American families adopting children from Asia

Eight-year-old Anya Donicht is focused on a computer game as her parents Kay and John sit on a couch in their Denver home. Anya’s art work is scattered around the room and household, while a colorful kimono hangs over their mantle where a framed photo of the day the couple first met Anya sits.

“She always makes fun of us,” Kay Donicht said. “She says, ‘I can’t believe you graduated from college and don’t speak a word of Mandarin.’”

<p>The Donichts adopted Anya from an orphanage in China when she was 11 months old. The couple went through an 18-month process to adopt Anya when they lived in Chicago in February 2004. Kay also has a 26-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son from a previous marriage. Kay pulls out photos of the smiling “blended” family.</p>

Now Anya attends Denver Montclair International School where she is immersed in a bilingual education and is learning Mandarin Chinese. She loves games, art and is currently learning how to play chess. John Donicht calls his daughter “a little mathematician.” In addition to Anya’s artwork, the Donicht home is furnished with décor from all over to the world to make sure Anya is comfortable with her heritage.

She identifies more as Chinese than American,” said Kay Donicht. “She thinks it’s very special that she’s Chinese, and we don’t do anything to enforce that.”

The family’s effort to connect their daughter to her heritage is not uncommon with modern families with adopted children from Asia. Rather than delaying telling a child the story of his or her adoption, families are choosing to share the stories as soon as can. Families are also choosing to immerse their adopted children in the traditions of their birthplaces. Consequently, this cultural embracement has brought endless positive outcomes for families.

A One of a Kind Adoption Agency
“Being familiar with root heritage is very important for healthy growth and self-esteem,” said Joshua Zhong, co-founder of Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI).

CCAI is the first Chinese owned and operated U.S. agency specializing in Chinese adoptions. Based in Centennial, Colo., the agency has helped over 9,000 children from China find homes since its establishment in 1992. Zhong and his wife Lily Nie never thought they would have their own adoption agency when they first came to the U.S. for him to further his education.

“We came from a society where adoption wasn’t talked about,” said Zhong.

<p>Orphanages were full of abandoned baby girls due to strict enforcement of China’s one child per household law in 1992. In turn, the Chinese government became more open to foreign adoption. Zhong and Nie, astonished by the conditions of orphanages, decided they needed to do something to help.

“Americans are very loving people,” Zhong said. “And they are very open to adoption due to their religion, culture and economic condition. When there are children in need, they respond.”

The popularity of foreign adoption caused the Chinese government to relax their one child per family law in the last few years. The wait for a healthy Chinese child can be to up to five years. The wait for a special needs child is shorter—up to 18 months. There are fewer healthy children up for adoption in China than in previous years, so people learn to be patient, Zhong said.

May Chang said waiting for almost two years for her daughter Abby was one of the biggest setbacks in the adoption process. They finally traveled to China to bring the 7-month-old girl home in July 2008.

“My husband almost gave up hope, but when you finally get that match, it is really life-changing,” Chang said. “It is worth the wait.”

In 1996, CCAI established the Joyous Chinese Cultural Center, a place for adoptees to come and learn Mandarin and Chinese traditions including dances, song and games. The agency is the only one in the U.S. to run a cultural center.

“We want to make sure children don’t feel lonely in a white neighborhood,” said Zhong.

Sharing the Adoption Story
Laurie Ritchie said six years of Chinese school at the Joyous Chinese Cultural Center for her daughter Dana was valuable exposure to her culture and helped spark interest. It was also a great place to make lifelong friends.

Dana and her 8-year-old sister Kelly were both adopted from China. Ritchie thinks adoption stories need to become part of families’ natural conversations.

“It is important to tell your kids their adoption story as infants, even before they know what you are saying. By the time they can, you will be comfortable telling it,” said Ritchie.

Dana, adopted at 12 months old, had gross motor delays that were resolved with short term physical therapy. Now 11-years old, she loves art, writing and music; she practices the violin, flute and piano. Kelly, who had speech therapy from ages 3 to 6, loves sports and “worships the ground Dana walks on,” Ritchie said. She enjoys tennis, golf, baseball and soccer.

Ritchie said it is important to realize adoption does not define an individual.

“Your kids are kids first,” she said. “Being adopted is part of who they are, but not all of who they are. It doesn’t define them.”

Ritchie said the family has every book ever written about Chinese culture or adoption. They are planning a trip to China next June. She said it was valuable to take Dana to China to adopt Kelly. Heritage trips are becoming more and more common among families with adopted children.

Emily Quinn, 17, traveled to China at age 11 with her family. She visited her hometown and the orphanage she was adopted from.

“It made me realize how fortunate I am to be adopted and how lucky I am that my parents found me,” she said. “It also brought me closer to my culture and made me want to learn more in the future.”

Kay Donicht took Anya to China on a business trip and felt that it helped her daughter identify with being Chinese.

An Annual Family Reunion at Camp
Heritage Camps for Adopted Families, formerly Colorado Heritage Camps (CHC), is all about facilitating positive self-identities in adopted children through culturally infused camp experiences and providing post-adoption support to families. There are 11 annual heritage camps:  Korean, Vietnamese, African/Caribbean, Cambodian, Chinese  I and II, Filipino, Indian/Nepalese, Latin American, and REECA (Russian/Eastern European/Central Asian). A camp for families with domestic adoptees debuts this summer.

At the camp, adoptees and their families participate in cultural activities, meet and interact with other families and generate feelings of self-esteem and pride. The Chinese camps are still the largest with over 200 families on the waiting list.

Pam Sweetser, executive director and co-founder of the non-profit says cultural un derstanding is detrimental to an adopted child’s identity. She and her husband have a 25-year-old daughter adopted from Korea and a 22-year-old son adopted from India.

Sweetser is amazed to report that the CHC has grown from one camp in 1991 for 60 families with adopted children from Korea to the only resource in Colorado that provides 11 different camps for over 900 families from all over the U.S. This summer is the 20th anniversary of the Korean Heritage Camp.

“It went from a big family reunion to a business,” said Sweetser.  “When our son actually started saying, ‘I Korean too’ after going to the Korean camp, we realized we should start an Indian camp too.”

The camp is for children and adults of all ages. Even families with infants are welcome and those 18 years old or older have opportunities to be leaders or counselors. Children grow up coming to the camps annually and make lifelong friends.

“What I always loved about going to camp when my kids were little is not being able to pick them out of a crowd,” said Sweetser. “It is very emotional to see your kids with people that look like them.”

Sweetser said that adoption “is in her family.” Her sister, her husband’s sister, and her mother-in-law were all adopted. Sweetser said she knew she had to adopt when she saw an influx of Vietnamese children at her church as a teenager after the fall of Saigon. With the pitter patter of little Vietnamese children’s feet in mind, her and her husband looked into adopting from Vietnam. Because Vietnamese adoption was shut down at the time, they decided to try Korea. They were overjoyed to get their daughter Lacey.

But of course there were obstacles. Sweetser recalls Lacey getting upset when teased for squinty eyes. She hated not being able to relate to or understand what her daughter was going through. The heritage camps help children connect with others “just like them” and help parents understand their child’s treasured heritage.

Lacey is currently teaching English in Korea while Sweetser’s son, Sam, is an ethnic studies major at Colorado State University.

“They’re really coming into their skin, and that’s really important for adopted kids to do,” she said.

Adoptees Appreciate Best of Both Worlds
Now a counselor at Colorado Heritage Camps, Emily Quinn said attending the camp year after year helped her realize that she is a part of both communities—Asian and American.

She regrets not getting more involved in Chinese language school at a young age. Not knowing how to speak Chinese is an obstacle when trying to connect with some individuals in the communities she is in touch with.

“My advice is to try your hardest to get involved in your ethnic and cultural communities,” Quinn said. “Later in life it will benefit you much more and you won’t feel as lost.”

Quinn also said that she does not feel like her birth mother abandoned her. She found at age seven or eight that her birth mother left a note with her stating her birth date and time, which she still thinks about.

“I realized she didn’t abandon me because she wanted to, but because she wanted me to have a full life of opportunity with loving parents,” Quinn said.

Jena Kunimune, 14, has been hearing her adoption story since “she could understand or listen.” Her father is Japanese from Hawaii and her mother is a native New Yorker. Adopted at 14 months old, she hates it when people assume she was abandoned and try to sympathize. To her, being adopted is nothing to be sorry about.

“Our families are our real families despite the fact that some of us don’t know who our birth parents are,” she said. “It is just a typical American life. These are my real parents.”

Bright and spunky Anya has come a long way from being the lithe little girl in the photo on the Donicht’s mantle. Kay Donicht described her as “in pretty bad shape” when they brought her home to the U.S.

“There were physical consequences early on that we easily solved, but the mental issues will continue indefinitely,” John Donicht said.

Anya has some attachment issues possibly due to being neglected at the orphanage in China.</p>

Their daughter has inspired the Donichts to support Half the Sky Foundation, an organization founded to enrich the lives of orphaned children living in China’s welfare institutions. Institutionalized care often puts children at a disadvantage for normal cognitive, physical and emotional development. With issues such as lack of funding or untrained staff, institutions are not able to provide infants with the personalized attention they need for healthy development.

“Half the Sky works to make sure every orphan in China has one loving adult in her life,” said John Donicht. “If a baby has someone to attach to, then you don’t have attachment issues.”

The Donichts are trying to create a community in Colorado to help those in need in China’s orphanages.

“If you are concerned about kids in institutionalized care in China, there are ways to help. It costs $1.64 to provide a nanny’s care in China,” said Kay Donicht. “A meal in prison in the U.S. cost $2.24.”

What is the best thing about being a Chinese adoptee?
Shawn Gains, 13
Powell Middle School | Littleton, CO
“Knowing you are different, but in a good way.  I am different and I am proud.”

Maddy O’Malley, 13
Summit Middle School | Frisco, CO
“To know that I have a mom who loves me here and my mom that loves me in China gave me up because she wanted the best for me.”

Jenna Kunimune, 14
Littleton High School | Denver, CO
“Being able to have two cultures and a great loving family.  I’m learning Chinese and will learn more about the culture this year on my trip to Beijing.”