The Making of a Family Culture, by Kyle Messner

As the parent of an adopted child from China, how are you defining your family's new culture and identity now that you have become "mixed"? And, what is "culture" anyway? There's lots of food for thought in, "The Making of a Family Culture,"  where Kyle Messner shares lessons she has learned as a professor of multicultural studies, as an adoptive parent, and as the sibling of a brother adopted from Korea in the 1960s.

           Culture is an issue that is a common topic of conversation in international adoption circles.  Everyone uses the word assuming that people hold the same definition of the word. It is actually a very slippery concept. Anyone who is familiar with the debates in the field of Anthropology knows there is controversy over its definition and even its existence.  Culture goes beyond holidays, songs and dances.  It involves the values, beliefs, nonverbal communication, and mindset of a group of people.  When I teach my students about multicultural education at the university where I work, I often use Brian Bullivant’s definition: culture is a group’s defense mechanisms.  It is their way of differentiating themselves from all others in world.

            As an adoptive single parent of a little girl from China, culture is something I have thought a lot about.  How do I best help to develop my daughter’s cultural identity?  I’ve had people chide me for teaching Mei Ling to speak some Chinese.  She’s an American they tell me… teach her English.  The same people are the ones who question why I chose to give my daughter a Chinese name.  Other people think it is great that I kept Mei Ling’s ethnicity in her name.  Many Chinese-Americans break out in broad grins when Mei Ling addresses them using proper Chinese greetings.

            Rather than listen to multiple opinions on how to develop Mei Ling’s identity, I have chosen to base my actions on what I have learned from my family, my students and my reflections.  I have decided to focus on building a family identity for both Mei Ling and me. 

Lessons from my brother

When my parents adopted Kim back in the early sixties, the predominant thinking was to Americanize him as quickly as possible.  There wasn’t too much written on the topic of international adoption and we were the only ones in the area where we lived who had adopted a child from another country.  The only time I ever met a family like ours was when Pearl Buck invited to her farm for a day all of the families who had adopted children using her agency.  My parents advised me that she was a famous writer which impressed me at 11 years of age but I don’t remember feeling any significance about being with the other families. There was a Korean family in the next town and we saw them once in awhile, but eventually they moved.  My brother grew up a Messner, just like we other four children. Everyone knew us in our small suburban NY town and it seemed as though that was the way life was.

 Then there were several times I remembered my brother being different.  The first time was when he was retained in second grade because he was supposedly weak in English (now with my knowledge of second language acquisition, I know better what was probably going on).  My parents were upset with his new second grade teacher and they felt she was prejudiced.  It was a miserable year for Kim and our family.  I also remember one time when I was in high school I introduced Kim as my brother and someone thought I was fooling around.  It surprised me.  I had never had anyone question my relationship with my brother before.

My brother remembers things a little differently.  When I was considering adopting my daughter from China, I asked him what his experience was growing up.  He told me of times when kids called him chink in school.  He also told me how he dreaded Pearl Harbor Day because he was afraid people would think he was Japanese and blame him.  I asked him why he had never said anything and he said, “Why should I have bothered you with it?  What could have you done?”   My brother shouldered the downside of being different on his own.

When my brother was in his 30’s he started to attend a Korean church on his own.  A man in the church took him under his wing and tried to help him become a part of the church.  My brother tried to learn Korean but he eventually gave up.  I don’t know what motivated my brother to go to the church.  I don’t think it helped having an East Indian girlfriend who told him he was White on the inside.

Listening to my brother as an adult made me reflect deeply about how I was going to raise my daughter.  I wanted to try to develop a relationship with my daughter that would hopefully allow her to be open with me. I don’t want her to go through all of the difficult times alone.  I know there will be times she will choose to do that, but I hope that she will see me as an ally to help her through some of those times.

Lessons from my students

            Presently, I am a professor who holds a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction with an emphasis in Bilingual/Multicultural Education.  I have taught courses in Multicultural Education in several states.  Several of my students have been from racially-mixed  backgrounds.  Many of those students were very strong and secure in themselves.  As I got to know some of them better, something stood out to me.  They had a very strong sense of family.  I remember one particularly gifted young woman. She not only spoke up in class but also came to speak to one of my other classes.  She was a very bright and articulate woman who shared her experiences in a way that caused the other students to sit up and take notice. I’ll call her Rhonda.  She told the students a number of times how her dad raised her to be strong and to remember who she was.  He said, “You are Rhonda T. Nelson.  You remember that.  You are a proud member of the Nelson family.  Don’t forget that.”    She spoke about the experience of having to check off the category ‘Other’ when filling out her race on forms.  She said, “How can I deny either part of me?  If I check White I deny my mother.  If I check Black I deny my father.  So I am an Other until someone has the sense to come up with the category ‘racially-mixed’.”

            From Rhonda and others I learned that family plays a very important role in giving us our racial identity and stability in adulthood.  Mei Ling and I are a racially mixed family.  I think it is wrong to sugar coat that by hiding behind the international part of our identity. As a child I had always said my brother was from Korea but I didn’t really dwell on or even think about the racial difference between us.   It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized we were an interracial family. Even then when I used the word interracial to my parents, they stepped back from it.   By not acknowledging the interracial differences in an international adoptive family, someone is being made invisible in our attempt to say we are colorblind.  Color does exist and in our larger American culture, it does have meaning

            So, what does this mean for our family culture?  It means the language of difference needs to be a part of who we are.  The other day Mei Ling came home from daycare and told me that Miss Wanda her first caregiver there had a Black face.  I responded that she not only had a Black face but also a Black body.  I then went on to say that people say that I have a White face and body and that she (Mei Ling) has a Yellow face and body.  We got out some black, white and yellow crayons and we laughed that people used those colors to describe people because they don’t look like any color people we knew.  The other day I over heard her saying, “Mom has a White face and I have a Yellow one.”  She is thinking about it and trying to make sense of it. 

            Another lesson is that being a member of the Messner family can and should be a source of strength.  When Mei Ling has doubts I want her to be able to draw strength from the fact that she is Mei Ling Elizabeth Messner.  She is a proud member of the Messner family.  She is member of a family which not only accepts but celebrates our similarities and differences.  We are an American family of mixed origins, races and ethnicities.  We have both been forever changed by our adoption. We celebrate our Family Day on October 28th by going to a restaurant and eating the dish Happy Family. It’s our special day together. We celebrate holidays from both of our birth cultures.  We eat mooncakes on the evening of the Moon Festival and turkey on Thanksgiving.  We make hundreds of Christmas cookies and hundreds of jiaoze on Lunar New Year.  We both are learning Chinese language along with extending our knowledge of English.  At bedtime, Monkey King stories are told along with Mother Goose.  As Mei Mei gets older we will work together to understand both Eastern and western ways of thinking.  All of these things work together to shape our family culture and identity.  We will do things that other families may not do but those things will be part of our “defense mechanism” of culture.  It is what makes us Messners!

            By developing a strong family culture through exploring our differences and similarities, we have become transformed.  The transformation will continue and be a part of who we are.  I believe that this transformation also can be a source of strength for both Mei Ling and me.  My hope is that the strength within our family will provide a haven for both of us.  I hope my daughter will be able to bring her joys and her hurts to me.  I also hope that a family where difference is acknowledged will be a source of positive identity for my daughter.