Monday, September 28, 2009

"Who Here's from Vietnam?"

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

This past summer, my seven-year-old son told me he asked one of his day-camp counselors when the Vietnam War started.

“Who here’s from Vietnam?” another camper jumped in. The girl and her twin sister carefully studied his face. “No one!”

My son reported that they all laughed. When I asked him why it was funny, he shrugged. “Mom. Obviously I’m from Vietnam.”

“They didn’t understand that," I said. "Or were they just kidding?”

“No. But it’s obvious I’m from Vietnam.”

He seemed perplexed. Silly Mom. She's always getting stuff wrong.

Two months later, I'm still wondering about the best way to direct these conversations with children. It's an opportunity to reflect on another person's perspective—in this case, two girls who probably didn't know that my son was adopted—which, in turn, helps children to see that not everybody believes the same things they do. This is great for encouraging moral development. But it can take on interesting twists if your adoptive child was born in another country and is of another race, as mine is.

Should parents just step back and listen?

As always, it depends on the situation, but I have no ready answers. In this case, I was pretty certain the girls thought Vietnam was too exotic for a fellow camper. They'd likely already stuck my son in a descriptive box: "little Chinese kid." It may have been the first time they'd heard of Vietnam and made the connection with the "Vietnam War," a phrase they might have picked up from adult conversation.

But of course I don't know any of this for certain. I may be bringing my own biases to the story. Once my son dismissed all my earnest questioning as irrelevant, I stopped pushing.

It's heartening that he believes his Vietnamese heritage is so obvious. It's a basic part of who he is. But at seven, he's just beginning to grapple with how people judge one another. He and the twins—who must also feel constantly judged by their identical faces—are on a long road to understanding that not everybody understands.

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