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Archive for the ‘Identity’ Category

When Tom and I decided to adopt The Littlest E from Ethiopia, we made a decision to do our best to bring Ethiopian culture into his life and our lives in as many ways as possible short of moving to Ethiopia. It’s true that there is nothing like growing up in the country where you were born. International adoption is complex and there are many who believe it should be abolished and many who do not think that way. We chose international adoption because we knew there were children in the world that needed homes with parents who would love them, and there were certain aspects we were not comfortable with in domestic adoption. We made a pledge to the Ethiopian government that we would take care of The Littlest E, and part of that is ensuring he knows his country’s culture, heritage, history, food, music, etc.

Ethiopian Flag

We are fortunate to live in Los Angeles where there’s Little Ethiopia, a part of LA devoted to Ethiopian restaurants, travel agencies, merkatos (in Ethiopia it’s an open air marketplace, but in LA it’s a market), clothing and music stores. Plus, there are thousands of ex-pat Ethiopians living here and there is a sizeable adoptive community. Over time, we have met a number of adoptive families with children The Littlest E’s age and they have become friends. When our schedule permits, we go to the Little Ethiopia Cultural and Resource Center on Saturdays and our son, along with his friends, attends Amharic, Ethiopian dance and art classes. These classes are all taught by Ethiopians and exist to give the children a greater understanding of their native country.

 

I think of it as planting seeds, so that our son will hopefully look at Ethiopia and the culture with interest, appreciation, and a hunger to know more. It’s great to hear him speak simple words in Amharic like “Kai” which means red, and “and, hoolet, sost” which means 1, 2, 3. It’s not just about learning language, dance and art; he’s with his friends, his people.

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We also attend Ethiopian celebrations when they happen. The Ethiopian calendar (Ge’ez Calendar) is different from the Western calendar and their New Year falls on September 11th. A couple of weeks ago, we went to a New Years celebration in Little Ethiopia where we listened to music, visited booths, and saw lots of people. We happened upon a group of young boys playing street soccer, and our athletic son joined in. He was inches shorter than any of the other boys, but he held is own and even got the ball twice. This provided another taste of Ethiopia and the soccer game was the high point of the day for me (and I’m sure for him, too).

 

In August, we attended African Cradle, an Ethiopian heritage camp for adoptive children. There must have been at least 15 children all within a few years of The Littlest E, and within minutes after we arrived, he bounded down to the playground and immersed himself in playing with a handful of boys his age. I wrote about African Cradle a couple of years ago in an earlier blog. Again, it was an amazing experience. During the day, our son would be with all the kids his age and do arts and crafts, play soccer, and go on nature hikes, while the parents attended seminars on racism in team sports, cultural identity to name a couple of topics. There were times when the older kids and younger kids got to play/swim together. We’d all gather together for meals and, in the evenings after dinner, we’d go the fire pit and eat s’mores, listen to Ethiopian music and watch the kids play and dance. There were a fair amount non-adoptive Ethiopians helping with the camp, too. It was a sight to behold when we were all up on stage dancing, everyone together. It was like we were transported back to Ethiopia. It truly was a wonderful weekend and we all made some new friends.

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After attending African Cradle, our son wore his T-shirt he got there with pride. He’s proud of his Ethiopian heritage and Tom and I encourage that. He was born in Ethiopia and it’s part of his identity. As he grows up, it may become an even larger part of his life. Awhile back I was driving him to preschool and he started telling a story – he was 50 and came to visit one of his friends from preschool. I asked him where he was visiting from and he told me Ethiopia. It could be a prediction; who knows? What I do know is Tom and I are going to keep exposing our son to his Ethiopian culture, and when he’s a bit older, we’ll go back to Ethiopia so he can see it first hand. That will be one of many trips.

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I recently met a young Ethiopian man who has been in the U.S. for over a decade. Listening to him talk about his life and his own identity issues provided me with a possible window into my son’s life, adding adoption to that. It made me realize that there are many immigrants who may have issues of identity and how they see themselves in the world, not just internationally adopted children. It’ll be interesting to see how our son identifies himself as he grows up. For now, all Tom and I can do is be good stewards and offer The Littlest E with as many cultural experiences as we can, but at some point, it’ll be his decision.

©2014 Melanie Elliott

Images: Unknown, Melanie Elliott

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As a transracial, adoptive parent, there are many things my husband and I can share with our son, The Littlest E, unconditional love, nurturing, caring, etc.  We can teach him compassion, empathy, how to be a good, loving person, and what we know about life.  We can share with him our hobbies and joys, and the usual everyday things parents share, teach and show their children.  One thing we can’t share with him is our ethnic background.  We are Caucasian and our son is African-American, and originally from Ethiopia.

Both my husband and I feel it is important to provide our son with as many opportunities as possible to develop a positive, strong sense of self.  He is enrolled in a wonderful preschool where the staff and his classmates are racially diverse.  We are part of an Ethiopian adoptive community where he can be around other families just like ours.  We also have a racially diverse mix of friends.  Another way our son can find identification is through reading.

A terrific book that my husband bought for our toddler and, coincidentally, a friend recommended is Shades Of Black A Celebration Of Our Children by Sandra L. Pinkney.  I highly recommend it for adoptive families who will find such a book useful, for African-American families, and transracial families.  It’s a board book that is divided into three sections, one illustrates various skin tones, one emphasizes different types of hair, and one shows eye color, all feature photos of African-American children.  Each section is beautifully descriptive with images of children with whom children reading the book can relate.  At the beginning of each section are the sentences, “I am Black.  I am Unique.”

As I read the book to The Littlest E for the first time, he sat there, eyes transfixed while I turned each page.  We read through the book a few times and he then started to repeat the phrases, “I am Back.  I am Oonique.”  Watching him identify with the children on the pages and hearing those words gave me goose bumps.  I know his identification may not be at a deep level, yet he sees the children in the book and he knows he looks like them.

We go through each section looking at pictures trying to figure out if he’s more like the “smooth brown in a chocolate bar” or “coppery brown in a pretzel.”  He knows his eyes are “ebony” like “Onyx.”  This book provides such an easy, accessible way for identification; it’s totally relatable.  My friend, who told me about Shades Of Black, said that she and her sons had fun looking at the pictures also trying to figure out what they connected to most.

I am very grateful for this invaluable book and others like it.  As our son gets older and we happen upon other books that impact The Littlest E, the way Shades of Black has, I’ll be sure to write about it.

Image: AfroDad (Duane Brayboy)

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As many of you know if you’ve been following my blog, my son, The Littlest E, is originally from Ethiopia.  My husband and I adopted him almost 18 months ago and it’s been an amazing journey.  There are so many things that go along with transracial adoption; one of them is a haircut.  I am part of an online group of moms who have adopted from Ethiopia and there was a discussion about hair products for their children as well as where to get haircuts, but those discussions were for the daughters, not sons.

The Littlest E who is almost 2 ½ years old had never had his hair cut, and it was time.  I had been hesitant only because he truly has gorgeous, tight, curly, curly hair and I hated to have it cut, but as I mentioned, the time had come.  There is a hair salon near us that is specifically for children; they make a big to do of it, the child gets special attention and a treat at the end.  Was that where we wanted to take our son for his first cut?  I then saw a posting from a mom who brought her son to a fairly local barbershop and liked his cut.  The barbershop sounded perfect, ran it by my husband, Tom, and we decided we’d go there for the BIG event.

Since the barbershop was 20 miles away, we made a day of it.  We told our son what was going to happen and he seemed okay with it all.  It turned out that the shop was temporarily closed due to a power outage.  Several days prior, there was a massive windstorm that caused untold damage to the area.  Fortunately, on the door of the shop, was a listing of where each stylist was located for the time being; one of them happened to be at a shop several blocks down the road, so we drove there.  It was beginning to be quite a little adventure for us.

I knew it would be an interesting experience walking into a barbershop where there was the potential my husband and I would be the only Caucasians in the place.  I was a bit nervous, but am always a bit nervous doing something new, not a bad thing, just a fact.  The three of us walked into the shop and all eyes were upon us.  Sure enough, my husband and I were the only white people there.

Everyone was checking us out, and then realized our son was with us.  They all went back to what they were doing – cutting and shaping hair, sitting as the customer watching football on TV, or just waiting.   There was a mom with her son and they were playing games while waiting.  The Littlest E wanted to join in their fun, but they didn’t seem to be up for that.  Tom asked for the stylist who worked at the other shop, and he was right in front of us.  He was with someone so our son was going to be next.

Sitting there waiting, I didn’t quite know what to expect.  I’ve been to salons where you make idle chatter with the person next to you or read magazines.  This wasn’t that kind of place.  It was a barbershop for African-American men pure and simple and wasn’t a place I would have normally gone to, except for our son.  Everyone just did their thing and no one paid us any mind.  It was kind of like being a woman in a gay bar; you’re there, but basically ignored.  Not that I wanted to draw attention to ourselves.  Only, this was a new experience, and a very different world from the one I’m used to, which was neat.

Finally, it was The Littlest E’s turn for his cut.  We asked Rashad, his barber, for a trim.  Rashad placed a big cushiony block on his barber chair for our son to sit on so he’d be taller making it easier for Rashad to cut his hair.  I could tell The Littlest E was nervous because he was so quiet during the process.  In order to cut his hair, Rashad had to brush it out.  We’d never seen our son’s hair as an Afro.  It was cute, but I preferred his condensed ringlets.  Our son kept saying, “That hurts a little bit” while Rashad was brushing, which was difficult to hear.  At one point, he almost cried though ended up not shedding a tear – brave boy!  Of course we took pictures to remember the event.

The cut didn’t take too long and all his tangles were gone.  When Rashad finished, I asked him about the hair regime we did for our son to make sure we were doing the right thing.  It’s important to add oil, not take it away by shampooing a lot.  We shampoo once a week, put leave-in conditioner on our son’s hair nightly, and in the morning, use Moroccan oil in his hair.  We brush out his hair occasionally to keep the tangles at bay.  Rashad told us we were doing fine.  That was comforting to know.  We thanked him for being so gentle on our son, got his business card, shook hands and left.  The Littlest E gave him a high-five.

I’m glad we took The Littlest E where we did.  Not sure if we’ll go back to that exact spot, since there are other barbershops closer to us.  We’ll see.  This experience represented something more than just a haircut; it was a step into a world, which will be our son’s world, or at least part of his world.  He’s African-American and may identify with the African-American community.  If, and when that happens, that will become our community as well.  Somehow this trip made the world a much smaller place.

Image: Señor Codo

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Recently my family and I went to an Ethiopian multicultural fair in Los Angeles that was sponsored by the Ethiopian community.  Our 2-year old son, The Littlest E, is originally from Ethiopia and my husband and I felt it was important for us to go and be a part of this annual event celebrating the many cultures of Los Angeles, as well as the Ethiopian New Year (which is September 11th).  There is a sizeable Ethiopian population in LA, and when we arrived, the streets of Little Ethiopia were packed.

It was wonderful to be there and see so many people having a good time.  It was a bit too crowded to let our little one run around, so we walked up and down the street listening to a concert of traditional Ethiopian music and watching the dancers.  The dancers, moving their shoulders up and down in rhythm with the music, entranced our son.  I think I had more fun watching him watch them!  I was having a good time, but there was a teeny tiny part of me that felt a tad out of place being there.  I didn’t have any real reason only my insecurity at being a white mom of an Ethiopian child.  It felt like I was eavesdropping on a private conversation and it made me wonder what the other attendees were thinking, at least those who looked at us.  We are a family that sort of stands out.  Most people paid us no mind and were engrossed in their own experience.  I got over my uneasiness and enjoyed myself.

Going to the fair got me thinking though, about our son’s identity.  He’s an Ethiopian born toddler adopted by two Caucasian parents, and he’s soon to become an American citizen.  How will he identify himself, as he gets older?  Will he consider himself an Ethiopian American, African American?  Will his color matter to him?  Where will he fit in?  How will he fit in?  I remember being at my husband’s church a few months after we brought The Littlest E home with us.  One of the parishioners came up to me and told me to raise him as an American.  I didn’t quite know what to make of that.  Was she suggesting we deny his heritage and pretend he’s not Ethiopian?  Of course we’ll raise him as an American because we are Americans and live in the United States, but we won’t deny him his heritage or culture.   Both my husband and I love Ethiopia – the people, the history, the culture, the food, so why would we not be open to our son exploring the country where he was born?

We will keep all options on the table for our son and expose him to a diverse life, with diverse communities, especially the Ethiopian community.  As it stands now, we participate in a monthly lunch at a restaurant in Little Ethiopia with other Ethiopian adoptive families and there are two organizations (Ethiopians for Ethiopians and the Little Ethiopia Cultural Resource Center) that have reached out to our adoptive community and offered our children classes in music, language, traditional dancing, history, and cooking so that our children can keep their heritage alive.  One of the women from Ethiopians for Ethiopians approached us at the fair and gave us a pamphlet.  She was very welcoming.  My husband and I are excited at the prospect of The Littlest E learning about Ethiopian culture.

As our son gets older, he may or may not express an interest in Ethiopia, or he may be fascinated and want to learn as much as he can.  We don’t know at this point.  Only time will tell how his life will unfold and what path he will take.  What we need to do, as his parents (especially since he’s adopted from another country), is to make sure he has as many avenues open to him as possible and support him in his endeavors.  Perhaps, if we love, nurture, and provide him a home where he’s safe to develop and grow, and keep the lines of communication open so when issues arise, he knows he can ask us tough questions, he’ll gain enough self-confidence, the question of his identity won’t be a question at all.

Image: Tadias Magazine

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Having an adopted child from another race, we knew it was bound to happen sooner or later – a prejudiced comment.  I didn’t think it would happen when The Littlest E was a toddler, and I certainly didn’t think it would happen at my husband’s church.  But, it did.

My husband and I have different religions and his place of worship is very important to him.  We go, as a family, once a month so we can all be together when he worships.  I have always felt welcome at his church (and still do).  I like and respect the clergy and the entire congregation has been so supportive of our adoption and love The Littlest E.  That’s why I was a bit taken aback when I heard the remark.

During the service, The Littlest E and I were downstairs in the parish hall and nursery because he’s too little to sit still for an entire service.  In the nursery was an 11 year old girl, another little boy, slightly older than The Littlest E, the babysitter, and a teenage girl.  She struck me as having a “know it all,” tough girl air about her.

The babysitter was excited to see The Littlest E.  He and I played for a bit and then he went over to the teenager.  He’s always been fascinated with older kids.  He such a friendly little guy and just stood there staring at her.  She looked at him and said, “What?” as in “What are you looking at?”  I could see she didn’t quite know how to handle him, so I said, “he’s just being friendly.  He likes older girls.”  She then replied, “Oh, so he’s going to be a pimp.”

I didn’t know how to respond, not quite a deer in the headlights reaction, but close.   I had taken pre-adoption courses, had discussions with my husband, family and friends on something like this happening, but I was caught off guard.  All I said was “No he won’t,” in a hushed tone.  Within a few seconds, we quietly walked out of the nursery back to the parish hall.

I did my best not to let the comment get to me, and The Littlest E was too little to understand what was said.  He didn’t know what a pimp was.  I honestly didn’t think this teenager knew what she was saying or how it was taken.  I blamed it on ignorance and decided not to say anything, only mention it to my husband.  The Littlest E and I went on with our morning as though nothing had happened.

It was after the sermon during fellowship, when the babysitter and a couple of moms came up to me.  She apologized profusely about the comment.  She made a bigger deal about it than I had intended, but maybe that was a good thing.  I thought, okay, since we’re talking about this, why not turn it into something constructive.  In our discussion, I learned the young girl didn’t have a positive female role model and had had a tough go of it.  So, I said to them, rather than reprimand her, why not have a couple of the moms reach out to her and gently let her know that the comment she said was inappropriate, to make it a teaching moment, rather than a shaming moment.  Everyone seemed receptive to my idea.

Later, I mentioned everything to my husband.  He was surprised by what happened, but in agreement as to how I handled the aftermath.  He also thought my saying that The Littlest E likes older girls, could have been worded differently and he was right.  Our family went back the next month and the rector and his assistant had heard about what happened, too, and apologized.  They didn’t want us to feel uncomfortable there, they valued us.  We told them not to worry, that it was water under the bridge.

As I reflect on what occurred, I can’t help but think that this is going to happen again and I/we need to be more prepared.  We are involved with several different organizations, including an Ethiopian adoptive community, all of which can provide us with guidance and experience.  I learned I also need to watch what I say.

Being The Littlest E’s mom, I want to love and protect him as best I can, to let him know he’s not the only African born child with Caucasian parents, to nurture the amazing self he has inside him, and to be there for him, if, and when, he hears prejudicial or hurtful comments.  Hopefully, when that time comes, he will have developed a solid sense of self and self-esteem to handle that kind of remark, inadvertent or not.

Image: treehouse1977 (Jim Champion)

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