Living in 2 Worlds, Old and New; Foreign-Born; Adoptees Explore Their Cultural Roots

Paula Grande and her husband, Middy Streeter, adopted Elizabeth Youjing Streeter from a small industrial city in eastern China when she was 19 months old.

When their daughter, whom they call Youjing, was about to start kindergarten in 1998, the couple, like many anxious New York parents, toured at least a dozen public and private schools, some just steps away from their home at Union Square. But in the end, they chose the Shuang Wen Academy, an experimental public school that was being founded that year on the eastern border of Chinatown and where most of the students are children of Chinese immigrants. They did so because they wanted their daughter to learn to speak Chinese fluently, and to absorb a strong sense of the culture into which she was born.

”We really want Youjing to learn the language.” Ms. Grande said. ”We want her to look Chinese and feel Chinese.”

Like Ms. Grande and Mr. Streeter, thousands of parents here and elsewhere in the country are enrolling children adopted from abroad in programs where they can learn the languages they would have spoken. In many cases, the parents are also sending their adoptive children to summer cultural camps with others of their ethnicity, or taking them to visit their birthplaces. And the families sometimes befriend foreign students from their children’s birth countries.

The Shuang Wen school, for example, has nine other Chinese students who were adopted by white American families, some of whom live an hour away from the school.

Although many adoptive parents want little to do with their children’s birth cultures, more and more are learning Spanish with their children in the evenings and following cookbook instructions to create casseroles of kimchi, a Korean preserved vegetable, on weekends. They decorate their homes with Korean fans, Chinese calligraphy and posters of the Andes. In one extreme case, a California mother who adopted two children from Nepal moved the family there to immerse her children in the local culture.

These parents, mostly white and middle class, want to give their children’s birth cultures back to them. Their fear is that their children could grow up to be Chinese, Korean or Mexican on the outside only.

”That’s the trend now,” said Martha Osborne, referring to the phenomenon of adoptive parents who try to expose their children to the roots of the culture into which they were born. A mother of five children who were adopted from China and Korea, Ms. Osborne runs an Internet site,, about international adoptions, and has helped place hundreds of foreign orphans in American homes. ”Before, the counselors told you that you should raise your child white,” she said. ”You should absorb your child. Now they tell you that, yes, your child should be proud of the country they live in, but they should also be proud of the country where they were born.”

In 2001, Americans adopted about 19,000 children from abroad, almost three times the number of those adopted in 1992; the greatest numbers came from China, Russia, South Korea and Guatemala, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

There are plenty of adoptive parents who are happily bucking the trend that Ms. Osborne describes. Laura and Joe Handlin, who live in downtown Manhattan, converted their daughter to Judaism in a mikvah two months after they picked her up as a 9-month-old baby in China, part of an effort to keep the family cohesive. Emma Beatrice Jiuxia Handlin is now a first grader at Ramaz School in Manhattan, learning Hebrew and studying Judaism.

And Myra Alperson, author of ”Dim Sum, Bagels and Grits,” a book for multicultural families, is trying to figure out how her daughter, Sadie Zhenzhen Alperson, can grow up to be a ”Chinese-American Jewish girl,” she said. For one thing, she has decided against sending Sadie to Shuang Wen.

”If you go to Shuang Wen, 95 percent of her friends are going to be Chinese,” she said. ”It’s too limiting. But I do wish we had more ties to the Chinese community.”

Youjing Streeter was in the first class at Shuang Wen when it opened in 1998. At the school, all subjects are taught in English until 3 p.m. each day. From 3 to 5:30 p.m., Chinese-speaking teachers tutor the children in Chinese grammar, vocabulary, reading and composition.

Having attended Shuang Wen for more than three years, Youjing can now read and write hundreds of Chinese characters and converse readily in Mandarin with children who speak it at home. When she started in kindergarten, she spoke only rudimentary Chinese, which she had learned from a dual-language nursery in Chinatown.

Since their daughter began at the school, Ms. Grande, a magazine assistant, and Mr. Streeter, a high school English teacher, have taken turns in the role of full-time parent. One of them escorts Youjing to Shuang Wen in the mornings and volunteers at the school, which has a critical shortage of staff members.

The 10 adopted Chinese children at the school are virtually indistinguishable in their classroom performance from the other children, switching back and forth easily between Chinese and English. Some of them, like Hannah Wilson, a first grader, speak Chinese with a slight American accent, but their reading and writing are often on par with the native speakers, their teachers said. Hannah hopes to return to China one day to volunteer at her childhood orphanage, according to her parents.

But learning a language is secondary to some parents at the school. ‘It doesn’t matter whether Lin will remember a word of Chinese,’ said Diana Timmons, whose daughter, Lin, 8, is a second grader. ‘She has this history where she is the majority. She has an identity and a great deal of self-confidence that nobody can take from her.’

Many adoption experts approve of such choices, said Anu Sharma, a research scientist at the Minnesota Institute of Public Health who has surveyed more than 200 adoptive families in the state and found similar results. ‘Adoptees with greater degrees of comfort with their ethnic identity do better on measures of psychological adjustments, motivations to achieve and sense of well-being than adoptees with lower degrees of comfort,’ she said.

But not all adoptive parents have the luxury of enrolling their children in dual-language programs. In the suburbs, where bilingual programs are less common, parents have to devise their own ways to link adopted children to their birth cultures.

Lisa Rasp of Pompton Plains, N.J., who learned Spanish as a second language, has taken it upon herself to teach her adoptive daughters from Guatemala — Gisella, 4, and Adrianna, 2 — how to say simple words and count in Spanish. Jane Kandiew, who lives in Wilton, Conn., sends her daughter, Alexandra Lee, 6, to Korean language schools on the weekends.

And Dana Lichty, who lives in Westchester County, dispatched her daughter, Jessica Jung-im Beil, now 21, to Korea for a summer when she was in high school.

‘Adoptive children face a lot of challenges,’ said Ms. Lichty. ‘Some of the questions that need to be answered are: who am I, where do I come from, what’s my place in this world? I don’t know how adoptive children can grow up to feel good about themselves without knowing their birth culture.’


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