Bicultural Kids

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When Brian and Cheryl Boyd were first looking into adopting children from South Korea, a counselor at the Children's Home Society of Minnesota warned the couple that if they chose to raise a child from Korea, "you will no longer be Americans. You will be Korean Americans." The Boyds took the leap and became the proud parents of daughters Sarah, 14, and Anna, 11. Their home is filled with Korean art and artifacts, they have traveled to South Korea several times, Sarah takes part in a local Korean dance troupe with other adopted kids, and both girls attend "culture camp"--a weeklong summer camp in Wisconsin where young Korean adoptees learn about their native culture, food and music. "Maybe we've gone a little overboard, but we feel we didn't have much of a choice," says Brian, 52. "We wanted our girls to feel connected to their birthright."

There was a time when families who adopted children from a different ethnic or racial group were advised to cut ties to the past and assimilate the youngsters as completely as possible. Today adoption advocates agree that embracing the birth culture of these children is vital for parents raising kids from a race or culture other than their own. "When you raise a child of another race, you need to realize that you become an interracial family and to make use of every possible resource you can find to integrate with your child's birth culture," says Cheri Register, author of Are Those Kids Yours? Raising Children Adopted from Other Countries (Free Press).


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Experts on bicultural adoptions have learned such lessons from years of experience. Susan Soon-keum Cox, 50, who works for Holt International, the oldest overseas-adoption agency in the U.S. and the organization that arranged her own adoption from South Korea in 1956, learned them firsthand. She was adopted by Oregon dairy farmers Marvin and Jane Gourley in the earliest wave of babies brought into American homes and hearts after the Korean War. The Gourleys dealt with their daughter's Asian identity in a way that reflected the thinking of the time: they loved her unconditionally and encouraged her to be a good American. Yet as Cox grew up in tiny Brownsville, Ore., questions of identity and race were always simmering just beneath the surface of her all-American childhood. A look in the mirror told Cox that she was different from her parents and three of her siblings (a younger brother was also adopted from South Korea), and childhood experiences emphasized the racial isolation from her loving family she sometimes felt. "In any new situation, I felt I always had to explain who I was and where I was from," she recalls.

It was the steady flow of orphaned and abandoned Korean children like Cox, adopted into American homes in the 1950s, that started the trend of transracial adoptions here. The numbers have jumped since then: according to ins records, in 2001 more than 19,000 children from other countries — a figure that has tripled over the past five years — were adopted into American families. And since legislation passed in 1995 dictating that adoption from the foster-care system be color-blind, interest in transracial adoption has also boomed.

David Glotzer, 53, an investment adviser, and Charlotte Meyer, 49, an emergency-room nurse, didn't set out to cross the color line to become parents, but they didn't hesitate to do so when given the opportunity to adopt Aaron, now 11. Daughter Hannah, 7, followed. Both children are African American, but Glotzer, who is Jewish and from New York City, and Meyer, a Catholic who grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., say their family deals with racial boundaries daily. Meyer had to take a class to learn how to braid and care for her daughter's hair properly, and Glotzer sits on the board of PACT, the nonprofit agency based in San Francisco that helped arrange their kids' adoptions. Glotzer and Meyer also decided to live only in racially integrated neighborhoods in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif. They turned down a chance to move to New England, where they doubted they would be able to find a similarly diverse community. "We have made major life choices about where to live and who our friends are in order to create an environment for our children that's right for them," Glotzer says. "We want them to have lots of black role models and to be around lots of people who look like them. I will never be black, as they are. And they will never be white, like us. But we can all go back and forth between the two worlds."

There is, of course, the danger of trying too hard. Cautions author Cheri Register: "Parents shouldn't make a fetish out of the whole thing. Some people overload on cultural traditions without really knowing what they're about." The trick, the experts say, is to expose kids to their birth culture while keeping in mind that interests may change as the children grow. Andrew James Marco Nelson, 15, and dad Jim went to Peru last year for Andrew's first visit to his birth country. "It was amazing," he says. "I loved the colorful art everywhere, and I liked seeing people on the street who looked like me." Now he is taking Spanish lessons back home in Ann Arbor, Mich., and has worked as a counselor at a Latin American-culture camp for adopted kids. Andrew's sister Malia, 11, was adopted from Bolivia. "We hadn't spent time in Latin America before the kids, but our children have brought us into this culture, and it is part of us," says their mother Kathi.

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