city of New York.


The environments we are raised in and the culture that guides the way we move through our life experiences, affects the foods we eat, our language, the way we express our faith, how we perceive others, and the elements that help us enjoy our lives such as dance, books and music among other things.


We hosted an orphanage director from China in our home. Prior to her visit, I went to an Asian specialty market and purchased several pastries and some familiar fruits and vegetables, hoping that would get us through the first few days. However, I quickly learned that although she was appreciative of my efforts, these were not the foods she typically ate. We went to the market together and she picked out black sesame soup for her breakfasts, a bag of rice and several vegetables that I’d never seen before. We shared in the cooking of meals over the time she visited, learning about and enjoying one another’s foods and cultures. I now regularly use spices, and vegetables that I learned how to prepare from our lovely guest.


Culture not only affects the foods we eat, but also our experience of life. I remember one of my children getting a bad cold, soon after his adoption. He was very upset that I did not take him to the doctor ‘who would send him to the hospital.’ I made him chicken soup, gave him a big box of tissues and read stories to him. He was convinced the only way he would get better, would be by going to the hospital, where they would ‘cup’ his back. I looked it up; a cotton ball is lit on fire, put in a glass and then blown out as the cup is quickly put on ones back suctioning the cup on the skin. It sounded dangerous to me, but to my son, the toxins in his body were certain to ‘kill him!’ He certainly felt better following my prescribed care, not needing to go to the ‘hospital.’ I expect in the orphanage, when one child became ill, they were quickly removed from the group and isolated in a clinic, where they would not infect other children. This was the experience our son knew and expected when he became ill even in our home, not realizing that mom was able to nurture and care for him through a minor illness.


Another newly adopted child, when helping her mother make Christmas cookies, spilled the food coloring on herself. She quickly stripped down out of her clothing and climbed into the kitchen sink, where she washed the coloring off her body. Her mother looked on in amazement, wondering why her small daughter did not just go upstairs to the bathroom, where she could have used a far more comfortable bathtub. But this girl was used to bathing in the kitchen sink  in her foster home and did what was familiar.


A child adopted internationally comes from a culture that is typically very different from his adoptive parents. The child perceives life from the life experiences he has had. So for our children who are coming into a new culture, it can feel like they have landed on Mars and are expected to now be a Martian! It is important that as adoptive parents, we are sensitive to the fact that our children are coming to a very different environment and culture than that of their original home or stay in care.


Culture can also describe the emotional environment of a family. If a child comes from a neglectful or abusive family, that child will expect any future family to also be abusive, or neglectful. The child will have expectations that the new family will act similarly to past experiences. I always explain to prospective parents that it is important to define their family rules, expectations and culture as part of the home study process. It is a good exercise, as it helps the family identify what is important to them and what they need to teach their child as the child comes into their home. For a child who comes from a scary and hard place, it is critical first to provide an environment of safety. It is important that the newly adopted child feels safe in their new home.


I remember the first day we were home with our newly adopted children, I became distracted as I was helping them with something and the eggs boiling on the stove exploded! Fortunately no one was hurt, but there were pieces of egg everywhere! I yelled when I saw what I’d done! Suddenly our typically giggling, very busy girls were silent and ran to the sofa, where they tried to crawl underneath. I looked at them, shrugged my shoulders and told them ‘Mama made a big mistake and now had a big mess to clean up and I was such a silly Mama!’ I then began to laugh and they came out and joined me, patting my hand and then helping me clean up the kitchen. I was teaching them that even Mamas make mistakes. We can laugh about things and work together to fix problems. They were in no danger from me, and this was the beginning of their healing as they saw that life was going to be different from in their original home or orphanage. This was not a lesson learned in one instance or in a day. It was a lesson learned over many experiences over time. They learned that our home was a safe and loving place, where they would be encouraged and yes, where we all make mistakes and work together to fix them.


We all come to each new experience with expectations from our past. It is important to recognize with an international adoptee, that as parents, we need to seek to understand the past our children experienced and help them to adjust to their new home, life and family. As we try to incorporate some of the wonderful parts of their country of origin, photographs, music, dance, art, and foods, it will help our children to gradually take on pieces of their new culture that are comfortable and fit for them. I may never experience cupping to rid my body of toxins, but I certainly enjoy borsht and blini, two foods I’d never tasted before adopting my children and now regularly prepare in our home.

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