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Parents Embracing the Birth Culture and Language of Foreign Adoptees


In the past, American families who adopted children from abroad often paid little attention to the child's birth culture. They believed children should be raised just as if they'd been born in America. But today, many adoptive parents are embracing their children's birth culture, and the whole family is studying the culture and language together.

When 58-year-old Jack Machado retired three years ago, it was to take on another full-time job. He and his wife, Spanish-born Dulce Calabia, were adopting 17-month-old twin girls from China's Fujian province. Jack, who had grown children from an earlier marriage, would take care of Si Ping and Si Nin while Dulce kept her job as a financial analyst.

Here they are in China, just a day after the toddlers met their new mother and father.

"Buenos dias, Buenos dias.."
Jack: "The first day, after the first night they slept in the family bed…"

Jack and Dulce didn't change their daughters' Chinese names, they wanted to make the transition to their new life, in a suburb of Washington, D.C., as smooth as possible. And even before the couple adopted their daughters, they had begun to study Chinese themselves.

Dulce says, "It's really difficult, so we didn't learn much, but at least we could say xie xie [for 'thanks'] and bu ke chi, [for 'you're welcome'] and things like that, easy things."
Jack adds, "And try to order Chinese food, which was not too successful." Dulce agrees: "True, asking for food, it was really hard. And now we continue taking Chinese classes, and the girls are also taking Chinese. Before they were two years old, we put them in the school. Because we think it is very important for them to learn Chinese."

Jacks explains, "The girls have had an awful lot of things lost in the process, so one of the thing we try to keep with them is the culture of Chinese, and one way to do that is through the Chinese language and through the organization that we work with -- they have other activities also."

Jack is talking about a program for adoptive families in Rockville, Maryland, called "CLAPS," for Cultural Language Arts Programs. The Saturday morning school includes instruction in Chinese for children who don't hear the language at home, as well as adult classes for their parents. There's also singing and dance in Chinese.

Rita Lewi is the Chinese-American activist who founded the Saturday program two years ago when she noticed a new phenomenon: Chinese baby girls with American parents.

"My name is Rita Lewi. I'm the principal of the CLAPS program. I have to tell you, I'm so touched by their attitude [about] how they are going to bring up this child, Ms. Lewi said in an interview. "And that's the sole reason made me say, 'Wow, we have Chinese here, definitely we have to help them.' [The] Chinese language is one of the hardest languages. Once a week for 90 minutes, of course, is not enough. The idea of this program is to let them hear these languages, and get some idea, and keep up the interest."

Dulce says she recognizes the challenge ahead, "I know that it's going to be very hard for them to learn Chinese living here in United States, like if they were from mainland China. But we want to make it possible for them at least to understand the tones. And then in the future, when they are older, when they are adults, if they want to go back to China to live or to work, it will be easier for them to learn Chinese."

Si Ping and Si Nan are already fluent in Spanish and English--and their parents hope they'll be equally comfortable in Chinese one day, too. Meanwhile, Jack and Dulce are planning to adopt another child from China, a boy. And they hope to make regular visits back to China, so their children's birth culture will always feel like a second home.