Adopting a Culture: One Family’s Journey to Becoming Ethiopian

When we first decided to adopt, we initially considered China.  We chose that country, in large part, because it was familiar. We knew a number of families who adopted little girls from there.  When that comfortable choice was not an option because of changes to the program, we were faced with the uncertainty of choosing from those countries available to couples our age. A primary factor from the beginning was the health of the child. We knew any choice entailed risks, including having a biological child.  However, we wanted what we felt was best for our family, which included two active young boys.
As we progressed through the adoption process, a secondary, unforeseen priority emerged— the culture of our child’s birth country. When we were pursuing adoption with China, we discussed our limited knowledge and understanding of this culture and the need to educate ourselves and incorporate new customs and traditions into our family.  But we had no idea where to start or how to make that goal a reality.  We knew families where culture did not play much of a day-to-day role in their lives.  But that was not an approach we could embrace.  Culture brings such richness into the fabric of our lives.  And we knew our child’s birthright was an integral part of who they were and what they were bringing into our family.
When we began learning about the similarities between Greek and Ethiopian ways of life, I could instantly envision incorporating this rich, new culture into our mosaic.  It gave us comfort with our decision. I learned modern European scholars considered the name Ethiopia to be derived from the Greek words aitho “I burn” and ops “face”.  Greece and Ethiopia share ancient roots as well as ties to Orthodox Christianity.  A young Ethiopian woman once commented on my blog that she was welcomed into a Greek Orthodox church and community when she moved to a place with a limited Ethiopian footprint, and she remarked on all the parallels too.  I found the symmetry of her experience fascinating.
When we first visited our daughter’s East African birth country, our understanding of the similarities multiplied. Much of the foliage in this nation, we had also seen in the Mediterranean one, which struck me when I tried to understand why I felt so at home in Addis and our daughter’s native Bahir Dar.  Both countries share a focus on family and a fierce national loyalty to a land whose glory days had faded.  I also noticed a certain joyful embrace of the more light-hearted aspects, whether it be the lack of punctuality or certain common foibles.  A board member of Ethiopia Reads commented to my Greek husband, Michael, at a fundraising event, “You know ‘your people’ and ‘my people’ are very similar in neither are good at arriving somewhere at the appointed time.”  Both peoples maintain a belief that the key to solving the toughest national problems involves working together.
As we each experienced our own individual reactions to the adoption process, each family member made the connections between our previous family cultures and this new one in their own unique way. Ethiopia reminds my husband of the Greece in his youth with its challenged infrastructure.  My eldest son did not talk much about the impact his sister had on his own identify.  He liked the idea of having a diverse family and definitely was interested if students or fellow athletes shared his sister’s heritage. But as I was cleaning up one day, I came across his school ID from the first year Leyla was home.  He had taken an Ethiopian stamp and put it on the front of the card next to his picture.  I definitely understood in that moment the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
My middle son, Damian, was more direct.  He asked if he was Ethiopian now because of his sister.  I reasoned, “You are because her culture is part of our family but you might have to explain to people if you tell them so.” He has embraced going to the local Ethiopian Cultural Center. He is often the only non-Ethiopian child and seems oblivious to that fact.  He will enthusiastically create flags and decorations for a New Year or other celebration or just run around and play with the kids.
I took an unorthodox step recently that demonstrated the extent of my evolution on taking on another culture.  I have an extensive LinkedIn network and join groups of my focus areas or interest.  I joined the Ethiopian Professionals Group.  I introduced myself as the mother of an Ethiopian child who wanted to connect with her culture for her and our family.  I received the most amazingly warm welcome and truly felt I was a full member where I could both contribute and learn.
When I started my first personal blog,, the year after our daughter came home, my goal was to try to give back to this amazing land that gave us our daughter. I planned to raise awareness of both the need and the beauty and use it as a mechanism to learn more.  The name I chose summed up those goals so well at the time.  I discovered a very different sojourn in the years since.  The connections I forged are not just educational in nature or for my child; they have tied our whole family to a diverse group of people involved in some way with her culture whether as their birth country or from their own love of it.
As I heard from an actress on Twitter recently, “Ethiopia has a way of bringing people together.”  So true. I can now count an Ethiopian actress, artist and poet as important people in my life.  I now call a writer who grew up in Ethiopia and tirelessly advocates for literacy progress there both a friend and an inspiration.  When you bring a child that doesn’t share your biology into your heart, we call this “adopting a child.”  For us, that also meant “adopting a culture.”  Our connection to Ethiopia continues to expand and grow, affirming our choice.  And we look forward to seeing where else the journey of adopting a culture as part of adopting a child will take us all.


  1. As I read your blog entries on your family, I thought about Greek/Ethiopian parallels! What a beautiful family you have! I truly admire your global outlook, and I can understand it being somewhat transnational myself. I was born in Puerto Rico to a Puerto Rican mother and an American father who arrived as a member of the US Air Force. Besides Puerto Rico, I have lived on air bases and in college towns in the States. I am a college professor of French in Puerto Rico, and completely fluent in Spanish, English and French.
    I love that you have been able to return to your daughter’s hometown, so that it is, as you so aptly put it, not just a “special occasion” visit, but an ongoing part of her experience, and of your sons’ as well. I love that your youngest is son an active participant at the Ethiopian Cultural Center. What a wonderful professional as well as social future your children will have. They have experienced the US, Europe and Africa from an early age.
    Another thing that I admire about your outlook besides your attention to culture is your strong family feeling. You aren’t obsessed with the transracial aspect. Your post on hair was so refreshingly honest and thoughtful; your daughter is going to be so balanced and self-assured because of your honestly and down-to-earth recognition of your own issues with hair, and you are a former model of Dutch heritage with the fair coloring one so often associates with the Netherlands.
    Once again, congratulations. I will think often of your beautiful family, wishing you every success, and continued transatlantic experiences. I hope that your daughter and sons, especially the youngest, will learn Amharic

  2. HI Olga, Sorry for the much delayed response. It has been a challenging but fun transition year for the family. I appreciate your kind words of affirmation for the article as well as for our family. We feel extremely blessed as a multicultural family. All the best to you and yours! –Ellenore


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