adoption · books and reading · culture/multiculturalism · Hispanics/Latinos · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism

Speaking (Dominican) American!

I went through an embarrassing phase as a teenager where I didn’t want to be Dominican. We didn’t visit the Dominican Republic that much in my teens (not that that would have helped since once there, I was told I was American and not really Dominican).

I was still reeling from a childhood spent being called white girl because I “looked white” and “talked white.” By the time my mother realized my Spanish language skills were all but disappearing, she ordered me to speak Spanish and she refused to talk to me otherwise. So, I stopped talking to her. I was American and I was “going to speak American!” (It wasn’t until college that anyone would tell me that being able to speak two languages could help me land some pretty good jobs.)

Part of it was what I learned about what it meant to be Dominican. A joke in my high school was that Dominicans were “dumb-in-a-can.” For some reason, I thought the kids hanging around in hoodies and baggie pants on the street corners of Washington Heights were “more Dominican” than me. At least, that’s what they’d told me and somewhere around the way, I believed them. If they said, Dominicans listened to Puff Daddy and I was listening to Nirvana then I wasn’t “really Dominican.”

It wasn’t until college in a class entitled “Hispanic Women” that I really embraced being Dominican. Being Dominican wasn’t about how good my Spanish was or how good my English was, it wasn’t even about whether or not I could make rice and beans. I was Dominican-American whether I liked it or not and when I started reading books by Julia Alvarez (“How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”), I realized I liked it.

I joke though that I didn’t realize how Dominican I was until I decided to become Jewish. Part of this truly has been thanks to my husband who has been dubbed an honorary Dominican. When we lived in Washington Heights, my husband forayed out of the shops selling kosher stuff to discover all the Dominican food he could get his hands on at the local bodegas: he’d substitute potatoes for yucca and plantains in his cholent. He got his hair done (“best haircuts ever”) at the Dominican barber shops.

When I wanted to go to the Dominican Republic after we got married, he was excited! When I told him I wanted our kids (still imaginary) to be fluent in Spanish, he signed up for a Spanish class. Now if only he hadn’t told my grandmother about the Dominican curses I taught him. If my husband could be proud of being an honorary Dominican, how could I not be proud of being a true Dominicana?

But if being proud of your parents’ culture isn’t so easy when you’re an American-born child, being proud of your native culture isn’t any easier when you’re adopted. “A study says that more than half of the first generation of children adopted from South Korea struggled with their ethnic identity, and it recommends changes in adoption policy.” Read: “Adopted from Korea and in Search of Identity”

4 thoughts on “Speaking (Dominican) American!

  1. re: Koreans

    There's an interesting story in The Bamboo Cradle by Dr. Avraham Schwartzbaum. (The book is about how Dr. Schwartzbaum and his wife, while in China, adopted a Chinese girl.)

    At one point, Dr. Schwartzbaum and his wife took their daughter to a certain Chinese movie. While the parents were crying out of sentimental nostalgia for their experiences in China, the daughter sat their, passive and unmoved.

    The parents asked her why she wasn't moved. She answered that she didn't see herself as Chinese; she was a Jewish girl with two Jewish parents, period. So what if she was born in China?

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  2. I read the book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I find that line of thinking a little disturbing but it's not my place to tell her what her identity is. Just like it's not the place of people who keep insisting that now I'm “just Jewish” to overlook that I'm also Dominican and American.

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  3. It's not just cases of transracial adoption where children do not feel a connection with their ethnic roots. It is not unusual for children to pick up more of their self-identities from the people around them than from their parents and families. This is the danger for Jewish kids who grow up in communities with few other Jews.

    I once knew a co-worker in his early 20'swho was an ABC (American Born Chinese) and whose parents both came from Taiwan as adults. His mother spoke hardly any English and yet he only understood, but spoke very little Chinese. Perhaps the lack of communication between my co-worker and his mother is one of the causes of his almost total lack any feeling of being Chinese. He said that he “felt totally white”. He'd be in his 40's now, so I wonder if he developed an interest in his ethnic heritage.

    On the other hand, why is it that few people think about why many European-Americans lose their cultural connections too? And when white adopted children search out their birth parents, people look at it totally differently than when children adopted from other countries do that.

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