By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
It can be as simple as Oriental Christmas tree ornaments or nesting dolls from Russia. It can be as involved as foreign language classes or an overseas trip. But parents who adopt children from other countries say they do anything they can to teach their children about the country they were born in and make them proud of that culture.
"They are American, but they are also Chinese," said Marcia Shawler, mother of a daughter adopted from China and a son adopted from Taiwan. "I want so much for them to be proud they are Chinese because that's part of them."
"Most of these children can't trace their heritage since they were abandoned children. Some day it's going to be very important for them to have bonding with other kids," said Connie Kent, who adopted her 2-year-old daughter, Jade, from China.
Kent and Jade meet regularly with a play group of other children adopted from China, as well as the local chapter of Families with Children from China. The orphanage Jade came from is also organizing a club for children in the area.
In October, they went to a reunion in Disney World organized by the Colorado-based adoption agency that arranged for Jade's adoption. About 1,700 people were there to play together and go to the Mulan Ball where the children dressed in traditional Chinese clothes.
"The whole part of keeping these organizations together is so that the children are able to connect with children from the same situation," Kent said.
Chinese Children Adoption International, which has arranged more than 2,300 adoptions since 1994, advises parents to start teaching their children about the Chinese culture from day one.The Colorado agency offers tapes for the children starting at age 2 that teach Chinese songs, history, geography, craftmaking, painting and more.
"They need to establish an environment to provide a positive understanding of who they are," said Joshua Zhong, president and founder of the adoption agency. "Don't be fooled by how well they do when they are young. They are so cute and they don't see any problems."
But as they get older, especially as teenagers, children may struggle with not quite fitting in in America and feeling cut off from the country they were born in. Children who feel connected with the heritage and know other children in the same situation will feel more secure about who they are and where they came from.
"Teach them it's a culture to be proud of, not just despise it because they were abandoned," Zhong said. "China has a great culture, and the people are very nice."
Shawler and her husband, Steve, have been able to teach this to their children first hand. They adopted their children nine years ago and now live in St. Petersburg. But when the children were 4, their father was transferred to China for two years. The children, Avery and Evan, attended school there and started learning Chinese.
"When we went back to China for a visit, I let them go spend the night with a Chinese family so they could see what it's really like," Marcia Shawler said. "We write letters to our friends there really often. We call every few weeks, and Avery and Evan get on the phone and speak Chinese so it stays fresh with them."
The Shawlers' house is furnished with Chinese antiques and art. The children have dolls, jewelry and paintings that came from the village where Avery was born. They are proud of their heritage, but Shawler recently tried an experiment to see how comfortable they felt sharing it with American schoolmates.
"I threw some chop sticks in their lunch bag. I thought they would either come back and say: "Mom, that was really cornball,' or they would come back and tell me the other kids thought it was cool," she recounted. "It was great because they came back and said: "Mom, the other kids thought that was really cool.' "
Shawler, however, said she is mindful not to push too hard.
"While they are proud of China, they also want to fit in in the setting that they are in," she said.
Many children adopted from other countries attend local schools that teach language and culture. About 50 children ages 5 to 18 attend the Chinese School in St. Petersburg that meets on Sunday afternoons at St. Petersburg Catholic High School.
Some of the children have a parent from China and some are adopted by Americans. The school concentrates on language but also teaches dance, music, history and other culture. The cost is $120 a semester and most teachers volunteer their time each week.
"I think if you are Chinese you would not want to forget your old culture and your old language," said Shu Ping, a teacher at the school.
Along with play groups and potluck dinners, the local chapter of Families With Children From China organizes celebrations for Chinese New Year, a dragon boat festival and a moon festival. The larger events draw as many as 185 children and parents.
The group also serves as a source of support for parents who are waiting for what seems like an eternity to get their babies.
"You meet all these people who have gone through it. It's like you know it will happen. Even though I crossed every week off the calendar for a zillion weeks, it just takes time," said Helen Tyler, president of the local chapter of FCC. "It gives me goose bumps every time I go to a function and you see the new babies."
Her group orders books to help parents teach Chinese history and culture. One favorite is a book of Chinese fairy tales. Tyler, who adopted 4-year-old Alyssa from a Chinese orphanage, said her daughter loves a children's book that follows a couple's journey to adopt a baby in China.
When Tyler went to adopt Alyssa, she bought some embroidered artwork at the Great Wall of China. She hangs it prominently in her home.
"Alyssa knows Mama got it from the Great Wall," Tyler said. "I even hear her talking about it when she's playing with her dolls."
- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at Oliviachar@aol.com; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.