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Cultural Gatherings - What Do Our Kids Think?

by Christina Goldstone

When my husband, nine year old daughter Marcy, and I adopted our daughter Daniela from Romania in 1991, we were stationed at a small military base in the Netherlands. Daniela was fifteen months old when we adopted her, but in reality, she had the skills of a five month old. For the first year, we were busy trying to help her recover from the effects of institutionalization. Though I kept close ties with friends I made in Romania and had become enchanted by the Romanian culture while I was there, reinforcing Daniela's ties to her cultural heritage was not, at that time, much of a consideration.

When we moved back to the U.S. two years later, I began to hear about newsletters, support groups, and events initiated by families who had also adopted from Romania. (It was rather amazing - the connections we made back then, before the age of the internet!) Because most of our kids were still small and many had developmental issues, the main focus of our connection was not directed to our children's cultural awareness. While there was some sharing of Romanian recipes and seeds of interest about our children's heritage, we mostly gathered for support and to share the latest new research about the challenges of raising children who had been institutionalized.

Time went by and our children grew older. Many still had challenges and, like Daniela, always will. But most were beginning to have an awareness of their cultural heritage, depending on how openly their families had shared it with them. As the children could participate and understand more about their heritage, the focus of the gatherings shifted. Through the Romanian Embassy's annual Christmas parties, biannual national reunions and smaller regional and local events, many families and children began to embrace the Romanian culture and make it part of their lives. It definitely became part of ours. I never really questioned if this was something Daniela might want to do. She is a very social person for whom life is one big party. She loves making new friends - no matter where they are from. It just seemed like the natural progression of our life, as a family created by international adoption.

Across the US, and in other countries, families with children adopted internationally, enjoy these types of gatherings. The customs and nationalities differ, but each pulses with the colorful native costumes, vibrant music and dancing, and unique cuisines of the birth countries involved. Our children's cultures blend with our own customs. We have a rare opportunity to help our children learn and share more about their heritage; to understand, and be proud of where they were born. Besides - it's just plain fun!

This year, I've had the opportunity to help in the planning of the upcoming National Reunion of Children Adopted from Romania (to be held in Williamsburg, Virginia this summer). I attended the last one, with Daniela, in Colorado two years ago. We had a wonderful time, seeing old friends and meeting new ones. Daniela especially enjoyed the Romanian dancers, the heritage camp, (and going to the top of Pikes Peak!).

We are very fortunate this time around to have the support and participation of the Romanian Embassy. The Ambassador, his wife, and the Embassy staff seem to enjoy meeting our children as much as we enjoy meeting them. These types of gatherings are a wonderful way to show our children's birth country that we value the rich culture of our children's homeland; that it's important for us that our children understand who they are and where they came from. Just as important, we can also show them just how cherished our children are.

As we plan these varying events, we have to take into consideration that many of the children are now entering their teens. They might not be as thrilled to go to this type of event as they were just a year before. We need to work hard to make sure that we consider their feelings about attending these types of activities and that there are activities to suit them and their interests.

When the editor of Adoption Today wrote to me, asking if I'd be interested in writing an article for this special issue of the magazine, I was pleased to have the opportunity. I hoped researching the article would help me, and anyone planning cultural events for our children, to gain a better insight into what is important to them. If we know our kid's opinions about these events, we can better gauge what it will take to make them a success for everyone.

I decided to ask young people, adopted from different countries, how they feel about such events. Most of the respondents were adopted from Romania like Daniela, because these are the children I have come to know. I was fortunate to get some responses from others as well. I sent out a short questionnaire asking questions about their feelings on attending such gatherings. I told them they could answer as few or as many questions as they liked. I gave them the option of being quoted or staying anonymous. I knew I wouldn't get a truly accurate picture from my very small survey, but each child who answered has a valid opinion and I thought they did a wonderful job of expressing themselves.

The Survey

My first question asked what each young person enjoyed most about attending events with other children from their birth country. Xander Schell-Frank, adopted from Romania said, "It makes me feel good that I am not the only kid that has come from a different part of the world...I don't feel so alone, so that just gives me a better feeling about myself."

Janelle Price was adopted from Haiti. She said this about attending an event with other children from her birth country - "Everyone knew I was adopted from Haiti, so I didn't have to answer any questions about being adopted and looking different from my family."

Leo Futia, adopted from India, put it this way - "I enjoy going there and hanging out with my friends and learning a little bit more about my culture."

My second question asked what they didn't enjoy at such events. Dan Stauffer, also adopted from Romania, offered this insight - "Sometimes the ages of the children. I would rather hang out with children my age. Sometimes it is just talking in groups. I like doing activities better." Most did not like anything that seemed like lectures - or drawn out speeches by adults.

My next question dealt with the activities planned at these cultural gatherings. Did the kids feel some of the activities were too babyish, or just plain silly? The young adults who answered were almost universal in answering this question. "Yes"

Hannah Flynn, adopted from Romania , said it well - "Yes, I like the arts and crafts, but some of the games are lame and stupid." Almost all the kids expressed that they liked it better when activities were divided by age groups with special activities planned for the teenage crowd.

When I asked if they felt obligated to go to these events, no one felt their parents made them attend. They all said they enjoyed going. I did get a number of responses from parents, saying their children weren't interested in attending any events tied to their birth country at the present time - and that they were respecting their wishes. It was good to hear that their families were letting them take the lead on this issue. Some expressed that they will continue to present opportunities when they can, and hope their children will have more desire to appreciate their cultural heritage in the future. Children who are adopted at an older age and have clear memories of their birth country, clearly might feel more hesitant to stir old up those memories, especially if they were unpleasant ones.

I next asked what kinds of activities the older kids would like to have at the events. Many expressed a desire to learn more crafts from their country and to learn traditional music and dancing. Some wanted more non-cultural activities included, such as water games and sports related activities, including soccer or horseback riding (ah - the love of every adolescent girl!). Hands on activities, not demonstrations seem to be the most popular.

When I asked about making new friends at these events, and whether they stayed in touch, I got these answers - Emmy Sharf, adopted from Romania, said, "Yes! I e-mail them." (and she does - she and my daughter Daniela met several years ago at the Christmas party held annually at the Romanian Embassy. They have become good friends who now stay in touch by e-mail and hope to get together this summer.) E-mail seems to help lots of children to stay connected to each other. Dan Stauffer says, "I make new friends everywhere I go." Others do not stay in touch, but instantly renew their friendships when they reconnect at different events.

When asked if having the same cultural background made it easier to become friends, some thought it did. Others weren't sure. My astute young friend Hannah Flynn, made this observation - "Some kids have big problems (issues) and it is not easier to become friends with them." As children become teenagers, making friends is a complicated issue, even if they do share a cultural heritage.

I asked the respondents if they kept this part of their life separate from their everyday life, or if they shared it with their friends at home. Leo Futia said, "I keep these cultural events separate from my everyday life." Emmy Sharf shares this part of her life , "because I think it is special." Janelle Price had this to say" I tell my friends at home, at school, and church. I have pictures in my life book. One of my friends, Joey - he was born and adopted in America - always wants to go because it sounds so fun. I tell he has to be from Haiti or live in a family that has a child from Haiti."

At the end of the list of questions, I asked them to write anything else they would like to say about attending cultural activities and events. Elena Bennett, adopted from Romania, said this. "I wish everyone would go. We only got born somewhere else, but our Moms are our Moms now. My mama is making a table for the international fair in two weeks, and I can't wait to help." Leo Futia stated, "They are fun and if anyone who is adopted from India wants to go to a culture camp, they must go to SPICE for lots of fun and great friends." Dan Stauffer kindly said, "I think it's a good thing you asked these me these questions. Thanks again."

My thanks go to you Dan, and to all the kids and families who took the time to answer, and especially to those who let me quote them and use their names in the article.

Giving our children an opportunity to learn more about their cultural identity is a decision each family has to make for themselves. There are certainly many benefits for the kids and for the rest of the family. But we must keep in mind (me included) that they should have the right to express their reservations about going. Just because they refuse to attend anything this year, doesn't mean they won't be thrilled to go next year, or vice versa. Giving our children a say in planning cultural events, will give the events much more of a chance of being a great time for everyone involved.

I thought I would give my daughter Daniela the last word in this article - to say how she feels about the subject. When I asked her what she enjoys most when we go to Romanian events, she said "I just love everything - the food, the dancers, the crafts. But, most of all, I love seeing my friends."