Foreign adoptions expand horizons for parent, child Love helps foster cultural awareness BALTIMORE COUNTY

April 28, 1993|By Melvin Durai | Melvin Durai,Contributing Writer

David Lipsitz was 3 1/2 months old when he left an orphanage in Calcutta, India, to join his adoptive Jewish parents, Gail and Allan Lipsitz of Pikesville. When he was 3, he thought he vaguely remembered something about India, but he wasn't sure.

Today, the 6-year-old kindergartner knows much about his native country. A framed flag of India hangs above his bed. More than 20 books on Indian life and folklore fill his shelves. With help from his parents, he has even made a presentation to his class.

"I'd like to visit the Taj Mahal one day," said David, whose middle name, Kiran, means sunbeam in Hindi. "That's a very beautiful building."

David is among more than 7,000 children adopted from abroad annually. These children will probably spend the rest of their lives as American citizens. Because of this, some adoptive parents try to minimize the differences between their children and others, hoping it will help them blend in.

Others, like the Lipsitzes, believe it's important to give their children a sense of identity by teaching them about their native cultures.

"The kids feel enriched by that. It gives them a stronger sense of themselves," said Sherry Simas, international adoptions coordinator of Associated Catholic Charities. "We don't want kids to lose their cultural heritage while gaining other benefits."

Ms. Simas, who with her husband has adopted three children from Korea, encourages parents to visit the country they are adopting from and bring back mementos to spark discussions with their children.

The Lipsitzes took a 13-week course about India at Towson State University before David joined them. Since then, they've attended different workshops on cultural heritage and joined groups that promote cultural awareness among adoptive parents.

Because David is one of few dark-skinned children at his Jewish school, Krieger-Schechter Day School, the Lipsitzes try to expose him to diverse groups of people, including other adopted children from India.

"He's quite conscious that he looks different," said Ms. Lipsitz. "It's important to emphasize to your child that the world is a very big place with many different people."

At the Towson home of Jim and Laurel Strassberger, the decor reflects the rich culture of their two Chilean daughters, Evangeline and Anita. There are pictures on the walls, copper plaques on the mantel, stuffed dolls above the piano. A miniature Chilean flag stands a few inches from an American flag, and books on Chile seem to be everywhere.

When Evangeline played a cassette of folk music, her 4-year-old sister, previously shy and reserved, pounded her feet and waved her arms in a wild dance.

"This is Chilean music," said Evangeline, relishing the chance to show off her heritage.

When the Strassbergers decided to adopt children from Chile, they knew they would have to adopt part of the Chilean culture.

"I think most people who have adopted internationally consider themselves multicultural," said Ms. Strassberger, who edits a newsletter for the 500-member regional chapter of the Latin American Parents Association (LAPA), a national volunteer association that helps parents with Latin American adoptions.

Ms. Strassberger, author of the 1992 book, "Our Children From Latin America: Making Adoption Part of Your Life," said her daughters will face questions about their roots because they are among "much paler" people and because tracing a family tree is a common exercise in school.

"It's important that they have answers to these questions," she said.

Krista Wheatley-Heckman, a Columbia resident, co-founded Metropolitan Area Friends of Indian Children to help parents teach their children about India. A recent get-together of the 55-family group featured an Indian classical dancer, Indian cuisine and craft activities for the children, including making a paper model of the Taj Mahal.

Ms. Wheatley-Heckman and her husband, Bill, have adopted a son from Texas and a daughter from India. "We've always been intrigued by India," said Ms. Wheatley-Heckman. "I think it's an incredibly rich culture."

She said her family emphasizes all their cultural backgrounds, Indian, Texan, German and Irish. "We try to celebrate a difference," she said.

By emphasizing the positive aspects of their background, adoptive parents can show their children that "being different doesn't mean that they're inferior to other kids," said Clyde Tolley, executive director of Families Adopting Children Everywhere (FACE), an adoptive parents organization with about 3,000 members nationally. "It seems like a very small thing to a lot of people, but I think it's extremely important," he said.

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