Real Intercultural Family in the U.S.: Korean and English


Welcome Amber and Ben!
Where are you from?
Amber: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Ben: Suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Where do you currently live?
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
How old are your children and where were they born?
Claudia is three and a half. She was born here in Philadelphia.
Béla just turned three and he was born in South Korea. They are only six months apart.
How did you two meet?
Amber: I was working at a bakery.
Ben: And I was living behind that bakery. I would stop in every morning for something to eat and we kind of got to know each other that way. We’d been friends for gosh, how long?
Amber: Maybe two years.
Ben: Yes, two years. My business sent me on a trip to Paris for three months. Somewhere along the line while I was away, things changed. We were in constant communication with me away. And when I came back we were together. Absence and distance can work its magic sometimes.
Amber: We’ve been together 10 years. We weren’t going to get married until we found out we had to be married for the Korean adoption. So we did it just quick and dirty.
How did you decide which countries to adopt from?
Amber: We chose Korea because of the reputation of the program because of kids getting good medical care. And it’s one of the few countries where you didn’t have to travel to meet your child. But it took an incredibly long time to adopt from Korea–close to three years. And the program was stopping and starting. Korea is always working to eliminate the international adoption program. It’s not something they are at all proud of.
Ben: Korea has a short in-country stay. They also have an escort option where someone will bring the child to you.
Amber: We knew we wanted two children and we decided we can’t risk doing this a second time–I was afraid I would age out of the program. We had neighbors who had adopted domestically. We talked to their lawyer who did private domestic adoptions. So we had a plan for domestic adoption in case Korea fell through. We were stressed out with the waiting and waiting and waiting. It was agony. The lawyer called seven weeks later saying that she got called to the hospital to show a birth mother potential adoptive families and she picked ours. We got that call at 3:30 p.m. and we went to get her that next morning.
How long after Claudia did Béla arrive?
Amber: You have to wait a full year after a placement to bring your next child home (when adopting from Korea). So we had to freeze our application right away. When Claudia was 11 months, we felt we would let Korea know that we believed more strongly in the United States’ domestic program. The day after this decision, I was sitting in a coffee shop and telling a friend we decided to go domestic. And Ben called, who had just taken a call from the agency, that they had a baby for us. That call was in February and he came in August.
What approach do you take to connect your children to their birth culture? Is this important to you?
Amber: Definitely. We live in a big city and where Claudia is concerned, she entitled to the privilege of knowing working class black people not just wealthy adoptees. That was our concern. We wanted them educated publicly. It’s a whole different thing though, the Korean adoptee thing–relations between white people and the Korean community are so different between white people and the black community. We found out when holding Claudia that it was not the same at all.
Hanging out with adoptive families is only fun if you like those families. And Korean families are doing completely different things than Korean adoptive families are doing. You can’t just show up and say, “Hi, I want to be a part of your community now.” You also can’t come into the African-American community and say, “I want to make things better.” People do try but they don’t realize how that turns people off.
We got comfortable right away realizing you don’t go about this cultural stuff quid pro quo. Every time there is a Korean holiday happening, you don’t have to try to force yourself into a black thing. Like when we went to the Korean restaurant, do we play Stevie Wonder on the way home? If you’re trudging along to some cultural event you think you need to go to but are not excited about, it’s not sincere. You have to really care. It is guaranteed you will find something in any culture you will care about. So find the thing—whether it’s a Korean horror movie, sports, food–for me it’s ways textile and folk traditions. We also go to a Korean drumming class. At first we did a lot of Korean stuff and eventually found our way into the African-American stuff.
Ben: It’s about having the freedom to discard the things that aren’t interesting, and retain the things that are, even if they are not culturally relevant.
Have you dealt with any instances of ignorance or racism with regards to your family? How have you handled it?
Amber: Yes. But currently Claudia has no clue that people feel anything less with people with brown skin. That weight isn’t on her yet. There isn’t any way to explain everything to her now. But she has to know what people with prejudice eyes are seeing. She has a right to, not that it’s a good thing or a pretty thing, not that we believe it of her–she has to know what these things mean. Cause if she doesn’t understand the concept of prejudice and why it is wrong, what’s to stop her from thinking when she experiences it that it’s happening simply because she’s Claudia?
How are you received as white parents in the Korean community?
Amber: Koreans love children and that trumps everything. We never had any trouble from anybody. Nobody even seems confused or has a chip on their shoulder.
What about in the black community?
Amber: It’s now better than it was initially. I was very worried the first few weeks we had her because people were nasty. Every day we went out, people would shout things at us: “Where did you steal that baby from?” “That’s a goddamn shame, I can’t believe they still let white people have babies like that.”
It lasted for only a few months. I think maybe it was extra sensitive because she was so tiny. To see us with her so tiny, even in a person’s subconscious and an angry subconscious made you think, these people haven’t had her long enough. It was heartbreaking to me. But who cares if it’s heartbreaking to me as long as it won’t happen to her that way.
What language do you speak to the kids?
Amber: We both speak English to the kids but we are all learning Korean.
How do you go about teaching Korean as non-native speakers?
Amber: Before either kid came, we had taken a Korean class at the YMCA because we were anticipating the baby who was eventually Béla. I had been writing a column for Korea Quarterly (a quarterly magazine published in Minnesota serving first generation and Korean adoptive communities) about our adoption experience. Then there was Claudia and we didn’t know if we were going to adopt from Korea anymore.
I had invested a big part of my heart in the culture and language. I loved it–I had never felt attached to a culture or language before Korean. So we started with very common nouns. If she knew both words and one was two syllables and the other was four syllables, she always chose the shorter word, regardless of the language it was in.
Then Béla came and he knew the same words. Right before he came, I found a Korean woman from the neighborhood to make a list of things I could say to him: “Don’t do that, don’t eat that, I love you.” He understood these things. It was sort of amazing. The first night he was here, he went to pull something off the shelf, I said, “Ahn-de (안돼)!!” He turned to look at me and he slapped himself on the hand.
And so we just kept on that path. Anything that was easy and small and something we said every day. Then they learned if they wanted a thing and we told them “no,” if they asked for it in Korean, they would be more likely to get it.
I really, strongly believe in passive learning. There is so much you can get from passive learning, like listening to Korean radio from Seoul. We don’t sit down and say we have to study this. I don’t want it to not be fun. My ultimate goal, and I don’t want to let him know my ultimate goal because then he may not want to do it, but I want him to be able to have a conversation with his birth mother without a translator in attendance if that’s what he wants. But it’s not really my goal to have.
What religion are you?
Amber: I don’t have any.
Ben: I was raised Jewish but I’m not really practicing. I cook some of the meals. I’m a culinary Jew.
Amber: Claudia’s birth mother was Muslim. And Béla’s was Buddhist. We celebrate things with lights and gifts. We do Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanza.
What have been your greatest joys as an intercultural family?
Amber: The best thing we have ever done for them is have given them each other. There is not anything like the love they have for each other. And Claudia did more for him when he got here than anyone else. You can see it from all the pictures from when he came. It’s hard to look at them now. You see he wasn’t doing great at all, he was really shell shocked.
Ben: The first picture I took of him was the day after he arrived. The next morning we loaded them up into a big, red wagon to the playground across street. A few feet down the road they were wrestling and grabbing each other.
Amber: They are incredibly different–she is really extroverted he is incredibly quiet and guarded. But he’ll never be able to stop himself from telling Claudia something. We always know what’s going on in his head because of that. They are really amazing. I love picturing them as 35 year olds.
What have been your greatest challenges as an intercultural family?
Amber: I think I still have a hard time working out the different ways I feel about them. They are so different and came to us in such different ways and at different ages. I guess for people who give birth they have the same experience of the babies being the same age as the other one. It’s so different to have her show up out of absolutely nowhere—it was literally a miracle. I spent the first 48 hours saying to her face, “This is not what I asked for. I asked for something Korean.” That culminated with him. His personality is so different. I felt a lot of guilt after he came. Because he was not a tiny newborn, it was not the same bonding process. Someone handed him to me and he looked me in the eyes. It looked like he was thinking, “There is no way fucking way I am going with you.” He struggled to get away and didn’t want to go with us. I think it always will stay with me–that fear that this is not what he wanted. It will always be different with her because she was person who made me a mother.
Ben: In addition, in the back of my mind, I don’t necessarily keep count but I try to check the box, are we putting all the options on the table? We don’t know whose aspects of whose culture they will glom onto. We want to make sure there are many pieces of the culture they can latch onto. We just pick the things–the movies, books, food–because they are most interesting. I hope they feel like they have the same freedom to do that too. Whatever it is.
People say to us that the kids are so blessed to have you and we feel the other way around. We are the lucky ones.
Thank you Amber and Ben!


  1. I really identify with the idea of taking the elements of another culture that are most interesting to you. It makes integrating that culture into your family a very natural, unforced act.


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