Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?
Culture Keeping: White Mothers, International Adoption, and the Negotiation of Family Difference
By Heather Jacobson
Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008, 212 pp., $22.95, paperback
By Mei-Ling Hopgood
Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2009, 256 pp., $23.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Martha Nichols
At the end of 2008, my family visited Vietnam. It was our first trip back to the country since 2002, when my husband Rob and I adopted our son Nicholas. By our last night in Ho Chi Minh City, we’d spent a day with a Vietnamese-American friend’s family. We’d attended a 300-plus-guest wedding, the bride in a very Western wedding dress, female relatives in gorgeous silk áo dài (traditional Vietnamese fitted gowns), male guests wearing everything from suit-and-tie to Dockers. We’d ground through gridlock traffic in a taxi after Vietnam won a soccer match against Thailand, swarmed by cheering men on motor scooters, and kids banging pots and pans and waving Vietnamese flags.
It was eighty degrees that night. The lights and noise in the street were exhilarating. All Nick wanted to do was go back to our hotel.
Like so many parents who have adopted internationally, we are dedicated to what sociologist Heather Jacobson calls “culture keeping.” When Rob was invited to a conference in Hanoi, we grabbed the chance to take our son to his birth country. I began studying Vietnamese intensively and hired a tutor to help Nicholas learn phrases like “Em tên là Nicholas Hiệp. Em sáu tuổi.” (“My name is Nicholas Hiệp. I am six years old.”) He resisted, but I thought he’d get over it, and that the language would click.
It didn’t. In Vietnam, Nicholas alternated between clingy whininess and a manic whirl of kung-fu punches on the streets. Since 2002, Vietnam has changed and will keep changing—and so has Nicholas, who loved the art-deco elevator in Saigon’s Hotel Majestic but also begged for the Disney Channel, as if he needed to mainline America.
It’s a complicated endeavor, helping a child to live comfortably in his own skin. You push the áo dài and spring rolls; your boy pushes back. As Jacobson affirms in Culture Keeping, honoring a child’s birth culture has become an article of faith among the many middle-class white parents who have adopted internationally. Not doing enough of this is a taboo, she writes, on the order of not revealing the fact of an adoption to a child. Yet her research, memoirs by adoptees, such as Mei-Ling Hopgood’s Lucky Girl, and my own experiences have led me to question much of the advice about culture keeping, even as I embrace the good sense in some of it.
I’m especially troubled by the notion of culture as a fixed ideal—as seemingly “primordial” as genetic inheritance, Jacobson astutely notes—especially when it’s conflated with race. White parents promoting their Chinese daughters’ birth culture, for example, with traditional dance lessons or gatherings with other white adoptive families are indeed creating culture—but what they come up with may have little to do with contemporary China or with growing up Asian in the US.
Nicholas did adjust to Vietnam, of course. He enjoyed riding in a cyclo around Hanoi’s old quarter; he was tickled by the sight of a toilet strapped to the back of a racing scooter. Back home in Cambridge, he sometimes wants me to call him Hiệp, not Nicholas or Nick—but he hasn’t yet asked his friends to use his Vietnamese name. The trip was worthwhile, but it didn’t give him an instant cultural transfusion.
Our family teeters under the balancing act reported by many mothers in Culture Keeping. We go to adoptive-family potlucks at our son’s Quaker school (where most of the parents are white and the kids Asian). We celebrate Tết, the lunar new year, sometimes with Vietnamese Americans, sometimes not. When people ask why we adopted a child from Vietnam, we often say we have an affinity for Asian culture. Learning Vietnamese and visiting Vietnam have enriched our lives. Yet I suspect Nicholas feels the culture we keep is more ours than his
Jacobson’s research is based on interviews she conducted with forty international adoptive families in New England post-2000. She limited her study to those who had adopted children from either China or Russia in the 1990s. She is sympathetic to adoptive families but brings an objective eye to the debate. Jacobson lays out the conflicts inherent in culture keeping by whites, examining what exactly their practices are and how they reflect contemporary American ideas about race and family.
Her interviewees—mostly middle-class, middle-aged, and well-educated—are quite self-aware. Yet they reveal a fascinating array of unconscious attitudes in their anecdotes about family life. This alone makes Culture Keeping a must-read for all adoptive parents. At times, the moms seem to be parroting the latest advice from Adoptive Families magazine, and Jacobson doesn’t seem to cotton on. Still, her comparison of China- and Russia-adoptive families illuminates what a hot button race is, and her observations about the rationalizations of white parents are perceptive.
Because Russian adoptees are usually white, for example, Russia-adoptive mothers in this sample generally did not engage in the kinds of public celebrations of culture that the China-adoptive moms did. Parent Myra Stockdale says she chose Russia because she believed “the assimilation process would be easier both for the child and for myself…. You know, I’m white. That’s who I am.”
Call this honest or an excuse, few of these Russia-adoptive moms felt forced into culture keeping because their children were obviously different in the eyes of the world. Roberta Palmer puts it this way: “How important is it on a daily basis? Let’s just be a family.” And Carol Acher tells Jacobson she wants her daughter to ask about Russia, “but we’re not going to hang a Russian flag out in front of our home either.”
In contrast, the China-adoptive moms worry about everything: not doing enough, doing too much, not doing it right. “[Our daughter] takes Chinese dance on Saturdays so she can’t do Shabbat or go to Hebrew school…,” says Rachel Abramson. “So, do we do Chinese? Do we do Jewish? Is it too hard to do both?”
The anxiety expressed by China-adoptive moms in Culture Keeping sometimes sounds like a manifestation of helicopter parenting, but there’s more going on than overinvolvement. Shannon Lynch says of her daughters,
I don’t want them to think that they’re so different. We’re a family. We’re a family that came together under different circumstances than other families. But a lot of times in a kid’s mind ‘different’ is ‘bad’ and I don’t want them to ever get that connotation.
But a child of color in a white family is undeniably different. This creates cognitive dissonance for white parents, which I think of as “living the tension” rather than as something that interferes with family life. Biological parents of color—and Asian Americans in particular—are obvious inside sources about living in a racist society, yet one of the most striking findings of Culture Keeping is how seldom the adoptive mothers sought out such connections. “These women desired to move effortlessly between their immediate social world (largely white),” Jacobson notes, “and their intentionally created Chinese world…. ‘Authentic culture,’ however, was challenging.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that adoptive mothers instead befriended other adoptive families. It’s uncomfortable to feel like an outsider all the time. For single mothers especially, plugging into a network of families like their own provides the equivalent of extended family. Chinese adoptees often refer to each other as “cousins,” Jacobson observes.
Yet she also rightly points out that the definition of culture for both China- and Russia-adoptive families is mostly limited to what’s accessible to outsiders: “food, holidays, toys, knick-knacks, and books”—dim sum and matryoshka dolls. A growing culture-keeping industry is happy to part adoptive parents from their money; one mom calls it “white women playing Chinese.”
When cultural identity is essentialized and sold in this way, Jacobson suggests, it allows white parents to focus on “culture” rather than a child’s race. This can be damning for all of us white progressives who have adopted Asian kids—Asians being the “safe” or “acceptable” racial minority. Jacobson’s sharpest analysis comes in her discussion of the ways in which parental rationalizations for adopting an Asian child are often code for “not African American.” As she argues, however boundary-crossing it may be for a white family to adopt a Chinese baby, the growing social acceptability of this choice illustrates an uneasy truce about race in this country, not a giant leap forward.
Her China-adoptive moms talk about culture keeping as a way to promote self-esteem in their children and as a defense against racism. But they distinguish between their “Chinese girls” and Chinese Americans born in the US. Some look to recent immigrants to teach their children an idealized version of Chinese culture, but few appear to think that assimilated Asian Americans—with their long history of both maintaining and shucking off cultural traditions—have anything useful to offer.
Their lack of Asian American friends or cultural context doesn’t match my own experience. Jacobson refers to ethnic and racial relationships as “historically strained” in New England—and she’s right. But while my husband and I have fewer Asian friends in the Boston area than we did when we lived in California, we have focused on making Vietnamese-American connections. It’s not easy forging these alliances, but they feel like the real deal for my son. These enthusiastic Americans know what they’ve lost in Vietnam and what they’ve gained in the United States. They all long for their mother’s cooking—gỏi cuốn, bánh chưng, phở—harshly judging local Vietnamese restaurants. They honor the traditions of Tết, the Vietnamese holiday, but sometimes don’t fly to other cities to join their families. Too much trouble.
In Lucky Girl, Mei-Ling Hopgood describes her “surreal” reunion with her birth family: March 1997, her first night in Taiwan after 22 years in the United States. Hopgood’s new-found relatives stuff her with dumplings, laughing at her use of chopsticks. Her birthmother (Ma) sits quietly beside her, unable to say a word in English. One of Hopgood’s seven sisters gives her a tea set, another a jade necklace. Her birthfather (Ba) presses on her an envelope of dollars to cover the plane ticket. Min-Wei, her younger sister, asks if she likes karaoke—something Hopgood says she couldn’t imagine doing “unless good and buzzed.” Min-Wei rattles on about her Australian boyfriend winning a contest by singing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
“Ba sat on the corner of the couch,” Hopgood writes, “observing and hovering. He wanted badly to speak with me, to ask me questions, to tell me what to do as he did to everyone else. Little did I know what a blessing it was not to understand.”
Hopgood, a journalist who grew up outside Detroit, is by turns wry and insightful about the many twists her search for identity took once she encountered her birth family. Lucky Girl is wonderfully readable, even if the page-turning pace founders a bit in the latter half. Hopgood’s emotional response to events is complex. At times her tone is too breezy, but that’s a quibble in an unusual adoption memoir that brings to life a whole birth family. There are a lot of warts here, but there is also the joy of reconnecting with a pack of sisters (another of whom was also adopted, by a Swiss family) and of validating parts of herself that she’d never recognized in white, middle America.
Soon the generation of American girls adopted from China in the 1990s will begin voicing their own opinions. In fact, they already have. In Mei, a magazine that targets Chinese tween adoptees, “Tone Deaf”’s request for advice is typical: her aunt the music teacher keeps pushing her to choose a musical instrument. “She has never said this, but I think it is because I was born in China. The reason I think this is true is because she is always saying that Asian people are musical. That doesn’t mean that I am,” “Tone-Deaf” says.
For now, Lucky Girl offers a peek into what it’s like to negotiate across such boundaries, and why birth cultures can’t be reduced to stereotypes. While Hopgood lustily grabs the food and exuberance of Taiwan, she also resists its traditional strictures. Her reaction to her birth family and its tangled history illustrates how being brought up American profoundly shapes identity.
Hopgood speaks of her adoptive parents with great fondness, although there was little culture keeping on the family agenda (her two brothers are Korean adoptees). In 1995, when she was first contacted by the nun who had arranged her adoption years before, Hopgood wondered why she should dwell on the past. “As soon as I was poured into the arms of Rollie and Chris Hopgood one April afternoon in 1974, these two midwestern teachers became my real family,” she says.
“Real” is a loaded term in the adoption community; you’re supposed to emphasize that both adoptive and birth families are real. Yet in Lucky Girl, Hopgood makes clear that “real” comes from the gut, not the intellect. As the reunion with her birth family approached, her American parents were supportive, and she tried not to hurt them. “For a long time, I tried to avoid calling my Chinese parents ‘my’ parents,” she writes. “I referred to them as ‘the’ parents, ‘the’ father, and ‘the’ mother. Sometimes I slipped.”
Because of the language barrier, Hopgood learned her birth mother’s story from her sisters and the nun, Sister Maureen. When Sister Maureen first met Hopgood as an adult, she told her, “Your mother loved you, Mei-Ling. She didn’t want to give you up.” Hopgood writes of her own tearful response: “A surprising wave of sadness and relief washed over me. Maureen had just offered an answer to a question I never had dared to ask. She didn’t want to.”
Over time, Hopgood unraveled some of the reasons why Ma bowed to Ba’s pressure to relinquish her. He had hoped for another son instead. (The family had adopted a boy just months before Hopgood was born.) Yet the question is never really resolved. She found Ba increasingly unsympathetic. Hopgood confronted her sisters a number of times about Ma’s passivity, which in turn had them defending their mother as a “traditional woman.” It’s an answer Hopgood the American can tolerate only with effort.
Ten years after the first reunion, Hopgood went on a tour to mainland China with Ma and Min-Wei, hoping to bond with their birthmother. But the tour was dispiriting. Only in rare moments, Hopgood says, could she get under this sad woman’s facade. While in a hotel room together in Yangshou, for example, Min-Wei was packing and their mother lay on the bed. Then Ma started chanting, “‘We are going to China, China is our home.’” Min-Wei laughed and translated for Hopgood.
“I do that,” Hopgood writes of her sudden sense of connection. “I often make up random, silly songs and sing the to my husband or my dog. I do that, too.”
These days, Nicholas ticks off his five “cultures” on his fingers: American, Quaker, Vietnamese, adoptive, and “China, because I want to learn Chinese like Jackie Chan.” Tonight at dinner, after I’d exclaimed “Thank God!” as part of a story about my day, Nick told me, “You should say ‘Thank Buddha.’ You’re not respecting my culture.”
Nick “Hiệp” is clearly ready to take control of finding his cultural way. Maybe I’ll push the Vietnamese-language tutor on him again in the future; the adult Vietnamese adoptees I’ve met have all said they wish they’d learned the language as children. Language encodes values and ways of thinking, and not being able to communicate, as both Jacobson and Hopgood point out, keeps cultural barriers in place.
For the moment, however, we’re letting most of Nick’s language lessons go. I’m the one who keeps studying Vietnamese, even if my tortured attempts to speak it during our two-week trip mostly had me bargaining with street peddlers. It’s a healthy reminder of what it means to be outside looking in. I do it, I say to my oh-so-American son, because it’s my thing.
Martha Nichols is a freelance writer and editor. A former associate editor at the Harvard Business Review and Women's Review of Books, she has published in HBR, Utne Reader, and Brain, Child, among other journals. She is a long-time reporter for Youth Today, a national newspaper on youth services, and an instructor in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and son.