Adopting your child’s culture

Leah (at right) with (from left) her father Ben, her sister Hannah, and her mother Evie. Inset: Leah Apfelbaum in the ...

Leah (at right) with (from left) her father Ben, her sister Hannah, and her mother Evie. Inset: Leah Apfelbaum in the orphanage in Bolivia

As Dianne Dart tucks her 10-year-old daughter Ai Xin in at night, she whispers softly, "Wo ai ni." The Mandarin expression for "I love you" is a touching tribute to her daughter's cultural roots.

Since adopting Ai Xin from southern China in 2004, Dianne and her husband, Jeff, have embraced the culture of their daughter's homeland.

They kept Ai Xin's birth name (which means "Love from the heart"), got her learning Mandarin at the age of three and send her to a school where half the class is Chinese. The Melbourne-based Darts also dress in traditional costume to celebrate Chinese New Year, have hung Chinese art on their walls, and are planning their fifth trip back to China as a family.

Dianne Dart with her adopted daughter, Ai Xin, at the Chinese Gardens in Sydney.

Dianne Dart with her adopted daughter, Ai Xin, at the Chinese Gardens in Sydney.

Dianne has learnt Mandarin, so she and Ai Xin can converse in China's official language. Now she is working on a "100 Good Wishes Quilt", a Chinese tradition in which friends and family contribute pieces of fabric to create a quilt that contains luck, energy and wishes for a happy life.


"We definitely are a Chinese-Australian family and we're very proud of it," Dianne says. "It has enriched our life in ways I never thought possible." Such is the bonus of adopting internationally: gaining not only that much-longed-for child, but also embarking on a fascinating cultural journey.

Few babies born in Australia have been adopted out to strangers in the past few decades, since the advent of contraception, single-parent welfare and greater social acceptance of single mothers.

Bonnie unit (left) Matt and Melissa Campbell with their two sons, John-Michael and Will.

Bonnie unit (left) Matt and Melissa Campbell with their two sons, John-Michael and Will.

As a result, parents who dream of adopting are increasingly looking overseas. They'll spend up to $50,000 on the adoption process and can wait up to five years to be allocated a child. (Many prospective parents are facing even longer waits after the federal government in June abruptly shut down its inter-country adoption program with Ethiopia following what Attorney-General Nicola Roxon called "several years of issues with the program".)

Once parents have successfully adopted from abroad, there comes a responsibility to maintain ties with the culture the child has been physically removed from. Adoption experts say it's crucial for a child's self-esteem and sense of identity - but overdo it and it can be at the expense of them settling into their new family.

"By demonstrating that you are interested in the cultural heritage of your child, you are accepting everything about her. You are also validating her lineage and her physical realities," says Corrie Lynne Player, author of The Everything Parent's Guide to Raising Your Adopted Child.

Of the 384 adoptions finalised in Australia in 2010-11, 56 per cent were international adoptions and 32 per cent were to people "known" to the child, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Some 80 per cent of those international adoptions were of children from Asia: a quarter come from China (mainly due to its one-child policy), while 17 per cent come from the Philippines and 12 per cent from Taiwan.

Caseworkers encourage adoptive parents to make their child's culture "something they see every day", via celebrating national holidays, cooking national dishes, displaying arts and crafts, playing music and reading stories from that country, exploring the country's religions, and learning at least a bit of the language.

"If you love your child, you love their culture, you love their country, you love where they're from," explains Dianne Dart, who says she often researches China. "It's part of them. Embrace it. You don't want to try to wipe it out, cut out the birth parents and say, 'Life started with us.' It didn't."

Authorities consider it so important for adopted children to grow up with an appreciation of their birth culture that the Victorian government requires prospective parents to do projects on the country they wish to adopt from, while it is illegal in NSW to change the child's birth name. Parents who have demonstrated a special interest in the country - such as living or working there - can also be bumped closer to the front of the adoption queue.

The Darts are part of the Families With Children from China (FCC) support group, which - among other initiatives - holds an annual camp where children learn to make dumplings and during which they dress in cheongsams for dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant. Through FCC, Ai Xin has made friends with girls who were adopted from the same orphanage as her.

"She loves being with other girls from China just like her," Dianne says, which is why the Darts chose a school with a large Chinese population. "It's a really big thing seeing all those familiar faces. It makes her feel good about herself."

Lucy Burns, author of Adopting Overseas: A Guide to Adopting from Australia, Plus Personal Stories That Will Inspire You, says it is "almost obligatory" for parents to join adoption support groups, particularly to guard against children rejecting their cultural heritage as they get older. "It's not so much for the parents," she says, "it's about creating choices and security for the child [by having a] shared adoption experience, shared cultural background. If they make their own friends through the support group, there is less rejection of the culture."

Many adoptive parents take their children back to their homeland to foster that sense of identity. "It's the most critical thing that they go back and understand, see and know where they come from," says Burns, who has two children from Thailand. "We do everything we can here but it is a little bit artificial."

However, Burns warns, the emphasis should be that it is a fun experience, rather than as a cultural roots discovery expedition. "We've been back to Thailand so many times that for my children it's like a holiday, they love it ... if parents take their children back for the first time in their teens, it's a terrible culture shock.

"How do you talk about this? It's not a holiday, it's, 'We're going over there to discover your heritage.' It's a very frightening situation for the child."

The Dart family's next visit to China will be strictly sightseeing, after a trip last year to the southern town of Nanning - where a newborn Ai Xin was found by a policemen on the side of the road - was too unsettling for the child.

The Darts have been told Ai Xin was left with a red envelope containing some money, but have been unable to find out much else.

Lucy Burns worries that the emphasis on maintaining cultural ties can come at the expense of helping a vulnerable child settle into a new environment. Many children adopted from overseas are traumatised after being abandoned as babies, shuttled around orphanages and foster homes, then flown out to a foreign country.

"It is really important that a child is made to feel safe, secure and loved in their new home," Burns says. "Everything else comes second to that. Creating security can take a long, long time."

But Dianne Dart says she never worries that she's overdoing the contact with Chinese culture with Ai Xin.

"For us, it's just part of who she is. It's always felt natural to talk about it, and she's always been more than happy to learn more about the Chinese culture. She'll say, 'I want to know all about my culture because it helps me, Mama', so I think that tells us everything we need to know.

"I feel confident we're doing the right thing for our daughter."


My wife, Melissa, has a congenital heart condition that deteriorated after we had our son, Will, and made it difficult for her to fall pregnant again. Adoption was something we'd thought about previously, so we started to think about it more seriously.

We had friends who were Filipino, the Philippines is close to Australia, it's a Christian country, English is one of the national languages, and it's one of the cheapest countries you can adopt from.

On that combined criteria, it made sense to adopt from the Philippines.

It took five years, but when we saw JM's [John-Michael's] happy little face in 2009, we fell in love with him straight away.

When JM was a few days old, his birth mother abandoned him at the hospital where he was born. There is extreme poverty in the Philippines and you must pay each day you're in hospital, which may have contributed to the mother's decision to leave.

We were definitely conscious of incorporating some Filipino culture in our lives, but we didn't want it to be over the top. Some families completely turn their family around, they become an Ethiopian family or whatever.

The most important thing was that JM, who is now 6, grew up knowing where he was from, took pride in his country, and knew we supported him. I think it is really important for him to understand his culture and ethnicity. We want to honour that in a way that's not fake. We eat Filipino food, celebrate National Heroes' Day - which is also the anniversary of when we picked up JM - go to fiestas, and one of his godparents is Filipino.

I'm a school chaplain and we take a bunch of kids over to the Philippines every year to do a community service program. Part of that was deliberate, so that by the time JM wants to explore his background more and find his birth parents, we can support that.

JM is very proud of where he comes from. He's got a real sense that the Philippines is something that is important to us. It's part of who he is; now it's part of who we are, too.


I was left at the Carlos De Villegas orphanage in La Paz, Bolivia, when I was about 10 days old. I was abandoned in what they call el torno, a cylindrical metal tin embedded in the wall of the caretaker's quarters which spins full circle. The mother slides open the door, says goodbye, and with a spin the baby's fate is forever changed.

I was adopted [by a Sydney couple] when I was 5 1/2 months old. I've wanted to go back to Bolivia since I was young, but my parents worked full-time and it never fitted into any holiday plans. It's also expensive to get there.

My [adoptive] grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and although my family isn't Orthodox [Jewish], we keep Shabbat on Friday nights and all the high holy days. I've always been interested in other religions, but I've never been drawn to Catholicism, even though it is Bolivia's main religion. I'm more drawn to the cultural beliefs of Bolivians.

I found out my birthday is on the Aymara New Year, and that I am Aymaran Indian.

We grew up with South American culture with Latin music, and I used to go to an adoption group with my mum, but it wasn't such a big part of my life. Yet at school, if we had to do projects on countries, I always picked Bolivia. I learnt a lot about Bolivian culture and society that way.

When I finished my social-work degree, I learnt Spanish for two months and went to Bolivia at the end of last year. It was amazing. Walking through the streets, everyone looked like me. Everyone spoke Spanish to me; they assumed I knew what they were saying. I felt like I belonged.

I worked at the orphanage I was adopted from but I had to leave after a few hours because I was too emotional - all these beautiful children and I was the lucky one who got a family. It was a shock.

When an adopted child is young, it is important to make them aware of where they come from. As they get older, if they're not interested, don't force it. We're individuals, everyone accepts things differently. My sister, who was adopted from Colombia, is not interested but it was something I needed to do.

Now I know where I come from. I've been there, I've seen it, that's who I am. 


1 comment so far

  • this brought big tears to my eyes, especially the story of the dart family - how special! i feel like things must have changed a lot in the last couple of decades. i knew several children adopted from asian countries as i was growing up. some really resented their ethnicity, others knew very little about their cultural heritage...i now know one precious little darling adopted from south-east asia whose family have lived and studied extensively in his birth country. he kept his birth name, he regularly gets taken back to his birth country, and converses at home with his mother in the language. it's just fantastic.

    Date and time
    December 11, 2012, 12:15AM

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