Transracial adoption has its challenges
- FAMILY LIFE
Transracial adoption has its challenges
March 12, 2010
Jinoo Muther is 19, an age marked for most by the first wobbly steps
into adulthood and the search for identity that comes with them.
But for Muther, who buses tables at a Lebanese restaurant and takes
hip-hop dance lessons, that search is complicated by the fact that he
was transracially adopted and, as adolescence comes to an end, he
finds himself wanting to reconnect with his Korean roots.
Muther was born in Seoul, where the first year of his life unfolded
like a sepia-toned movie: he was born with a tumour on his neck,
blocking his airway. He ended up in an adoption agency with other
children with "ailments," where he was given a tracheotomy.
He captured the heart of the Swedish doctor who took care of him. That
doctor and her American husband would become his adoptive parents.
Muther's family was incredibly diverse. His parents had one "homemade"
son, a son adopted from Vietnam and a daughter from Guatemala. They
lived in South Korea until Muther was 4, when they adopted another
little girl and moved to Hong Kong. They arrived in Toronto when
Muther was 11.
Last summer, Muther, his younger sister and his parents went back to
that adoption agency in Seoul, where Muther learned that his birth
mother was alive but "mentally incapable" of taking care of herself
and living in a shelter. She had other children – his siblings.
Emotions hit Muther in a tangle of happiness, sadness and anger.
"I was just so blown away, I kind of just sat there, blank-faced,
trying to hold back," he says. "My sister was next to me. She said,
`Are you OK?' I didn't answer."
The trip – which his father helped organize for the Korean Canadian
Children's Association and which included almost a dozen other Korean
adoptees – changed things for Muther. Before, he didn't think anybody
would understand or relate to his questions as a transracial adoptee,
so he "kept a lot in." As a kid, he didn't tell his parents when his
classmates at school made racial jokes or comments.
"I don't think they would understand it, personally," he says. "I
don't think they would have ever really gone through it, at all."
But after returning to South Korea and bonding with the other adoptees
on the trip, that is starting to change. Sitting in a Tim Hortons on
Yonge St. near Eglinton Ave., Muther says he wants to learn Korean and
go back to Seoul. He hopes to meet his birth mother.
The scarf draped around his neck doesn't hide his deep tracheotomy
scar – a reminder, he says, of where he came from. These days, he does
want to talk about it.
Voices like Muther's illuminate the complexities of international
adoption, the importance of motherland trips and cultural kinship, and
the fact that racism exists.
And so, as foreign babies continue to be placed in the arms of
Canadians, the adoptive parents are increasingly warned that love
alone will not be enough.
Sandra Scarth, president of the Adoption Council of Canada, says the
way parents raise a child of a different race or culture has changed
Adult adoptees are speaking up as they come of age, she says. Their
message: "We had great families, we knew they were supportive. But we
had to deal with this identity thing pretty much on our own."
Some, like Ola Zuri, were adopted within Canada but across racial and
cultural lines. Zuri and her twin are black but their adoptive parents
are white. Adopted as 2-year-olds in 1968, Zuri says she has since
been told by their adoption agency that her family was one of the
first transracial adoptive families in Canada.
That, she says, made them guinea pigs. For example, she says, her
mother lacked the tools and support to cope when Zuri came home from
her Calgary school and said other kids didn't want to play with her
because she was "dirty."
Now 43, Zuri is trying to help empower children adopted transracially
by writing a series of books, including Why Can't You Look Like Me?
and Where Do I Belong?
Jeannine Carrière, a professor in the School of Social Work at the
University of Victoria, is working to improve a B.C. policy that
requires parents who adopt aboriginal children to develop a cultural
plan to help adoptees stay connected to their roots.
Carrière is Métis and was adopted by a French-Canadian family in
Manitoba just after the '60s scoop, when aboriginal children were
taken from their homes and adopted.
She had been told that her birth family was dead. When she was 12, she
learned that was not the case when her biological sister came looking
The B.C. cultural plan is a commitment to preserve children's cultural
knowledge: their language, spiritual practices and ceremonies, and
their connections to elders and, ideally, their birth family. Carrière
has found inconsistencies in the way the plans are implemented and
thinks improvements will give the children confidence to cope with
racism when they encounter it.
In the GTA, another groundbreaking project is underway. With funding
from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, social worker Susan Crawford is
trying to better prepare parents for the challenges they will face
when raising a child adopted transracially.
Through the Halton Multicultural Council in Oakville, she has
developed a 10-hour course that challenges prospective parents to
answer some very difficult questions.
Many parents are already very prepared. They do research, connect with
other parents, have diverse social circles and believe it's important
for their kids to have role models who reflect who they are. But
others may not even be familiar with the concept of white privilege or
realize that racism exists, even in multicultural Canada.
"There has to be a concentrated effort," Crawford says. "How are we
going to ensure that our child doesn't feel as though they stand out,
doesn't feel as though they are less than, doesn't feel as though our
family is in any way inferior?"
Most important, parents have to understand that raising a child of a
different race will be lifelong work, she says. They have to look deep
inside themselves to make sure they are up for the challenge.
"Because there are going to be so many learning pieces and challenges
that you may face and experiences that your child may have and you're
going to have to walk along with your child and sometimes say,
`There's nothing I can do to help you.'"
Kelly and Chris, a Burlington couple who did not want their last names
used, already had two biological sons when they adopted Grace from
Ethiopia three years ago.
Every day, they find subtle ways to talk about Ethiopia and Grace's
history with all three of the kids, discussing, for example, how the
lone Ethiopian Olympian in at the Vancouver Games trained in such a
Kelly says Grace will always be Ethiopian first, and then Canadian.
"We just can never forget that one piece, that she has an entire
history that we have to teach her about. Her roots, her country,
everything that's happened is a part of her and now part of us, which
is very exciting, because it's part of our family now, too."
Only 3, Grace is starting to understand. She knows she was a baby in
Ethiopia and that her "tummy mommy" still lives there. When a visitor
was at their house before a trip to Ethiopia recently, Grace went into
the kitchen, got a packet of hot chocolate, and said, "You take this
to my tummy mommy for me?"
When she watched the The Princess and the Frog, in which the princess
is black, Kelly recalls Grace saying, "That princess is just like me,
"So she is starting to see," Kelly says. "And I love that. I want her
to be a confident black woman; that's what she is."
The Making of a Family: An adoption story
Should my baby stay or go home to China?
Medical journal calls for more adoptions from child welfare system
In 2008, 1,908 children were adopted by Canadian families from other
countries. Here is a breakdown:
189 United States
105 South Korea
Source: Adoption Council of Canada