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A photo of Professor Richard Lee.

Psychology professor Richard Lee is examining how a positive ethnic identity can help Korean adoptees walk between two worlds.

Connecting cultures

By Joel Hoekstra

From eNews, May 19, 2005

Richard Lee didn't spend much time reflecting on ethnic identity while growing up--especially his own. The son of Korean immigrants, he mostly wanted to fit into the dominant culture of the Connecticut town where his family had settled. "I acculturated pretty mainstream white," says Lee, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. "At age 11, I remember, I told my parents that I didn't want to speak Korean anymore. I liked the food my mother made, but I didn't like that our house smelled like that kind of cooking. When you're a child, you want to fit in with your peers."

His parents didn't talk much about being Korean, either. But years later, Lee realized that he'd imbibed much of their ethnic pride and learned from them a lot about being a minority in a sometimes hostile society. By then, he was working on a postdoctorate in professional psychology at the University of California, Davis, and working full-time at its counseling center.

"I was working with a Korean adoptee who was having some problems and who often referenced her adoption experience in our sessions," he recalls. "That led to a conversation on identity confusion. She didn't seem to know who she was. So, since we were both Korean, one of the things that I threw out was that she might want to explore what it meant to be Korean."

His client's exploration of her ethnic roots seemed to help her. But Lee quickly recognized that adoptees didn't have the same connection to a racial heritage that he had during his childhood. Since many Korean adoptees are brought up by white parents, they don't have the insider's understanding of culture, traditions, or even language that children raised by Korean parents generally do. Whatever similarities of appearance they might share with other Korean Americans, Korean adoptees find Korean culture and Korean-American communities mystifying and foreign.

While still in California, Lee decided to devote his professional life to examining how Asian adoptees integrate their racial heritage into their personal identities. When he joined the psychology faculty at the University of Minnesota five years ago, the move was a double boon to his studies. The U was already well established as a nationally known center for adoption research. What's more, the Twin Cities and environs were home to numerous Korean adoptees.

"I'm interested in the attitudes of parents and what they do or don't do to cultivate a sense of ethnic identity in their children," Lee says.

"There are no national statistics, but it's generally agreed that Minnesota has among the highest rates of international adoption," Lee says. "It's estimated that about half the Korean population in Minnesota is adopted. That's unparalleled anywhere."

At the University, Lee joined a number of colleagues already working on a large-scale research effort known as the International Adoption Project. Survey data collected by mail from more than 2,000 families are being used to assess the impact of adoption on young children. Roughly a third of those families, it turns out, have adopted children from Korea. "I'm interested in the attitudes of parents and what they do or don't do to cultivate a sense of ethnic identity in their children," Lee says. "Is it enough that they're racially aware? Does that translate into culturally specific parenting?"

Most white parents raising adopted Korean children make some effort to promote some level of positive Korean identity. Some parents--those who are strongly committed to cross-cultural socialization--might bring their children to a Korean church or playgroup and to Korean language classes. Others might wait for their children to take the lead in cultural discussions. Still others might do little or nothing, content to let their kids blend into the American mainstream.

To better assess the impact of different parenting approaches, Lee teamed up with U psychology professor Matt McGue in a study of teenage adoptees. McGue had already launched the ongoing study of 400 families with nonadopted children and 400 families with adopted children when Lee expressed an interest in assessing the data. And Lee brought a different lens to the survey, says McGue.

"Most previous research has focused almost purely on outcome," McGue says. "Do children who are internationally placed fare well? The research hasn't looked at the factors that underlie such well-being." Discovery of these underlying factors by researchers such as Lee could help ensure the well-being of future generations of adopted children.