By: Stacy Clark
A couple of summers ago, my daughter Hanna attended a weekly art class here in our suburban Florida neighborhood. Picture a master-planned community with meandering tree-lined boulevards and tidy homes tucked within stone-walled villages, named after places in England. While there are families of different races and cultures sprinkled about, the majority of our neighbors are white. The thing is Hanna is not. She was adopted into our little corner of Americana from her birthplace in China before she was a year old.
As Hanna’s mom, I am sensitive to making sure Hanna has friends and role models that share her race and heritage. (I’ve read and been told this will help her develop a positive self image.) I am not always successful, but often lucky.
Take art class for example. On a Sunday morning, I drove Hanna a couple villages over to the home where the class was being held. An Asian woman peeked out the front door and waved us in. Other parents arrived with kids in tow, also Asian, specifically Chinese. This is great I thought while stumbling over the slippers the host quietly set behind me after I removed my shoes in the foyer. We came to art class because Hanna loves art, but the Chinese culture was a real bonus. Even the art teacher was Chinese.
The only one not Chinese was me.
As a blond-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian woman growing up in the suburbs of Maryland, I’ve always been a part of the majority culture. Mostly, my culture has been like water to a fish, unnoticeable to me. They were as nice as could be, these mothers and fathers with the wide smiles who gathered at the door speaking in rapid Mandarin. Yet suddenly I was the stranger in a strange land.
I was the bright, white bulb in an otherwise elegantly nuanced room. Rapidly I sought clues on how to behave. Should I take off my shoes? Do I wear the slippers? Do I stay for class or leave? Next time do I ring the bell or walk in?
Since it was Hanna’s first class, I accompanied her to the upstairs art room. I sat behind her observing the joy, affinity and boisterous synchronicity of the children and adults all around us as the students got settled and class ensued.
That old ditty from Sesame Street ran singsong through my head. One of these things is not like the other things, not like the other things… Of course, I was not alike. Aside from looking different and not speaking the language, I did not understand the intonations, mannerisms, social dynamics and niceties so effortlessly passing between these families, who shared a common culture.
But here was the real surprise. Hanna was not like the other ones either. Oh she looked like all the adorable boys and girls with dark hair and deep brown eyes holding pastels in their hands. Yet, Hanna was a “fish out of water,” too.
Hanna eyed the teacher, swiped her pastel across the page leaving color in its wake. She studied, erased, swiped again. Right then, I realized the obvious: Hanna may look like the girls beside her, but her mannerisms mimicked mine. It was safe to infer that the way she relates to others, the values she holds, the standards of behavior she follows, have also largely been learned from me.
While Hanna was born in China and presumably has Chinese birthparents, she is being raised by an American family and in the American culture. We adopted her, but she has been daily adopting our attributes and perspectives.
I could take Hanna to Chinese cultural festivals and Mandarin lessons, buy her Chinese CDs, books and Nintendo games—all of which I have done—but Hanna would never be “Chinese” the way the children in the art room were.
I left the art class that summer day feeling self-conscious, somewhat defeated and oddly relieved. No matter how I tried, I’d never be able to give Hanna a true “culturally Chinese” upbringing. I called a friend.
“I am so not Chinese,” I sighed.
“I could have told you that, Blondie,” she laughed, but understood.
This was one of those challenges of being a multicultural family that I had heard about during the adoption process. You could say Hanna is like any kid in our neighborhood, and it would be true, and not true. Art class vividly revealed the cultural gap into which Hanna could fall—somewhere between Chinese and American. Where in there would she find her sense of belonging?
The art class turned out to be a good thing for Hanna, but also for me. She gleaned art and culture; I gained new understanding. Even though everyone was nice, I felt uncomfortable and out of place around so many people “not like me.” I had a glimpse of what my daughter may now or someday feel as an Asian girl surrounded by Caucasians, or as a child born in China and raised in America. Standing out in a world where we want to belong is no easy thing.
Hanna is seven. She knows the story of her birth and adoption and is proud of her Chinese heritage, but is only beginning to understand why it all matters to her. For now, I pull on the threads of her origins and weave them into her American life as best I can. I buy Chinese flashcards and make moon cakes and keep an eye out for cultural experiences. I stumble into art classes and trip gratefully over a culture so foreign to me, yet so a part of my daughter.
Still, I know my actions are stopgaps in a sense, efforts to keep the sparks of her heritage alive until Hanna is ready to discover and embrace her identity however she chooses. In the end, it is Hanna who must bridge any distance between where she came from, how she was raised and the life she will lead.
Stacy Clark, a mother via birth and adoption, is a contributing writer for The Next Family. She also writes The Yin and the Yang on http://www.Adoptivefamiliescircle.com and blogs about life in a multicultural, adoptive family at http://www.thissideoftheskies.blogspot.com.