Monday, August 31, 2009

Cultural Sensitivities

I just finished reading a thoughtful and well written post over at in which a topic was addressed which I have not really ever written about here on our blog. It was the first part of her post which struck me as very important.

There are those who argue against international adoption for many reasons, the most prevalent being that it us unfair to "rip a child from their culture", leaving them with no cultural identity to connect with. Sounds like a good point, doesn't it? Especially when one considers all that a child must leave behind that is familiar, how extraordinarily difficult such a transition must be. There was a time when I had a hard time arguing against this one...

Not anymore.

Adopting Kenny opened my eyes to an entirely new perspective on this issue. An older child has the ability to share more about what their life was like, how they perceived the world they lived in, and how they identified with their culture. We have had many stories shared over the past couple of years as Kenny has proceeded to meld his old life and new life into a new amalgamation that he can better relate to.

What anti-international adoption advocates don't seem to understand, which even my 10 year old clearly does, is that children who are institutionalized in an orphanage setting are so disconnected from their birth culture it is already as if they have been removed from their country. They are dehumanized, they are essentially jailed and they reside in an unsavory sub-culture of their birth which exists behind closed doors and is not revealed much to the outside world.

Kenny had to actually be taught about Kyrgyz culture, he had very little knowledge at 8 1/2 years old of the country he had been born and raised in. He thought he could speak Kyrgyz but was speaking Russian. He had no understanding of the nomadic culture, of the conflict between Russians and Kyrgyz as they try to stake out their claims, he had no idea that neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were so similar in so many ways. He knew he was Kyrgyz, but he had no sense of what that meant. Ask him about orphanage life and he could give you an earful, but he had never experienced every day life in his own country...his culture was that of an isolated orphan kept within the confines of an institution which could have been in Timbuktu for all he knew.

So I ask you, really, what is it that he was giving up that related to culture? Was he walking away from a part of who he was when he left Kyrgyzstan? Yes, but not in the way some might like to picture it. As a cleft affected child he would have most definitely remained in an orphanage until he aged out with an inferior education and no safety net to save him from drowning in the sea of that Kyrgyz culture he barely knew nor understood...for he would have never lived within it.

Kenny has a new culture now, as do all 3 of our sons. It is an eclectic mix of orphan culture, Kyrgyz and Kazakh culture, and American culture. Like any immigrant, they have assimilated into their new culture and yet still recognize they are Kazakh or Kyrgyz. Much as my husband still identifies with being Italian and yet when asked says "I am American".

Are children better off being adopted internationally than languishing for years in an institution? Of course they are, for the most important culture I have yet to mention is that of a family. Being in a family and being a part of the family culture is the single best remedy for a child who can no longer live with their birth family, regardless of the reason. Surprisingly there are those who would argue otherwise, but their argument dismisses the simple human need to belong someplace where we are loved, where we are nurtured and encouraged, where someone would be willing to die for us if need be. It is a need that surpasses all others, and it causes any other argument against international adoption to fall like a house of cards battered in the wind.

You can not argue with the fact that children grow better in families, period.


Lindsay said...

Couldn't agree more. As you know, Hannah is Romani. As a Romani baby or child in an orphanage, culture and language have already been lost. The two most important things for defining her as Romani were taken from her at birth. She would never therefore fully integrate into Roma society. She would grow up in an orphanage system which would constantly reinforce negative ideas and stereotypes about her ethnic orgins. Her skin colour and ethnicity would exclude her from the majority Slovak society. Hannah didn't lose her cultural identify because I adopted her but because her birth family couldn't raise her and because we live in a deeply prejudiced country. Nothing could be better than adoption for a child in these circumstances.

Bob; Carrie DeLille said...

Amen and amen-we do live in the melting pot, don't we? Yes, that's right, now make sure you institutionalized child get those ethnic foods when he comes home too-yeah, right, like they ever got to have any of those delicacies in the orphanage-maybe some beet soup and some porridge? For our Ethiopian daughters, perhaps it was different, as they were with family, practicing those cultural things, so we make sure they do enjoy some of their cuisine, but they WANT to be Americans, they WANT to fit in. They are melting, melting and they like it!! Mostly they like to not be hungry, they like to not see women under extreme oppression, they like to be warm at night and they even like not sleeping on a dirt floor with the animals, they even like not worrying about hyenas! Fedila, however, refuses to become totally American-she hates hotdogs!! (maybe she's the wise one!!)
Believe it or not, we've had "Christians" appalled that we do not continue to teach them their muslim religion-ahhhhhh!

ATTENTION anyone reading this-Peggy and I are planning a long-distance "baby" shower. It will be a bit unique....please contact me at and I will explain!! (put Cindy Lajoy's shower on subject line)

Mom to 2 Angels said...

Thank you for sharing. It is very insightful to hear the perspective of an older adoptee. We travelled with a family to Kyrg that adopted a 5 year old that has told them horror stories. There is no way that it is not beter to leave that behind.

Nick & Mary Sue said...

So very well said, and a perspective (one I share) on the topic that is not often given a voice.

Thanks again for the writing, sharing and on-going dialog with us.

Liz said...

As Lindsay says, I couldn't agree more. People against international adoption forget that kind of things. We are not trying to steal a kid from his culture or heritage, we are just trying to raise a kid in a loving family with all the opportunities we may have had. And a family is always better than an life in a institution or in poverty. Or that's what I feel. The idea of the culture could be used then to avoid people from travelling abroad on work basis, carrying family with them, as they are also taking their children away the culture... Any way, keep sharing with us these enlightening thoughts. We are adopting in Portugal where we live, and hope to be assigned a kid in the next 6 months but we can never know, maybe is a national or maybe Cape Verde, we have the two options.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. My daughter, adopted at 5, only knew her orphanage's culture. She didn't even know what Kazakhstan was. For months after she came home, until I realized what she was thinking, every time I said "Kazakhstan," she thought I was referring to her group room. She didn't even know there was a country outside the four walls!

smctiver said...

Hi Cindi,

Your message today is very well-stated. As a child, I spent some time in an orphanage - I remember that it was like a prison.

The culture of a loving family is the best place for any child to be, and the country in which that loving family resides is of little consequence.

Chandra said...

Thank you for this post Cindy. I had heard that many times about children losing their birth culture as a negative of adoption. I honestly had never thought about the fact that growing up in an orphanage a child never experiences the culture of their country. Thanks for your thoughts, it made me think.

Also I have trouble finding a lot of information about the Kyrgyz culture online, can you suggest any resources to help teach my daughter about the culture in Kyrgyzstan? My email is

ourlittlerussian at gmail dot com

Tammy said...


It is interesting you write this now as I was just talking about culture on one of my Yahoo groups (and I will post a link to your blog into it - hope you are ok with that. It is the Single Russian Mom's group).

We AP's realize that we can't completely replicate our children's lost cultures. But without a family, everything else is meaningless. Even if our adopted children did understand what they were losing - and as you pointed out, they do not - what good is knowing how to make a certain kind of food, wear a certain kind of dress, speak a certain language, and understand the local customs when you have no one to share it with?

The argument of lost culture is missing the forest for the trees. Will my biraical (African American and Caucasian) son need to find a way to work through the myriad of issues while being raised by a white woman? He certainly will. But had his birth parents not voluntarily placed him for adoption he most certainly would have ended up in foster care. There he would have lost not only his culture but have lost the potential of a family and of ever feeling whole.

As an adoptive parent, I don't feel guilty for taking him away from his culture. As Lindsay said, his birth parents did that when they placed him. But really, it is still not that simple. Poverty is often generational but beyond that, often has it's roots in deep seated prejudices without our own culture. Is it not our culture which allowed and encouraged slavery? Which continues to place African Americans at the lowest end of the totem pole in our society?

And is it not the culture of our children's first parents in other countries that led to their difficult circumstances which led to their placement which leads people in their home countries to still view orphans as second class? This culture that our children are supposedly losing is the very one which placed them at the lowest place in society!

I say these things not to try to bring pity or start an argument about who has it worse and I certainly do not want to put blame in places I have little actual knowledge of. But to pretend that our children have had all the benefits of our their original culture is to be fairly naive.

Lisa said...

Thank you for sharing could not have come at a more timely moment. Of late I have seen several articles such as this being dicussed on various blogs and my message board. So many differing viewpoints and ideas...all of which is good, but can be *confusing*. Discourse is best when it involves all sides & unique perspectives such as your Kenny's experiences.

This was concise, well written and I feel wiser for having read it! Thank you.....

Mark, Stacye, Lainey & Andrew said...

Thank you for writing this post. Before we started the process of adoption, I never knew there would be those who would be so negative concerning adoption-particularly international. Of course, I've since learned differently (home with our son almost 2 years now:). Having read your post, the link you included, and the comments to this post, I am walking a little lighter hearing from others who see clearly the reality of not having a forever family and its negative effects vs. the arguments against adoption. I've known this in my heart - just nice to see it in writing.

McMary said...

Thank you for sharing you thoughts so calmly and truthfully. It really opened my eyes and as a waiting parent, helped me to understand better.
I love your perspective.

Laura and Tom said...

Wow, I have always held the belief that these kids are so much better off being part of a family, but had never thought about the fact that they would probably know very little about their birth culture if they were to remain in an orphanage. As a mom to another Kyrgyz Kid, I especially appreciate Kenny's insight and was fascinated to read that he thought he was speaking Kyrgyz but was speaking Russian - that speaks volumes! Mighty thoughtful little man you have there. Oh, and with regard to your most recent post, please tell him we think he is an absolute cutie patootie! :)

Calico Sky said...

I am sitting here in absolute floods of tears, what a wonderfu, smart, intelligent, handsome son you have there. You are so blessed to have such a caring soul in your son!!

Calico Sky said...

oops left my comment on the wrong post!

MissMeliss said...

very nice post.

i'm looking into Kazakhstan... have one daughter adopted from China.

would love to know what area(s) you adopted from a bit more specifically, as i am hoping to be able to adopt euro-asian or asian from Kaz, if possible. :) of course, it is whatever God decides ultimately.

oh, and love the UCC pic on your blog. i'm also UCC.