Beyond Culture

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Meanwhile, the desire to volunteer at Chinese cultural classes for children adopted from China and their parents began tugging at my heart. I had an opportunity after my semester in Taiwan to visit some orphanages in Vietnam. Seeing all of the children in need of homes and loving parents reminded me of research I had done as a college freshman. At that time, I had felt very skeptical about the practice of international adoption and the impact of international adoption on the overall wellbeing of the children. I questioned the merits of taking children out of their ethnic country and thereby depriving them of that culture. This concern soon dissolved when, through that report, I had the fortune of observing some Chinese cultural classes offered by Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI) in Englewood, Colorado. During my visits, the love and dedication of the parents toward raising their daughters overwhelmed me. I quickly came to understand that although international adoptions entailed pros and cons, in the end, these children receive more opportunities than they would have otherwise. Judgments of good or bad could not be made rashly amongst such complex factors. The parents were clearly committed to raising their precious children to be happy and well-adjusted individuals. I was so touched that I promised myself I would find time to volunteer in the Chinese classes started by adoptive parents in Boulder, Colorado. Having never fulfilled this self-promise, I began researching Chinese children adoptions for my honors thesis during my last semester at CU.

I revisited the Chinese culture classes and began educating myself about the many facets of Chinese children adoptions. Wanting to utilize the wealth of information available through the adoptive community in Colorado, I seized the opportunity to write an honors thesis that maximized interaction with adoptive families and children. In doing so, I soon discovered a trend among the attitudes of parents and in literature suggesting the existence of a movement toward bi-cultural socialization within the Chinese adoptive community. In other words, I thought to myself, there is a large population of adoptive parents who want to teach their children about a culture in which they have little or no knowledge or experience. I wondered, how are these parents defining culture? How much culture is necessary for these adoptees? What is the role of culture and ethnicity in the development of a healthy identity? Although I did not doubt the intentions of the parents, I strongly doubted the merits of such a pursuit. I thought constantly about the influence of Chinese culture in my life, and I wondered how Chinese adoptees could possibly experience Chinese culture in their lives as I did with my parents. Their exposure could be superficial at best, deceiving at worst. I thought about my own experience in Taiwan-I had believed that Chinese culture was so integrated into my life that I would blend like a native. Yet, despite my linguistic fluency, I felt like an outsider. Even I, as a child of first-generation Chinese immigrants, would not consider myself completely bi-culturally socialized. My values are predominantly western and I am very American. I would imagine that this scenario would be even more applicable to the adoptees. Although the children are legally immigrants, they are not immigrants in the traditional sense of the word, nor are they raised by immigrant parents. Their exposure to Chinese culture is most often limited and learned through formal exposure instigated by parents rather than learned naturally in the home or social environment. Thus, they will not experience the differences in worldviews and cultural values that I experienced with my parents; if their values do differ, it will not be because of differences attributed to Chinese cultural values.

As I began teaching classes for Chinese adoptees and their parents at Little Treasures Chinese Cultural School in Boulder, Colorado and interviewing adoptive families, I found myself drawing increasingly on my own experience as a Chinese girl in the United States. Adoptive parents felt they would find many parallels between my situation and the ones their daughters would experience. In reality, although the adoptees and I may have similar Chinese physical features, our situations differ significantly. The turmoil that I constantly endured because my parents could not culturally understand the environment in which they raised me was an emotionally painful experience that I would hope these adoptees do not have to experience. Although I have become the person I am today through those struggles, I still struggle to reconcile cultural clashes with my family. Children adopted from China will have other emotional struggles to endure, but if all adoptive parents are as loving, conscious of their daughters' needs, and sincere in their intentions as the parents whom I have met, I truly believe that these adoptees will become well-adjusted and develop healthily.

I perceive that the effort to educate the adoptees about their Chinese birth heritage is a valiant one. One family that I interviewed realizes that they cannot provide immersion culture, but they attempt to replicate Chinese culture through activities such as Chinese school and celebrating Chinese New Year in San Francisco. I have found that most adoptive families view exposing their children to Chinese culture as celebrating Chinese holidays, eating Americanized Chinese food, and learning very basic language skills. Given my own personal conviction that it is always important to learn about how people around the world live, I applaud the effort of adoptive parents. However, I hope that while certain stereotypes can be made, people realize that cultures constantly change and only certain cultural traits can be defined or captured. Culture cannot be confined to a single dimension. Many immigrants themselves attempt to preserve their culture for themselves and their children as they remember it; however, modernization, globalization, and other such phenomena prevent cultures from remaining static. My own parents marvel at how much their childhood homes have changed; and, after living in the U.S. for over twenty-five years, they have adapted a lifestyle and worldview that differ markedly from the ones they possessed or would have possessed in their native country. In fact, I found that even some of the things they had described as the Chinese way had, in reality, become obsolete when I had the chance to visit their countries myself.

These points render the goals of adoptive parents to teach their children about Chinese culture even more difficult. Bi-cultural socialization conventionally refers to the experiences of immigrants or children of immigrants; therefore, the efforts of adoptive parents should not be confused with the conventional use of the term. Rather, parents are utilizing available resources and generating more resources for their children to take pride in their Chinese heritage, to value differences, and to not be ashamed of their status as a minority in the United States. As long as parents realize that ethnic heritage is only a piece of the adoptees' identities and remain aware of environmental limitations, the movement can enrich the children's lives.

I would caution parents to be realistic in their expectations during the pursuit of bi-cultural socialization. Otherwise, parents and children may be disappointed by the results of their efforts. Truly becoming bilingual in Chinese while living in the United States is a challenge that many Chinese-American families themselves cannot conquer. When a child goes to China and realizes the superficiality of her or his knowledge, she or he may suffer shock and disappointment (as I did in Taiwan). Adoptive families must realize that they are attempting to learn about a perpetually changing culture that is physically and mentally removed from their own. Furthermore, environmental and internal family dynamics shape the problems that children face; therefore, the experience of Chinese-American children will differ from that of children adopted from China by western parents. As many ABCs such as myself will attest, the socialization methods of Chinese parents differ drastically from Westerners, thus resulting in vastly dissimilar familial relationships. Parents who do not possess a Chinese background themselves cannot mimic the complexities for their adopted children, despite the child's ethnic heritage.

Encouragingly, throughout my interaction with families and thesis writing, I really noticed that, above all, the parents I met desired to accurately meet the needs of their adopted children. I realized that this genuine attempt of adoptive parents reflected the efforts of my own parents. It again became clear to me that it was not only learning about Chinese culture that shaped my identity. Rather, most importantly, it was the tireless effort on the part of my parents to help me grow through those conflicts-they did all they could to realize my particular bi-cultural situation and meet my developmental needs.

Chinese culture was inevitably integrated into my identity as a daughter of first-generation Chinese immigrants. While the journey has been extremely rewarding, it has been far from easy and often emotionally draining. In the words of a first generation immigrant friend, "our parents love us but it's tough love." The fact that Chinese culture has influenced my life so essentially is because of my parents and the consequential environment I experienced. Parents of children adopted from China also have the potential to influence their children as deeply as my parents have influenced me. However, their journey will undoubtedly have distinct differences. Along this journey, the role of ethnic culture in and of itself should not be the focus. Rather, the needs of the child, as a human being with a unique emotional capacity, must be met. I feel so incredibly blessed not simply because I look Chinese, speak Chinese, and understand certain aspects of Chinese culture, but because of the road my family traveled to create that life that I live. Through the pursuits thus far in my life, my continued determination to deepen my own understanding of culture has become increasingly complex. Thankfully, my research on Chinese children adoptions enabled me to analyze some of those complexities. I still hope to use my Chinese background to impart valuable cross-cultural insights to others, and I still firmly believe that respecting, learning about, and experiencing various cultures is important for any individual. However, I have also learned that people possess many similarities, and I now realize that beyond culture every individual needs to experience love and emotional security first.

This is my story and one perspective of a twenty-two year old woman fresh out of college. In undertaking this research and having the opportunity to re-evaluate my own identity, I had the fortune of interacting with many adoptive families. I was truly overwhelmed by the amount of love the parents felt for their children and their never-ending commitment to providing the best lives possible. I hope that my story will ease parental guilt that they are somehow depriving their children of their ethnic culture and help remind parents that learning about Chinese culture itself is not the ultimate goal in raising their children.

From the classes I taught, I do not know who learned more: teacher or student. My research is dedicated to my family as an extension of my own upbringing as a Chinese woman born and raised in the United States. It is also dedicated to all of the children and families who participated enthusiastically, whether directly or indirectly, in my project. To all the parents who opened their homes and families, I sincerely hope that my story will prove insightful in your amazing stories of love, struggle, and triumph. To each little girl whom I have met and taught, may the joy and confidence you feel in your early years permeate the rest of your lives. To present and future adoptive families, may your experience be filled with reward. We live in a world rich with human treasures, and families with internationally adopted children have the opportunity to experience this wealth on a personally touching level. Though ethnic differences between parent and child may seem daunting, it is important to remember that we are all human beings. As human beings, we naturally desire love and security, which, in turn, strengthens our self-esteem and wellbeing. A more precise role of ethnic culture in nurturing a healthy sense of self remains to be determined. In the meantime, please remember that culture is largely created by environmental circumstances, which for Chinese-Americans and Chinese adoptees alike, is centered in the environment in which they are raised.


Cindy Chang graduated from University of Colorado in May, 2001, summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in both international affairs and Chinese. After her wedding in October 2001, she plans to attend a graduate program in either developmental psychology or law.

Credits: Cindy Chang

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