Dual Identity: Blending In & Standing Out

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Identity is a complicated topic. When traveling in their birth country, many kids are anxious to walk a few steps ahead or a few steps behind whoever they are traveling with to see what it feels like to blend in, to be “like everyone else.” For most, it is the first time in their lives where they have had the chance, and the call is somewhat frightening, but irresistible.

Kids tend to consciously factor in the language issue, sharing (usually afterward),“I thought that if I just didn’t talk to anyone, no one would know.” And for short periods of time, that works.

Despite being in a country where blending feels like an option (and to an extent, it is), the kids quickly pick up on the more subtle differences. Their inner self is saying, “Wait a minute, I STILL stand out?” Somehow they know they are not seen as 100 percent Chinese or 100 percent Guatemalan or 100 percent Kazak. Issues of dual identity become front and center.

Country after country, kids spend a lot of time saying things like “Am I Indian or am I American?” Or “Am I Russian or am I American?” Even in countries where race is not an issue, the dual identity conversation goes on, and it sounds like this, “Do you think it is because I can’t speak the language or is it more than that? Do I stand differently? Are my facial expressions different?” Taking a few steps, we’ll hear “Do I walk differently?”

And in unison we all ponder the complexities of fitting in but still feeling different.

It’s a struggle, but in the end, the struggle tends to bring people to a better understanding of themselves.

Lynelle Beveridge, founder of Inter-Country Adoptee Support Network and an adoptee who was raised in Australia, relates, “I think in many ways my journey as an adoptee has been all about incorporating these two worlds, and coming to accept and choose who I want to be and how I want to live.” Even at age 11, Andrew Abraham echoes the same sentiment, “I can be happy being adopted and I can have two families, two cultures and two homes.”

Some adoptees see dual identity in a different light. In talking with 23 year old Andrea Christensen, who traveled to her birth country when she was 18, she said, “Being adopted and having two cultures is really only a part of my identity. Being Asian has been more of an issue for me. People don’t look at me and immediately think I am adopted, but they do immediately know I’m Asian.” Racial identity is a huge topic, and one kids discuss a lot as they travel.

A homeland journey cannot take away the pain of teasing or prejudice kids have been the brunt of in their past. That will remain a part of who they were in their “yesterdays.” However, as kids get more comfortable with who they are, which a homeland journey can help with, it shifts who they become in their “tomorrows.”

I often think how wonderfully supportive it is that during this time, parents, siblings, spouses, grandparents and close friends, are often in the wings as a safety net, not really being able to fully understand the emotion that goes with it, but honoring those they love by giving them the opportunity to explore that part of themselves.

To learn about birth country travel to your (or your child’s) country of birth, find your country to get started.

Meeting Foster Families & Other Caregivers

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a blog meeting CMeeting foster families and other caregivers is often one of the most meaningful parts of your birth country journey. It is often a time filled with both anxiety and excitement. What will you say? What will you learn? What if there are awkward silences? Will she remember me? I want to tell her about my life and show her some pictures, but how will she understand? I’m not sure I want to do this, but at the same time, I REALLY want to do this! All common thoughts and emotions.

If you are a parent, it is a good idea to make sure your child understands the role of a caregivers, and who they is compared to a birth parent. Perhaps you have pictures you can share, or, if you traveled to pick up your child, you may have memories of meeting caregivers that can help your child get a feel for personalities. It would be a good idea as well to help your child understand that his/her caregiver may be different than you remember, or different in this setting. Time and age will have changed caregivers.

It would also be good to talk about the fact that a caregiver may agree to seeing you, but be unable to meet with you on the intended day. Or the opposite. You may be told the caregiver is not available, only to have the person be there after all. It is also possible that a caregiver cannot be located at all. Lots of unknowns as you make this journey.

We find that the people who have the most meaningful experiences are those who arrive with an open mind and heart, and enjoy each moment as it unfolds.

Here are some things to consider when meeting caregivers:
  • a blog meeting caregivers C 327 by 184Most discussion is done via a translator, which has pros and cons. On one hand, the conversation is slowed by translation, but it often gives you more of a chance to think. Having a translator also sometimes helps with the cultural differences, and can smooth out a conversation. On the flip side, the translator may not translate everything, or may not translate the intended emotion, which can be frustrating.
  • Some caregivers you meet are VERY emotional, want to stroke your child’s hair, hold your child’s hand, are tearful, or tearfully joyous. Some people you meet are the EXACT opposite —and not always because they are not feeling the emotion, but because they believe strong emotions would be too difficult for themselves or for you.
  • Many caregivers remember feeding infants and children with great joy, and they may want to hand feed the adoptee, showing him or her the depth of their love.
  • For adoptees who had medical issues or particular body “markings,” do not be surprised if a caregiver wants to check on the condition. For example, she may want to check on a scar she recalls, regardless of where the scar is. This too is an act of love.
  • Caregivers sometimes bring adoptees gifts, but not always. Be sure to be prepared either way. It would be very appropriate for you to have a gift for the caregiver, regardless of whether she can afford one for you.
  • It is almost always appropriate for you to bring a lightweight photo album showing pictures of your (or your child’s) life, along with translated captions, if possible. Remember this album is not about all your “stuff” but rather about your family, extended family, friends and pets.
  • Pictures also make great conversation starters, so always good to have some along. It would also help if you had a map showing where you live.
  • Spend some time learning about courtesy and culture in the country you are visiting. Do people open gifts when given or open them later? Are there any rules about giving even or odd numbers of things? Is one color ok and another not? Can you give the gift with one hand, or do you need to give with two hands? If one hand, which one? Who do you give gifts to first? Is there an order? Who do you thank and how? There are lots and lots of cultural issues around gift giving.
  • Once the conversation gets going, you are likely to be very overwhelmed. For that reason, we suggest you consider having someone designated as the note taker, picture taker,  and/or videographer, so that you can relax and enjoy the time.
  • You may have lots of questions. It is best to write them down, and try to weave them into the conversation naturally rather than going down your list.
  • We suggest you consider working out a private signal your adoptee can give you to let you know they are uncomfortable, and also one that tells you, “This is great. Let’s spend more time here if we can!”
  • Give some thought to whether you’d like to maintain contact. If you would, how could that work? Email, social media, apps like What’sApp, phone? Are these practical ideas that you and the caregiver are comfortable with?

Yes, lots to consider, but most importantly, we encourage you to remember this is a conversation between people who have a history together, who join together out of love for an adoptee who was once an infant or child in care. Let the things that may not be “quite right” go, and hold on to all the wonderful moments you are creating together.

If you would like to see what is possible in your (or your child’s) birth country in terms of meeting people related to your adoption, find your country, then scroll down to find the Possibilities for Adoption Visits link.

Belonging & Birth Country Travel

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Belonging. It’s a basic human need.Belonging and Adoption Homeland Travel

We all crave it, and many kids find it among their peers as they visit their birth country.

Remember Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs theory? If you’re a little rusty on that, here are the Cliff Notes. Maslow held that people must have basic needs like food, water, safety, BELONGING and self esteem met before they could achieve their individual potential.

In schools, for example, children who feel they belong have been noted to be happier, faster, more motivated learners. Research further shows that children who have a sense of belonging are less likely to experience a myriad of mental health issues.

Pretty much any way you look at it, “to fit into a group naturally” (Webster’s definition) is a good thing. Some of our kids do that well—finding common bonds related to interests, sports, and religion, among other things.

Some of our kids struggle with “belonging” even at the most basic level.

Kids who have been adopted internationally have an extra layer of belonging to incorporate into their lives. They often lack a sense of belonging that comes from being part of a community that shares a common race and/or ethnicity. Further, many kids do not have a family makeup that is the same as the majority of their peers.

So, how does a homeland journey help fill that gap?

By giving kids a community of peers where generally their sense of belonging is quick to take hold,
and seeped in profound meaning because the connection is based on the core being of each person.

The importance of kids sharing this experience with other adoptees and their families cannot be overstated. The kids quickly realize they have a community they can be part of if they choose—other international adoptees who share their experience of having a foot in two different worlds.

The entire piece of having-to-tell-the-whole-story pretty much dissolves as kids look around and find they are traveling with other kids who just “get it.”

“It was better to travel with other kids because they were all like me and could relate to the situation like I could,” said Gabrielle Istvan, who was 12 when she traveled. Emily Kurijian, age 20 remembered feeling “There were a lot of kids my same age and I learned that what I think and feel about my adoption is normal, and I am not alone.” And, fifteen-year-old Nicholas Brunson summed it up this way, “We came here as strangers and left as a family.”

As an added benefit, when it is time to board flights for the trip home, these strangers who have become family continue their relationships in some amazing ways. Holly Bressner writes “Our daughter keeps regular contact with her group of friends from the trip thanks to the wonders of Facebook and texting! They bonded like glue from the very beginning, in the airport while waiting for our flight! Last summer we even met three of the other Midwest families for a weekend and the kids picked up right where they left off!”

The Bressners are not alone. Over the years, I’ve been privy to hundreds of stories of gatherings of friends who found belonging while traveling. One family with three children told their kids they were going camping for a week at the end of the school year and each child could choose a friend to go. They each picked a Ties’ friend—each FROM A DIFFERENT STATE!!!

We’ve had kids attend each others graduations, music recitals, soccer games and tennis matches. We’ve had kids spend half the summer at one house, and half the summer at another. We’ve smiled as we receive emails that kids are standing up for each others weddings.

We often hear, “Wow! I am not alone. I have made friends that will last a lifetime. It feels so good to belong,”

Maslow is smiling, and so am I.

Complexities: What Age is the ‘Right’ Age?

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When is the “right time” to travel?  Parents wonder: do we wait until our child shows interest? Until our child is old enough to appreciate and remember the journey?

Or do we exercise our parental prerogative to make decisions we believe are in the best interest of our children?  As one workshop participant put it: “Should we treat it like eating vegetables?”

These are complicated questions.  We encourage parents to ask themselves:

  • At what age would I like my child to know that the people with whom she shares her heritage are warm, wonderful, genuine people?
  • At what age would I like to give my child the experiences and tools she needs to form a healthy identity, integrating the culture she was born into and the culture she lives in?

The answers to these questions will be different for every family and every child. They require significant thought and reflection about the purpose of the journey.

To gain other insight on this complex question, we invite you to read “What Age Is the Right Age?”

Over the years, this has been the #1 question we have been asked, and I often take time to ask families who have made the journey what they think. The answer is the same 99% of the time….most people think the age that THEIR kids traveled was the best age. And curiously, they are ALL right. The ‘right’ time to travel comes from a “heart message” that most families hear clearly after considering the full complexities of the question.