It's interesting to me that people say that our younger daughter, with her gray-blue eyes looks just like me—declare that she must have gotten my genes!—and that that our older daughter resembles more my husband's side of the family, what with her lovely chocolate brown eyes. In reality, our little family will forever defy this type of organization (or is it type casting?), as do many families that have come to be through adoption.
Are they Jewish? People would ask. Are you Russian? Some wondered. And I realized that the crown jewel of American culture-diversity-was suddenly a perplexing conundrum, brought to light this time by a couple of parents and kids.
After our girls, came from Russia at 10 and 13, some relatives wanted to know-since we're Jewish-if the girls were going to have bat mitzvahs, be raised Jewish in other words. We'd take them to temple, but learning Hebrew (read right to left, no less) before they understood English all the while acclimating to a new family and home? No, they wouldn't be having bat mitzvahs.
"But you're their parents, you just take them to Hebrew lessons," one very distant relative said as he adjusted an enormous Chai over his hairy chest. "No kid likes to go," he said. They learn.
Okay, so I'd never had a bat mitzvah, my husband did have a bar mitzvah, but that wasn't his point. His point was, I think, to make the girls, in his mind, the same as us-or what he thought we should be-the same as him. That said, I believe every parent feels a twinge of this impulse, whether they admit it or not.
Christina Frank, a writer in Brooklyn, told me another story of tradition and heritage. On Christmas Eve, she and her two daughters went to her mother's house for a traditional Polish Vigilia, a ritualized meal that is part of her mother's Polish-Catholic upbringing. They ate pierogi and mushroom soup and passed around an oplatek (wafer) from which they all took a bite, she explained.
"I'll bet it's safe to say that we were one of the few groups of Vigilia celebrants that included two Vietnamese children," including her younger daughter, 8-year-old Lucy, and her cousin's daughter, age 7.
"To further complicate matters, my older daughter, Olivia—Lucy's sister—is my biological child, my mother's biological grandchild, and therefore technically has Polish roots in a way that Lucy does not."
Christina says her mother asked how she might gracefully step around the fact that this heritage belongs to one of Christina's girls but not the other. "It's the kind of question that being part of a bio-adoptive family gives me the chance to ponder regularly.
The truth is, Christina says, that "Olivia is no more inherently Polish than Lucy is inherently Vietnamese. They share genes with and look like people who come from those two countries, respectively, but their exposure to cultural rituals has been identical. Lucy's been celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah and eating Western-style food with us since she came home at 6 months old." Olivia, who was 5 when the family went to Vietnam to adopt Lucy, actually has more memories of that country than her sister does, says Christina.
But "Lucy feels an allegiance to Vietnam which is her own, and which we nourish and respect. This month, she says, "we will all feel a little bit Vietnamese when we sit down to our annual dinner of pho ga (noodle soup) and thit neo huong (thin pork chops) to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year." She adds, "Just as we felt a little bit Polish on Christmas Eve."
Jeri Okamoto Floyd, a writer and former attorney and community activist in West Los Angeles—who has been recognized by OCA-GLA, the Japanese American Citizens League and Asian Pacific American Legal Center for her community service—is a third generation Japanese American whose grandparents immigrated from Japan. Both of her parents grew up in Wyoming and Jeri spent part of her childhood there, too, often as just one of a handful of Asian Americans. She and her husband, Dan, "a 6'2" blond, blue-eyed native Californian," Jeri says, have two daughters who were born in China and each adopted at 10 months old. Their girls are now 10 and 14.
Part of Jeri's extended family is Buddhist, part is Christian, and she was raised as a United Methodist. Dan was raised as a Christian by a mother that tended toward the Evangelical. Today, the Floyd family attends a Methodist Church in West Los Angeles that was founded by Japanese Americans almost 80 years ago and has a large Pan Asian congregation
"In my opinion—which is shared by my husband, but not by all parents—our children consistently need to see that there are many different ways of being American, in general, and American of Chinese/Asian descent, in particular.
Regardless of whether families are of the same race or are transracial, parenting children of color in an adoptive family requires us to be quite deliberate in creating nurturing, yet empowering opportunities for each of our daughters to develop a positive identity as an adoptee, which includes a positive racial identity. Race is often the "elephant in the room" for transracial adoptive families. It's much easier to focus on the gentler subject of "culture."
For many families, Jeri says, "the first grand communal nod to their child's heritage comes through celebrating the Lunar New Year with other adoptive families. It makes for a wonderful evening and a cute snapshot - the happy family with their Chinese children dressed in silk pajamas - but it is frozen in time. There is so much more that is not captured in that family photo."
For some adopted children, she says, this party is their only perception of and connection to things "Chinese" and even this annual acknowledgment gets stashed away in the back of the closet along with their dresses until the next year.
"Being in a room with hundreds of other adoptees and transracial families that look like theirs can be exciting and empowering to a child, but that once-a-year celebration isn't enough. It's the other 364 days of the year that matter most. A child cannot put on and take off her race like a Chinese dress."
So here are but three of the puzzles—mosaics—that adoption sometimes creates. But there is wonder in just about any puzzle and beauty in just about every mosaic I've ever seen. Mosaics are made of individual pieces that appear to not belong together. Turns out, they do.
Photo credit: Linda Vaden-Martin