I have been thinking about international adoption and the ways this decision to parent children from another culture has shaped not only their lives, but my life and the life of our entire extended family and maybe countless other people we don’t even know yet.
On October 5th, 1997, we became a Chinese American family when we adopted Ben GaoRong from the city of Gaoming in Guangdong province, China. On that day, we embraced not only a very excited, very malnourished, very sick six-year-old, but an entire culture. We had struggled with the implications of removing a child from his country of origin. We believed that what was really best for him was to remain in China and to be raised by his birth parents. But thousands of years of Chinese culture cannot be changed overnight. The second best adoption would be his adoption by loving Chinese parents. At that time, domestic adoption in China was not a legal option. We knew that for all that we could offer, we were really his third best but only real option for a healthy life in a loving family. Despite all the benefits of medical care and nutrition and education we could give him, he would experience a profound loss of cultural identity. But the clock was ticking for him as it does for thousands of the world’s orphans. He was in fact, so sick that he would have died within months in China had we not adopted him when we did. The cultural systems that should have provided his greatest benefit would not evolve in time to save his life. He could only be adopted by a foreign couple. His only hope of family life and stability and life at all (as it turned out after multiple medical interventions) was foreign adoption.
He would not be aware of this loss, at least not at first, but, like parents everywhere, we anticipated this need for him. To minimize that loss, we felt it was our responsibility to retain as much of his Chinese identity as possible. We knew that we could not give him, or the two-year-old daughter we adopted two years later, a true experience of growing up in the China he had left or even approximate the experience of living in a Chinese American family, but we wanted to come as close as we could. We wanted these kids to be proud to be Chinese. We sandwiched their Chinese names between their new American Names so that they would have the option to choose any configuration of that name in later years. We studied Chinese language and filled our home with Chinese music. We decorated their rooms and much of our home in Chinese art to the point that our eldest son (product of our own gene pool) asked, “Where’s the Polish art in this house?”
We contributed to Chinese charities and marked the passage of the year as much in Chinese holidays as American holidays. We made Chinese foods a regular part of our diet. My daughter says we have not made it enough a part of our diet as she would still eat Chinese food every day, for every meal with the exception of an occasional pepperoni pizza. –And maybe peanut butter. I am not sure she could survive long without peanut butter.
As time went on, we became more and more aware of white people around us. We became sensitive to racist comments as if they were directed to us because, well, they were! “Why didn’t you adopt an American child?”
Despite our efforts, our kids, now teenagers, are both far more American in their identity and their world view than Chinese. They attend schools where they are more accepted among English-speaking American peers than among first and second generation Chinese-speaking immigrant peers. English has become their primary language. I find that I now mourn their loss of China more than they do. My daughter who used to sing herself to sleep in Chinese lullabies and nursery tunes now struggles to remember the words and sometimes doesn’t remember what they mean when she does remember them.
When we adopted our daughter, we visited a monastery on a steep Nanjing hillside populated by Buddhist nuns. The nuns surrounded us, intrigued by our little girl who after only two days, clearly knew who Mama was and already rejected their overtures of affection. “Will you bring her back when she is grown?” they asked.
“Yes,” I said. “She is Chinese. I want her to know her country. I will bring her back when she is old enough to appreciate everything she sees.” They all nodded in approval and patted my arms and thanked me for honoring this little Chinese life.
I still dream for her that she will be able to return to China. I want her to be able to go for more than just a tourist trip. I want for her to traipse through hutong-men and talk to people in the market. I dream for her to live there for a time, to study, to learn about her roots in more depth. I want her to retrace the steps of her early life, to meet the people significant to the beginning part of her story. It occurs to me that I will need to rely upon the good graces of many Chinese people. I will need them to teach her to celebrate all that I took away from her and could not replicate for her.
Why do I not wish this for our son? I wish it could be so, but for him such a dream is not realistic. The years of malnutrition and illness left their mark on him. He is too mentally, physically and emotionally challenged to make such a voyage on his own.
More and more I think it truly takes a village to raise a child. And more and more, especially for internationally adopted children, that village is global.