Adoptees in New York learn languages of their birth culture
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Apr 9 12:34:41 UTC 2002
New York Times, April 9, 2002
Immersed in 2 Worlds, New and Old
By YILU ZHAO
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
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 biggest 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 also runs
RainbowKids.com, 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.
And now, little Emma Beatrice Jiuxia Handlin is 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 for most of the day 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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