Friday, September 25, 2015

Family Evolution: The Meaning of Multicultural

I grew up in a multicultural house. My mother was born in the Netherlands. My father, although also of Dutch heritage, was born in Indonesia and spent much of his early years split between those islands and Australia. He brought with him foods, languages, a love of large birds and a unique accent. I was born in New Jersey but my parents raised me Dutch. I learned the language before I learned English, lived the customs and ate traditional foods, which included a number of spicy Indonesian dishes. However, I felt uniquely American too.

I lived in the Netherlands in my early twenties. I loved it–the people, the bikes, the tulips–but as comfortable as I was living there, it wasn’t home to me as it is to my parents, in particular my mom. Home is the U. S. for me. When I married my Greek husband, I added another cultural dimension. As my unpolitically correct Oma (Dutch for grandmother) said when she found out we were getting married, “You know they are not like us.” I never asked for clarification. My husband was born in Thessaloniki, Greece and moved to the United States as an adult. He is an American citizen but like my folks, identifies with his original nationality.

My boys consider themselves Dutch (although they are one more step removed) and Greek but mostly American. That was until their little sister joined the family via Ethiopia. Now they also consider themselves Ethiopian. Adding this culture followed a different process than those we brought with us. Before our daughter completed our family, I knew few specifics about what is uniquely Ethiopian.

So we went about discovering what made up this new branch in our cultural family tree. Our culinary tastes expanded to include injera, wat and berbere. The children’s book author, Jane Kurtz, opened a window into the Ethiopian experience through her moving books. We brought back native music with a distinctive beat and souring vocals. Through YouTube, we even discovered an Ethiopian singer named Fasika Dimitri (two of our children’s names). Our celebrations expanded to include local Ethiopian events with shoulder shimmying dancing I hope my daughter will one day master.

Enjoying a family moment in beautiful Istanbul -- 2015
When I started blogging for, I needed a description for our blended family. I thought of “melting pot” to describe how different cultures come together. My husband preferred the term “salad bowl.” I had never heard this description so I did a little research. Because America may have more varied ethnic groups than any place else, the term melting pot was born to describe this unique multi-ethnicity. Our nation is a large pot with everyone thrown in. Over the years, cultural elements are blended together, or melted, to form the American culture. The expression my husband referenced identifies each culture as an ingredient that contributes to the whole, while retaining its original characteristics rather than blending.

Neither fully represents my experience. My childhood retained elements of Dutch culture. For example, we celebrated Sinterklaas on the eve of December 5th, with wooden shoes on the stairs that were filled with candy when we came down in the morning. We also observed Thanksgiving and July 4th, uniquely American traditions. Similarly, when I joined my life with my husband’s, I gained the concept of name days. Greeks don’t celebrate their birthdays. Rather, they celebrate the day of the saint they were named after. We now have both in our family. Each child has a saint’s name so they can participate. When our daughter came home, she brought new holidays with her too: Ethiopian New Year is September 11th and Christmas is January 7th.

Although both “melting pot” and “salad bowl” describe what it means to be multicultural, I wish there was a concept that captures how your culture becomes richer and deeper when you introduce others to it. I have come to better appreciate the unique aspects as well as the similarities of each culture because my life includes more than one. Each culture had added to our lives and we didn’t want adoption to rob our daughter of her heritage. Instead, we wanted to enrich our family through the inclusion of her culture. I choose to savor, retain and blend all the elements into a unique family culture that celebrates them all.

We have Dutch lullabies, Greek “Se Agapo“ (I love you), American football and soccer loyalties and Ethiopian coffee ceremonies. We have music and artwork representing each country in our home. Our lives are more vibrant for having strands of Dutch, Greek, American and Ethiopian cultures woven into the fabric of our celebrations, expressions and everyday life. And our hearts and minds are open to the many others around the globe.

A version of this post was previous published on InCulture Parent.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Adopting a Culture: Our Family’s Journey to Becoming Ethiopian

When we first decided to adopt, we initially considered China.  We chose that country, in large part, because it was familiar. We knew a number of families who adopted little girls from there.  When that comfortable choice was not an option because of changes to the program, we were faced with the uncertainty of choosing from those countries available to couples our age. A primary factor from the beginning was the health of the child. We knew any choice entailed risks, including having a biological child.  However, we wanted what we felt was best for our family, which included two active young boys.

As we progressed through the adoption process, a secondary, unforeseen priority emerged— the culture of our child’s birth country. When we were pursuing adoption with China, we discussed our limited knowledge and understanding of this culture and the need to educate ourselves and incorporate new customs and traditions into our family.  But we had no idea where to start or how to make that goal a reality.  We knew families where culture did not play much of a day-to-day role in their lives.  But that was not an approach we could embrace.  Culture brings such richness into the fabric of our lives.  And we knew our child’s birthright was an integral part of who they were and what they were bringing into our family.

When we began learning about the similarities between Greek and Ethiopian ways of life, I could instantly envision incorporating this rich, new culture into our mosaic.  It gave us comfort with our decision. I learned modern European scholars considered the name Ethiopia to be derived from the Greek words aitho “I burn” and ops “face”.  Greece and Ethiopia share ancient roots as well as ties to Orthodox Christianity.  A young Ethiopian woman once commented on my blog that she was welcomed into a Greek Orthodox church and community when she moved to a place with a limited Ethiopian footprint, and she remarked on all the parallels too.  I found the symmetry of her experience fascinating.

When we first visited our daughter’s East African birth country, our understanding of the similarities multiplied. Much of the foliage in this nation, we had also seen in the Mediterranean one, which struck me when I tried to understand why I felt so at home in Addis and our daughter’s native Bahir Dar.  Both countries share a focus on family and a fierce national loyalty to a land whose glory days had faded.  I also noticed a certain joyful embrace of the more light-hearted aspects, whether it be the lack of punctuality or certain common foibles.  A board member of Ethiopia Reads commented to my Greek husband, Michael, at a fundraising event, “You know ‘your people’ and ‘my people’ are very similar in neither are good at arriving somewhere at the appointed time.”  Both peoples maintain a belief that the key to solving the toughest national problems involves working together.

As we each experienced our own individual reactions to the adoption process, each family member made the connections between our previous family cultures and this new one in their own unique way. Ethiopia reminds my husband of the Greece in his youth with its challenged infrastructure.  My eldest son did not talk much about the impact his sister had on his own identify.  He liked the idea of having a diverse family and definitely was interested if students or fellow athletes shared his sister’s heritage. But as I was cleaning up one day, I came across his school ID from the first year Leyla was home.  He had taken an Ethiopian stamp and put it on the front of the card next to his picture.  I definitely understood in that moment the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

My middle son, Damian, was more direct.  He asked if he was Ethiopian now because of his sister.  I reasoned, “You are because her culture is part of our family but you might have to explain to people if you tell them so.” He has embraced going to the local Ethiopian Community
 Bahar Dar (Blue Nile Falls) Ethiopia 2014

Gondar Ethiopia 2014
Center. He is often the only non-Ethiopian child and seems oblivious to that fact.  He will enthusiastically create flags and decorations for a New Year or other celebration or just play with the kids.

I took an unorthodox step that demonstrated the extent of my evolution on taking on another culture.  I have an extensive LinkedIn network and join groups of my focus areas or interest.  I joined the Ethiopian Professionals Group.  I introduced myself as the mother of an Ethiopian child who wanted to connect with her culture for her and for our family.  I received the most amazingly warm welcome and truly felt I was a full member where I could both contribute and learn.

When I started this blog, the year after our daughter came home, my goal was to try to give back to this amazing land that gave us our daughter. I planned to raise awareness of both the need and the beauty and use it as a mechanism to learn more.  The name I chose summed up those goals so well.  I discovered a very different sojourn in the years since.  The connections I forged are not just educational in nature or for my child; they have tied our whole family to a diverse group of people involved in some way with her culture whether as their birth country or from their own love of it.

As I heard from an actress on Twitter, “Ethiopia has a way of bringing people together.”  So true, I found. I can now count an Ethiopian actress, artist and poet as important people in my life.  I now call a writer who grew up in Ethiopia and tirelessly advocates for literacy progress there both a friend and an inspiration.  When you bring a child that doesn’t share your biology into your heart, we call this “adopting a child.”  For us, that process also meant “adopting a culture.”  Our connection to Ethiopia continues to expand and grow, affirming our choice. 

A version of this post previously published on InCulture Parent.