When asked to write about maintaining your internationally adopted child’s culture and identity, my first thought was, “You can’t.” Call me the glass half empty person. I go around worrying every moment about my son and his identity. Believe me, no one has thought this through more than me.
We were approved for international adoption in the UK. Our learning required us to read and reflect on how to maintain the identity of an Ethiopian child. But adoption is like crossing a bridge. One minute I was on one side just reading about it. The next minute I had crossed over to the other side where there’s an actual child. That side, I found out, is a messy, swampy zone, filled with beautiful moments and laughter, but you might also trip and break your leg.
We arrived back in London with our son, aged 18 months, during a grey, post-Christmas, January. It should have been a relief, but my first realization about becoming a parent was, “But he won’t be Ethiopian anymore.”
What we can’t do as adoptive parents
For the first 3 months, I cried over it. I’ve spent the last 4 years considering my son’s culture and identity and here’s my conclusion: I can’t make him Ethiopian. I was kidding myself in any adoption preparation that I could. I had to accept there would probably be adoption identity issues at some point.
There’s a need for transracial adoptive parents to do a lot of work around their child’s culture, but it can reach unrealistic levels at times. I actually do aspire to improve my own Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia), having lived there twice and having enjoyed learning the language, but the idea that I’m going to settle down to this once my son is asleep after 9 pm and before I fold the laundry…Let’s be honest, I sink into the bath with my Ayurvedic “Peace” tea or a nice glass of white wine instead.
Our black social worker agreed. I couldn’t create a separate identity from our own for our child. “But you can show it to him,” she said. Gloomily, I accepted he would probably end up, well, err, a Londoner. Half of London is from somewhere else anyway these days. There’s something to be said for just going around and trying to be yourselves.
What we can do as adoptive parents
Having got that off my chest, we do loads of things to shown him his culture and to instill in him a sense of pride in where he’s from. It helps that both of us parents have a real connection and love for Ethiopia too, so it all comes from the heart, so to speak. And we’re a household of other cultures too: I am English woman in London with my roots in the industrial north and my husband is French.
Here are just a few of the things we do.
We kept his original name
Name changes on adoption might seem like a joyful thing. Something that helps seal a child into your family. Yet many adult adoptees have spoken about how much they have struggled with this. Name changes can feel synonymous with the other missing parts of their identity.
Keeping an original name isn’t always an easy choice. It’s just easier to have a name that you don’t need to say twice out loud before people get it. A lot of his black and South Asian heritage peers seem to have very English names these days. I guess their parents may have just liked those names, but it’s well known that it will make it easier to get job interviews in adult life.
Cultural displacement isn’t easy with or without adoption and it can start right along with your name.
Ethiopian food felt like a trite offering at first. The passing of time (and many mountains of shiro, a Ethiopian lentil stew) have changed my mind on this.
Ethiopian cuisine is one of those very Ethiopian things that spins on its own axis, without care or nod to anything else. The spongy, grey-brown, fermented, flannel-like bread, injera, comes as giant discs. An array of highly spiced stews is sploshed on top from bubbling clay pots. For many “ferenji” or foreigners, appreciation of this fiery cuisine is a process.
It’s a joy to see my son plunge his hand into a plate of Ethiopian food and still savour the sour taste of the injera and the strips of fried beef.
Food is so intrinsically linked with our emotions and with the national psyche. Ethiopians often use food as a gesture of friendship towards our son, be it some injera from one of his daycare workers or the restaurant proprietor ensuring he has an extra large portion of his favorite yellow split pea dish.
If food be the music of love, play on.
Which brings me on to…
Ethiopian restaurants are generally very welcoming towards us as a family. Staff are very kind to my son, although when he was little they would sometimes just pick him up without asking. This was disconcerting to him and left us wondering if they really accepted we were parenting him now. However, we’ve met and made friends with other Ethiopian families in this way.
There was, however, one establishment when the matriarchal proprietor took one look at us and said, “I don’t approve.”
Apart from that, all good.
Which brings me on to…
Ethiopia has around 84 different ethnic groups, but the most common ones have distinctive features: skin the color of a hazelnut shell and wide, oval, expressive eyes. Ethiopians passing in the street will usually acknowledge us and extend a friendly hand. Making Ethiopian friends has been fairly easy. Pre-pandemic, we attended events organised by the diaspora such as sports events or national celebration days.
It can feel awkward at first. There’s always the thing in the back of my mind that some people will disapprove but overwhelmingly in fact, people have been nice.
Celebrating cultural days
Important holidays in the Ethiopian calendar include New Year (celebrated in September), Orthodox Christmas, and Timkat (Epiphany).
We mark these days as best as we can. Sometimes we just order in Ethiopian food. Sometimes we throw a small party. Sometimes we might get the other adoptees together or decorate a cake.
Orthodox Christmas falls around the 7th of January. Doing a celebration straight after Christmas can feel a little exhausting, but it always turns out worthwhile and it’s an excuse to keep the Christmas tree up until then.
Things around the home
Objects do not maketh the man. However, I recently heard an adult transracial adoptee say how much she would have liked to see things from her culture of origin celebrated around her home.
You can bring any pile of stuff back from travels, but in the age of Ebay and Etsy, you can order any number of items from around the globe. Ethiopia has an increasing number of high quality artisans these days making things such as Sabahar textiles.
At home, we have muslin scarves as wall hangings, art, a Sabahar bedspread, the traditional coffee pots known as jebena, and various other things strewn around.
My son is very musical, but curiously, he does not seem enamoured by the pentatonic tunes of the music or the jazz bands that have proliferated from Ethiopia. He’s been known to beg to leave a live performance. He does however love the children’s music and loves to shake his moves to the accompanying videos on Youtube.
People, places, history
Ethiopia has a rich, exciting history. A 1000 year dynasty of kings descended from Solomon. Ethiopia is the only African country never to have been colonized.
Perseverance and training at altitude have consistently produced the best long-distance runners in the world, the most famous being Haile Gebre Selassie. Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian, won this year’s Booker Prize. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian, is Director General of the World Health Organization leading the world’s medical community through the pandemic.
And so on.
Pre-COVID 19, Ethiopia was Africa’s fastest growing economy, yet many Westerners still view the country through the lines of 1984 and the famine. It’s really important to me that my son does not soak up those views. Most Ethiopians are proud of their culture and I want him to feel the same.
Finding the way in to talk history to a 5 year old is hard, especially in the absence of simple books to read. Ethiopians simply relate the stories orally to their children. A way in unexpectedly presented itself recently. We were reading Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison when we happened upon John Robinson, one of the first black American aviators.
The book recounted how Robinson volunteered to join the Ethiopian army and build its airforce when Italy invaded in 1935. This neatly segued us into a discussion of the previous Italian attempt to invade Ethiopia in 1896. The famous Battle of Adwa took place in Ethiopia’s mountainous north. Adwa saw an inferiorly equipped, but incensed Ethiopian army drive out the would-be invading Italians. Adwa Day is now a day of Ethiopian national celebration and pride.
During the conversation with my son, we looked at paintings of the battles, noting the warrior Empress Taitu leading her own soldiers and brandishing her revolver. My son was captivated by the story. I guess it helps to be prepared here with your history homework.
I dream of writing books for children on history like this, but as you know, I have way too much laundry to fold.
A trip back “home”: The biggie
As you know by now, you can’t make a kid Ethiopian by taking him on holiday, so I had low expectations of this trip.
The first week, everyone struggled. It was hard to tell if my son was just enormously jet lagged, having sensory overwhelm, or if something was triggered for him inside.
I guess it’s not an easy trip for any child. There was a Swedish mom on a work trip who had brought her whole family along. The kids had a trip out to the roundabout at the hotel entrance and then never left the hotel again.
There was a low point mid-trip when the whining reached cataclysmic levels that had me ready to go to the airline office and bring forward our flights back home. There was a political protest brewing, I had been chased around the hotel compound by irate monkeys and being the worst parents ever, we had lost my son’s comforter.
Somehow, we regrouped from week one. Week two was a resounding success. He loved playing with the children of our Ethiopian friends, the hotel, the food, and riding around in various vehicles and being impressed by the domestic planes.
It was hard work, but the trip seems to have been the thing that made most of an impression upon him. I expect his views will change as he gets older, but for now he hassles us regularly as to when he can go back.
Recently we ate out in a restaurant in a small and very white Yorkshire town. My son had charmed the waitress and announced to her he was Ethiopian.
I could see the waitress computing this, possibly the town’s first ever Ethiopian visitor. Often the first thing people still ask is if Ethiopians have enough to eat. Instead, she paused and saw the proud look in his eye and smiled and said, “Very good.”
For now, the cultural work is going well for us, although like every mom, I never feel like I am doing enough. I expect my son’s views will wax and wane as he gets older and that there will be adoption issues in later life. And what mom isn’t dreading the teenage years? Let me get back to you once we’ve done those.