In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the third annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
Parenting My Adopted Transracial Transcultural Adolescent
By Kathy Mathews
I gave birth to a baby girl in 1981, which led me to the world of Moms at our local pool. There was the cutest Asian baby boy who splashed near my daughter in the baby pool. He was joined by a younger brother the next summer. I got to know their Mom and learned why they adopted and thought that adoption would be a terrific but highly unlikely occurrence in my life.
In 1984, we had a baby boy who died at the age of four days of congenital heart disease, and my mind flew to that spontaneous wish to adopt from Korea. I called my friend from the pool, and she told me I was not ready to adopt, that I needed to grieve my dear baby until I could talk about it without crying. My subsequent infertility, combined with running an Infant/stillborn/pregnancy chapter of The Compassionate Friends, allowed me to fully grieve and painfully move towards acceptance of my loss as I closed the door on having more biological children.
On Martin Luther King Day of 1988, we made the decision to adopt internationally and attended the first of many meetings and training sessions. What I took away from those meetings was that adoption was not right for every family, neither was international, transracial nor transcultural adoption. But that vision of Korean adoption as wonderful stuck with me, and in May of 1989, our precious baby arrived from Korea to us.
I resolved to do all I had learned in the training sessions and aligned with other families of adopted Korean children. At the beginning, it was easy. I just tried to give my younger daughter a positive feeling about being Asian and Korean. We bought picture books with a vast array of nationalities, races, ethnicity and genders. While reading books, I would say, “kiss the Korean baby,” and we would.
As my baby girl got a little older, we bought baby dolls that looked like her, continued to meet with Korean families from our adoption intake meeting, and tried to build her self-esteem. At one point, I had to laugh when we passed by a local park where a big picnic was being held. My daughter demanded to know why we weren’t there. I replied, “We weren’t invited.” She huffed back, “What? Don’t they know I’m Korean?” Hmm, I thought, we may have overdone the self-esteem.
When she was five, we could finally join the classes at Camp Pride, a day camp held for a week each summer about eighty minutes from our home. I took her there and immediately couldn’t find her in the crowd -- what a cool feeling! There were all kinds of black-haired little girls running around; I couldn’t just look for my daughter’s shiny head of hair. I worked as a volunteer and adored every woman I worked with. We shared stories, swapped tips and bonded.
I only had one “fail” at this camp. I did not realize that at the end of camp program, the girls would wear a Hanbok, the Korean dress. My little sweetie was heartbroken when she was the only one in shorts, and I just wanted to die. I told her I would take her home, that she didn’t have to perform, but she elected to go on anyway. For the rest of her school years, she always had a Hanbok that fit her. The beautiful dresses are now folded away in storage; I just couldn’t bear to ever give them away.
The relationship the kids forged at the camp was the most important part. It is well and good to play Korean jacks; it is a whole other accomplishment to know people who innately understand how you feel and share parts of your experience. Over the years, a group of probably thirty children in my daughter’s grade dwindled to a strong core group of about fifteen. This included younger and older students as the group consolidated in high school. I think that continuing to attend Camp Pride was a huge factor in my daughter’s development.
Many kids stopped going to the camps in the teenage years as sports and jobs claimed more of their free time. My daughter kept attending camp, and the camp changed to suit the older kids. It was not arts and crafts but life lessons now. It wasn’t making a Korean dish; it was sitting around talking with other teens. They learned how to deal with their hair type and texture. They received makeup tips from the reigning Miss Universe, Miss Korea. They had lock-ins at the Korean Cultural Center in Chicago. They learned how to navigate those oh-so-tricky teen years with the added wrinkles of being a different race and country of origin from their parents.
My daughter really needed it and kept in contact with those other adopted children via the internet during the school year. When she went to high school, her racial acceptance of herself and by her peers changed. There were a fair amount of what she called “Korean Koreans” at her high school (children born to Korean parents). One of those girls admonished my daughter that the Asians must stick together, to which my girl responded, “Well, the thing is, I like white people.”
This was not the only change she encountered. In younger grades, all the kids played together. By sophomore year, I truly felt that some of them thought, huh, let’s try racism. She got harassed on the bus and while the school was willing and able to fight the good fight, we decided to drive her to school after that. I noticed that while all the girls were still her friends, some of the boys only dated within their own race. And then there was the school assignment where the student teacher assigned all the Asian kids in the history class to role play someone who was in favor of Japanese American internment during World War II. That required a diplomatic teaching moment with a young teacher candidate!
The teen years are tricky with rebellion, hormones, ennui and independence. We had to balance what behavior was due to being a teen and what was related to our daughter being adopted and Korean. A huge plus was the homeland trip that the Lions Club of the Northern Suburbs offered to our family. This invitation was extended to us because she had been active in her teen years with Camp Pride. An adult adoptee from Korea led a group of twenty teenagers to Korea, where they were hosted by local Lions Club members in Korea. She was lavished with love, love, love and more love from the Korean people. They wanted these kids to know they were not rejected, that they were welcome and wanted.
This was an extraordinary event in my daughter’s teen years and really helped her along in her understanding of who she was. I think that it sowed seeds of acceptance of herself and her worth that have continued to pay off into her twenties. This group of fellow travelers became additional supportive friends as she grew and forged her identity.
In high school, she would sometimes wonder about her identity, sometimes wondering what it would be like to have Korean parents. This issue seemed to resolve itself when a “Korean Korean” friend told her that he wished he had American parents. Apparently he thought our rules were way more reasonable than his, even though our daughter disagreed! However, another Korean boy discovered that she was struggling in math and was incredulous. “What? Being good in math is in our DNA!”
Our local dry cleaners and local nail salons contributed to my child’s pride in being Korean, as she always received a discount whenever she frequented these shops. This still occurs and she still loves it, and I love them for it. It does take a village, sometimes a worldwide village, to raise a child.
As high school came to a close, our daughter decided she wanted to go to the University of Illinois, especially after we visited the campus and she toured the Asian American Center. There were all kinds of Korean restaurants, hair salons, churches and organizations, plus 14% of the university community is Asian. What a happy night that was when she received her acceptance letter!
She chose a major in tourism and studied abroad. She made friends with her sorority sisters as well as many other students who had a more international approach to life. She hung out with students who were very often feeling “hyphenated” culturally, as she did.
We always took her to a Korean restaurant in Chicago for her birthday, and in Champaign, we ate Korean even more often. On her first homecoming as a student, we went to a Korean restaurant where we had eaten on a spring visit. At that initial meal, I had been the only white person on the premises. On this day, there were many more. My daughter remarked that she felt less comfortable in this restaurant than she had the year before she enrolled. Surprised, I asked why. She replied that the people who owned, ran and frequented this establishment were Korean Koreans; she realized she was Korean-American, and that was who she was, liked being, and wanted to be.
I almost cried that day in the restaurant when I realized that she was such a self-assured secure person who knew who she was and felt comfortable with her place in the world. From the early days of kissing the Asian baby in picture books, through years of Korean costumes, food and dances, including trips and camaraderie with fellow adoptees, my girl had become a citizen of the world, my beloved citizen of the world, and part of my heart.
Kathy Mathews is the mother of two talented daughters and one beloved granddaughter. She retired from full time teaching and now is a part time Adjunct Professor of Spanish and a Quilter. She spends her free time with her husband, babysitting or sewing for her granddaughter and then blogs about it all at http://www.chicagonow.com/quilting-sewing-creating/
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