When we adopt a child from another culture, it is important to go beyond providing a familiar food to our adopted children. Although arepas for Colombian adoptees, moon cakes for children from China, jollof rice from Nigeria and lumpia from the Philippines are important to provide for an adopted child, it is critical to acknowledge all aspects of their culture, which is far more than familiar foods. When we adopted from Russia, although I learned to prepare traditional foods that our children enjoyed prior to their adoption, we also tried to provide exposure to as much of their culture of origin as possible. Our first Christmas with our children was very different from any we had experienced in the past. Just as my husband and I had to combine our respective family traditions when we first married, we combined our children’s cultural traditions with our own. Our son explained that Russians have so many more holidays than we do in the U.S.! We ended up doubling our holiday celebrations just to fit them all in between November and January. We were fortunate that a Russian Orthodox Church was very welcoming and invited local Russian adoptees and their families to join them in their traditional Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. It was eye opening as we saw our children react with joy as they saw the skinny ‘Russian Santa Claus’ with his green suit, dancing with the Snow Maiden, participating in the programs, chatting in Russian and yes, enjoying the special foods.
We had learned to speak conversational Russian prior to adopting our children, aged 5-16, so that we could easily communicate with them from the beginning. We also encouraged them to maintain their language skills, providing books and movies that we had purchased during our travels in Russia. We tracked down community events so that they would be around adults and children who spoke Russian, while also making sure they were exposed to art, music, and dance from their country of origin.
The definition of culture according to the Oxford Dictionary is, “The customs, arts, social institutions and achievements of a particular nation, people or other social group.” Whether we are bringing children into our families from another country or from a different culture here in the U.S. through the foster care program, it is important to realize and acknowledge there are cultural differences that are important to our children and need to be incorporated into the home environment.
I have attended conferences where I have heard adult adoptees speak of their experiences growing up in a ‘color or culturally blind’ family. Although they appreciated their adoptive families and most had loving relationships with their adoptive parents as adults, they also shared that finding their identity as an adolescent and young adult was made more difficult by their parents ignoring their adopted child’s culture of origin. Adult adoptees from other countries have stressed how families who provide those cultural opportunities for their children from the time they join their adoptive families, help the children to better adjust. They stressed the importance of finding other adults and children who look like the adopted child, so the child has role models that look like them. They shared that it was difficult to be the only one who looked like them in their community and often they did not find people who looked like them until they went away to college.
A few years ago I worked with a family who was adopting sibling boys from Haiti. The couple was multi-cultural and lived in Los Angeles, a melting pot of cultures. The adoptive parents had spent several months in Haiti working and volunteering in the country, getting to know the people and culture. Although they were comfortable with their son’s Haitian culture, they reached out to a local church near their home that had many Haitian members. They attended this church several times prior to their adoption. They enjoyed the services and got to know several of the Haitian attendees. When their children came home, this couple took them to this church, where the children were welcomed, along with their parents. They became part of this extended community. In speaking to the family after their adoption, they all agreed, that having this connection with the Haitian church community, helped with the transition from Haiti to the U.S.
Providing cultural opportunities for your children helps them to feel more comfortable in their new home. It will show your child that you honor their culture and help them to feel pride in who they are. It will help them foster a sense of identity incorporating their culture of origin as well as the culture of their adoptive family. Most importantly, it shows your child that you accept them and are proud of who they are and what they bring to your family, making your family richer with the addition of your child’s culture of origin.