My father was 13 years old when he arrived in America in 1973 from his native South Korea as an adoptee. He was shorter than other kids his age, partly because of the malnutrition he experienced as an orphan.
He was adopted by a German-American family from Connecticut. “It was great,” my father told me. “I learned about American society, its ways of life, and saw how it’s different from Korea.”
He says that at first he missed Korean food, but eventually he learned to enjoy American food. Within two years he began to regain his normal height and weight. He also had to learn English, relying on sign language early on to converse with his family.
My father’s parents taught him to be proud of living in America. They also instilled Christian values in him, which he passed on to me. My mother is Chinese American. Our family regularly celebrates Chinese New Year at relatives’ houses, with Chinese food and crispy new money given in red envelopes.
Growing up, my parents always encouraged me to embrace the varied traditions and values of the ethnicities I am part of.
Still, despite my father’s experience and that of my family, many argue that adoptions should only happen between children and parents of the same racial or cultural background.
Neil Zanville is a spokesman with the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). He says that providing homes where language and customs are as familiar as possible benefits adoptees, particularly as many of them have already experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect.
“If the children have any hope of leading a normal life, they need to have someone they can count on,” Zanville said.
As of late, DCFS has made it a prime concern to recruit more Korean-speaking foster or adoptive parents. The department has been doing outreach to groups including the Korean American Family Services and others nearby in Korea town.
There are at present 464 Asian-American children in Los Angeles’ DCFS foster care system, making up 1.3 percent of the total, according to Zanville.
Here in California, anyone looking to become an adoptive parent must first demonstrate that the adoptee will retain their culture in their new home. As part of any adoption process here, the state calls for a social worker to do a thorough home study that involves cultural inclusion.
The study, says Stacey Peyer, a faculty member at the School of Social Work at California State University, Long Beach, “includes an assessment of the parent’s willingness and ability to parent a child of a different race or culture … They need to have a plan for how to expose the child to their birth culture.”
And it’s not just around Asian adoptees that this cultural competence should play out. According to a 2008 study by the Evan B. Donaldson Institute, “black children had a greater sense of racial pride when their parents acknowledged racial identity, moved to integrated neighborhoods, and provided African American role models.”
But Peyer says cultural differences should not be a barrier to adoption, adding there are many children who simply need homes.
In our family, my father’s Korean roots easily blended with those of his adopted parents, and with my mother’s heritage. My father’s family welcomed him into their own, and that has inspired me to embrace other cultures, and to adapt to traditions different than mine.
What the experience of my family shows is that familial bonds do not depend on a shared race or culture, and that they can in fact be enriched by ethnic or cultural differences.
If you are interested in become a foster or adoptive parent, you can receive free parent training. Learn more at RaiseAChild.US and the AdoptUSKids website.