Our series kicks into high gear with documentary producer and actor Nancy Kim Parsons. Nancy joined her family through international adoption from Korea when she was almost 8 months old. She was blessed with a loving and supportive family, but growing up Asian in Minneapolis, Minnesota was not without its challenges.
I would like to thank you all for your questions. I was overwhelmed with the number of questions and hope to answer more in a follow-up down the road. Before I answer your questions, I want to give you some background and an idea of the lens through which I view the world.
First of all, I was blessed with a wonderful family and over the past 10 months I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my childhood and personal experience as a result of research for the documentary I’m working on now, so I have talked to hundreds of people in trans-racial adoptive families. Second, I am not an adoption professional, but am a person of adoption- living it, every day. These two things make my world view uniquely my own, but I hope that my perspective can empower all parents and children.
Thank you for your time — Nancy Kim Parsons
1. In what way, if any, did your adoptive parents foster you culturally? Did they share any info with you, were you on your own, was your Asian culture even acknowledged? Do you feel that traveling back to an internationally adopted child's birth-country is valuable in helping develop his or her self-identity?
My parents did try to foster me culturally by sending me to Korean camp, but I hated it!
Truthfully, I wanted nothing to do with any person or child that looked like me or anything having to do with being different. My adoption and Korean heritage were acknowledged in a balanced way without over emphasizing that I was different. As an adult, I am grateful that my parents recognized and honored my Korean culture, but as a child, I was very aware I was different-even when I couldn’t articulate it or my parents acknowledged it—and I wanted desperately to fit in.
Trans-racial adoption is tricky and, for me, issues around racism and racial identity were as important as the issue of family formation. I am a person of color-my parents are not. They don’t-and cannot be expected to know—what it is like to be a person of color in the United States. What my parents did—and what you can do as you parent a child of a different race-is be aware that despite your longings for a world where your love will be enough to protect your child from racism and a trip to your child’s birth country or your attempts to celebrate cultural holidays with them will NOT be enough to give your children the racial identity that they deserve and desperately need. In other words, my parents taught me about Korea, but they couldn’t teach me how to be Korean.
So, go ahead visit China or Korea or Guatemala with your child. It is a great way for both of you to experience and honor your child’s culture. But understand that this, alone, does not give your child the racial identity that she will desperately need as she matures.
As I grew up, my experiences and conclusions were surprisingly different than my parents, not just because I was adopted, but because of my perspective-as a Korean-American adopted woman. Sometimes, it is hard for us to bridge the gaps, after all we, grew up speaking the same language, eating the same food and listening to the same music. But my parents simply are not people of color and sometimes forget that when you are a person of color everything is about race.
So as parents grapple with adoption and culture issues, I would implore you not to ignore another key question. “How am I going to help my child develop a healthy sense of racial identity?” Culture camps, trips to birth countries, support groups are all a great first step, but they are easy first steps. Helping a child of a different race develop a healthy sense of her racial step is a lot more complicated and deserves much more thought and attention.
International and domestic adoptions have different challenges and similar issues, but I would not look at which one is “better” because both are very complex.
There is the perception that domestic adoption is faster. This perception is generally true-unless parents are interested in adopting a Caucasian infant (African-American children represent the highest percentage of children available for domestic adoption).
Many people ask the question about domestic vs. international adoption with the presence of birthparents in the subtext. Many people are initially drawn to international adoption believing that inability to connect with their child’s birthparents will somehow be positive or easier for their child.
Let me squelch that belief right here! As an adopted person with no knowledge or information about my birthmother in Korea I can tell you she is a presence in my life and I think about her often. Since it is an issue for me, it is an issue for my parents as well. I am happy that I can talk to my parents about my feelings about my birth family without fear.
Thankfully, as parents begin to understand their children’s needs they begin to see-as mine did-that their children have a right and a need to know about their history and a way to come to terms with it.
3. We are what is now called a "conspicuous adoption" as my husband and I are very anglo and our son is from Kazakhstan but looks Asian. It bothers me that people just assume he is adopted. He could be my husband's child with, say, a deceased wife. We are proud he is adopted and we have decided to educate people and help promote adoption by answering questions when it is appropriate. However, how can we keep the focus on the fact that we are a family? Not a couple, with an adopted child?
I know the term “conspicuous adoption” is widely used to describe family formed through trans-racial adoption. Truthfully, as a person of adoption, I don’t like it and think that it has negative connotations that could be hurtful to the child involved.
When it comes to trans-racial adoption, or any adoption, people will make assumptions about your family and say ignorant and insensitive things. That is an unfortunate fact of life that many people are tirelessly working to change. While this information is true, it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. There are many great resources that help families deal with these issues. These range from using humor-“we’re from Mars”, to spending ten minutes educating people on the joys of adoption, but they have several common themes.
- Be comfortable with who you are-as a person-and as a family so that you can deal with inappropriate questions and comments with confidence and conviction. Ask yourself why it bothers you that people assume-rightly that your family was formed through trans-racial international adoption. If you really are proud that your family was formed through adoption then this is a positive and not negative comment.
- Take care of your child’s feelings first. Children are extremely intuitive and pick up on tension and can sense your feelings; if your son sees you get upset he could interpret that negatively towards himself and the adoption, therefore cutting off crucial dialogue and communication because he does not want to upset you. Before you decide to educate and promote adoption take your child’s feelings into account.
- Pace yourself and pick your battles: Believe me, I know how frustrating the questions can be and how exhausting it is to feel like you have to explain who you are to people.
- Focus on the truth: your serenity and confidence with your families formation will make dealing with questions easier to handle. I try to remember that when people say things that invalidate my family it is about them and not me. This has really helped me.
I would really ask people to connect to their true feelings about adoption before they consider adoption. With a trans-racial family, where the child is of a different race than both parents, it is reasonable for people to assume that the child is adopted. I am not sure how a person could be uncomfortable with that, yet say they are proud he is adopted. The two sentiments seem contradictory and would make me wonder if all of the loss issues surrounding adoption were worked through.
4. I am concerned about biases that exist toward anyone of a different nationality, skin color, religion, or sexual preference. As the parent of an openly gay child I am concerned for his physical safety. How do you deflect potentially volatile comments or actions so that they don't escalate into an assault?
Bullying-the strong preying on the weak- has become quite a problem, played out dramatically in our schools. Unbelievably, 1 in 3 children are bullied and in many cases, adults don’t find out about it until it has erupted into violence. We also know that the root causes of bullying are differences—racial, cultural, sexual orientation, family formation, etc. We also know that these biases begin at home-with us. As surely as we pass our family Thanksgiving traditions to our children we pass on our biases-both positive and negative. There are several things that I would like to suggest-they helped me when I was younger and may help you.
- Build their self-esteem: make them believe that ‘different’ is just that….not better or worse and live it!.
- Don’t pass on your biases: this takes awareness and self-restraint.
- Prepare your child for the realities he will face: not the one that you wish for, but the one that is.
- Give him the tools to protect himself with: role playing can be incredibly powerful.
- Get involved: don’t just sit and wait for something to happen. Hundreds of schools in the United States have formed task forces and diversity committees to deal with bullying. Make sure your school is one of them.
- Insist on “zero tolerance” for bullying—from comments through physical violence. You might have to be the one to take the stand!
- Make sure you child knows that he has a 'safe haven’ with you. Foster a sense of support and openness that will allow him to tell you when things go awry. This kind of early warning system can and does save lives…literally.
- Get help if you need it: and don’t hesitate!
First of all, remember that I love my parents. I LOVE THEM with all my heart!
We are living proof that people can bond and be a strong family without sharing the same blood. It happens every day.
The one thing that my parents could have done was to help prepare me to deal with issues of racism and racial identity. While my parents did a remarkable job when it came to diversity-they have always embraced different cultures, , races, religions and sexual preferences- at a time where parents were told to assimilate the children and do not acknowledge difference-when it came to racial identity there personal experience was so different than mine-as a person of color-that sometime I felt alone.
In my family, race and racism were not discussed enough and when they were it was not productive. I wanted my parents to know the specific stereotypes and challenges I face so I can openly communicate and express my feelings honestly and openly, even when upset and angry. I wanted them to validate my feelings-even if they didn’t understand them.
Let me give you an example. When I was young, we would travel north of our town where there were no people of color. Needless to say, people would point and stare at me and my family. I would get upset and angry at this and it would be compounded when my mom would try and explain it away by saying that people were staring because I was so pretty. While I recognize now that my mother was trying to protect me, we both know (and knew) that people were staring at me because I was different! How I wished my mother had just acknowledged that, rather than invalidate my feelings.
I have the solid relationship with my parents in spite of the many times I internalized my feelings and then exploded. Through it all my parents stuck by me and I never doubted that they loved me no matter what. I felt that I could always be myself and that they would accept me as I am.
I love them. They are my parents. Nothing can break that bond!