Chuck Chiang: For Chinese children adopted by white Canadian parents, birth culture is both ‘foreign’ and an opportunity
June 8, 2015
By Chuck Chiang, Vancouver Sun
Earlier this year, I was doing the dishes when a documentary on TV caught my eye.
Twin Sisters by Norwegian filmmaker Mona Friis Bertheussen detailed the tales of two girls — identical twins — who were adopted from China by two families, one in Sacramento, Calif., the other in a small village in Norway.
The film is beautifully made, highlighting the girls’ innate connection to one another despite growing up in vastly different environments and cultures. It touched on issues of identity for internationally adopted children — something that would strike a chord with countless immigrant children whose parents’ culture varies drastically from the mainstream that shaped their childhood.
According to Statistics Canada, almost 21,000 children were adopted from abroad by Canadians 1999 to 2009, including 8,000 from China.
A week ago, the Chinese Consulate hosted International Children’s Day celebrations at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver. The event drew about 20 B.C. families with children adopted from China.
Officials describe these families as an important bridge between cultures, a sign of the growing person-to-person interaction between Canada and the Far East. Several parents explained how they had to “stretch” outside of their usual comfort zone and learn more about another culture for the sake of their children
“Our families are the symbols for the link between China and Canada, and we hope that these children continue to serve as a link to help other Canadians learn more about China,” Eamon Duffy said at the event. He is co-chair of the group Families with Children from China.
The marriage of cultures present challenges that parents and children both readily admit to.
“I remember, when Wednesdays would come around and it was time to go to Mandarin class, I would hide, pretend to be sick,” recounted Maia Robinson, 19, who had taken Chinese language classes since age 5. “I spent a lot of time studying Mandarin, and I remember I used to always resent it.”
Maia and her sister Cleone, 17, were adopted from China when they were infants. The family lives in West Vancouver.
The girls’ parents said it was a struggle to get the children to learn Mandarin.
“It’s a foreign language, and unless you are immersed in it completely, the children will see it as a foreign language,” said father David Robinson. “But I think we’ve given them enough of the fundamentals so that, if they want, they can take their studies further if they choose.”
He said it is important for the children to understand their reality, so he and wife Jackie had been upfront with the girls about their origins and the importance of keeping some connection to Chinese culture.
The question of identity is a much easier one to answer, he said.
“If you ask my kids, they will tell you straight-up that they are Canadians,” he said. “At the same time, you want them to know where they came from. As parents, I think we owe them that opportunity, and what they make of it is their choice.”