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China Adoption

Families Face Cultural Questions With Asian Adoptees.

As the Year of the Dog bounds swiftly past the Year of the Rooster, Courtney Kalina is getting her daughter, Eva Hong-Guang Kalina, ready for her first Chinese New Year party in America.

The Kalinas don't really know how their not quite 2-year-old girl will react to the music, food and clamorous, colorful pageantry of this ancient festival that begins Sunday. She's going to get a chance to check it all out -- including the famous dragon dance.

Eva was brought home to Monroeville from Hunan Province, China, more than a year ago. The Kalinas are part of an expanding network of families in Western Pennsylvania choosing to adopt children from China. But for Chinese children adopted by non-Chinese American families, there's a decision looming about how to engage their heritage.

"There's a Chinese school of dance. I'm going to try to get her involved with it," Kalina says. "But if she doesn't show an interest, I'm not going to push it on her. She's a kid -- if she just wants to do her own thing, that's fine. But if I find she shows an interest in their calligraphy, (Chinese) studies or heritage, I will absolutely support her 100 percent."

It was once customary to think of America as a melting pot -- accepting ingredients from all different places, but blending them together into a single dish. But now, exploring one's ethnicity and traditions is considered an important part of constructing one's identity.

"Everybody wants to know: Are these kids going to be okay when they're teenagers?" says Leonette Boiarski, director of the Pearl S. Buck International Welcome House Adoption Program, based in Perkasie, Pa., which has found homes in America for more than 7,000 children from China, Korea, the Phillippines and Vietnam since 1949.

The U.S. Department of State issued immigrant visas to nearly 8,000 orphans from China in 2005 -- more than from any other country -- up from about 5,000 in 2002. Next most in 2005 -- Russians, 4,639. The visas are issued as part of the process of adopting a child from another country.

"Research indicates that when they're adolescents and going through the whole identity issue, it's doubly hard," says Boiarsky, "Not only do they have to think about 'Who am I?' in relation to their family, but also to their culture and the world. It's important to not sever that world from them, so they learn more about that piece of them, just for their own self-esteem and better emotional development."

Questions about the adoption itself are certain to come up as a child gets older, but the "how" and "when" of introducing Chinese culture to a child can be a delicate balance, and often depends on the child's maturity, attention span and interest.

"I don't get carried away," says Donna Holsing, of Harrison, whose daughters Sara, 7, and Anna, 4, were both adopted from China. "You never know when they're 16 years old if they're going to be more interested in their culture or their car keys. But you need to be prepared. I try to keep myself educated so I'm prepared to answer their questions."

This is often a process of discovery for the parents as well, who might know little about China.

"First in our own home, we try to celebrate -- we called it Chinese New Year, but now we call it Lunar New Year -- because we have a child from Korea, too," says Mary Ward, of Cranberry. She and her husband have a 5-year-old adopted Chinese daughter, Gillian, and a 2-year-old son, Aiden, from Korea.

"So we have a big celebration," she says. "We invite our family and friends to our house."

Kalina already has the traditional Chinese wedding gifts picked out, as well as a number of symbolic, traditional birthday presents.

"When we were in China, we bought her 'life gifts' for her," she says. "Jade is supposed to bring you good luck and good fortune throughout your life. ... We bought her a beautiful jade pendant in Beijing. You give that to your daughter on her 16th birthday. ... From 13 to 18 I have all her birthday gifts! We also bought her a pearl pendant and pearl earrings for her wedding day."

Chinese is not a language commonly taught in public school. But a number of independent Chinese schools exist in the area. The largest, the Pittsburgh Chinese School, holds classes Sundays at Winchester-Thurston School in Shadyside, where there are about 250 children ages 3 to 18 attend classes.

Lee Tao, a medical physicist at UPMC, is the school's principal. He has divided the day into two hours of language instruction, two hours of "culture" classes, mostly taught by parents. They include dance, martial arts, lion dance, erhu (a Chinese instrument), flute and calligraphy.

"Right now, China is a hot topic. Everybody is trying to understand and learn some things about it," says Tao. "It's best to know the language first, right?"

Kalina says she'll give Eva the option of learning the language of her native country.

"If she wants to take Mandarin, there's a tiny school in Monroeville," Kalina says.

"I would love for her to have a second language, especially if it's her native tongue" she says. "These girls could have the last laugh -- they're coming over here, getting supportive families, great education. They could go over there and change the world."

Michael Machosky can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7901. This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review Saturday, January 28, 2006


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