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International Adoption

Parents with internationally adopted children fuse cultures within a single home

January 24, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Chris and Amy Earhart play with Ava Mei Thursday morning Dec. 6, 2012 at their house in Columbia, Mo. They adopted Ava Mei about two years ago from Taiwan. Photograph by Yi-Chin LeePhotograph by Yi-Chin Lee.Photograph by Yi-Chin LeeCurt and Linda Wholeber host a house party with their adopted son Zeri Saturday night Dec. 8, 2012 at their house in Columbia, Mo. Curt and Linda adopted Zeri five years ago when he was 2. Photograph by Yi-Chin Lee.Photograph by Yi-Chin Lee. Linda and Zeri are having injera, a traditional Ethiopian sponge bread which Ethiopians have with every meal. Photograph by Yi-Chin Lee.

Ava Earhart isn’t ready for nap time. Her jet-black hair, fashioned in pigtails, flops from side to side as she giggles, revealing a wide, baby-toothed smile.

“Daddy!” the 2-year-old happily shrieks when her father walks into the living room. She wraps her tiny body around his legs.

Chris Earhart smiles down at her and is paralyzed by the grip. He persuades Ava to pick out a book before “night-night.” She stumbles backward but catches herself before running into the back bedroom.

Nap time is a process. Chris’ and Ava’s elated murmurs can be heard from the kitchen table. Ava must like the book she picked out.

Ava’s toys are all stowed away neatly. Among these playthings, Mandarin puzzles and Ni Hao Kai-Lan books stand out. To Chris and Amy, it is important that Ava grow up understanding that she is Taiwanese and they are not.

Ava is one of 422 foreign children who have been adopted by Missouri families over the past two years according to the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs. More than 158,244 children have found homes in the U.S. over the past eight years, but as individual countries’ regulations have changed and the process becomes more costly, more families are discouraged from pursuing these adoptions. In December, for example, Russia enacted a ban against future adoptions. The U.S. has seen a significant decline in intercountry adoptions since 2004.

To Christine Corcoran, the director of Lutheran Family and Children’s Services in Columbia, the intercountry adoption process can put families through unexpected roadblocks.

“Every country beats to the beat of their own drum,” she says. “And they choose to perform or not perform adoptions.”

Corcoran has served as the director of Lutheran for the past decade. Every year, her agency provides home studies, counseling and placement advice for 90 to 100 mid- Missouri families pursuing both domestic
and international adoption. She says despite the service’s Hague accreditation, which is an international agreement to regulate intercountry adoptions, it is still at the mercy of the foreign adoption agencies’ temperamental guidelines. Lengthy application processes and expenses aside, Corcoran feels the best way she can prepare families is counseling them for what lies ahead — parenthood.

“We always say that we don’t want to scare families,” she says. “But we want them to be overprepared.”

Part of gearing up for parenthood involves counseling international adoptive parents on how to incorporate their child’s cultural background into everyday life. At Lutheran, staff encourage exposure to a child’s culture from an early age.

“We all go through this task of identity formation where we try to figure out who we are,” says Colleen Colaner, an assistant professor of communications at MU.

“Adoptees have this added task of factoring their adoption into that story."

Colaner, an adoptive parent herself, focused a large part of her research on adoptive identity, which is an individual’s understanding of what it means to be an adopted person. In her most recent study, she monitored how adoptive parent communication affects a child’s identity formation.

“There’s a lot of individual differences; some people naturally want to know a lot about their adoption, and others are OK with not knowing as much,” she says. “It’s about finding that ‘goodness of fit’ for your child.”

Like the Earharts, Curt and Linda Wohleber encourage cultural transparency. Zeri was 2 years old when the Wohlebers adopted him from Ethiopia — old enough to respond to his new cultural environment.

“He had no autonomy,” Curt says, recalling his son’s state when the family arrived in Missouri five years ago. “He had been moved from his birth family to different facilities, an airplane and now this weird place with white stuff on the ground, and most people have pale skin.”

Their living room bears cultural remembrances to Zeri’s birthplace. Ethiopian woven baskets, African dolls and artwork enliven the space. The Wohlebers go to great lengths to make his cultural identity present through events with other Ethiopian adoptive families, but they let Zeri determine how much he wants to incorporate his culture into his life.

“Can you point out Ethiopia on the map?” Linda asks her son, now 7.

Zeri stares at the continent of Africa and jabs at the horn-shaped country before retreating down the hallway. The rambunctious first-grader, clad in a Batman T-shirt, has enough energy to power a small neighborhood. It’s fitting that his favorite subject in school is gym. He enters in and out of conversation as his parents speak openly about his Ethiopian roots.

Zeri plays with his father’s iPad on the couch and pretends not to listen to what his parents are talking about. It’s the occasional bit of their conversation that catches his attention.

“He wasn’t used to running water, so he was trying to stick his head in the toilet,” Linda says.

“Everything was new and interesting,” Curt adds.

“Wait, I put my head in the toilet?” Zeri asks, pausing his game.

“You tried,” Linda says, laughing.

“Did I?” he asks. His voice spikes in volume.

“I caught you,” Linda says.

Zeri laughs hysterically and returns to his game.

In Colaner’s research, sharing details, regardless of how silly they are, is what makes parental communication crucial in the self-identity formation process.

“In studies, people who always knew they were adopted are more likely to be satisfied with their adoptions,” she says.

The ultimate goal for adoptive parents, according to leading psychologist Harold Grotevant, is for their child to have a developed adoptive identity. This means people incorporate their adoption into their sense of self, but it’s balanced with other aspects of identity such as gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. What complicates the formation of adoptive identity are added layers of differentness. These layers refer to vague information about genealogical roots, understanding an ethnic background, or in some instances fitting into a family that physically differs from them.

The Earharts have made a point to surround Ava with people who look like her. One of her babysitters is Asian, and whenever they travel to Joplin to visit Chris’ family, they visit families that have also adopted from the same orphanage in Taiwan. Linda has done the same, purposely taking her son, Zeri, to a pool where she is in the minority. One day, she was wading through the water when she noticed another white woman with a boy who looked Ethiopian.

“I went over and introduced myself and found out that he was not only Ethiopian, he was from the same tribe as Zeri,” Linda says. Kerry Mullin, the mother of 3-year-old Taygen Givan, was there for the same reason, to surround her son with people who looked like him.

Zeri was a toddler when he asked his mom why he had brown skin and she did not.

“As a parent you have to answer it clearly, acknowledging that he is from Africa, and we are not,” Linda says.

Colaner says: “There should never be a time that they found out that they were adopted. It should be that they always knew.”

Kerry has dealt with similar queries from Taygen. She answers them directly, but she believes this openness has created a whole new dilemma for her 4-year-old biological daughter, Piper, who now habitually asks every other black person she sees if he or she is also from Ethiopia.

“I guess it’s confusing when your little brother hears it all the time,” Kerry says. “It’s hard to explain to kids.” So far, everyone who’s heard Piper’s question has taken it lightly.

For parents of adoptive kids, however, there are some questions that are not easy to hear.

“Are you babysitting?” someone asked Linda at the grocery store.

“Is that your real daughter?” Amy once heard.

And in front of Kerry, a librarian asked her son, “Where’s your mother?”

The adoption pamphlets don’t offer advice on how to handle these questions.

“Sometimes you deal with people who say, ‘Why didn’t her real mom want her?’” Amy says.

“And we just try to do education when that happens; we know that people don’t mean anything by it. But when my child is there, I have to think about it.”

Colaner attributes a large part of the problem to minimal exposure to interracial families in less diversified parts of the U.S. She finds that a lack of communication about a heterogeneous society yields ignorant and occasionally offensive remarks.

“These families face these external challenges where they have to legitimize their family through their communication,” she says, pinpointing cases similar to those experienced by the Earharts, Givans and Wohlebers. On top of adoptive parents playing a pivotal role in their child’s adoptive identity, they have to deal with not looking like the societal norm when seeking a familial identity.

Zeri sits back in his chair and fidgets with the food on his plate. He tears away at the injera, an Ethiopian sponge-like bread used to scoop up food, and puts a chunk into his mouth.

“Hot!” he exclaims. “Spicy! Ah!”

Linda laughs and hands Zeri his cup of water, but he bravely dismisses it.

“I like it,” he says. There’s a mischievous look in his eyes, and he goes for another bite. “Hot! Ah!”

His mother sits on the ground beside him and remembers the times when Zeri would only eat Ethiopian meals. Five years later, he has uncovered a love for pancakes and hot dogs, but tonight at their Ethiopian dinner party this 7-year-old is showing off his distinguished palette. Linda intently listens to Zeri as they eat. Her love for her son is clear in her doting gaze.

Both Linda and Kerry express the importance of their roles as adoptive parents. To them, nothing can compare to this life-changing experience.

“There are so many kids who need homes,” Linda says. “So if you’re thinking about being a parent, consider adoption.”

The Earharts echo this sentiment. “We just felt that God was leading us to adopt internationally rather than domestically,” Amy says. “But that still doesn’t discredit our support for either one.” She and Chris are in the process of adopting their second child from Taiwan, which means Ava will be a big sister within the next few years.

As for Zeri, Ethiopia is his place of origin; Columbia is his home. His parents continue to incorporate his ethnicity into everyday life, but ultimately it’s their son that will be calling the shots.

“Do you want to go back to Ethiopia, Zeri?”

“Yeah, I want to because they would make me famous,” Zeri says. “Even if I only had $5, I’d still be famous.”

“I don’t know about that,” Curt says.

“Oh yes, I will,” he says. “You’ll just see about that.”

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