Birth Country Cultural Immersion for Intercountry Adoptees

By Sunny Reed, Korean intercountry adoptee.

When I was adopted over thirty years ago, there were significantly fewer outlets for a transracial adoptive parent (TRAp) to expose their child to his or her birth culture. Books, culture camps (of which I never attended), agency-sponsored gatherings, and other passive events formed the bulk of options available.

Today, in our information-rich climate, simply reading articles, watching videos, and listening to music counts only as superficial immersion for a transracial adoptee (TRAd). Online forums and other media provide a sense of community, but even still, socialization relies solely on the parent’s concentrated efforts.

In this post, I’ll be discussing a 2010 article by M. Elizabeth Vonk, Jaegoo Lee, and Josie Crolley-Simic about TRAps’ current cultural socialization efforts and my perspective on their research.

Cultural Socialization Practices in Domestic and International Transracial Adoption
Vonk, Lee, and Crolley-Simic

Article Summary

The authors sought to uncover the impact (if any) cultural socialization had on a transracial adoptive parent’s (TRAp) relationship with their child. Additional research is needed to concretely answer that question, but data uncovered during their investigation contributed fascinating insights into how race influenced a parent’s decision to incorporate their child’s ethnicity into their lives.

Key Points

  • Appearance may dictate how much emphasis parents put on cultural socialization
  • TRAps rarely associated with adults of their child’s ethnicity and frequently lived in undiversified areas
  • Cultural socialization efforts diminished as the child aged


What’s interesting about these findings is how parents – all of whom identified as white – gravitated toward superficial cultural activities. Cooking ethnic food, reading books, and celebrating unique holidays were most common and I surmise it has to do with novelty and ease. These activities are the least threatening for white parents and can be undertaken in the privacy of their own homes, without criticism from authentic sources. Combined with the findings that white parents rarely socialized with adults of their child’s race, this makes sense.

Particularly damning is the parents’ failure to relocate their families to culturally diverse neighborhoods. My own family settled in a homogenous white farming community in New Jersey and refused to acknowledge that the demographics had profoundly negative repercussions on my development. Even after repeated incidents of school-based racism (at all levels), they couldn’t or wouldn’t consider changing to a diverse school.

The authors also found – sadly – that parents of European children engaged in cultural activities less frequently than those of Asian and black children. I find this ironic, since the shared background should make it less foreign to the parents. But if socialization is largely based on appearance, then race is no doubt a catalyst for how involved a parent feels they should be.

The authors muse that cultural socialization highlights the obvious differences between parent and child, making caregivers feel “inadequate.” They also wonder if cultural activities make them “realize their responsibility to their children and are unsure how to proceed.” I would argue that yes, this is likely what is happening, since confronting the reality of their complex situation may destroy their original expectations for the adoption.

My parents’ own ideas of “getting [me] cultured” included, early on, hosting Korean egg hunts and going to Korean Christmas parties. Nothing was uniquely Korean about these events. They were just a bunch of white families getting their adopted Korean kids together and celebrating Christian holidays. Ironically, we never acknowledged Korean events and – like the research suggested – these activities dwindled down to nothing after we all began elementary school.

Although my experiences occurred over the past several decades, this relatively recent article shows that – despite additional resources available – little real progress has been made in the practical application of cultural socialization. We’ll keep talking about this in future posts, since the goal is to help TRAps assist their child in developing a secure racial identity.

Your turn!

Do your experiences align with this article’s findings? If not, what do you think you or your parents did differently?

Please feel free to discuss in the comments!

8 Replies to “Birth Country Cultural Immersion for Intercountry Adoptees”

  1. Thanks for your post! I actually cited some of Vonk’s research in my master’s thesis. Interestingly, I spent a weekend with families who had adopted children from Taiwan recently. They meet for an annual get together and bring their kids for a whole weekend of togetherness. I was surprised to learn that these parents were proactively exposing their kids to their country of origin and culture. Several parents had made contact with their child’s birth mother and maintain contact, and many families had already taken their kids back to Taiwan or were planning a trip. It appeared that the parents were critically aware of identity issues. Perhaps this group of parents is in the minority considering how many adoptive families there are across the U.S. and in other countries. All this to say that there are some parents who seem to understand the importance of blood ties and providing opportunities for their child to stay connected to their birth culture. It’s still difficult to navigate that cultural gap though.

    1. Thanks for your reply! I appreciate your response. I’d love to hear more about your thesis.

      It’s funny, because I know two families who are either concerned with their child’s cultural development, but their efforts are still underrepresented in the literature. It does suggest they’re in the minority, as you said.

      I’m actually going to be exploring this is more detail in future posts. In one article, we will see detailed interviews with White mothers regarding socialization. It’s interesting because their attitudes toward race – despite some being more progressive than others – still leave a gap in developing a true, secure racial identity.

      The question is – what’s missing? And some articles assume it’s really the racial factor of the parents. I’d be inclined to agree.

      In my own work, I’m more focused on how I was raised versus current trends, and it’s interesting to see that there’s still no major improvements that close that gap.

      Did you get a sense of how much time (outside of the weekends together) the parents put into racial development activities? Did they have any biological children?

      Thanks so much!


  2. “My parents’ own ideas of “getting [me] cultured” included, early on, hosting Korean egg hunts and going to Korean Christmas parties. Nothing was uniquely Korean about these events. They were just a bunch of white families getting their adopted Korean kids together and celebrating Christian holidays. Ironically, we never acknowledged Korean events and – like the research suggested – these activities dwindled down to nothing after we all began elementary school.”

    This. Which is why our involvement in FCC has been minimal.

    It’s easy for an adoptee to romanticize what she’s missed culturally. Here’s our experience of having our daughter get to know Actual Chinese People, rather than hunker down at FCC.

    We live in a reasonably diverse area. The county next to our county is heavily Chinese, and we briefly sent our daughter to Chinese school over there, and on a more long-term basis, got her involved in Chinese dance. Most of her fellow dancers were children with parents who’d immigrated from China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, and a few had parents who’d been here a couple of generations — in other words, Chinese children with actual Chinese parents. We were very much welcome in the class, and we learned a lot. One of the biggest things we learned (at least her dad and I) was that Chinese people were a lot like us in many ways. And Chinese parents repeatedly told us that their parenting of their children might be quite different if they were in China rather than in the US. They took her in and invited to their homes. She ate real Chinese food (as opposed to Americanized restaurant fare) and lived by those families’ rules when she was there.

    The scheduling challenges for a busy, ambitious high schooler mean she can no longer participate in that dance class, but she still has a few close friends from the class and keeps up on Instagram, etc. They go to events at each other’s schools, too.

    It’s been a real education for her. For other reasons, we decided not to move to a school district in that particular county, though we seriously considered it. The school district we’re in is upper middle class and largely white and has a great reputation for both academics and sports. About half the Asian kids there are adoptees. In other words, it’s the kind of school district we were warned against when we adopted. Yet, it’s been a good experience for her. She says she hasn’t experienced anything she considers racism since she was in a different school district back in second grade. She has lots of friends — mainly kids who share her academic interests and outside passion, dance. They’re sweet kids and she says she doubts they think much about the fact she’s Asian.

    We went to Southern California last year and she was blown away by the size of the Asian population. She briefly considered college in CA — it would be cool to have so many people who “look like me” — but she also wonders if she can compete with Chinese kids raised by Tiger parents. (That’s her assumption, not necessarily mine.). I’ve pointed out to her that the University of Maryland, our state flagship school, is pretty diverse, too, and would cost us a lot less. And they have a Chinese dance club!

    1. This is interesting, as FCC has been suggested as a more active group since China adoptions are a relatively new thing for Asia. In the eighties and prior, groups like this MAY have existed but cultural attitudes and resource availability limited opportunities.

      I’d wonder what would happen if Korean adoptions still occurred. Would there be this level of involvement? What would the outcomes be for the children?



  3. Nisha G. – I grew up in California's Central Valley. I earned three college degrees and have traveled to 17 countries, plus numerous cities throughout the United States. I currently reside in Oakland, CA and I work as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor.
    Nisha G. says:

    I recently attend a culture camp for Indian Adpotees. I was a presenter and a fellow Indian adoptee. I felt as though the classes that were presented to parents were very superficial and I do wonder how much is taken back home once camp is over for the year. Also, my parents had no Indian friends or POC friends which makes a huge difference.

  4. Location can make a huge difference. One of the reasons we decided to adopt from China was that we live right outside NYC on a direct train line that runs through Flushing, a large Chinese/Korean community. Our suburban community has a triple the national average population of Asians. Our daughters have never been the only Asian kid in the classroom, enough so that our older daughter once complained that even though there were 6 Asian kids in her class, she was the only Chinese girl. They are invited into the homes of friends whose families are Chinese and Korean. As mentioned, our FCC chapter has become mostly inactive, but we have still maintained friendships that were created in the FCC Chinese school they attended, so they know other kids who have a story like theirs. And we can be in Flushing or Manhattan Chinatown for lunch or dinner or shopping in 30 minutes.
    We took a heritage trip to China this past summer and it was an enlightening experience, since it was hosted by the local NGO that works with our younger daughter’s SWI, and it wasn’t a typical tour. Our “guides” were the staff of the organization and they became friends over the 2 weeks we were there.
    Not patting ourselves on the back since much of the opportunities our girls have had were created by choices we made based on where we already lived, but being part of the online community of adoptive parents I can “see” how much living where there are plenty of peers and adult role models has made a huge difference for them.

    1. Yes, but that’s the point. Not everyone in the US can live right outside of NYC or has access to these resources. It’s still financially prohibitive for many people, and what I am focusing on in my work-in-progress is the damage that demographics can do in transracial adoptions.

      For those of us born thirty or more years ago, situations like yours were not of the norm. In the fifties, the Holts placed children with anyone willing to take a child, bypassing many typical social work screens to do so.

      Those are the ones who suffer and need access to the resources you suggest, but either aren’t able or aren’t willing to access them.

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