Chinese New Year Unique For Adoptive Families

Jan 26, 2012
Originally published on January 27, 2012 10:50 am

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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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, actor Demian Bichir was just nominated for an Oscar for his role in the film "A Better Life," about the struggles of undocumented immigrants in L.A. We talked to him about the film, but he also told us about the music that inspires him. That's our In Our Ear segment and it's coming up in a few minutes.

But first, Gong Xi Fa Cai, or Happy New Year, which tens of millions of people are celebrating around the world with fireworks, parades and, of course, food. We're ringing in the year of the dragon, considered especially auspicious in Chinese culture.

The holiday's a special time for people who are connected to Asian culture, but in this country many thousands of people have that connection through adoption. According to the U.S. State Department, since 1999 around 67,000 children have been adopted from China and many of these families see the holiday as a chance to help their children learn more about Chinese traditions and culture.

We wanted to hear more about one family's Chinese New Year's story, so we are joined now by David Youtz and his daughter Sophie. David is the dad of four girls. They are all adopted from China and Sophie is the eldest and she's a junior in high school. Welcome to you both.

DAVID YOUTZ: Nice to be here. Gong Xi Fa Cai.


MARTIN: David, you previously visited with us to talk about your family, your beautiful family. Just to remind people who didn't hear our previous conversation, which was part of our Parenting segment, you and your wife are not Chinese. Your four daughters are Chinese, but you feel it's important to introduce them to Chinese culture and traditions. Why do you think that's important?

YOUTZ: Well, it's really important for a couple of reasons. It's very much who our children are. Of course our kids have various different identities going on, so they are Chinese. They were born in China. To the outside world they will look like Chinese people. They're Chinese-American and so there is a lot of interesting issues about how to help prepare them for being Chinese-American in our country.

And of course we want them to feel a lot of pride in where they came from. I think that's especially important when you're an adopted person. So we want our kids to feel really grounded and proud of their ethnicity and proud of their own stories.

MARTIN: Sophie, what do you think about that?

YOUTZ: I think it's really good that I have this opportunity to look deeper into my Chinese side since - even if we're living in America.

MARTIN: Well, your little sisters are a lot younger than you, but you've had a chance to kind of experience Chinese New Year for a while. Is there a favorite part of the holiday for you?

YOUTZ: Typically, as a teenager, I love receiving hung bao, which is red packet where the parents usually put in money for their children to spend as they wish. It's a lot like Christmas for the Chinese.

But I also really like the lion dance just because of its energetic feel and the story. One aspect of the lion dance was the man, the tamer, who really scared me with his big giant mask.

MARTIN: OK. Tell us, David - tell us a little bit more about Chinese New Year, how it's celebrated, what it means.

YOUTZ: Well, I think it's really two big things in Chinese culture. The first, of course, is it's the start of a whole new year, starting a new cycle, and just like it is for the Western new year, it's kind of a chance to look ahead, start over again, make wishes and plans and hope for really good luck.

But the other thing that it is in Chinese culture - above all, it's a family holiday, so it's kind of like Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Year's all wrapped into one section or one part of the year. And then it's, you know, it's a good two weeks of festivities if you're really doing it in the traditional way, and every day has different things going on. Some of them are just with your close family and a lot of things are with your wider circles, your clan, your extended family, times that you go out and visit other friends.

MARTIN: Well, in China, obviously, which is such a big country, this two week period would probably be a time when family members who are living apart from family or living across the country would probably try to gather. Wouldn't that be right? There's a lot of traveling back and forth...

YOUTZ: That's right. see family?

Yeah. We recently returned from living in Hong Kong for four years and one of the incredible things that goes on there and even more so over the border is that people go to great lengths to get back to their home and to wherever they call their extended family's home.

So in China, millions and millions of people are on the trains and buses and on the roads, trying to get home in the days right before the holiday.

MARTIN: So it is like Thanksgiving, only writ large.

YOUTZ: Yeah.

YOUTZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: Really big.

YOUTZ: One point three billion people large.

MARTIN: Yes, 1.3 billion people large. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with David Youtz. He's the father of four girls; they're all adopted from China. His eldest, Sophie, is with us and we're talking about how their family celebrates Chinese New Year.

So Sophie, you grew - as we, as David just mentioned, as your dad just mentioned - you've been celebrating the holiday in the United States but you just got back, right, from Hong Kong. So you had a chance to compare.

YOUTZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: What did you notice about the differences?

YOUTZ: I noticed how much more serious that this Chinese New Year is in living in Hong Kong. They had multiple Chinese dinners and brunches and festivals and line dances, and definitely the fireworks - that was a big one too. You don't see that much in America for something like this.

MARTIN: Do you miss it now that you're back?

YOUTZ: It's hard to say. I myself, I'm not really, yay, Chinese New Year. But living in Hong Kong, it has broadened my knowledge on it so it's made me think of it more as a value than a time to get away from school.


MARTIN: You know, but one aspect of the celebration - as I understand it - is that it's a time to pay respect to the ancestors. And Sophie, do you mind if I ask, is that part of it hard for you? Do you think about that? Is it a bummer at all or no?

YOUTZ: Well, I hadn't really thought about it until actually this past Sunday when my family went to this Chinese banquet in Flushing, Queens. And the host had said that all the children should bow three times to their ancestors before receiving hung bao from their parents. I've never heard of this, really before, so I didn't want to participate in it, only because I don't know who my Chinese ancestors are. And it seems to me that if I bow to someone who I don't know or haven't heard about, it just seems fake to me.

MARTIN: David, what do you think?

YOUTZ: Well, yeah. I guess I've always known in the abstract that this was an important part of the festival and for our Chinese-American friends, you know, it's very real and really important. In our family it's a little more complicated. You know, for my kids, which ancestors are we talking about? My wife and me, we have all kinds of ethnicities going on, Irish and Swiss and English and Scottish, and so my kids know about that and they know their grandparents.

But on the other side of their heritage, it's pretty much unknown. We don't really know much about the birth parents and the birth families, and in our family we frequently talk about the birth parents or recognize them. We thank them on our kid's birth days, for example. But it was a little bit startling and interesting when the local Chinese host - this was actually the city councilman for the borough of Queens, Peter Koo, had all the kids look up at a big Chinese scroll with big Chinese characters and asked them to bow three times and repeat three sort of honorary and appreciative statements to the ancestors. So a lot of the kids were, you know, down to age three or four or five and they obediently did that. And then some of the teens, I think, were having a little more complicated experience.

MARTIN: Because they're Americans.


YOUTZ: That's right.

MARTIN: It's our job to question.

YOUTZ: It felt a little unusual for Americans to do.

MARTIN: It's our job to question, right? Sophie, tell him.

YOUTZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's right.


MARTIN: Let's talk about what really matters, the food.


MARTIN: Thanksgiving, of course, in this country is the turkey and the New Years has other traditions, like some celebrate with, you know, black-eyed peas and rice and collard greens for prosperity and black-eyed peas for health. So is there a special food that you must have on Chinese New Year?

YOUTZ: I would say dumplings and noodles are the big things. The Chinese really like symbols, so there's a little round dumpling and it's shaped kind of like a gold pouch. And then there's the ones that we usually see that are kind of crescent moon-shaped and that symbolizes the shape of gold nuggets that they used to use for their payment, I think. And as for noodles, since they're long, they symbolize longevity.

MARTIN: Hmm. Good. David, anything you want to add?

YOUTZ: Well, I know there are so many more. Chinese, like lots of cultures, make food the center of everything. So the food and giant extended banquets are a big part of how we celebrated in Hong Kong. And everything has a meaning, so my memory of all these Chinese banquets is there is always someone pointing to something and saying oh, you have to eat this, or eat this in a certain way, or serve your parents this. Everything has these meanings. But, frankly, it's just about massive amounts of really fantastic food.


MARTIN: OK. Well, for those of us who are not Chinese, how would you recommend that we participate if we want to get a part of this experience? I know Sophie, you would recommend hung bao - definitely, right?

YOUTZ: Yeah.


MARTIN: I'm trying to get somebody to give me some hung bao but somehow it doesn't seem to be working. But I don't know.

YOUTZ: Maybe you have to bow to them three times.

MARTIN: Well, I'll try.


MARTIN: What else?

YOUTZ: I think, you know, it's a really interesting question for families like ours. We sort of select what feels comfortable to us, because we don't want it to feel artificial - but at the same time we're an American family living in New Jersey, we want to try to find a balance. So we take some of the things that we think are really important and we clean the house, we frequently buy new clothes - that's one of the big things Chinese people do. We often put out orange trees and we want to make the house feels sort of festive so that everyone's feeling like we're taking this seriously and it's important to us. But there are other parts that we don't really do or they don't quite fit our kind of family. So you know, I think all of the kids now who've been adopted from China, and then on top of that an even larger number of kids who've come from Korea and Vietnam and elsewhere, I think all of those families have found their own personal ways to bring that cultural moment into their family's lives. I think it's wonderful the way it's changed our families. We are in a way a whole new version of being Chinese-American.

MARTIN: Finally, this is the Year of the Dragon, which has a lot of meanings, but one of them is optimism for the family. So David, what is your wish for your family on this New Year?

YOUTZ: I think optimism is a great word for us this year. We're recently back from living in China, so we're sort of finding our feet again being here in America. And I think it just happens in our circumstance, we're really looking forward. We have a good feeling about the Year of the Dragon, so here's hoping it'll be a strong and good one.

MARTIN: Sophie, do you have a special wish for your family?

YOUTZ: I guess just to be happy.

MARTIN: Sounds good.


MARTIN: David Youtz and his wife, Mary Child, are the parents of four daughter, who were all adopted in China, including his oldest, Sophie Youtz. They were both with us – I'm sorry. David and Sophie were both with us from NPR New York. Thank you both so much and Happy New Year.

YOUTZ: Happy New Year.

YOUTZ: Gong Xi Fa Cai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.