Did heritage and culture camps even exist before international adoption? I don’t know. They are among the many cottage industries that have grown up as a result of adoptive parents’ and adoption agencies’ quest to provide connections for internationally (often transracially) adopted children with their cultures of origins.
My best guess is that most heritage/culture camps were established about 20 years ago, as Korean adopted adults began to be heard about the lack of connection they felt to their Korean culture, growing up as many did in rural farmlands in Minnesota and elsewhere. (Many, in fact, considered themselves white or wanted to be white while growing up. Their awakenings in college and in adult life were difficult, as racism and other factors challenged or undermined their sense of identity.)
When you adopt internationally, you remove a child from his or her culture and country of origin, and you take on a daunting responsibility. Heritage camps can never take the place of one’s heritage. That said, there are quite a few positives about the camps.
One is surely the opportunity for an adopted child or teenager to be surrounded by other kids like them. Not having to explain about being adopted, or about why they look different from their parents–it’s a relief to be among others who understand.
Another is the chance to meet older adoptees, who often are mentors and role models for young children in ways that adoptive parents simply can’t be. That’s a great gift.
The camps aren’t just for the adoptees and parents in many cases. Siblings often attend, who may or may not have been adopted. This gives them a chance to learn about and have fun while learning about their brother or sister’s culture. Lots of potential for conversations, and maybe deeper understanding.
Another positive about camps is the opportunity to interact easily with people from the child’s country of origin. In an ideal world, adoptive parents would have lots of friends and role models available for their children, friends and role models from the child’s country of origin. There’s a big spectrum: some parents are the same ethnicity and/or race as their child, sometimes the child is only one of her race/ethnicity for miles around, sometimes parents reach out to strangers, in the grocery store or at church, who might be from the child’s country of origin.
At the heritage camps, there are frequently people from the country of origin, people who are there because they want to be, because they want to share their culture with adoptive parents and especially with adopted children. Strong, long-lasting friendships are often formed this way, that otherwise might never have happened.
The camps are also a bit of an idyll in terms of the harsher realities of identity formation. Idylls can be good, but other possibilities exist too. The Evan B. Donald Institute on Adoption published a thoughtful study called “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity in Adoption.” It’s a great resource for adoptive parents.
This August, my daughter Aselefech and I will be among the speakers at the Ethiopian camp held in Virginia. Unlike many camps, this one reaches out to all families of Ethiopian-American children, not just adoptive families. Aselefech and I spoke there together in 2009, and really enjoyed meeting the many families who are connected to Ethiopia by birth, adoption, or both. This year, we will be talking about the journey of search and reunion, in Ethiopia and Seattle.
Adoptive parents of internationally adopted children have themselves founded camps, which are now available for many heritages (Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Indian/Nepalese, Russian/Eastern European, Ethiopian, Caribbean, etc.). Some adoption agencies also hold camps. Here is one list from Adoptive Families magazine.