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Adoptive Parents Embrace Kids' Culture

Families Study Chinese Legacy, Language

By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page GZ16

Standing in front of a group of 4- and 5-year-olds, one of them his daughter, Rick Needler tried to remember the Chinese words for eagles and little chickens so he could act them out.

"Xiao ji, xiao ji," shouted the teacher, Qiu Miao, speaking in Mandarin Chinese. Needler folded his hands into a chicken beak.

Teacher Qiu Miao asks Allison Shu, 4, center, to say the Mandarin word for gloves. At left is Oriana Zwerdling, 4.

"Lao ying, lao ying." Needler hesitated, then flapped his arms like an eagle.

The teacher and class applauded. Needler's daughter, Maggie, loved the language lesson. "Daddy, can we do it at home?" she asked.

Needler and his wife, Melissa Morris, who live Gaithersburg, adopted Maggie, 4, in China two years ago, and now they are trying to embrace her heritage.

On Saturday mornings, about 60 parents -- most of them white -- take their adopted Chinese children to Luxmanor Elementary School in Rockville for cultural and language lessons.

The program, sponsored by the nonprofit Chinese Culture and Community Service Center of Montgomery County, is similar to the weekend "Chinese schools" for immigrant families. Such schools are a rite of passage for many who want their U.S.-born children to take pride in the culture of their ancestors.

But in families with adopted children from China, most of the parents have to make an extra effort. The program for adopted children includes cultural seminars for parents and an adult Chinese-language class. Many parents sit in on their child's class and take notes. The children range in age from 2 to 10.

"It's one meager attempt to keep her in touch with the Chinese culture which she was born into and now separated from," said Needler, 50, an architect. "She doesn't get to hear the language at home like the kids of Chinese American parents do."

In recent years, families such as the Needlers have become a more common sight at Chinese cultural events and programs. Since China began easing restrictions on foreign adoptions in 1992, about 40,000 Chinese adopted children have arrived in the United States. China is the most popular destination for prospective parents because of its efficient adoption system and the availability of healthy babies who have been abandoned at orphanages because of a population control measure that limits many families to one child. Most of the children available for adoption are girls because of Chinese parents' desire for male heirs.

The blended families are giving a new definition to what it means to be Chinese American.

The Chinese Culture and Community Service Center started the special program for families with adopted children in September 2003 after receiving inquiries from parents.

Rita Lewi, a Chinese immigrant and community volunteer who lives in North Potomac, said several families approached her during Lakeforest Mall's Lunar New Year celebration and asked dozens of questions about Chinese culture. Some parents told her that they wanted their children to learn Chinese but that the traditional weekend language schools were too fast-paced and geared toward children whose parents speak Chinese at home.

"It's so touching," Lewi said. "The parents tell me that they promised themselves when they got the babies they want to give them as much as possible. . . . They just want the children to know where they came from. Definitely they know people will ask their children."

The bicultural approach to raising children adopted from another country is a relatively new trend. A generation ago, when children were adopted from Vietnam and Korea after wars left behind thousands of orphans, social workers told parents to assimilate the children.

Some of the adopted children, now grown, are speaking out against assimilation. Several Koreans adopted by white parents have written blistering memoirs, saying they didn't feel comfortable around Korean Americans or non-Koreans.

These days, multiculturalism is more valued, particularly in diverse places such as Montgomery County. More than 28,000 people of Chinese descent were counted in the 2000 Census, an increase of 63 percent since 1990. They are the largest subgroup of Asians, who make up about 11 percent of the county's population

In many ways, some Chinese American families aren't that much different from those formed by adoptions from China.

Although the program at Luxmanor Elementary was intended for adopted Chinese children, several Chinese American families have enrolled. The parents are second- or third-generation Chinese Americans who speak English at home because their Chinese language skills are shaky. There also are children who have one Chinese parent and one non-Chinese.

Maryanne Waller, who helps teach the toddler class, said she appreciates the challenges faced by the parents of adopted Chinese children. Waller is Chinese American, and her husband is black. Their 2-year-old daughter, Mia, attends the school.

"It's hard enough for me to teach my daughter, and I have that [Chinese] background," said Waller, 29, of Rockville. "I think it's amazing that people who don't even have that background make such an effort."

Most of the children probably will never be fluent or even conversant in Chinese, the teachers say. Some of them will balk at giving up their Saturday mornings for a class, especially as they get older.

Waller said those expectations give the program a typical Chinese American experience.

"I went to Chinese school for over 10 years," she said. "Of course I hated it, but I went anyway and made very great friends."

For Deborah Girasek the mere existence of the program is enough.

Like many minority families, white parents of adopted Chinese children say they often experience the stares of strangers. But every Saturday at Luxmanor, Girasek said, she and her ponytailed daughter, Quinn, are like everybody else.

"Quinn has grandparents and parents [in China] she'll never get to meet," said Girasek, a professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda. "But this way, she can see people who look like her. I think it's just wonderful that we have this other family."

The Chinese program has 15 sessions a semester, and tuition ranges from $120 to $225 depending on the length of the classes. For more information, call the Chinese Culture and Community Service Center at 240-631-1200 or send an e-mail to ritalewi@yahoo.com.

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