The Band-Aid of Heritage and Culture Camps: An Adoptee Perspective

“I had the privilege of attending this summer’s Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp in Virginia as a guest speaker. The camp is wonderful. It is designed, not only for families with adopted Ethiopian children, but for Ethiopian-American families as well. Nevertheless, most of the families there looked like mine did when I was a child. While I loved seeing the little kids and enjoyed Ethiopian food, crafts, and clothing, it was through dialogue with many adoptive parents that I was better able to understand where adoptive families stand in regards to grasping the responsibilities of raising a child of color, and how much or how little agencies prepare families…”

That’s an excerpt from a powerful article called The Band-Aid of Heritage and Culture Camps, and What They Cover Up by Aselefech Evans, an Ethiopian adult adoptee, writing as a columnist in the current issue of Gazillion Voices.

I wrote about the Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp here and about the Ethiopian panelists (which included Aselefech) Speaking Their Truth here.

(L-R) Nunu Worke, Aselefech Evans, Adanech Evans

(L-R) Nunu Worke, Aselefech Evans, Adanech Evans

Full disclosure: Aselefech is one of my favorite people in the world. She is also my daughter, adopted in 1994 along with her twin sister Adanech, when they were 6 years old. (Adanech is another of my favorites, along with my sons and granddaughter.) Aselefech has reunited with her Ethiopian family, and wrote one of the most viewed posts ever on my blog, Far Away, Always in My Heart. She’s presented workshops and webinars about her experiences as a transracial, older, international adoptee. She speaks candidly, and from her heart. I’ve always encouraged my children to speak their truths, and they have. That can seem like a mixed blessing perhaps, if your children are writing and speaking out about their experiences as adoptees, and as people of color, and those experiences have not always been positive.

Therein, though, lies the genuine blessing: what a gift to be able to witness the honesty and reality and insights of my daughter. She demonstrates, I believe, the fundamental truth of adoption. It is often filled with both love and loss, held together at the same time, tilting one way or the other at other times. We adoptive parents decide to bring children into our lives, and in so doing, we are part of the lost life they might have had, with the family (and culture, language, heritage, race, traditions, history) into which they were born, into which (for good or bad) most children stay. Aselefech loves her dad and me, and we love her. Now 25 years old, Aselefech has struggled with the complexity that is transracial, international adoption. We (her adoptive parents) cannot take that pain away, but we can be open to her journey, joining her sometimes, knowing that the journey is hers alone.

Another excerpt from Aselefech’s article in Gazillion Adoptees:

“As an adoptive parent, when you choose to adopt internationally you must understand the cultural ramifications of removing a child from his or her culture. You must take on the overwhelming responsibility to keep them connected to their country of origin, the place from which you have taken them. You must surround them with a variety of people who look like them. Children’s attitudes towards their own race are deeply influenced by their interactions and observations of those around them. Will most of the children muddle through and eventually form a decent racial and cultural identity if you don’t offer all of this? Maybe. But what right do you have to make them pay that price?”

Powerful words. Aselefech has gotten some pushback, asking if she’s “anti-adoption.” She’s also gotten some wonderful, positive response for her courage and candor. I’m very proud of her. Like many adoptees these days, she provides a voice from a diaspora. I hope the world listens.

6 thoughts on “The Band-Aid of Heritage and Culture Camps: An Adoptee Perspective

  1. I see some parents as threatened by the child reaching out to their heritage. But I have also met some parents of adopted children at pow wows because they know that it is important to their children. Most come away feeling like it’s a win win: the child shares in their heritage and they get to experience a different culture.

    • I absolutely agree that pow wows and culture camps can be positive and helpful experiences. I took my children to pow wows (among other events) when they were little to share different cultures with them. I think Aselefech’s point still stands though: heritage and culture camps (and pow wows) are great, but they are short-term and easy. The real work of making sure children have same-race/ethnicity/heritage role models and mentors in their daily lives and helping children (who grow up to be adults) with racial/ethnic identity: that’s much harder work, and requires diligent, concrete, ongoing effort by adoptive parents.

      • Oh, I absolutely agree with both of you! Going to culture camp for a week, or a pow wow once a year, does not give the child a clear picture. Becoming involved in the community, and making friends wiothin that community is definitely needed. Sometimes, it is work to do this. People can be shy, or standoffish. But they can overcome that and it is positive when they do.

      • Absolutely. I wish adoption agencies emphasized this more in the preparation pre-adoption process. It’s where I think the voices of more adult adoptees would be especially useful.

  2. Thanks very much, Mary. Yes, Aselefech has heard many more positive than negative comments. I think she and I, and many others, share a view that adoption can be a great option for children genuinely in need of families, but it has to be done with transparency and integrity, for everyone involved. And right now that’s happening too rarely, and needs to change. Maybe some folks see that perspective as “anti-adoption.” Heritage and culture camps can be valuable, and they are lots of fun. The bigger issues of racial identity and cultural loss require much more intentional effort. Thank you again for your kind words, Mary. I’ll pass them on to Aselefech.

  3. Maureen, I enjoyed your article and your daughter, Aselefech’s article in Gazillion Voices. She does have a great point about Culture Camp. I don’t know how many families I know that stopped going because it got to be “too much” for them to handle. I wanted to ask them how their children felt about not going. I think that these camps are a step in the right direction–even if it is a small step. I do think going every year should be a requirement and only a first step in experiencing a culture of a child. More does need to be done by families in this area. I was sorry to hear you write that she was getting pushback about being anti-adoption. That is too sad. I hope that her positive comments were more than the negative ones that she received.

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