Transnational Adoption and Third Culture Kids

I find great joy in the fact that Blended features perspectives and stories that don’t often get heard in the adoption community. In this vein, I am happy to share this space today with my friend Glen Braden.  Glen, an adoptive dad, shares openly about how adoption and life as an expat come into play as he and his wife raise their beautiful family. 

The Braden Family

The Braden Family

As a teenager my wife found out that, barring a miracle, she would not have biological children. And I knew, when I was still a teenager that I wanted to build a family with adoption. It was just something in me. These are the things my wife and I discussed when we first met and became friends, long before we even dated.

Not long after we married, we left the United States and began an expatriate life that has had us overseas for more than 16 years. My wife is a banker and I am a nurse. We can both work almost anywhere. Though we have lived in 5 countries, the vast majority of those 16 years was spent in Asia, with almost 10 years in Hong Kong and 4 years in the Philippines.

Two years into our ex-pat lives, we settled in Hong Kong for what we thought would be two to three years. Knowing that the adoption process might be difficult for people that move frequently, we looked into adoption in Hong Kong right away. To our delight, we discovered the process straightforward and nowhere near as complex nor as expensive as in the United States.

Joyfully we adopted our son in 2000 when he was about two and a half years old. He has a rare genetic disorder that took several years to diagnose. Two years later we adopted our daughter when she was just one year old. Both of our kids are ethnically Chinese and my wife and I are Caucasian.

Living in Hong Kong, my wife and I were the minority and our kids were growing up in a place where they were normal in appearance. The only odd looks we got were from people who really thought it was amazing how Chinese our “white” kids looked. Several times taxi drivers told me that they knew I had a Chinese wife that my white wife did not know about. My wife and I would try not to laugh while we explained that we had adopted our children.

In Hong Kong it was easy to have strong engagement with our kids’ birth culture and identity. Chinese culture – language, holidays, food, role models and friends were in abundance. When we moved to the Philippines in 2009 there was a drop in direct access to Chinese culture but the fact that we were still in Asia helped make things seem “normal” in identifying with and highlighting our kids’ ethnicity and heritage. The majority of the kids they went to school with were Asian and we had many visitors from Hong Kong to keep that connection to “home.”

About a year and a half ago, we moved to Europe for the first time. Relocating to a small town just outside of London where my wife works has put us in a new and rare position. For the first time in our family’s history my wife and I fit in ethnically and our kids do not. As we walk around town and in the city, I don’t think we get very many ‘looks.’ We certainly had just as many if not more in Asia. But there are two significant differences.

First, we have had to intentionally seek out ways to show the value of our kids’ Chinese roots. For example, we have tried to highlight Chinese New Year more so than in the past. In extreme contrast to Asia, where everyone celebrated it, now we have to make sure we set aside time and space in celebration. Discovering that our local supermarket actually had a display for Chinese New Year and highlights specialty foods, helped a great deal.

Intentionally we have also had our daughter continue with Mandarin lessons, not only because it will benefit her in the future résumé, but because it is helping her keep a foothold culturally in who she is as a Chinese young woman. (Incidentally, we do not have our son taking Chinese for the simple reason that his special needs make English difficult enough for him.)

The second main difference lies in the fact that my daughter is now a tween and grows more sensitive to what people think of her each day. She has always been shy but she did not realize that growing up in Asia gave her a built in level of anonymity that she no longer has in England. When I asked her recently how she was feeling at her school (a wonderful and diverse international school outside of London), she remarked that she missed her old school in Asia because she stands out now. Soon after that conversation, I followed up with a few more questions about race, identity and adoption. She said she realizes more now that she is Chinese, but that she still is not sure “what” she is. She is an American that has never lived in America. She is Chinese but hasn’t lived there in five important, developmental years. These are difficult things to process as a transnational adoptee.

The description that she best identifies with is that of a Third Culture Kid. Kay Branaman Eakin, in her article According to my passport, I’m coming home, describes these Third Culture Kids as,

 “someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture”

This definition has helped her and may be of help to other transnational adoptees and their parents. Often Third Culture Kids can easily relate to multiple cultures but do not find any one of them to be a perfect fit. Most often, their true sense of identity comes in relationship with others who feel the same way they do, even if they are from different cultures or backgrounds.

It helped my daughter to understand that even her mom and I feel out of place here in the United Kingdom. We may look like we belong, but when we open our mouths and often just by the clothes we wear, people know that we are not from around here either. As a family, we all fit in best with others in the same situation, expats – aliens in a strange land. Our family relates better to the Brazilians and South Africans, Malaysians and Trinidadians, than most of the English we meet every day. Our differences form the bond that we share so deeply. And that is a valuable gift that I hope will serve my kids well.

2 Comments

  1. Glen and Steph,

    I just came across your blog entry this afternoon. I am little ashamed it has taken me a while to notice and read it. But it find it very enlightening and introspective with also a touch of humility. Awesome job!

    • Thanks, James! Hope to see you soon.

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