When May joined our family, we had been parenting Chinese-born children for 9 years. I thought I understood Chinese culture. I was wrong.
I was surprised to find that, compared to our other children, May was so much more...Chinese. Bess and Ella were indistinguishable in behavior, temperament, and values from American-born children of American-born parents. Culturally, they were American kids with an awareness of their Chinese heritage. They celebrated Lunar New Year and ate mooncakes during the Autumn Moon Festival in much the same way that a child whose grandparents immigrated from Norway might celebrate Syttende Mai and eat lefse. China was in the background of their lives (though never far away), rather than at the forefront.
But May had been raised and schooled for 8 years in the People's Republic of China. She was in every way a traditional Chinese girl. She was extremely modest, preferring to bathe and dress herself. She was shocked by women on television showing great expanses of cleavage; she pointed at them and made faces to show me her disgust. Kissing scenes were also new to her -- you almost never see kissing in Chinese television and films -- and she covered her eyes during romantic scenes. She was generally obedient and did not speak to adults unless asked a direct question; even then, she often said what she thought the adults wanted to hear, and she spoke in a soft voice with downturned eyes. She loved girly, dressy clothes and wore jeans only if there were nothing else available. She did not understand why anyone would wait in line, and punched the buttons in the hotel elevator impatiently, as she had seen the adults do. She loved TV and believed that Tom & Jerry was a Chinese cartoon -- well, obviously, they spoke Mandarin!
May was also a modern Chinese girl. And that means that she was a C0mmunist. She revered Mao Zedong and Lei Feng. She saluted the Chinese flag and sang patriotic songs. She wore the red scarf of the Young Pioneers to school. Her formal education involved reading and writing Chinese, studying mathematics, and practicing art. She had no knowledge whatsoever of world geography. She had heard of Japan and the United States, but had no idea where they were located; she knew only that the two foreign countries had a better standard of living than China (that is, she had heard that everyone there was rich). She knew nothing of science, nothing of world history, and nothing of Chinese history prior to the Communist Revolution.
As a modern girl, she had never seen anyone wear a qipao besides waitresses at restaurants catering to tourists. And she had no sense of spirituality. She was vaguely aware of Guan Yin, and had seen statues of Buddha. But when we went to the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees in Guangzhou, she seemed to have no clue what to do with the incense sticks.
When we returned to the United States, we eased her into American ways as slowly as possible. At her insistence, we enrolled her in school fairly quickly. (She now denies that she was in any hurry to go to school, so this may have been an instance of her saying what she thought we wanted to hear.) But at home, she watched Mandarin-language videos and had Chinese books at her disposal. We let her choose her own clothes for the most part -- the more pink and sparkly, the better, as far as she was concerned. I offered rice, noodles, and vegetables at every meal. We didn't fuss over table manners, letting her learn by example, which she was eager to do.
Of course, over time she became acclimated. She learned, to her surprise, that Tom and Jerry spoke English and were invented here in America. She tried American foods one by one and decided which ones she really liked. She hung on to her Mandarin for a year or two, much longer than most children, but eventually she learned English. She has learned things about China and its history and leadership that she couldn't have learned in China, and she now has a more balanced view of both China and America.
But her character remains, in many ways, Chinese. She is much less likely to talk back than the other girls, and mutters under her breath when she has a beef with us. She tends to employ passive resistance rather than open defiance. She still speaks very softly. She loves fashion and makeup, and, though she wears jeans most of the time, they have to be skinny jeans in the latest wash, and she is always dressed to the nines; she never went through a tomboy phase. (If you have been to China recently, you know that young women there tend to dress up all the time rather than wearing sweatshirts and sneakers everywhere like American women.)
May has very high expectations for herself academically. As she explains it, in China, if you score less than 95%, you will earn a scolding; less than 90%, and your parents will slap you. She complains bitterly about her homework -- which, granted, is a bit more difficult for her than for native speakers -- but berates herself if she gets anything less than an A on an assignment. (She is still trying to fill the many holes in her world knowledge; I could fill another post with her school experiences, and plan to.) She gets straight A's, but she notes ruefully that she's the only Chinese kid at school not taking accelerated math or learning an instrument.
Socially, she knows and is friends with most of the Chinese-American kids at school, and she probably feels more comfortable with Asians. Her two best friends are a girl whose parents immigrated from Shanghai and a girl who was adopted from China at age 6. She has friends who are not Asian, but they're more casual friends. I can see May returning to China to live someday and being perfectly comfortable doing so (provided she has enough money to go shopping).
I am telling you this because I think it's important for prospective adoptive parents of older children to be aware that their new children's behavior, demeanor, and values may be more, and differently, "foreign" than they have anticipated. And they will likely remain Chinese at heart long after they have forgotten how to speak Chinese. (Or Korean, or Spanish, or Hindi, or Amharic, or Creole, as the case may be.) Their cultural and racial identity should be honored and not completely "Americanized" out of them -- an effort that would probably fail and frustrate both of you anyway.
And I think there is a message here for those of us who adopted infants. Even before May joined us, I had some nagging questions about how effectively and accurately we as adoptive parents are conveying "Chinese culture" to our children. Celebrating Chinese holidays, wearing qipaos and silk pyjamas, putting Chinese artwork on the walls and story books on the bookshelves -- there is nothing wrong with these observances, per se, and they certainly give our children more exposure to their birth culture than most of the Korean adoptees of the 1950s through 1970s received. But it's a sort of Epcot version of Chinese culture, a sanitized version that is stuck in the 19th century and pretends that the Communist Revolution never took place.
We tend to ignore the aspects of Chinese and Chinese-American culture that are alien to us as white Americans -- values such as filial piety, high academic achievement, a rigorous work ethic, sacrificing individual desires for the good of family and country. We buy silk fans and brocade slippers at the gift shops in Guangzhou and leave behind the Mao caps and propaganda posters. We celebrate the Autumn Moon Festival but not Learn From Lei Feng Day. We take our children to culture camp to make kites and sing traditional songs, but we don't, for the most part, sign them up for Saturday math classes and violin lessons or sacrifice our free time to prepare them for an Ivy League education.
This has always bothered me, and I think we do our children a disservice when we limit their view of Chinese culture to a two-dimensional cartoon. It would be confusing to hand our 3-year-olds copies of Mao's Little Red Book in place of New Year hong baos, but contemporary China should be represented at appropriate times in their upbringing, in a manner both truthful and respectful. Our children should have the chance to make a return visit to China at some point, but they also need opportunities to associate with other Asian Americans of all ages in this country.
As for the cultural values -- well, Big A and I do expect respect, academic achievement, and hard work from our children, but that's because we are old-school, not because our children are Chinese. (Though we joke that our parenting sometimes aligns better with that of Chinese-born parents than with some of our more indulgent American peers.) I'm not suggesting that we all try to turn our children into academic prodigies -- the long-term effects of institutionalization would make that difficult for many of our children anyway -- I just find it interesting that we resist enforcing the same high standards that our children's birth culture would likely have imposed on them.
For May, over time her "Chinese-ness" has become not an obstacle but an advantage. She fits in easily with the Chinese-American community. She has a strong sense of race, culture, and identity. Bess and Ella are more thoroughly assimilated, which means they have an easier time fitting into the dominant American culture, but they would have difficulty adapting to life in China or an exclusively Asian American community.
It is too soon for me to say whether this will be a liability for them. But I do believe that May's ability to smoothly negotiate her two cultures will, despite the challenges, be an asset for her in the future. And that, too, has been a surprise.