Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Culture Keeping

I just finished reading the book Culture Keeping: white mothers, international adoption, and the negotiation of family difference by Heather Jacobson.  And since no one here at my house has read it, I guess I will discuss it with myself.  There were some interesting parts, but it wasn't quite what I expected.  First off, it is very much a book by a sociologist written for sociologists.  To get to the interesting bits, you must be willing to slog through quite a bit of jargon... and quotes about how burdened women are by society's expectations that they raise their children.  But I won't go there right now. 

Also, the focus of the book was much narrower than I expected it to be.  The title makes it sound as though transracial international adoption would be discussed as a whole, but that is not quite the case.  The study centered on two groups of mothers, those who had adopted from Russia and those who had adopted from China, and looked at how each group kept culture for their children.  It was interesting to read how each group viewed both the necessity of culture keeping and how it played out in each of their lives.

I was more interested in the China adoptive mothers since their situation speaks more closely to that of my own.  I was struck by a couple of things.  (And here I want to point out that I am merely communicating the results of Ms. Jacobson's study... don't shoot the messenger.)  In this group of mothers, it would appear that they see culture as a commodity, that is, something to be bought or acquired or a class or lesson to be attended.  None of the women interviewed had any close friends who were Asian, and the only Chinese people they had contact with were a part of some type of economic exchange.  Also, none of the China adoptive mothers looked to immigrant Chinese raising first generation Americans to help inform them as they dealt with culture and what it means to their children to be an Asian minority living in an ethnically white majority.

The author does not give any type of criticism in her descriptions of how these various mothers kept culture.  (Well, except along the lines of what I mentioned in the first paragraph.)  And all of the mothers mentioned that on some level their culture keeping felt superficial or inauthentic.  I know I think about what it means to try to share and teach about a culture in which I have not grown up.  I don't want it to seem as though it is some game that I am playing.

I am not Vietnamese but I want my sons to know about the country of their birth and to feel a sense of pride in who they are.  I admit I am often stymied as to how best to do that.  What do others do?  How do you develop real friendships with people from you child's birth country?  More importantly, how do you go about it without making it seem as though the only reason you want to develop a friendship is because of someone's ethnicity?



LawMommy said...

This is one of the issues that I want to worry about, and yet somehow find myself looking at all the other things I have on my plate, and all the things that Lana needs, and I end up going...meh.

It is true that my interactions are largely economic and superficial, and my actual Asian friends are Japanese, not Vietnamese, and I don't even know how to go about making friends with a Vietnamese family, because that seems convoluted, too. Should I put an add in the paper, "seeking Vietnamese people for friendship"?

So...Lana's Cambodian pre-school teacher, and the woman I take her to so we can get our toenails painted...these are (or were, in terms of the pre-school teacher) economic relationships.

I feel inadequate about this. On the other hand...She's here, she's safe and loved and cared for, and you and I both know what would have happened if she had stayed in Da Nang...

So...I don't know what else to say. But I'm glad you read it and shared. :-)

Amy said...

We've been trying to make friends with Ugandans by attending events that the local Ugandan community holds- already we are running into cultural barriers- most of these events start at 10pm! Not exactly child appropriate. But we will keep going as it is our best shot of staying connected. It is super awkward and hard- we are usually the only Mzungus (white people), but I figure that just gives us a taste of how Tommy feels most of the time...

Jena said...

I echo Lawmommy's thoughts... this may sound somewhat "religious" but just curious, have you ever prayed for more organic friendships/Vietnamese relationships? Just curious, b/c I struggle with this issue as well, and as I was reading this, I can honestly say that I have never prayed and asked God for that.... now that would also require obedience when he provides... I have wanted to read that book as well, thanks for the "review"

sandwichinwi said...

Superficial here. I cook lots of Indian food. We go to Indian culture camp. We shop at the Indian grocery and eat at the Indian restaurant and the Indians there are very nice to us. They give the boys a pat. My husband has a little bit more opportunity (although he is LESS likely to make something of it) because he actually works for an Indian company (within his American company--outsourcing and all that) so has been having increasing interaction with Indian co-workers on a day to day basis. Still all very superficial.

I too struggle with how to make friends without seeming like we want it for who they are and for what we can gain from it.

Mostly, I just hope my son finds a nice also-internationally-adopted wife who will understand all his issues (and I do mean that in the sense that they will have lots in common, not that she will also be of color--I don't care what color his wife is. A white wife would be fine).

Thanks for sharing the review.

Anonymous said...

My thoughts jumped to where I live – Skokie. Our next door neighbor is Vietnamese, his wife Chinese. My kids play with their kids often. She tells me where to buy the kind of Asian food she serves that my kids love (H Mart – Oakton/Waukegan in Niles near Home Depot). On the other side of us there are two Korean girls that my kids play with as well.

We celebrate New Years Day with our Japanese neighbor hosting a party where all the neighbors come – Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, South African, Korean, Romania, Bulgaria & Filipino. We all bring food to share. This summer our 7 year old played daily with a Bulgarian girl who was visiting her aunt(who lives on our block) for the summer. She only spoke Bulgarian and my daughter only English – but they figured it out.

One of my favorite memories is when my first grader was invited to a play date by the father (Indian family – he made the plans for the family). We ended up staying for 6 hours and I still felt like they thought we left early. The wife was so excited to show me the Bollywood movies she had on tape.

In our kid’s school, there are over 60 native languages spoken. Most of our friends at school are of different cultures. International night at school is huge – with lots of good food. Festival of Cultures in Skokie –each May is a good event too.

I will keep my eyes open for event to invite you too. I love your house – but if in the future you do have to move – consider Skokie.
- EL

mrsbroccoliguy said...

I'm frustrated because we had this good friendship going with our Vietnamese-American neighbors but somehow in the last 6-12 months it has faded away. Their daughter (who is R's age) transferred to the gifted magnet so the girls almost never see each other. The son just doesn't seem to really enjoy Zeeb's company. After a while it felt like I was pushing too hard. But now we're back to just superficial cultural contact and that bums me out.

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