VANCOUVER: Chinese children adopted by white Canadians admit there are challenges
Children at an International Children’s Day celebration at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver. Held by the local Chinese consulate, the event drew members of about 20 B.C. families with children adopted from China.
Photograph by: Handout
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.”
Given Metro Vancouver’s large Chinese-Canadian population, the question of identity confusion or isolation from Chinese culture for local adopted children isn’t a major issue.
Cleone said she and her sister have been lucky, mom Jackie is of Malaysian-Chinese descent and so the children got few questions about of their background. She said the multicultural nature of growing up in Canada means their experiences are no different than most teenagers growing up in Metro Vancouver.
“We’ve never experienced any pressure, anything like that, actually,” she said. “Our parents always talked to us about it (their backgrounds), and Mom is of Chinese-heritage, so we are lucky that we have some of that cultural basis at home.”
Maia said the question of identity only came up when she visited Nicaragua in 2013 with friends, when there were only two Asian-Canadians in the travelling group.
“When you travel, that’s when you realize it sometimes, because local people would ask me questions,” she said. “If people ask, I explain to them I am Canadian, but from their perspective I recognize why they might have questions. … But it’s only when you travel. At home, everyone’s the same.”
The Robinson children mixed feelings about Mandarin — no surprise as the Foreign Service Institute ranks the language as one of the hardest for English-speakers to master, requiring 88 weeks of study to reach functional efficiency — have subsided. Instead, they said they now understand that an additional language — especially one with which they have a cultural connection — will be a great tool for futures.
Maia is interested in going to China to teach English, and she said parents sometimes need to exercise patience when it comes to languages.
“Sometimes, the parents want the children to learn, but the children have to want to learn,” she said. “I used to resent it, but now I get it. … When I go to Chinatown, people would expect me to speak Chinese, assuming that I would know. Now that I am older, I understand it is important to learn the language.”