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Dim sum, bagels and grits

The ethnic makeup of families has changed, whether through marriage or the adoption of children from other countries. How do we help our multi-ethnic children embrace their cultures? Author Myra Alperson offers some insight

Families don’t look the way they used to
One day when my daughter, Sadie, was just 3 she briefly lost sight of me at a playground and started crying for Mommy. A father in the playground took her hand to try to help out. As I walked toward her shouting her name, he was looking in another direction. Then he realized, with a jolt, that the white woman yelling “Sadie!” — me — was her mother. But it wasn’t automatic. Sadie is Chinese. He walked her over to me.

As more families adopt across racial, ethnic and cultural boundaries, stories like mine are increasingly common. Since the late 1990s, more than 16,000 children have been adopted from other countries each year, usually from backgrounds different from the parents’. Within the United States, too, thousands of children who need homes find them each year with parents of a different race or ethnicity. Over the last four decades, several hundred thousand children have been adopted cross-culturally.

Along with a rise in ethnic and racial intermarriage as well as an increase in single parenting and “older” parenting, adoption is transforming the American family. Even the Supreme Court recently acknowledged that parenting in the United States isn’t what it used to be. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor remarked in a June 2000 ruling related to parental rights, “The demographic changes of the past century make it difficult to speak of an average American family.”

Honor our children’s heritage
For multicultural adoptive families, her statement has special resonance. In choosing to cross cultures to form our families, we have chosen to change many of the former “givens” of what family life and home life are supposed to be. Our children, coming from a different background, are being raised not just by new parents, but in a new culture. What responsibility do we have to “remind” them of what came before — especially if they joined us as infants and their actual memory and experience of their birth family and culture are limited?

Based on Sadie’s experience described above, and on what many of our children may grapple with as they grow up knowing that another set of parents gave them life, I think we have a substantial responsibility to honor our children’s heritage. And one way to do it is to develop a positive vision of ourselves as a multicultural family living in a multicultural home. That’s why I wrote Dim Sum, Bagels, and Grits, the first sourcebook for multicultural families formed through adoption.

I believe I speak for many adoptive parents when I express a deep sense of obligation to ensure my daughter knows about the cultural heritage she was born into as well as the one she is growing up with — and that she feels great about both! As children grow older, they are bound to have encounters similar to the one Sadie had in the playground, in which other people make assumptions about who they are. But these encounters will be more complex, and possibly hurtful, and we won’t always be there to fend for our kids. If we can nurture children who are strong and self-confident about who they are — and in Sadie’s case, this means Chinese, American, Jewish, my daughter, herself — then we will have done our job.

A multicultural “revolution”
The timing for Dim Sum, Bagels, and Grits could not be better. Not only is multicultural adoption skyrocketing, but so is its public profile. Media mogul Steven Spielberg and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw; novelist Tama Janowitz; Sen. John McCain; and football champ Dan Marino have gone public about adopting children from ethnic and racial backgrounds different from their own, not just because they did it, but also to promote this wonderful way to “grow” a family.

Olympic star Dan O’Brien, who is biracial, grew up in a family with several siblings who were adopted from a range of backgrounds, and he discusses the impact his family situation had on his development. Mainstream magazines report on folks like him — potential role models for our children. Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O’Donnell spotlight adoption on their shows. Rosie’s web site includes adoption information. Ads by Compaq Computer, Merrill Lynch and Procter & Gamble feature families like ours. In its attempt to present itself as a socially responsible company, Wendy’s, the fast-food chain, promotes adoption. Wendy’s CEO Dave Thomas makes no secret of the fact that he’s proud that he was adopted.

Recent waves of immigration have complemented our own journeys into multiculturalism, bringing new flavors, sounds and looks to the American mainstream. Fashions drawing on African, Asian and Latino influences are sold in shopping malls. Schools nationwide celebrate “International Day” to acknowledge the diversity of their student body, while the media bring foreign worlds into our homes.

Multicultural toys are being made, and children of many colors are showing up in clothing ads and books — and not just when the story line is ethnic. Publishers and toymakers aren’t creating these products to be nice. Multicultural families are an increasing fact of life — and a growing market.

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