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A Whole New World

By Jocelyn Dong

Growing number of parents who've adopted children from China seek to give not just family, home and love -- but culture and language too.

Alexis Hamilton and her then 18-month-old daughter Lia were playing in the Junior Museum and Zoo some years ago when a little girl walked up.

The girl looked quizzically at mother and daughter.

"Your baby has Chinese eyes," the 4-year-old said to Hamilton.

She peered some more and added, "You don't have Chinese eyes."

Hamilton, who was taken aback for a minute, responded by explaining that Lia had been adopted from China.

That scene, or one similar, no doubt rings a bell with hundreds of families in the Bay Area. That's because more and more singles and couples -- like Hamilton and her husband, Donald Green -- have adopted children from China in the past decade.

They are riding a wave that began in the early 1990s and has yet to crest. Last year, nearly 6,900 Chinese children were adopted into American families -- more than any previous year.

The phenomenon stems in part from policy changes in China that suddenly opened up new opportunities for adoptive families, as well as a growing acceptance of diversity and interracial families in some parts of the United States.

International adoption in the Bay Area, said one local adoption professional, has become almost mainstream.

"It's changed dramatically. More and more people are doing it. It's become an accepted part of the culture," said Andrea Stawicke, executive director of Bay Area Adoption Services in Mountain View.

But for all the joys adoptive parenting can bring, the trend has also produced its own set of challenges, chief among them the question of how parents of one culture go about raising children born of another culture. And when that country is China, and the children are of a different race, what responsibilities do parents have for maintaining their children's connections to the birth country?

Ask Los Altos Hills residents Amy Shantz, 10, and sister Amanda, 8, about their ethnic identity and they will say they're Chinese American.

"I was born in China, and my mom and dad are American," Amy explained.
In 2001, one out of every four internationally adopted children in the United States was born in China, the leading country for foreign adoptions. It's a far cry from a decade earlier, when China allowed just 61 adoptions to the United States. An adoption law in 1992 opened up the country, however -- a natural outgrowth of China's population-control policy that resulted in more children being born than the Chinese government allowed families to keep.

Local numbers mirror the national trend. Bay Area Adoption Services, one of about a dozen Bay Area agencies handling international adoptions, has placed 500 Chinese orphans in local homes since 1991.

It's not just the availability of children that has spurred this adoption trend, but also an increased willingness of American families to consider international adoption as well as domestic.

Some say a climate of growing diversity makes the option more feasible -- interracial families are more accepted than they used to be. Others point to the waiting period for China -- up to 20 months -- as sometimes more favorable than a domestic adoption.

Some would-be parents admit to a fear that birth mothers in the United States will change their minds and want to keep their children -- and be supported by the courts in that quest.

Still others cite an affinity for another culture, and their willingness to make it a part of their lives.

China has also been a viable choice for single parents. At one point during the last decade, one-third of the children were being adopted by single mothers and fathers, according to the group Families with Children from China.

The current influx of Chinese orphans into the United States isn't the country's first experience with raising Asian children. An earlier generation of Asian adoptees, now adults, came over after the Korean War.

But the approach of today's parents differs markedly from that of a generation ago.
Nancy Ng, a board member of the Palo Alto adoption-support group Families Adopting in Response (FAIR), has studied the lives of Korean adoptees.

"It was different in those days. There was a strong sense of 'rescue' in adoption in those times (and) much less emphasis on preserving the culture in the kids' lives after adoption," Ng said. "There was kind of a belief that, if you love kids enough, everything would be fine. They'd come and be Americans, and they would be fine. The mindset was, they'll become one of us."

However, research on the adopted Korean children, and writings by adoptees themselves, have revealed that growing up as the only Asian children in their families -- and sometimes hometowns -- was a far greater challenge than people expected.

"Many of us considered ourselves white trapped in Asian bodies," wrote one Korean adoptee in a 1999 study conducted by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York.

The survey of 170 adoptees revealed many felt confused over their identities. Growing up, more than a third considered themselves white, rather than Korean/Asian, American, or Korean American. By adulthood, the numbers had reversed, with most viewing themselves as Korean/Asian or Korean American -- although 11 percent still thought of themselves as white.

The study also revealed the majority had sought out ways as adults to learn about their heritage, from joining Korean organizations to studying the language.

Some Korean adoptees have written of their anger about their upbringing, expressing feelings of isolation and alienation. Others took a more circumspect approach, weighing the benefits and drawbacks of growing up in the United States versus South Korea.

Their experiences led professionals and families to take a hard look at the role of cultural identity in fostering a resilient sense of self.

"As adoption support groups grew and parents talked to each other, there was an increasing awareness of the need to honor the birth country and raise them with knowledge of their birth culture," Ng said.

Although Korean and Chinese cultures are not the same, adoptions from both countries share things in common, Ng said. Most notably, the kids are "readily identified as not being part of the adoptive family" when they're adopted by Caucasians.

Armed with this knowledge, parents of Chinese adoptees have taken a zealous new approach to raising their children.

Support groups have sprung up, through which parents exchange ideas and share information. One group, called Families with Children from China, counts more than 3,000 families as members and has chapters throughout the country, including one covering the south bay and Peninsula.

In Palo Alto, the nonprofit Parents' Place, run by Jewish Family and Children's Services, hosts a weekly playgroup for adopted children as a way for their parents to connect.

As a result of services like these, adoptive mothers and fathers have become advocates for a new philosophy of cultural celebration, in spite of their own monochromatic upbringings. Hamilton, who recalled her childhood as "a world where everyone was white and lived in their own enclaves based on minute differences," is a firm believer that racial identity matters.

Race, she said, "is fundamental to who you are. (For a parent) to deny that is to undermine the relationship in some way."

Similarly, Amanda and Amy Shantz's mother, Jo Simon, grew up on a dairy farm in West Virginia -- a vastly different world from the multicultural Bay Area.

She espouses the advice that a social worker once gave: Recognize racial differences, rather than sweeping them under the rug, and create a home environment that values the culture from which her children were born.

With tambourines jangling and wood sticks plonking, second graders at the International School of the Peninsula practiced their music lesson on a recent Thursday morning. It sounded much like any elementary school in Palo Alto, save for one difference: When the students sang, and their teacher gave directions, it was all in Mandarin Chinese.

The International School, where Amanda, Amy and a handful of other Chinese adopted children are enrolled, runs a Chinese immersion program that teaches prekindergarteners through eighth-graders the Mandarin dialect and Chinese culture and arts, along with standard elementary and middle-school curriculum.

Established in 1996, the Chinese program is Silicon Valley's oldest Mandarin immersion program and complements the school's French immersion program, which began in 1979.

The youngest students learn in an environment where Mandarin is spoken 80 percent of the time, and English 20 percent. In elementary school, kids speak and listen to Mandarin half the time. By middle school, the Mandarin percentage drops to 30, as other subjects fill of the curriculum.

Simon has been pleased with her girls' progress, noting that they easily switch between English and Mandarin depending on the person to whom they're talking.

The girls call Chinese one of their favorites activities at school. Amy modestly said of her own Chinese proficiency: "It's not bad, but not perfect."

Parents say learning the Chinese language gives their children tools to discover their identity.

"There's some thoughts you can (only) express in Chinese," Hamilton said. She's sending her adopted daughters to an immersion school in Mountain View to help them "to feel who they are and give them the language to express who they are."

Simon believes the immersion program is equipping her girls to understand not just their heritage, but their identity as adopted children too.

"It's been a good decision on lots of levels," she said. They'll "have what they need as they grow up to deal with the fact they've been adopted into a different culture and different nation."

Enrolling their children in immersion schools is not the extent of adoptive parents' efforts to cultivate connections to China -- not by a long shot.

Enterprising parents have also started bilingual playgroups, led by Chinese preschool teachers. They've taken family vacations to China, brought Mandarin-speaking babysitters into their lives and bought foreign-language books, tapes and videos to play at home.

Jo Simon and Jon Shantz even gave their girls Chinese names: Amy's -- Shen Ren An -- means "peaceful," while Amanda's -- Shen Ren Yi -- means "benevolence."

"The Chinese adopters are somewhat different than the people who adopted even 15 years ago," said Nancy Ng, of FAIR. "They're more culturally aware as a group. They have greater resources. ... There are a lot of opportunities."

Parents have also learned what works and what doesn't through trial and error. When Amy was 4, Simon accompanied her to weekly Chinese school, which met Friday night and Saturday. It's the type of education Chinese immigrant families have been sending their children to for years.

But Simon, and other adoptive parents, invariably found that venue didn't give their kids enough exposure to the language, especially because none of the parents could reinforce the language by speaking it at home.

The adults interviewed for this story called their Chinese skills passable at best; some even said wryly that their kids asked them not to try.

As convinced as some adoptive parents are of the rightness of giving their kids a cultural foundation, not all follow in the same path. A discussion on the Internet forum last year ago yielded vastly differing opinions on the value of cultivating an internationally adopted child's sense of heritage. Some people encouraged it while others called cultural classes "overkill."

In a way, this most recent trend is still a social experiment, because the most recent generation of children has yet to mature. As in any educational effort, the children themselves are a factor in the results.

As dedicated as some parents are in their quest to give their adopted children culture and language, there are kids -- just as there were some Korean adoptees -- who aren't that interested in their heritage.

Terry Roberts, a single mom in Palo Alto, said the cultural issue "has been an ongoing challenge" for adopted 9-year-old daughter Carmen.

"My philosophy was: 'Stuff in as much Chinese when she's young and able to absorb it,'" said Roberts, who studied Mandarin herself.

Like other girls, Carmen attended Chinese playgroups and private bilingual preschool. After a few years, however, Roberts transferred Carmen to a local public elementary school, partly because of Carmen's preferences and partly for financial reasons.

Now Carmen attends a weekly after-school Chinese cultural class, which Roberts said her daughter has "been lobbying to quit."

But Roberts is steadfast.

"She always has to do something (cultural). It could be dance or art. From everything I hear, there's so much pressure in elementary and middle school to conform and not be different, but later on she's going to need to have culture and Chinese language. It just has to be there."

The whole bicultural life has even had some unintended consequences, such as in Alexis Hamilton's family. She plans on sending her youngest daughter, Eliza, to Chinese school. Only thing is, Eliza is her biological child, born after older sisters Lia and Kialin were adopted.

"We chose to be a global family. As a family, we have to move as a unit," said Hamilton, who also serves on the board of Palo Alto Chinese Education, a group advocating for a Chinese immersion program in the public school district.

She believes Eliza will benefit from learning Chinese, citing the research on the benefits of bilingual education.

Recently, Hamilton's oldest daughter, Lia, now 9, was asked to translate a discussion between two parents at her school -- one spoke only English and the other only Mandarin. Lia passed with flying colors.

"The reality is, adoptive parenting is satisfying and wonderful and different," Hamilton said proudly. "Especially when it's interracial."

Originally printed in the Palo Alto Weekly.
Reprinted with permission of the Jocelyn Dong, author, and Palo Alto Weekly

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