NEOGA, ILL.—Ryan and Kristy Buescher have driven for hours to learn about the culture of South Korea.
They’ve learned to cook South Korean food. Their two young, biological children have even made South Korean arts and crafts.
Now, all the family has to do is wait for their South Korean baby to arrive.
The Bueschers are part of a growing population of adoptive parents nationwide, especially in rural, almost entirely white communities, taking a new approach to raising their Asian children.
Rather than downplaying their children’s differences as was so often done in the past, parents are embracing them in hopes that greater understanding will lead to greater acceptance.
“I think it will help him be more confident in that when people say things to him—and that’s bound to happen—he’s going to be armed with some knowledge and intelligent things to say,” Kristy Buescher said.
Experts and other adoptive parents of Asian children say children who understand their differences can better respond to ignorance throughout their lives—ignorance that could damage their future relationships, romances and even careers if they aren’t equipped to handle it. And they say it could reduce the teasing these children endure.
Teaching Asian children in small, white communities about their heritage also helps them forge racial identities as children instead of finding themselves confused as teens or adults, said Kathleen Ja Sook Bergquist, a social work professor at the University of Nevada.
It all adds up to an effort to save children from the kind of pain and confusion experienced by Asian adoptees who were brought up by parents who taught them to assimilate, who believed they could console their children by saying they were the same as everyone else.
Children like Sue Ann Hong. Brought to the small, mostly white town of Hurley in northern Wisconsin when she was 8 years old, Hong, now 37, was raised by a biological aunt who baptized her as a Lutheran and discouraged her from speaking Korean.
This Americanization didn’t count for much at school.
Teasing at school
“The guys were horrific, incessant teasing about my eyes,” said Hong, who lives in Battlecreek, Mich.
Deanna Williams, who was raised as one of the only Asians in the small town of Pella, Iowa, said her parents didn’t know how to teach her about Korean culture. As a result, she grew up believing some of the same stereotypes about Asians as her white classmates.
“I swore to myself I would never marry an Asian man,” said Williams, 34. “I thought they were ugly and dressed badly, but I think that was from television because I didn’t see a lot of Asians growing up. I watched M.A.S.H. and Sixteen Candles.”
Williams met her husband—a Korean man—in college.
Today, Margaret Burrell said her 7-year-old daughter, Natalie, escapes teasing because of efforts to make sure the child’s classmates in Neoga understand her Chinese culture and physical differences.
Neoga, which is 200 miles southwest of Chicago, has 1,854 residents, of whom 97 percent are white.
“We make moon cakes, and the teachers are great and decorate the classrooms,” Burrell said. “(Natalie) loves the attention. There may be a time when she doesn’t, but then we’ll back off.”
Last year, Americans adopted 8,649 children from China and South Korea, the most children from any foreign region, according to the U.S. Department of State—and that number is increasing.
China and South Korea both have laws that permit—and even encourage—adoption by foreign parents.
Jane Freyfogle, a social worker with Lifelink International Adoption agency’s Champaign office, said adoptive parents can go a long way to help their children deal with life in small towns by making sure they know they’re not alone. Trips to cities, where they can see other Asian faces, or to culture camps, where adoptees gather to learn about their heritage, can all help children overcome the sense of isolation.
“For folks in rural communities, they have to work harder at it,” Freyfogle said. “They have to look for it. They have to travel for it.”
For Patrick and Patti Walsh the work has paid off. Six years ago they adopted Delaney, now 7, from China, and brought her home to Gifford, a tiny town in central Illinois where 98 percent of the population is white.
They braced themselves for a barrage of stares, teasing and uninvited probing questions. They even considered moving if being the only Asian in sight got to be too much for their daughter.
But things went better than expected. She hasn’t been teased at school for being Asian, and the family socializes with adopted Asian children from other towns, takes Delaney to nearby Champaign where she can see other Asians, and they teach her to embrace her differences.
“We don’t anticipate having to move,” Patti Walsh said.