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Cultural preservation

Cultural preservation

American families that adopt children from other countries often expose the children to the culture of their homelands.

International adoptions have some American families putting one foot out of America's melting pot and into another country's culture.

Sociology Assistant Professor Heather Jacobson looks at how and why families of children adopted from China and Russia integrated those cultures into their lives in her book Culture Keeping: White Mothers, International Adoption, and the Negotiation of Family Difference (Vanderbilt University Press, 2008).

Heather Jacobson

Heather Jacobson, sociology assistant professor

Those two countries accounted for half of international adoptions during the peak years (1995-2005) by U.S. adopters, most of whom are middle-class whites. Interviews during 2002-03 with 40 families with at least one internationally adopted child from China or Russia examined the extent of their efforts to provide the child with cultural experiences of their homelands. Cultural exposure ranged from simple home décor to language and dance classes to major changes in the family's lifestyle.

"Some mothers said they would feel guilty if they did not expose the child to his culture," Dr. Jacobson says.

China and several other countries ask adoptive families to expose the child to their native home culture. These children-who did not look like their white, native-born American parents-were more likely to have customs interpreted by their parents to be Chinese as part of their daily lives.

Russian children were less likely to be exposed to Russian culture, Jacobson discovered. They looked white, so some parents believed in simply integrating the child into their white culture. The child's homeland heritage experience might simply be a nesting doll and a few books on Russia.

It was American ideas about race and conceptions of kinship, Jacobson found, that most shaped parental approaches to birth culture. She details the history of how culture keeping emerged as standard practice in the adoption world. Part of that story is adult adoptees who have come forward with their own take on culture keeping.

In the 1950s when Korean adoptions were common, families were encouraged to assimilate the children into the white American culture. As adults, many of those adoptees expressed resentment at being denied a connection to their heritage. Jacobson's book details the disconnect between much contemporary culture keeping and later-generation racial-ethnic communities.

Mei-Ling Hopgood referred to the book in a recent New York Daily News article. The author of Lucky Girl is a Taiwanese adoptee raised in Michigan by white parents. Her two adopted brothers are Korean.

"I'm willing to bet that many adoptees-if they are anything like me-will end up relating more to the Asian-American experience than to the traditions in a far-off land that they have no memory of."

- Teresa Newton