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Adopting ... but not Adapting
When she was 2, Jennifer Kelley's mother abandoned her at a Korean train station. She was quickly put into foster care in Korea, and, six months later, a white American couple adopted her.
The couple changed her Korean name, Myung Ja Choi, and moved the family to an all-white neighborhood in New Canaan, Conn. With two white brothers and a neighborhood with no diversity, Kelley had a hard time finding her identity growing up.
"It would have been nice to at least see other people who looked like me," Kelley, 39, said.
David Anthony Accardi, 18, was also adopted by a white American couple when he was a month old. But Accardi, who was born in Peru, enjoyed a different and more diverse childhood in Maplewood, N.J. They were "the best years of my life," he said.
Foreign-born children adopted into American families also adopt American culture. Their experiences vary, depending on how much their adoptive families preserve their cultures.
Foreign adoption is becoming more popular around the world because it is faster to do than domestic adoption. In the United States, the mother of a child can choose what family she would like her baby to go to. But in international adoptions, the agency looks for parents with stable incomes, according to Families Thru International Adoption, an agency based in Evansville, Ind.
They also want parents who do not have criminal records and can provide safe and healthy homes for the children.
Root of Conflict
But foreign adoptions come with added potential for conflict over the child's native culture.
FTIA, which places children from China, Guatemala, Russia, Vietnam, India and Brazil, favors preserving the child's native culture and advocates culture camps that help children understand and embrace their heritage.
Kelley's family chose to ignore her Korean background. Since her father is from Kentucky and her mother is from West Virginia, she grew up eating typical Southern foods, never tasting any form of Asian cuisine until high school.
The closest Kelley ever got to an acknowledgement of her heritage was that her mother kept her hair short because she "thought it was Asian."
Although she was lucky enough to experience no racism, she was still never fully able to feel like she fit in.
"I definitely still feel that underlying discomfort if I walk into a place with my family because there are the obvious physical differences," Kelley said.
David Anthony Accardi had a very different experience. His white parents renamed him David, the English version of his Spanish name, Diego.
His adoptive parents originally lived in Connecticut, but after four years, the family moved to the small town of Maplewood, N.J., where Accardi grew up with friends from different cultures. Accardi also has an older sister who was also adopted from Peru, but from a different family.
Unlike Kelley, Accardi grew up in a neighborhood filled with whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Although he didn't know any other Peruvians besides his sister, he never felt uncomfortable.
"It makes me feel unique and different," he said. Accardi ate typical American food, but the family would occasionally go out to restaurants that served Peruvian dishes.
Accardi's American family often discussed Peruvian culture. His mother, in particular, often pushed him to become even more interested in his background and often found information about Peru in the news and on the Internet. The family intends to go to Peru next year on summer vacation.
Accardi's experience is likely different than Kelley's because he is from a younger generation that is more aware of cultural diversity and more interested in embracing it.
Kelley has wanted to go back to Korea ever since she was a little girl. She asked numerous times and wanted her mother to go with her. Her mother was not supportive. She felt the question was more a "sign of betrayal."
Now, as an adult, Kelley has a family of her own and is working on a set of memoirs. Her husband, who is white, is supportive about her heritage, and their two daughters are interested in their mother's life story.
Kelley wants to introduce her daughters to Korean culture and feels that it's important that they learn about both parents.
Kelley is putting aside her fears that she won't be accepted in Korea. She wants to return to her native country next year for her 40th birthday.