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Effect of Cultural Exposure on Ethnic Identities in Adoption

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 4404 words Published: 4th Apr 2018

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How has cultural exposure shaped the ethnic identities of Asian children who have been adopted into American families?

  • Emma Schroeter


This essay assesses the effects of cultural exposure on the ethnic identities’ of Asian transracially adopted children. It examines how cultural exposure shapes the ethnic identities of Asian children who have been adopted into American families. To do so, the variety of cultural exposure methods and the factors that typically influence a child’s self-identity are first discussed. This includes the “nature versus nature concept” and Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. The way ethnic identity is measured is then identified. Next, a relevant study by David C. Lee and Stephen M. Quintana’s which was published in 2005 is analyzed in relation to the investigation. The results are discussed and conclusions are drawn. In conclusion, there are significant positive effects of cultural exposure on Asian transracially adopted children.


International adoption is becoming increasingly popular within families in the United States. Since 1971, over 330,000 children have been adopted from other countries and the annual rate for international adoption has tripled.[1] The amount of internationally adopted children went from 7,093 children in 1990 to 22,884 children in 2004.[2] The increase in international adoption can be attributed to war, poverty, the lack of social welfare in these countries, as well as: greater infertility rates in the United States, recognized difficulties associated with domestic adoption, desire to adopt babies rather than older children, or a repugnance toward foster care adoption.[3] Today, children (the majority infants and young children) are adopted annually from over one hundred countries, with approximately 90% of children adopted from only twenty countries.[4] However, most are from China, Russia, South Korea, and Guatemala.[5]

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Transracial adoption in the United States has a controversial history.[6] The perception of ethnic identity within these children has been an immense concern for the general wellbeing of the child. Currently, Asian children adopted into American families cover about 15% of all adopted children and continues to increase annually.[7] Whether or not we want to accept it, our childhoods play a prodigious role in not only shaping who we become as adults but also our identity. Some people actually consider transracial adoption cultural genocide.[8] When transracially adopted into an American family, a child is at risk for being robbed of their own identity and culture. Although many families who adopt children do make an effort to expose their child to as much of their original culture as possible, what the child interprets may not necessarily be the expected. Therefore, the question remains: How has cultural exposure shaped the ethnic identities of Asian children who have been adopted into American families? Although, many of the studies referenced refer to Korean children, the researchers have made the conclusion that the same effects apply to all Asian adoptees.


Cultural exposure can have a variety of meanings. In the case of a child being transracially adopted, cultural exposure is the introduction to aspects and collective manifestations of their home country. For Asian children, these items may include: attending Asian/culture-specific cultural group activities/festivals, visiting home country, attending culture-specific (fully Korean, Japanese, etc.) school, can speak some of native language, can write some of native language, or eats culture-specific food frequently (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.). These items are drawn from a variation of the Suinn-Lew Asian Self-Identity Acculturation Scale and the Children’s Acculturation Scale.[9] All of the preceding factors would result in exposure to the child’s home country in one way or another, to a certain extent. Depending on the adoptive family, the child may or may not be able to experience these types of things. It is important to define cultural exposure to understand the basis of this investigation and argument. The aspects listed previously are examples necessary in understanding what cultural exposure deals with. In David C. Lee and Stephen M. Quintana’s study published in 2005, these items were constructed into questions and used in interviews with Korean children. This study will be referenced frequently, due to its relativity to the subject being discussed.

An important focus of this investigation is on transracially adopted children’s ideological, behavioral, and social commitment to their country of origin.[10] Transracially children who are adopted and being raised by parents with a different racial status tend to experience a different racial socialization than those who are raised by their biological parents or adopted within their race. According to research, more than 65% of transracially adopted children fail to identify with their racial status.[11] This was evident in Andujo’s 1988 study comparing Mexican within race adopted children and Mexican transracially adopted children. This study found that none of the thirty transracially adopted children identified with the race “Mexican American”, while twenty-two out of thirty within race adopted children did. Although this study investigates Mexican children, it is relevant because of the conclusions drawn. Andujo concluded that these results can be generalized to apply to all transracially adopted children due to the similarities in their situations. It has also been replicated using Asian, African as well as other South American countries, producing close, if not the same results. In DeBerry, Scarr, and Weinberg’s (1996) longitudinal study, it was found that transracially adopted children had difficulty developing biracial competence and identified more with White than Asian groups. Not only was this result a concern, but the statistic stating that over 20% of transracially adopted children indicated that they wished they had a different racial status as well.[12] It is concerning that children are not happy with their ethnicity and culture. This “wish” that these children possessed could be a predetermining factor for other issues that the child will later stumble upon (depression, etc.). This statement could be caused by a variety of reasons, such as deprivation to culture exposure. On the contrary, research has also found that most transracially adopted children show adjustment levels (self-esteem, well-being, etc.) equivalent or higher than those of within race adopted children.[13] As seen in Feigelman and Silverman’s (1983) and Andujo’s (1988) studies, this pattern in adjustment levels applies when comparing within race adopted white children and within race adopted transracial children (for example, a Korean couple living in the U.S. adopting a Korean child). The error in the adjustment levels pattern occurred in certain circumstances where differences in the adoptions took place, such as: age of adoption and placement in foster care.[14] When these circumstances were controlled, the high adjustment levels pattern was evident and the similarities between adjustment levels in both transracial and within race adopted children disappeared.[15] Ultimately, this suggests both the positive and negative sides of transracially adopted children’s perception of their identity.

Recently, researchers have been focusing on the ways in which these children develop positive or negative understandings and perceptions about their ethnic, cultural, and racial identity. As of right now, the biggest reason for this revolves around the adoptive parents attitudes towards adopted children’s attitudes and children’s racial identity.[16] Research is showing that transracially adopted children begin to recognize their racial differences as early as ages four or five.[17] As transracially adopted children get older, they develop a more non-literal understanding of their identity.[18] At the same time, they can start to feel a loss of their home culture and family history and begin to understand the effects of racism and discrimination.[19] This development will be specifically discussed later in the investigation. These new feelings and emotions in a child, however, can relate to the famous “nature versus nurture” debate. This argument focuses on the relative contributions of genetic inheritance and environmental factors to human development.[20] For example, when a person is very knowledgeable, gets good grades, and is ultimately successful, did they do so because they are genetically predisposed or is it the result of a fortified environment? Similarly, If a man/father abuses his family/wife/kids, is it because of something he was born with violent tendencies or is it something he learned from personal experience and by observing his own parents behavior? A few characteristics that seem to be biologically determined (nature) include eye color, hair color, skin color, some genetic diseases, etc. Other attributes like height, life expectancy, and even left/right handedness have a strong biological component, but they are also influenced by the environment you are exposed to and the lifestyle you experience (nurture). Families who have adopted children are typically used in experiments researching “nature versus nurture” because it is so easily seen in these situations. How a person behaves can be tied to influence such as parenting styles and learned experiences (cultural exposure). For example, a child might learn through observation and reinforcement to say “please” and “thank you.” Another child might learn to behave violently by observing older children engage in aggressive behavior on the playground. This act of imitation is also known as Albert Bandura’s “social learning theory”. In his famous “Bobo doll experiment”, Bandura showed that children learn and copy behaviors they have watched other people complete. Children participating in Bandura’s study observed an adult acting aggressively toward a Bobo doll. When the children were later allowed to play and interact with the Bobo doll, they began to imitate the aggressive and violent actions they had previously been exposed to and observed. These studies are significant to this investigation because it shows the impact of parents on the behaviors and actions of children, ultimately leading to the child’s identity. The effect of cultural exposure on adopted children can be considered the “nurture” aspect because it involves the environment the child is exposed to and how they are brought up. When it comes to Bandura’s study, the importance lies in the fact that adopted children imitate their parents, just the same as biological children used in the study.[21] If the adoptive parents were to show an interest in the culture of the child (while the child is at a young age) and practice “the ways” of the culture, if you will, the child would likely follow or imitate with their interest of the subject. As seen in the results of the Lee and Quintana (2005) study discussed later, cultural exposure is important to the perception of ethnic identity within the child. If a parent can play such a significant role in what a child believes and understands (Bobo doll experiment), it becomes important and relevant to this investigation as well. Within even some of the smaller communities in Rochester, New York parents of Korean adopted children children take them to an annual Korean festival to learn about their home culture. Although the kids are still very young, the parents believe they should expose their child to as much of their own culture as they can, before the child can make their own decision to continue to follow the culture or stick to the American culture.[22] This is an example of how the actions of the parents regarding cultural exposure, influence the child’s positive or negative understandings and perceptions about their ethnic, cultural, and racial identity.

This “ethnic identity” is not always easy to measure, especially within children. Children have been shown to progress through physical, literal, social, and group perspectives on their cultural and racial experiences.[23] The Perspective-Taking Ability (PTA) scale (see Appendix I) is a way to measure and show the extent to which children understand their ethnic identity in different stages. The PTA’s results tends to vary over age as well. The PTA scale ranges from level zero to level three. As expected, young children’s (preschool aged) understanding of race, culture, and ethnicity are based on superficial physical appearance. This is considered the physical perspective and contains something like, “Korean people have black hair, brown eyes while Americans (Caucasian) have tan hair and different colored eyes.” Furthermore, older children (elementary aged) begin to understand non-physical features, including literal aspects such as, heritage and culture characteristics (food, ancestors, language, etc.). This is considered the literal perspective meaning, “To be Korean means your parents were Korean. But just because you’re Korean on the outside, it does not mean you are not American on the inside.” In early adolescence, youth begin to base their racial status on a social perspective, including racism and social discrimination. This stage is labelled the social perspective, when youth begin to realize, “I guess I’m different (from Caucasians) because they treat me differently.” In later adolescence, racial and cultural group consciousness is the key factor in identifying racial status (ethnic identity). The last stage is called the collective group consciousness perspective, stating, “I believe (what makes me Korean) is the way you feel about it… it’s more what you know about your culture and how much you believe it.” The age groups associated with each level are a generalization of any typical child’s understanding. This scale has been used in research relating to ordinary young children’s perception of race before, but is more significant in evaluating a transracially adopted child’s idea of identity. This significance can be attributed to the contrasting lifestyles and environments experienced by transracially adopted children. This also suggests that the results of transracially adopted children tend to differ from ordinary children due to the possible early exposure of their culture at young ages. This exposure could lead them to knowledge beyond their years relating to this topic.

The purpose of Lee and Quintana’s (2005) study was to not only look into the benefits of culture exposure but also investigate whether or not the same race developmental models would work for adopted children as well. The interest laid in the fact of whether or not transracially adopted children developed and attained the same PTA levels as non-adopted children. Previously, a small qualitative study by Friedlander et al. (2000) reveals that transracially adopted children’s ethnic and racial cognition development is parallel to those of non-adopted children. This was further investigated with this study. With varying hypotheses (see Appendix II), a method was created to test these questions. Fifty Korean-born transracially adopted children participated, twenty-seven girls and twenty-three boys. They were attending a Korean culture camp and the average age was twelve years old. Fifty-six percent of the children had some limited knowledge of verbal and written Korean, sixty percent had been back to Korea, and sixty-four percent had previously participated in culture-specific activities outside of the camp. Almost seventy-five percent reported being teased because of their racial status (see Appendix III). The children were selected using opportunity sampling and all had parental consent. The children were interviewed using the PTA scale which had been altered to be Korean specific. Culture exposure questions were asked orally while cultural knowledge was investigated by asking the children to imagine two towns.[24] They were given questions regarding the likelihood of people from each town participating in each event. Some questions were culture specific, others were not. Self-esteem was also measured using Rosenberg’s self-esteem scale. This was administered to ensure that discriminant validity that cultural variables were not significantly related to self-esteem.[25] The results can be found in Appendix IV.

The results suggest that cultural exposure had a significant role for transracially adopted children’s development of PTA. Cultural exposure could be used to predict the child’s PTA after certain factors like age and cultural knowledge were controlled. These findings can be compared with research of either Portes and Rumbaut (1996) or Zhou (1997). This previous research found that children’s adaption based on a blending of culture of origin or family culture and dominant culture was complex.[26] For some, there were benefits to increased socialization which appeared to pose challenges to their adjustment. In recent situations, acculturation to the dominant culture may be experienced as threatening to ethnic/racial minority adolescents’ identity.[27] The interaction between cultural exposure and chronological age in predicting levels of PTA also had a small significance. This indicated that cultural exposure is much more important for younger transracially adopted children (less than ten years old).[28] This suggests that types of cultural exposure may need to be accustomed to age. The kinds of exposure indexed were focused on experiences with Korean culture (like food and language) just as how the cultural knowledge assessed was focused more on objective features of culture (like cultural traditions). It now seems that these kinds of exposure may be more important to young children at a level one PTA. On the other hand, older children at level two need to focus on more racial components, such as, racial prejudice. In further research, it would be important to investigate the kinds of experiences that promote transracially adopted children’s development prior to and throughout adolescence.

The study findings could also help to alter the adoption policy. Currently, most adoption agencies do not have standard protocols for pre and post-adoption services focused on cultural socialization. Adoptive parents have to initiate their own support services to address these issues.[29] Consequently, agencies may want to tailor services to address these aspects of cultural socialization and exposure when working with adoptive families. Parents thinking about adopting might be encouraged to think past racial awareness and self-examination of their cultural belief systems but instead what it means to engage in culturally competent parenting. Likewise, adoptive parents whose children are currently struggling with ethnic and racial issues may benefit from learning additional ways to engage in cultural exposure. These collective efforts, in turn, we hope will promote the development of a healthy and positive ethnic identity and will contribute to the well-being and mental health of internationally adopted children.[30]


There seem to be important benefits to transracially adopted children from exposure to their country of origin for their development. Research shows the emphasis and importance of cultural exposure, particularly for young children. High levels of cultural exposure may help to minimize differences between transracially adopted children’s developmental understanding of culture and race and non-adopted children. Direct exposure appears more beneficial than knowledge or awareness of differences.


[1] U.S. Department of State, 2005

[2] U.S. Department of State, 2005

[3] Lee, 2003

[4] Grotevant, 2008

[5] Grotevant, 2008

[6] Simon and Alstein, 2002

[7] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

[8] National Association of Black Social Workers, 1972

[9] Suinn, Khoo, and Ahauna, 1995; Franco, 1983

[10] Taylor and Thorton, 1996

[11] Andujo, 1988; Feigelman and Silverman, 1984; Kim, 1995

[12] Benson, Sharma, and Roehlkepartain, 1994

[13] Alexander and Curtis, 1996

[14] Simon and Alstein, 2000

[15] Wickes and Slate, 1997

[16] Carstens and Julia, 2000; Friedlander et al., 2000; Vonk, 2001; and Yoon, 1997

[17] Brodzinsky, Singer, & Braff, 1984; Huh & Reid, 2000

[18] Lee and Quintana, 2005

[19] Meier, 1999; Powell & Affi, 2005

[20] Grenke, 2012

[21] Bandura, 1965

[22] Arber, 2013

[23] Lee and Quintana, 2005

[24] Bernal, Knight, Ocampo, Garza, and Cota, 1990

[25] Lee and Quintana, 2005

[26] Zhou, 1997

[27] Ogbu, 1994

[28] Lee and Quintana, 2005

[29] Steinberg and Hall, 2000

[30] Gunnar and Lee, 2006


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