Bridging Ethnic Communities
By Marci Lewellen on June 2nd, 2010

Adoptive parents are forced to examine many of their beliefs about adoption, race, ethnicity, and…themselves. While some may agree that it is important to find ways to integrate their family into communities that reflect their own family-building choices, the question remains: How can this be done effectively—and with integrity?

One of the first things that adoptive parents often say to me when I suggest that they participate in our support group’s language school or a Korean Community event is that their children are not yet “asking about Korea.” They seem to feel that the child will ask when he is ready, and then they will provide some information. My own experience has shown that often young children are not able to frame the questions they have about the differences they see and sense, though the need for answers and connection is still there.

My son came to us from Korea as a five-year-old, bringing with him some intensely negative feelings about anything Korean. He had many love/hate feelings—craving the food, missing the ease of communication in his original language. From the beginning, it was pretty clear that we were going to need to help him establish some positive connections here, in the present, if he was going to successfully deal with his past. And the fact was that the connection to his Korean heritage was not his alone. Just as we, as a family, share the heritages that are my husband’s and mine by birth, we also share our children’s Korean heritage. We can learn about the culture. We can have Korean-American friends. We can find strength from inclusion in the local Korean community, for while we are not Korean, we are a Korean-American family.

For us, the first step in venturing into our children’s ethnic community was to feel a sense of entitlement to do so. This did not mean taking over our children’s experiences or dressing up in traditional costume or dining out in a Korean restaurant from time to time. It did mean that we had to decide, as their parents, that this connection was important for them—and for us. The importance for them of knowing who they are as Korean adoptees and who we are as a family is something of real concern.

The next step was to honestly address some of the fears that we shared with other adoptive families. I made my first Korean-American friend when I walked into her dry cleaning establishment and introduced myself to her. I knew that I was going to need help when my five-year-old son arrived, not speaking any English. I remember what a scary thing that was for me to do. She wasn’t very receptive to my overtures at first. She had once helped another such adoptive family, and the experience had not been a positive one for her. The family had only wanted her help with their child’s transition, and had then cut everything Korean from their lives. It had hurt this sensitive, caring woman to see this child truly lose all connection with his Korean identity. So my promise to her in seeking her friendship and help was that we would work to build a lasting relationship, and that my interest in doing so was genuine.

As I worked to keep my promise to my new friend, I was surprised by some of my own actions and reactions. I remember fearing that she and her Korean friends might think that I was not a good enough parent for my children. I fussed over their appearance and worried about their behavior out of my own need to appear worthy to those whose judgement I feared. I worried especially about my son who acted out a lot of anger in those first days. Eventually, I spoke to my new friend of my concerns. Gently she chided, “He is your son, is he not? Why do you care what anyone thinks, Korean or not?” Thus began my feelings of acceptance and entitlement to membership in this new partnership.

I was eager to move beyond the security of an individual relationship and test my convictions in a larger group. I was able to do this when my friend invited me to go to church with her. A whole range of fears came into play then. Would my daughter, in the company of a Caucasian mother, be stigmatized when she went to the Sunday school class? Would she be teased because she had been orphaned, because she was adopted, because her mother was Caucasian?

My fears were not realized there at the church. After several months, however, my friend began taking her children to Korean school. I decided to let my daughter attend with her daughter, and I was invited to join an adult class. For six months it was a wonderful experience, until internal politics led to a decline in the school’s enrollment. My friend decided to leave and take her daughter to language classes back at church. We were comfortable at the school and decided to stay. After my friend left, however, the experience for my daughter changed and the day finally came when she was teased because her mother was Caucasian.

I held my daughter as she cried for a long time. I felt scared and very vulnerable. My daughter, however, viewed the incident through different eyes, deciding that the girl who had hurt her was simply “a mean girl!” By this time, she knew so many Korean-Americans who loved her that she was able to individualize rather than stereotype her unfortunate experience. While some Koreans harbor some prejudices against orphans and adoptees, she knew that others do not. I had not resolved this issue to the same degree as my daughter, however. It took a lot of soul searching to decide whether prejudice is worse when it comes from someone of your child’s heritage, or whether it should be treated as you would any other act of prejudice. My compromise was to stop sending my daughter to Korean school for a while, but to continue attending myself.

By this time, I had made another friend, my Korean schoolteacher. She was Americanized enough to have some understanding of my situation, and she was very interested in learning about adoptive families. When she offered to tutor me privately while school was closed during the summer, I told her that what I really wanted was to learn Korean with my children. Was she willing to conduct a class for all of us? She discussed this with the principal and offered to hold a summer class just for adoptive families.

The summer class was fantastic. Even though there was much potential for misunderstanding, there was so much love coming from both the adoptive families and representatives of the school that everyone could feel the challenge and excitement of what we were doing. At the end of the summer, we asked to continue our own program within the broader Korean school program, and that fall we continued our classes.
I was now more convinced than ever that any program we undertook as adoptive parents should be deeply embedded within the Korean community, rather than be run as a program for adoptees by our support group. I felt that in the end, our children needed to feel as much a part of the community as possible rather than as a separate entity. Thus, we had to balance the need to have a program tailored to our special needs with our need to be in the community. Sometimes it was a very precarious balance, difficult to achieve.

That winter we participated in the Korean School fundraiser which was also a Christmas party. Though their classes had been taught separately, all of the children, adoptees and second generation kids alike, sang together as part of the day’s entertainment. Watching those children performing joyfully together made my heart soar. Then suddenly, I was struck by an overwhelming—and frightening—observation. How Korean they’d become! Am I giving them back? Are they still mine? Will they someday long to return to their origins without me? But when we adults joined our children on the stage in the singing, I knew that I would not lose my precious children. Instead, I felt the true joy of sharing in a rich heritage that belonged to all of us as integrated and accepted members of this Korean-American community.

We were very fortunate to have teachers that were committed to our children and to us as families. Our children were also very deeply attached to them, and many of us were surprised at the depth of their feelings. I don’t think any of us could have predicted just how important these relationships would be to our children. The fact was driven home to me when one of our finest teachers—one of whom my own son was especially fond—suddenly left the school, with no explanation or advance notice. The abandonment issues, which his leaving raised in my son, were difficult to deal with. Still, the loss came in a setting where support and other strong role-models were readily available, and the issues raised by the teacher’s departure did not sever the positive community connections we had worked so hard to build for my son and for our family.


I have come a long way from my first tentative overtures for help from the woman who operated the neighborhood dry cleaning business to embracing a truly multicultural family lifestyle. Today we are deeply involved with the Sacramento Korean Community and operate from a strong philosophical base in all we do. As a family and as a group, we work to be culturally sensitive, to develop positive reciprocal relationships, and to be inclusive of all who want to work with us, while still trying hard to respect the need for appropriate boundaries…

It is difficult to venture outside the security of what we know of who we are. To be the only Caucasian face among many Asian ones can be uncomfortable at times, yet in interracial adoption, this is what we ask our children to do everyday. I think we validate our children’s’ experience when we are willing to walk that road.

Many of the early fears that I had in moving into the Korean Community were real. They played themselves out in both subtle and more obvious ways. I met people who asked insensitive questions and made judgements that seemed unfair. There were people who valued our children less because they had been orphaned and adopted by Caucasian parents. While this created temporary unhappiness, the many positive experiences more than balanced the negative ones.

It is impossible for us, as adoptive parents, to protect our children from the reality of the prejudice that exists both in mainstream America and in the Korean-American community. Avoiding the Korean Community will not prevent them from knowing that some Koreans will reject them, but it will keep them from ever knowing that many other Koreans will love them deeply.

© Roots & Wings Adoption Magazine

Credits: Chris Winston

Taken from
June 2nd, 2010

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