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How Two Little Girls Taught Me About Their Identities and Access

bicostudent2016's picture

“Jessica is here!”

Anna* comes running down the stairs. She was wearing a pink shirt, green skirt, and purple leggings.

“Hi Jessica!” she greets me.

Her older sister, Elsa, sits on the kitchen counter reading a book while eating breakfast. She was wearing a blue shirt, her horseback riding pants and a cap she crocheted herself.

Anna once told me, “My sister doesn’t like skirts. She’s not that kind of girl.”

After they both finished breakfast, Anna pulls me upstairs to the room she shared with sister. “Will you read with me?”

“Sure!” I exclaimed looking a bookshelf that was filled from floor to ceiling with books of all sorts.

Elsa eyes us both with a mischievous smile as she hangs upside down from the gymnastics bar installed in their doorway.  

“Do you want to see something? Elsa asks swinging down.

“Ok,” I said, “Anna, pick a book and I’ll read with you downstairs.”

We go downstairs and Elsa takes a Chinese yoyo from the cabinet. She shows me the only trick she knows.

“Ta-da!” she says and smiles proudly

“That’s very nice Elsa. Where did you learn how to do that?” I asked.

“At FCC camp” she tells me.

“What’s that?”

“Families with Children form China.”

Elsa and Anna were both adopted into an upper-middle class family. Elsa was adopted from China when she was just a few months old and her birth mother was unknown. Anna was adopted from Vietnam when she was a little bit older and there was record of her birth mother.

On the surface, these two little girls look more like me than their parents. But babysitting for them showed me how they had access to education in a different way than me and how their identities will form differently from my own.

Their access to education begins by being adopted by two loving parents who made a comfortable income. The number of girls in Chinese and Vietnamese orphanages is saddening and disturbing.

“Some of these girls never get forever families” Anna told me in a matter-of-fact manner as we were looking at her adoption photo album.

After reading Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, I saw concerted cultivation before me. Elsa and Anna had several organized activities and playdates (though they were always given agency over what they wanted to do and who they wanted to play with), they were taught to negotiate and talk things through, and they were always asked their opinions. Having this experience in their childhood makes the transition into education and “the real world” much more easier as argued by Lareau.

Do they take all of this for granted? Maybe. Sometimes Anna would say to me, “My Mama says were very lucky!” but I am not sure if she understands what that means.

Their identity formation is affected by their background and I wonder what their biggest identity factor will be once they reach my age.

“No!!! Don’t say it. Everyone always laughs when they hear my middle name” Anna cries.

Elsa shared it with me anyways and giggled hysterically.

Then she caught herself and said, “My mom told me we shouldn’t laugh at people’s names like that.”

Elsa was given a traditional Chinese name for her middle name and Anna was given a traditional Vietnamese name for her middle name. Their family would go either to China or Vietnam every summer and they are involved in programs like Families with Children from China.

“I don’t want to” says Elsa when her father suggested she learn Cantonese from me.

“But sweeties, it’s your culture. It’s your heritage.”

I cringed a little when I heard Elsa’s father say that. I strongly believe that identity forms when the outside world forces it out. I was too aware of my identity as a first generation student once I entered Haverford. When I was a senior looking at colleges, I saw that word, “first generation”, but I never registered what it meant until I experienced it.

Therefore I believe Elsa and Anna are too young right now to see their own identity and access. They tell others “I’m adopted” and “I’m very fortunate” but I don’t think they know what this implies. But knowing their parents, I don’t think these conversations about identities and access will stop once they grow older. These are such important concepts to teach children and I think this is an important conversation to have in all households.

*Names have been changed.


Mich's picture

This is a really interesting phenomenon to consider, and I'm glad you bring it up. I grew up with a lot of kids in my community who were adopted, some trans-racially or trans-nationally, and, while I'm glad that it was, to an extent, normalized within my community, I now wonder how these young adults will form their identities within or outside of their families. Of course there is no required "Asian-American" identity, or any other identity, for that matter, I'd be interested in talking in our group on Tuesday about how the "nature vs. nurture" debate may play a role here. 

jccohen's picture


I agree with MichOls that this is a very interesting situation to consider, and one that is an increasingly common part of the globalized and hybridized world we live in.  You note that "identity forms when the outside world forces it out"; are you pointing particularly to identities other than the mainstream or dominant ones here?  And is the 'formation' of identity as you're talking about it here synonymous with the conscious awareness of identity?  As Hall notes, there's a strong push to make national identity monolithic, unified, and yet it never really is since there are 'cracks' always that have to do with other dimensions of identity.  So in the case of these girls, it seems like their dominant identity as they experience it may be a mainstream upper middle class identity that is by implication American and white.  By referencing their national origins and their current privilege, their parents - it seems to me - are trying to also dislocate those assumptive parts of their identities and thus to urge a taking up of hybridity...a lot for little girls but also, I agree, important!