Challenges of Raising Adopted Children in Shanghai

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Four-year-old Jason is your average American expat child. He loves Bob the Builder, Dora the Explorer and gets really excited when American Idol is on. He lives in an expat enclave in Jinqiao. His first language is English. And while he hasn’t started on Mandarin formally yet, his parents Robert and Holly Hulse expect he will when he starts kindergarten at an international school next year.

Yes, Jason is your average American kid. What makes his story different is that he was born in Pudong to Chinese parents and put up for adoption. The Hulses (who are Caucasian) adopted him at eight months old. So Jason is ethnically Chinese growing up as an American expat in China with his ethnically European parents and siblings. Now say that 10 times fast.

“He will truly be a hybrid-culture child,” says dad, Robert Hulse. And it’s true in more ways than one. Not only is he essentially a “third culture kid” as an American in China, he’s Chinese growing up American in China.

There are a number of expat families raising adopted Chinese children in Shanghai – though it’s not necessarily by design. For Americans Randi Ponek and her husband, raising their daughters in Shanghai has been purely coincidental. “It’s just that this is where the jobs are,” she says. Living in their children’s birth culture is, to Ponek, simply an added bonus.

Regardless of where they reside, families brought together through international adoption have to deal with questions of culture. What aspects of their children’s birth culture should they transmit? How should they teach it? Some even ask whether they should teach it all.

And, of course, all families have to deal with the usual innocently insensitive questions. Queries from friends and classmates like “What are you?” And “Why didn’t your real mom keep you?”

But families raising a child in that child’s birth culture must grapple with cultural questions in a much different way than those who adopt abroad and return to their home country.

For one, they have to contend with the local population. “We’re barraged with questions,” says Ponek. “They look at us and say, ‘Your kids look Chinese.’ They think your husband is Chinese. They’re astounded that 5,000 Chinese children per year go to the U.S.”  

And it brings up the question of identity – both cultural and national – at an earlier age. “It forces the question of, ‘Are you Chinese or American?” says Ponek. “It forces the issue of talking about the adoptive status more.”

In response, Ponek says they have worked with their children on “owning their story” earlier than they might have at home. Owning their story means understanding how their family came together and being able to explain it.

Even so, Ponek says her older daughter will still sometimes say, “I don’t know what I am.” But she’s comfortable with her own story and that’s the important part. “Our kids are here and understand China.”   

But perhaps the most debatable – and thought-provoking – question for families with children from China is how much Chinese culture is appropriate for their Chinese child. Should they learn Mandarin? How much Chinese history and culture should they be exposed to? What’s the balance between their birth and adopted cultures? These are questions every family must ask and answer individually. And there’s no right or wrong.

The Hulses, for example, are taking an organic rather than structured approach with Jason. “We don’t deliberately pick and choose what parts of the culture to transmit,” says Mr. Hulse. “We’ll go where he wants to go when he starts asking questions.”

To Hulse, just like Jason’s American-born siblings, he’ll absorb those elements of Chinese culture that interest him. And his parents will be there to help him answer whatever questions he has. “[As a non-Chinese parent] you wouldn’t be teaching Chinese culture, you’d be picking what you [personally] want to transmit. If I choose those elements, I’m painting a world that’s partial,” says Hulse.  

Ponek considers learning the Chinese language her daughters’ birthright, but is very clear that even if her children were biological she would raise them exactly the same – bilingual in English and Chinese.

As for culture, her daughters are learning about Chinese culture but are not culturally Chinese. “Their culture is their parents’ culture,” says Ponek.

But whether a child is adopted or not, just being an expat child creates a cultural mish-mash. The Hulses’ two biological children – one a high school junior and the other a freshman – have grown up overseas. So, if the family were to return in the next few years to the U.S., Jason would ultimately have more direct exposure to American culture than his U.S.-born siblings. Says Hulse: “It’s mind-bending.”

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