Sending the kids to camp

We recently received an invitation to lend our voice to support the Fresh Air Fund, and we declined, stating:

Thanks for thinking of us, but as policy we only allow questions from readers and this is far from our web site’s mission. In general, our members would rather people focused on improving social justice and equality for poor families than self-soothing through privileged acts of charity. This mind-set is what separated us from our original families to begin with, and we don’t want to contribute to more of the same.

The response to our statement showed no acknowledgment of our stance, or where we were coming from, which should not surprise us.
In the same week, I stumbled upon a post on a blog of an adoptive mother who sent the children in her care to China Heritage Camp (run by Dillon International); my reaction was the same as to the FAF request.
I was wondering if any of you wishes to comment on the idea of culture through camp, and the idea of camp in general in terms of the adopted experience.

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7 thoughts on “Sending the kids to camp

  1. This is an interesting question – I went to Holt Camp for many years and when I first started it was open to only Korean adoptees. We learned about Korean culture (language, food, dance, etc.). More importantly, we learned there were others like us in the world and found a connection with others who shared similar life experiences. When Holt expanded campers to include adoptees from other countries, we also learned about other cultures.

    In general, I do not find having a culture camp at all a bad idea. The reality is that learning about culture was just a minor aspect of camp. Meeting other adoptees and sharing that experience with one another meant more to me than anything else. As a child, if you are not given that opportunity, then it is easy to feel very alone as an adoptee….

    Therefore, I felt very little regarding the intentions of my adopted family for sending me to camp. Maybe some people feel that it is a way to compensate for the removal of a child from his/her native land, but I am not sure that for the child the reason really matters….

    Just my thoughts….

  2. I’m not sure when, exactly, these culture camps cropped up. But I WAS aware they were an option as I approached camp age. They were far away, very expensive, and full of people I had nothing in common with except being adopted from Korea. My parents were glad that I didn’t want to go because of the money. I didn’t want to go because its concentration was based on my orphanhood, making me feel like a statistic, or a leper, or some other such alien, and it was as if throwing us all together was somehow going to make feeling like an alien go away the rest of the year. I was skeptical, found it dubious, wasn’t going to be that easy to manipulate.

    At some point I needed a break from my parents, though, and I began lobbying for camps offered by my church. These were local and cheap, and after the first one my parents realized it was nice to have a break from me, too. About the third year of these I noticed there was a Korean heritage camp and thought maybe I was finally ready, now that I was a seasoned camper, to meet strangers who just happened to look like me. Plus the things they did sounded way more interesting than the Holt culture camps.

    Only it wasn’t until we arrived that it dawned on me that I was the only adoptee, and that I was going to be fully immersed in a totally different culture, and there were only about a half dozen of us that weren’t wealthy. There I learned Korean folk songs that I can still sing by memory, and royal-style traditional dance from an old halmoni who was vexed by the indelicate American way I held my hands. All around me were kids who understood a lot of Korean and could speak a little Korean but chose not to. Who groused at having to participate in traditional arts, who complained about how Korean their parents were, who teased me because my Hangul calligraphy was so bad, who were used to seeing other Koreans and hanging around each other and who had a community. And I think some of them envied me, that I wasn’t burdened with Korean family obligations, and that I wasn’t already feeling the pressure to study and have my life mapped out for me. For a brief moment I was part of their vacation from their Korean American lives, and we flirted and played and sang to (bleck) the cheesiest pop songs they could find on the radios they smuggled in.

    And I never had any desire to go to an adoptee-run Korean culture camp after that. The exposure to heritage at the camp I went to seemed so bittersweet to me but at the same time really authentic. And the culture was real community – they would see each other often – some weekly, some even daily.

    How could culture camp even come close to anything real like that? How could it sustain us little aliens in any meaningful way? It seemed even more pathetic than ever.

    Come to think of it, that brief foray into Korean-American culture at heritage camp kind of presaged my experience coming to Korea. I’ve come up with the same conclusion each time, which is: It’s not my culture to have. It’s nice for them, (though they may debate that) but I don’t belong. I accept that. It’s a good thing to come to terms with.

    Adoption agency run culture camp can really only present/construct a culture of adoption-hood. It’s purpose is to make us feel more at ease with our alien status, and not about culture. And that seems really self-serving to me. It’s not real. We can’t take it home with us. We’re still aliens by ourselves every day. So I ask: Who’s it really for, anyway? Who’s it really for???

  3. Interesting to read in adoptive parent blogs how what once were called culture camps are now called heritage camps. I guess culture has too negative connotations? Or do they really think that heritage is something that can be passed down/imparted in a camp experience, removed of family, while culture can’t?

    What do 2nd generation Korean American kids call their camps now?

    Why don’t they just call it adoptee camp and be honest about it?

    Sorry. The ever-evolving adoption language never fails to irritate me…

  4. I never know how to begin to broach this subject because it is so incredibly complex, like our originating cultures. Tara’s response speaks of the seeming innocuous nature of these camps as they relate to adoptees at such a young age. Girl4708 brings up the security of community for those who are “of” the particular group, and I think this is an important difference. I always questioned even as a child the idea that I had something in common with a) someone who was Lebanese and b) someone who was adopted. Thinking this through, I imagine adoptive parents will jump on the first response as perhaps corroborating their view of it–the camp for adoptees is harmless fun, and why overburden the discussion with anything beyond that?

    I think what most bothers me is the very word “camp” to begin with–because historically speaking it seems that such a term has more often than not negative connotations as relates to race, ethnicity, religion, or other identity markers: concentration camps; internment camps; refugee camps; reservations; etc. What I mean to say is that in most cases, when the dominant culture decides to make a camp for subaltern cultures, it is not based on any idea of “celebrating” that culture; quite the opposite.

    So here we have such a scenario, and perhaps at first glance it seems pretty “harmless”. But as Girl4708 is pointing out, what is the real purpose? Why the obfuscation of terms–culture vs. heritage? Heritage seems hugely problematic as a term to use, etymologically sharing roots with “inherit” and “hereditary”. Linguistically speaking, this is a poison dart.

    But a digression. This past Friday I went with a friend of mine and her kids to a town north of Beirut, to a more or less exclusive swim/beach club. The Lebanese “culture” here is bizarre to me, reflecting a penchant for all things Western (mostly French), especially language, fashion, mores, education, etc. This is the culture of my orphanage, of a large part of the diaspora community. This is the culture of the Lebanese who make up a big percentage of my hometown in the States. My Lebanese friends growing up reflected this, and manifested (as did I) a hatred for our dark skin, hair, and eyes; a desire to not be seen as Arab or Muslim. The French spoken is learned and pidgin, has no capacity for evolution linguistically speaking, and I am regularly misunderstood for speaking the French I learned from actually having lived in France.

    Yesterday, quite on the contrary, I traveled with members of the artists’ collective we’ve started here to visit the village of one member whose family resides in the Bekaa Valley. We went to the Baalbek ruins, and to spare my bald head from the harsh sun, I bought a counterfeit kufiyyeh from a boy in a shop who tied it for me in the local Bedouin manner. This boy had blondish hair and green eyes, reflecting the time of the Crusades as passed down genetically speaking. His Arabic had the lilt of those in this part of the country. Despite it making local “sense”, most of the tourists ignored this local and traditional protective garment for baseball caps or straw hats.

    The kufiyyeh is made in China, and reflects the traditional Palestinian pattern, different from the Syrian, or Jordanian, or Iraqi (as we call them now). Our collective has been working with the last kufiyyeh factory in Palestine, put out of business slowly by embargoes and cheap knockoffs. The machines that weave the kufiyyehs were supplied during the silk boom in Lebanon, which itself died when the French pulled it out to move to cheaper locales–Japan and China. So in this one piece of cloth, there are overlapping cultures and stories, origins and history.

    At the Baalbek ruins there is a museum which focuses on the Roman influence on the region; this is no idle choice. It becomes a strange exercise for me to map true Roman ruins onto the architecture of Washington, D.C., or any major Eastern seaboard city and their architecture which in no way reflects the depth of craft, culture, and art revealed in the details of these ruins. American revivalist architecture is thus a barren shell, a mimicry without soul–like the Chinese kufiyyeh.

    Baalbeck also stages in the summer a series of concerts, a cultural event that draws mostly tourists and those from outside the region. The Bedouin I have worked with in the past, on the other hand, have a mostly oral culture, and local crafts and traditions that do not “expand out” to the national level. The local residents certainly cannot afford the ticket prices for these concerts. Their village literally serves up an elitist culture to an outside elite.

    The Bedouin influence brings me back to my neighborhood, which has a huge population of inland Syrian and Kurdish workers. My language is inflected now with their accent and expressions, and I am more familiar with Syrian debke dance than I am with Lebanese debke. To speak Syrian in Lebanon “marks” me among those of the dominant culture, who now refer to me using the same epithets that condemn those low in terms of class strata to their status in life. One neighborhood away, across the former Green Line dividing Beirut, is a part of the city that more reflects the beach club denizens I mentioned above; culturally speaking I find it alien and lonely, barren and outsider; ironically, my upbringing allows me to walk here unimpeded; my Syrian friends do not have this same luxury.

    The reason I am elaborating this to such an extent is that if I had to imagine such a thing as a “Lebanese culture camp”, I am absolutely positive as to whose culture it would be, and what it would avoid. I can only say this now after coming back and living here in a definite attempt to forego what is most familiar to me. That “heritage” in Lebanon means preservation of the architecture of the colonialist period for the most part, or that the markers of culture such as the kufiyyeh are no longer even produced by the culture they represent, show up the falsity of the dominant culture’s attempt to “preserve” or “pass on” culture or heritage. Culture becomes a cipher; an empty symbol; a dead product to be repackaged and sold.

    So the modes and institutions of dominant culture, whether the museum, or the national heritage site, or the music concert, or the adoptee “heritage camp”, all have one purpose, which is the exact opposite of what they claim: An erasure of history; a destruction of local, living culture; an imposition of a foreign and alien replacement.

    If I am a child from the urban or rural poor regions of this country, of what benefit, then, to learn imperialist and colonial culture? If I am a child of the urban or rural poor of Korea, how offensive, then, to learn the dances of the royal court? That this erasure and destruction of local culture maps directly onto adoption, and by extension colonialism, Orientalism, racism, and imperialism should, I think, give us all great pause. It’s not as simplistic as and cannot be reduced to saying, “let the kids have fun”.

  5. Daniel,

    Forgive me for not inserting a more in-depth response, but for this moment I have, I wanted to tell you how cinematic and exhilarating it was for me to read this comment. It’s like the very best National Geographic article, only better because it’s the observations of someone connected to ALL those influences, yet also removed from them. How complicated our birth culture is; how rich our heritage should be. How bittersweet we can only touch the surface.

    It also brings to mind one of my daughter’s school projects, where she and a classmate prepared a presentation on National Geographic images as a vehicle for colonialism. It seems to me that we adoptees are an extension of that photo journalism/picture story. Our true stories being manipulated with a western lens, we are the coffee table publication incarnate. I think these camps are meant to re-infuse lost ethnic luster [ADDED: or, create an edifice of a culture we never had a chance to absorb] and tell us, it could be worse – you could be the only one. I don’t doubt this could be comforting, or that it might help us reduce conflict with the dominant culture we’re forced to navigate through, but it’s such an insult to the intelligence of emerging young people.

  6. I came across this today [link]:

    And once they see all the other adoptees and adults, they can move passed being ashamed by the label and celebrate being adopted. They can hold the banner high of adoption and there is hope they can move beyond.

    “Hold high the banner of adoption?” What does that even mean? Why should adoptees be forced to “move beyond” via indoctrination camps?

  7. The existence of people in camps–I mean this in the full sense Daniel hears the echoes of–at the same moment proposes the problem of people excluded from those camps, by which I o not only mean those people who did not see themselves as (necessary) clients of those camps (i.e., likely the people who set them up in the first place), but even simply those people who, for whatever reason, were excluded from internment.

    One may be glad to avoided the agony of internment, but the history of survivor’s guilt shows that the question, “why wasn’t I chosen?” isn’t so easily answered. Where we speak specifically of reeducation camps, whatever problematic we justly detect in such forced assimilation, what of the fate of those who were denied that relative advantage, and thus fell even further through the cracks into an even less advantaged social position?

    Just as any dichotomy “secretly” proposes four categories (e.g., if we imagine love and fear, this proposes as well the fear of love and the love of fear as categories), then we have in general with the existence of camps the advantages an disadvantages of internment and the advantages and disadvantages of non-internment.

    A question in the question, “Why should adoptees be forced to ‘move beyond’ via indoctrination camps” becomes for me: how specifically does the indoctrination camp in an alien culture actually differ from the indoctrination camp of one’s putatively native culture? Why should a child, in her native world or an alien word, be forced to ‘move beyond’ via acculturation in any setting? I don’t say this to insist no difference exists, but rather to ask for a more precise distinction.

    More specifically, I don’t want to hear something like, “Well, parents in a native culture NATURALLY indoctrinate their children into the local culture” or something like it. Please assume I have an immovable opposition to any sort of resort to the word “natural”. To me, that’s already a biological mystification borrowed from non-adopted discourse. I will accept, by contrast, the perfectly reasonable assertion that growing up surrounded by people who more or less look like me offers a radically different experience. Even if I were Lebanese but adopted by Yemeni parents, they might still deem me in some way a foreigner (I’m referring to the idea that the putative whiteness of Russian children does not, in fact, avoid the problem of transracial adoption, at lest for the child), but I would still grow up with a sense of being surrounded by people like me more than if I grew up in Europe or the United States (even in Arabic neighborhoods). I belabor the obvious, obviously.

    I say this all simply to contextualize my question: how can we distinguish (if we even should) between “native” indoctrination and adopted indoctrination. Of course, the culture camp (as noted) offers a parody of culture, an erasure of culture in fact, and thereby exposes its roots as a reeducation camp, rather than any kind of genuine gesture of diversity. (Put another way, the camp exists primarily for the parents, or even more broadly, to continue the financial exploitation already associated with the cash cow of adoption.) To compare the scale of such camps (as inadequate) against the scale of cultural indoctrination generally (as presumably somehow adequate?) seems therefore to create a misleading comparison. Would we find unobjectionable a culture camp that adequately represented “native culture” any more than we would find a reeducation camp that provided a genuine education unobjectionable? I don’t think so. So the objection remains more fundamental than merely that the camps propose a sorry, grotesque thing more designed to destroy than enliven in contrast to “native culture”.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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