About 14 months ago, after my husband and I had decided on pursuing a second international adoption but before we made our first trip to Russia, a friend of mine asked me a question that weighed on my mind for months. As an adoptive mother I am frequently asked invasive, crazy, and sometimes downright rude questions. This was not one of those kinds of questions. This was a thoughtful and simply curious question, and, to be honest, it was one I had posed to myself a few times along the adoption path. "Are you worried that your children are losing more than you think they are by losing the culture of their birth country?" In other words, which is better? Growing up in a stable, loving family or staying connected to your culture?
If you have been reading my thoughts for a while now then you know how I feel about my oldest son's potential future had he stayed in his Chinese orphanage. If you are new around here, you can read up on my epiphany here.
But just because I was confident that my oldest son's future was hopeful due solely to his leaving the orphanage didn't mean I felt like that about every orphan. Truth be told, I didn't know how I felt. I wanted to believe that internationally adopted children were better off in loving families, no matter where those families lived. But if I am being completely honest with myself I know that the real reason, the first reason, my husband and I decided on adoption was purely selfish. We wanted a family, simple as that. We were not looking to save a child. And while we planned from day one to mesh the American with the Chinese, we really weren't thinking about the effects the loss of daily immersion in his culture would mean to our new child.
The answer to the birth county culture/forever family question is not easy. Even adult adoptees cannot agree. There are many who say that the amount of birth country culture their American adoptive parents offered was more than enough, that having loving parents and the American dream were more important. But there are other adult adoptees who feel they missed out on something very important by not having the opportunity to grow up in the country of their birth. Just like any other parenting crossroads, you just put your head down and try to do right by your kids.
But then I had the amazing experience of spending time in the orphanage of our youngest son. I saw loving caregivers. I saw worn wooden toys mixed in with newer American toys brought over by previously visiting parents to be. I saw the same worn pants and shirt on different toddlers each day. I saw little ones who were hungry. I saw different caregivers every day and children fighting over the best toys. The building my son lived in didn't reflect the beautiful architecture of his birth country. And neither did any of the gray buildings he could see from the high windows of the first floor where he lived. Eventually my precious little boy would have been moved from the baby hospital to the local orphanage, with pretty much the same view. Every day, the same. Same view, same food, same worn toys and shared clothes.
So when the birth culture question comes up now I am no longer second guessing myself. It isn't just that I want to believe it. Had my boys grown up in their birth countries they still would have grown up in an orphanage. There is no way to separate one from the other. I doubt my boys would have been able to attend concerts or go to art museums. I doubt they would have had the opportunity to travel the countryside of their respective birth countries. They wouldn't have learned what is was like to grow up in a Chinese or Russian family. They wouldn't have shopped in a grocery store or participated in cultural traditions. In fact, both of my boys probably experienced more of their birth countries after the adoption, while they traveled with us. My oldest son saw Qingping Market and The Temple of Six Banyan Trees where there are hundreds of Buddha statues. He experienced, in a very small way, a part of the rich history of his birth country. My youngest traveled with me to the baby store, the grocery store, and a local mall, experiencing, again in a very small way, a tiny bit of everyday Russian family life. Then they boarded a plane and flew across an ocean to live in America, as a part of a forever family.
Had my boys stayed in the country of their birth I believe they probably wouldn't have experienced the true culture. They would have experienced the culture of the orphanage in which they lived. Orphanage culture. Which, believe me, is much much different than being a part of family in any country. So, to answer my friend's question - I will always worry a little that my children won't feel grounded as they grow. I pray that each of my boys eventually finds the perfect balance between America and the land of their birth. I pray that I can help them bridge the gap between unknown birth family and themselves. I will travel with them to China and Russia, as many times as they wish. I will listen if they come to me one day, upset about being different. I will be OK if they go through a phase of not wanting to embrace these differences. But do I believe they would have been better off staying put? No way. Do I believe that the benefits of gaining a loving family outweigh the repercussions of losing full immersion in their culture? Yes I do. Now I do. And I have to believe that the limited exposure to birth country culture that we can provide our adopted children is at least as much, if not more, than they might have received anyways. It's all about perspective.