Chinese New Year: adopting children, adopting culture

Families with children from China bridge cultures together through celebration at SMU event

Claude Perreault and Jasmine Wile in their matching "hanbu", traditional Chinese clothing
Julia Barnes buys fabric which she sews to make scarfs
Molly Robertson practised her chopstick skills
Karen Reil and Daphne Davis, event volunteers, offered dessert
Molly and dad Neil Robertson took a break from the games
Originally from Newfoundland, Karen and Colin Clarke took in the festival with son Ryan
Samira George-Tran tried her luck at fishing
Samira George-Tran and mom, Shelley George drove in from Dartmouth to enjoy the festivities
(slideshow: Alison Chiang)

Chinese New Year starts on Feb. 10 this year but nearly 200 children and their Caucasian parents kicked off celebrations this weekend at the McNally Theatre at Saint Mary’s University.

Julia Barnes, a Grade 10 student at Citadel High secondary school, wasn’t wearing traditional Chinese clothing at the event but she was selling bright, colourful scarves.

What started out as a fundraiser is now a way for Barnes to save money for university.

Barnes is Chinese and was adopted from China when she was a baby.  She said she still comes out to these events so other children can see that is important to learn about their heritage.

This is not to say that identity is a simple issue for Barnes, who often gets asks about her racial background.

“Yes, I’m from China originally,” Barnes said. “But I’m Canadian.”

Barnes said she was more curious about her heritage when she was younger.

Barnes said she — not her parents — would always bring up questions..  She still plans on visiting China, possibly after high school.

“I’m lucky to get the opportunity to come here [to Canada] and it’s changed my life a lot. It gave me a lot of opportunities,” said Barnes.

East meets west

The Nova Scotia branch of Families with Children from China put together this year’s festival and is the only organization of its kind in the province.  The organization has similar chapters around the country and in the U.S.

Karla Sonnichsen, the association’s president, said the goal of holding an event such as Chinese New Year is to bring transracial families closer to their fellow adoptees, to build friendships and to have conversations.

Canadians adopted 2,127 babies from other countries in 2009 — 22 per cent of them from China, according to Statistics Canada.

Sonnichsen adopted her own daughter Annaleisa, now seven, from China in 2006.

Sonnichsen said the organization worked with the Chinese Association of Nova Scotia, which provided traditional dance and music.  The Confucious Centre at Saint Mary’s University also helps provide Mandarin language lessons to students and parents.

Families with Children from China tries to replicate the authenticity of the culture. However, “sometimes, we’re working in the dark around what the Chinese culture means,” Sonnichsen said.  One of her Chinese students told her nobody wears the hanfu, the traditional Chinese outfits, anymore.

Learning and bonding

Robin Watt-Dixon and Paul Dixon have learnt a new language and new culture by teaching their children about their background. (Photo: Alison Chiang)
Robin Watt-Dixon and Paul Dixon have learnt a new language and new culture by teaching their children about their background. (Photo: Alison Chiang)

Paul Dixon and Robin Watt-Dixon, parents of eight-year-old Maya and six-year-old Xiao Yu, said the organization and event introduced Chinese culture to their family.

The whole family has started learning Mandarin.

“We’ve made a lot of really close, new friends through the community.  We’re trying to keep the culture with the children so they know where they came from,” said Dixon.

Watt-Dixon administrative assistant for the association said, “There are studies that show that kids that are adopted and living with Caucasian parents have an identity crisis. So if you bring their language and culture earlier on, they have a deeper understanding of who they are.”

A unique situation

Six-year-old Samira George-Tran’s father is Chinese-Vietnamese and her mother is Caucasian.

“It’s instrumental for her to identify with her family and it gives her an opportunity to celebrate her culture with other peers,” said Shelley George.

George is a single mom and says it’s difficult for her daughter to connect to her paternal side as George-Tran’s father and family live out west.

“She can’t see her culture in my face, so I’d like to see it reflected in the community around her,” George said.

George-Tran has performed traditional Chinese dance as part of “Future Stars” and she learns more about her Chinese background through literature, music and movies said George.  She also teaches her daughter about Chinese traditions: long noodles, haircuts and exchanging red envelopes.

The fact that George-Tran is half Caucasian and half Asian hasn’t really come up amongst her peers.  She identifies herself as Chinese but she plays with her friends and it’s never been a huge issue said George.

Age and finances are currently barriers for the family to visit George-Tran’s home countries, said George.

“She’s a little bit too young to fully appreciate it but we have our sights on Vietnam and China in the future,” said George.