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International Adoptees are Rich with Hidden Diversity 

International Adoption (Image via Pixabay)

International adoption in many cases can be rich with hidden diversity.

“Adoption is not for the faint of heart,” Jillian Lauren admitted in her TEDx Talk chronicling her family’s journey through the adoption of her son and her perspective both as an adopted mother and adopted child.

Lauren adopted her son from Ethiopia as a young boy. She said her son forms his identity from all the influences in his life — past and current. He uses the distant memories of Ethiopia, stories his parents tell him about the nation, the heritage of his adopted parents, the current environment he lives in and his imagination to create his sense of self.

Adoption is not for the faint of heart.

Adoption and cross-cultural lives

Children adopted by parents from another country other than the one of that child’s birth are international adoptees and Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs). The Cross Cultural Kid site by Ruth Van Reken defines a CCK as “a person who has lived in — or meaningfully interacted with — two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years.”

Adoptive families form in a different way than families of a single background. Lauren claimed, as a result, “adoptees have a more complex answer than most people to the question: ‘Who am I?’”

Adoptees have a more complex answer than most people to the question: ‘Who am I?’

Adoption, particularly international and transracial, can create challenges not normally found in families of a single background. With a growing number of globally mobile populations, families have several dimensions that stem from the vastly differing background of each family member. Differing cultural perspectives and influences impact family dynamics and communication.

Adoption (Image via Pixabay)
Adoption (Image via Pixabay)

Where do I fit?

Cross-cultural adoptees can experience feelings of loss and unresolved grief, identity development issues and a sense of belonging found in relationship to others with similar backgrounds — not in race or ethnicity alone.

Individuals living in between cultures tend to not fit perfectly into the molds of the cultures they interact with, but may fit comfortably on the edge of each.

As seen in the table below, CCKs relate to their surrounding culture in a variety of ways. Van Reken wrote, “The stress for most CCKs is not from the multiplicity of cultures they experience in their childhood but comes when they try to repatriate or fit into some other cultural box others expect them to belong to.”

CCKs in Relationship to Surrounding Dominant Culture

Foreigner Look different Think differentHidden Immigrant Look alike Think different
Adopted Look different Think alikeMirror Look alike Think alike

Source: crossculturalkid.org/Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock

Within the adopted category, life can become quite complicated. Who others expect them to be is not who they are, since they have learned their cultural norms from various cultural groups. Even if not rooted in one geographical place or ethnicity, their belonging is still valid.

Understanding adoption from the outside

Adopted children learn about their birth cultures as an outsider, or a process known as acculturation.  A child born in Indonesia (first culture), raised in France (second culture), and learns about Indonesia (third culture) without truly immersing themselves in the culture, learns from the outside. This form of cultural immersion can lead to a unique set of obstacles related to cultural understanding. Humans learn culture best through enculturation where they witness nuances, expressions, language, gestures and interactions through immersion.

International adoptees can commonly “feel a sense of ‘non-belonging’ and in learning about a culture from the outside, suffer Imposter Syndrome,” according to Van Reken. Imposter Syndrome can cause individuals to think, “I’m not really this ethnicity”; “I’m a fraud”; or “I can’t be accepted as being from this country or another.”

“Somewhere Between,” a film telling the story of four girls adjusting to life in the United States after being adopted from China, highlights some of the identity and sense of belonging challenges international adoptees face.

Scenes from “Somewhere Between” expose false assumptions that international adoptees receive from others. Many people assume they are from a foreign place and do not fit in with the culture or family they are in. In reality, the girls have been living in the United States and have been a part of their families for most of their lives. Often treated differently by their neighbors, strangers, teachers and peers, the girls don’t feel complete connection with their community.

Searching for the unknown

The adopted girls expressed that there is some kind of missing connection between their adopted and birth cultures. They do not fully fit with U.S. culture, nor do they fully relate to Chinese culture. The girls search for something to bridge the gap between there separate worlds, but do not know what the missing link is.

Through adopting her son, Lauren realized, “Who we are and where we belong in this world are not just a function of nature or nurture. Who we are is an act of imagination. We are not just our genetic material or how we are raised, we are also the stories we tell ourselves.”

The effects of a cross-cultural upbringing can create invisible layers of culture. The hidden diversity of international adoptees impacts their worldview, the dynamics of family living and creates belonging outside of pre-defined boxes.

We are not just our genetic material or how we are raised, we are also the stories we tell ourselves.

Millions of adopted individuals have rich backgrounds that can go unrecognized. To avoid placing people into strict categories, the world must rethink how it defines diversity and culture in order to see this hidden population for who they truly are.

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