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Chinese New Year Unique For Adoptive Families

A traditional dance troupe performs in New York's Chinatown to celebrate the Chinese New Year. For many children adopted from China, the holiday is a time to learn about their heritage.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
A traditional dance troupe performs in New York's Chinatown to celebrate the Chinese New Year. For many children adopted from China, the holiday is a time to learn about their heritage.

Chinese New Year celebrations kicked off earlier this week to herald the Year of the Dragon. Like many Americans raising children adopted from China, David Youtz and his wife like to use the holiday to instill in their children the importance of their ethnic heritage.

"We want them to feel a lot of pride in where they came from," Youtz says. "I think that's especially important when you're an adopted person."

The Mandarin speaker is the father of four Chinese daughters, three of whom are 7-year-old triplets.

Youtz explains that his family follows some Chinese customs, such as cleaning the house before the weeks-long celebration begins. He also adorns his New Jersey home with orange trees to create a festive spirit. The Youtzes buy their children new clothes, eat dumplings and attend holiday events.

"But there are other parts that we don't really do, or that don't quite fit our kind of family," he tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More.

A recent banquet organized by Families with Children from China of Greater New York, in the vibrant Asian community of Flushing, Queens, offered one example. One of the honored guests, New York City Councilman Peter Koo, was on hand to help demonstrate Chinese cultural tradition.

Koo, who emigrated from Hong Kong in 1971, invited children to face a scroll with Chinese characters, bow three times to their ancestors, and repeat a few honorary statements to them, before paying respects to their parents and receiving hong bao, a crisp red envelope of money.

"A lot of the kids were down to age 3 or 4 or 5, and they obediently did that," Youtz says, but for an adopted teenager, the concept of honoring ancestors is a bit more complicated.

Among them was Sophie, a junior in high school and Youtz's eldest daughter.

"I didn't want to participate in it, only because I don't know who my Chinese ancestors are," she told Martin. The 17-year-old says the idea of bowing to someone she doesn't know or hasn't heard about didn't quite feel right to her.

Although Sophie spent the past four years living in Hong Kong along with her family, this event in Queens marked the first occasion when the onset of the New Year raised issues about honoring past generations.

According to the State Department, 66,630 Chinese children have been adopted by American parents since 1999, and thousands more have joined American families from other countries that similarly mark the beginning of the lunar calendar with feasts, parades and dances.

Since many children adopted abroad know little about their birth families, the issue of ancestry can be confusing.

In an earlier conversation with Martin, Youtz described an instance when a stranger approached his family during a picnic and expressed disdain for China and its policies.

"Then, he gratuitously threw in, with my kids right there, that 'those Chinese, they don't care about their daughters, they throw them in the trash,' " he recalled.

Youtz says the girls didn't talk to him about their feelings after this episode, but he fears it may have had an adverse effect on their thoughts about their lineage and heritage.

While he says the picnic incident was exceptional, it's the sort of thing that has reinforced his desire to instill pride in his children.

"We try to make sure that our kids already have a very happy [time with] confidence and grounding on what it means to be Chinese," he says.

And the Chinese New Year offers one opportunity to do that.

"I think all of those families have found their own personal ways to bring that cultural moment into their families' lives," Youtz says. "We are, in a way, a whole new version of being Chinese-American."

And that means creating whole new versions of how to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

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