“Adopted Teens Share and Advise”
I just wanted to do a little plug for my little sister who is in this article. Props to her, and hopefully when she gets older she can start the first TRA adult group out in Maine!
Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram
When you’re of one race and your adoptive parents are of a different one, just walking down the street with your family can feel like the whole world knows you’re adopted.
That’s one of the things that a group of adopted teens talked about recently when they gathered at a Portland adoption agency to eat pizza, do artwork, and share their thoughts and feelings.
“It’s just the odd looks, like when you’re out in public, but you learn to ignore them after a while,” said 14-year-old Tess Kupel of Scarborough, who was born in Vietnam but whose adoptive parents are white.
But Tess and the other teens laughed about how the experience can also have an up side. “It’s great because when your parents are being very embarrassing, you can just walk away,” Tess said. “It’s like, ‘No, I don’t know you.”‘
Most teenagers struggle with such questions as “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in — at school, with my family, the world?”
For teens who are adopted, however, those difficult questions can take on additional layers of complexity as they wonder about their birth parents and place of origin. That can be particularly true for teens who are members of transracial families, in which they and their adoptive parents are of different races.
But now adopted teens in Maine have somewhere to explore such questions — at a new support group for teen adoptees run by a Portland-based adoption agency, MAPS Adoption & Humanitarian Aid.
At their meetings, held twice a month, they can share their thoughts and experiences with other teens who know exactly what they’re going through, because they’re adopted too.
Katie Campbell, a social worker who facilitates the group, said it’s needed. “All teenagers need a place where they belong and are really understood, and for adopted teens it’s harder to find that,” she said.
The teen adoptees group started meeting last fall and now has enough participants — about 12 — for it to be split into two separate groups, one for youngsters in fifth- through seventh-grade and one for older teens. While not all the teens participating are members of transracial families, many of them are, and that topic was a big part of the discussion when Tess and some other older teens met earlier this month.
That the teens would be talking about the subject doesn’t surprise adoption experts because transracial and transcultural adoptions is a topic of interest and study nationwide. In fact, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City, a nonprofit adoption advocacy and research organization, has just completed the first national survey of transcultural adoption and identity.
The survey focuses on adults who were adopted internationally and raised in transracial families, and compares their experience to adults adopted in the United States by parents of the same race. Results are expected later this summer or in the fall, said Hollee McGinnis, the institute’s policy and operations director.
McGinnis said international adoptions in the United States have been going on for more than 50 years. Many of the first adoptees came from Korea after the Korean War, and today American families adopt from a host of other countries including China, Russia and Guatemala. As those adopted children grow up, they are able to share insights about being adopted. The survey aims to tap into that to help better understand and facilitate the adoption experience, said McGinnis, who herself was adopted from Korea.
It’s not known exactly how many of the 7 million people in the United States who have been adopted internationally or domestically are part of transracial families because those numbers aren’t tracked, McGinnis said. However, U.S. citizens have adopted more than 350,000 children from other countries over the last three decades and McGinnis said many of those adoptions are transracial or transcultural.
Exact numbers are not available in Maine either, but Susan Greenwood, communications director for MAPS, which previously was known as Maine Adoption Placement Service, said international and transracial adoptions have been increasing over the past two decades. Last year, the agency placed 162 children and roughly 70 of the adoptions were transracial, Greenwood said.
She said that much already has been learned over the years from adults who were adopted from Korea and raised in white American families.
She said that unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, “adoption social workers now teach prospective adoptive families that there is a difference between raising biological children and raising adopted children — and particularly children of a different race.”
Teens in the new adoptees support group in Portland decided to share some advice with adoptive parents and came up with a list of 14 suggestions. Among them is: “Teach kids how to stick up for themselves. People will say mean things, show your kids how they should handle it.”
At their meeting, the teens said that they stand out in predominantly-white Maine and have been called racist names or experienced discrimination. “It’s the look they give you like you don’t belong here,” said Isabelle Wilson, 13, of Bath, who was adopted from Vietnam.
The teens said adoptive parents need to prepare their children for such experiences.
“If people are color blind, especially in transracial families inside your own home, it does not prepare you for an outer response,” Tess Kupel said. She said that “you start feeling white, especially if you live in a transracial family…only when you get out do you realize, ‘Wow, I’m not white.”‘
Isabelle said parents should support their children at home but let them fight their own battles. “It’s better for them to experience it now than way later when they’re totally not used to it and they don’t have their mom and dad to stick up for them,” she said.
The teens also stressed that there is no one single experience for adoptees and that an issue that’s important to one may not matter so much to another.
For example, Tess said that she wishes she had kept her Vietnamese name, Hoai Thi, and in the past year she has been asking her teachers at Scarborough Middle School to call her that.
But 13-year-old Jin Roberts, who also lives in Scarborough, told the group she envied their Americanized names. Her adoptive parents continued to call her by the first name she had as a baby in China and she said other kids have sometimes teased her about it over the years.
“I’ve had a lot of questions about my name that I don’t feel comfortable about answering,” Jin said.
The teenagers said adoptive parents should help their children learn about the culture of their birth country but not overdo it. Isabelle said, “You don’t want them to forget their culture but you don’t want to, like, obsess over it. Then you’re making it obvious that you don’t belong here.”
Parents of the teens said they are grateful to the agency for providing a place for their children to discuss such issues.
Jin’s mother, Christine Kukka, said that “it’s been tremendously empowering for her to have the validation of hearing others who share similar experiences.”
Tess’ mother, Becki Kupel, who also has two other children adopted from other countries, said the group gives her daughter an opportunity to connect with others who truly understand her experience.
“I can listen to them and love them,” Kupel said of her children. But she said she herself can never really know what it’s like to be adopted and live in a transracial family.
And Kim Wilson, Isabelle’s mother, said she appreciates the suggestions the teens wrote for adoptive parents, such as urging them to talk to their children about their birth parents.
Wilson said she also feels comforted by the group’s number one message to their adoptive parents: “Stop worrying! We are OK.”
Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at: