10 Steps for China Adoption Homeland Tour
Chinese Adoption PicturesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Most families that have adopted internationally think about taking their child back to visit their home country. Our family has adopted two of our five children from China, and we took our whole family of seven to China for six weeks in the summer of 2013.
My husband and I did a lot of preparing for this trip and I wanted to offer some of what we learned for other parents considering taking a homeland trip with their adopted Chinese children. Although my information will focus on Chinese adoption, I believe many of these ideas would apply to any international adoption.
If you are interested in the details of our trip, you can see them on my Homeland Trip Blog.
What Can You Do to Prepare for a Trip?
I think that every parent planning a trip should read From Home to Homeland: What Adoptive Families Need to Know Before Making a Return Trip to China, edited by Debra Jacobs, Iris Chin Ponte and Leslie Kim Wang. The book has essays from many different people and covers all aspects of a return trip, from getting ready, to preparing to travel, to visiting in the country, to coming home. Most helpful throughout are the perspectives of the people who have led many trips of returning parents and the perspective of adoptees themselves, some of whom are also adoptive parents. Here are the topics in the book:
CHOOSING GROUP OR INDEPENDENT TRAVEL
MAKING CONNECTIONS IN CHINA
VISITING THE ORPHANAGE, FINDING SITE AND FOSTER FAMILY
TRAVELING WITH CHILDREN WHO FACE EMOTIONAL CHALLENGES
PRIMARY SOURCES: ADOPTEES' OWN EXPERIENCES OF RETURNING TO CHINA
EXTENDING THE TRIP: LIVING IN CHINA TEMPORARILY
HOME AGAIN: LASTING IMPACT OF THE TRIP
THOUGHTS FOR FURTHER INQUIRY: WHAT THE RESEARCH TELLS US
From Home to Homeland
1. Going on a China Homeland Trip is Important.
I learned this first from the experience of some friends who discovered that after their homeland tour their daughter was a significantly different person, who appreciated what they had done in adopting her and more firmly felt she was a part of their family. However, I think that even when a child has seemed to fit seamlessly into their life in America, a trip to China is an important way for them to connect to their past and appreciate their heritage. Our children, birth and adopted, are all excited to claim China as "their country" through our trip.
2. Take Some Time to Prepare
Knowing we were planning to make a homeland trip, I decided to get some information from people who had already traveled. One of the things I learned from my reading was how to talk about the trip with my children. Reading books, talking with people who have already traveled, going to seminars and watching homeland trip videos are all good ways to prepare.
I purchased Home to Homeland and some adoption videos about a year before going on your trip. We also attended Dillon Adoption agency's yearly "China Camp" for adopted children and their parents. If you can't make a homeland journey for a while, you might want to consider attending a short China camp with Dillon or another agency.
Dillon's camp also offers seminars for parents. I attended an excellent seminar about the experience of taking adopted children back to China. I was very glad I'd gotten this information and some of the perspectives of parents and tour organizers because it has definitely made us change our plans. If you are planning an adoption trip, I strongly suggest reading From Home to Homeland.
3. The Best Time to Go is Before they are Teenagers.
I learned this through the Dillon seminar. Children who are around 8-11 are still in a concrete stage of thinking. They tend to take things as they are on the surface and that makes them enjoy the experience of being in China without having to think about it too deeply. Taking children at this concrete thinking stage means that they will be able to enjoy being Chinese and enjoy the attention they get at being Americans.
Many Korean adoptees were sent back to Korea for a graduation gift after high school. This actually proved to be a rather difficult experience for them because at that age they had so many questions about who they were and what it meant to be adopted. We will be taking our girls when they are 11 and 8.
Adoptive Teens Homeland Journey
Video of homeland journey of adoptive teens.
4. Plan to Go More than Once if Possible.
My husband and I traveled on business to China together after our adoption (without the children) and I found that experience was much different and deeper than when I was on an adoption tour. That helped me to understand the advice I heard about trying to make more than one trip to China.
I was especially impressed in the Home to Homeland book by an essay by an adoptee who discussed how multiple journeys at different ages helped her to think through her adoption experience differently and more deeply each time. We plan to take our girls back when they are teenagers and also when they are in college. On our first trip, we included a week working at an orphanage called New Day. That gave our girls a chance to see what life in an orphanage was like without having to process the experience of going to their own orphanage.
5. Think Carefully about Whether to Visit the Orphanage and Abandonment Site.
If you think this trip will be the only one you make, you may feel you need to include this, but if you do be sure to be prepared for the possibility of meeting someone who actually knew about your daughter's birth parents. One of the leaders of the Dillon seminar was with parents when they accidentally did encounter birth parents on an adoption trip. Without giving details, she indicated that the experience was upsetting and something the family regretted. She said that it was important to think through carefully if you were ready for that and what you wanted out of that.
Neither of my daughters wanted to go to their orphanage and I decided not to press that issue after talking with the leader of adoption heritage trips and reading Home to Homeland. Instead, we arranged to spend a week volunteering in an orphanage for special needs children outside of Beijing. That was a very positive experience and gave us not only the chance to see orphanage life, but also the opportunity to live in a smaller village for a week and get to know some of the people there.
Game day at Dillon's China Camp
6. Be Sure to Separate Your Need for Information from What Your Child Needs.
On both of my orphanage yahoo groups, parents have been talking having their daughters take DNA tests and trying to locate birth parents. Personally, I'm not sure this is a good idea and I think it often has more to do with the adopted parent's desires than their children's curiosity. In fact, one of the moms was clear that her daughter was not interested in this topic at all.
My husband is a molecular biologist and he told me years ago (when we adopted) that the DNA tests would eventually probably be able to identify birth parents if the people wanted to be found and if the political situation made that possible. So our children may be able to look for their birth parents when they are adults if they want to do that.
One thing that has helped me think through this question is the perspective of a friend who was adopted herself, and who has also adopted from China. Her adoptive mother died from cancer when she was 15 and she later did find her birth parents, whom she remains in contact with today. However, one thing she has said has really stuck with me. She said that there are many things about herself that she recognizes as having come from her birth parents, but that all the things she likes about herself came from her adopted parents.
I found that encouraging because it made me realize that it is what we do as adoptive parents, our parenting, which makes our children who they are.
Video of One Homeland Journey
7. Allow Yourself and Your Child to Feel Sad
Adoption means loss. For Chinese adoptive parents, there is the loss of the first months or years of their child's life. Sometimes there is also the loss of being able to have birth children. For the Chinese adoptees, there are multiple reasons to feel a loss. Home to Homeland has many stories of how families experienced this loss and also ideas of how to handle it. One suggestion I read in the book was, I thought, very helpful for a child who wanted to somehow give a message to birth parents. It was to make a poster of the child with their adoption photo and a recent one and have a message written in Mandarin saying something like, "This child was found on (date) and is now adopted and lives in America and has a happy life."
Since we did not go to my daughters' orphanage cities on this trip, we did not do this, but I did tell my daughters about this idea because I thought that just having that idea that they could give a message to their birth parents would be helpful. When I told my ten-year-old about it, she did not seem interested but I could tell that she thought about that possibility and I think the suggestion will be something I can bring up later in order to draw us into talking about her feelings of loss.
8. It Helps to Learn Some Mandarin Before You Go
Two years ago, my husband and I went on a business trip together to China. My husband loves to learn languages and had convinced me that we should learn Mandarin beforehand. Although I really hadn't studied very hard using the Pimsleur tapes, I was amazed at what a difference in made in my ability to communicate and enjoy being in China.
We went for two weeks by ourselves without a guide. Although we had a Chinese professor from our University arrange our hotels and some meetings for us, we traveled around on buses and the subway by ourselves. It was sometimes challenging but very exhilarating to make our way. After coming home, we worked harder at our Mandarin and were ready for our homeland trip. Although we still don't have conversational Mandarin, the little we did learn helped us to make our way around China for the six weeks we were there. Most of the time, we did not have a guide, and many days we did not meet any English speaking people.
Most families won't want to go on their own or be quite as adventurous as we were, but even knowing a little Mandarin will make the experience more comfortable and interesting for you and your children. You are investing a lot of financial capital in this trip, so it is worth it to prepare to know a little of the language and also to get a few good phrasebooks to help you out.
Homeland TourClick thumbnail to view full-size
9. Read Some Books and Watch Movies to Be Prepared for the Experience.
Even if you don't work on any language skills, you definitely will get more out of your experience if you read some books and/or watch some movies before you go. You might even want to download some movies about different places you are going to visit to watch on the plane ride there, or in the hotel room. Also, there is a wonderful English Language bookstore on Wangfujing Avenue in Beijing which has a lot of great books about different places in China. However, it is actually less expensive to order some on Amazon before you go. I've included a few that I especially have enjoyed.
10. Make China a Part of Your Whole Family's Heritage
As Americans, we often leave most of our cultural roots far behind. For many years, I taught students in California whose parents were from many different Asian nations. These children were often the interpreters for parents who never learned English, and I watched them adeptly learn to become "American" while still trying to retain some aspect of their home culture. Too soon, most American kids become much more "American" than anything else, sometimes to the dismay of their first generation parents.
Although I am not French or Irish, since I married a husband who is, I have adopted his cultural heritage into my own German/Scottish background. In the same way, when we adopted our children from China, we made it a goal to have our whole family adopt Chinese language, culture, and food. In fact, my oldest birth daughter is the one most interested in learning about Chinese and China and hopes to work there in an orphanage during the summer while she is in college years.
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