Is there any value in an adoptee cultural camp?

This is the 26th question in the series: “Anti-adoption month: 30 answers to 30 questions on adoption” [link].

The following question originally appeared on Transracial Eyes:

We recently received an invitation to lend our voice to support the Fresh Air Fund, and we declined, stating:

Thanks for thinking of us, but as policy we only allow questions from readers and this is far from our web site’s mission. In general, our members would rather people focused on improving social justice and equality for poor families than self-soothing through privileged acts of charity. This mind-set is what separated us from our original families to begin with, and we don’t want to contribute to more of the same.

The response to our statement showed no acknowledgment of our stance, or where we were coming from, which should not surprise us.

I was wondering if any of you wishes to comment on the idea of culture through camp, and the idea of camp in general in terms of the adopted experience.

Answer: I never know how to begin to broach this subject because it is so incredibly complex, like our originating cultures. Evoked is the innocuous nature of these camps as they relate to adoptees at such a young age. For some there is the security of community for those “of” the particular group, and I think this is an important difference. I always questioned even as a child the idea that I had something in common with a) someone who was Lebanese and b) someone who was adopted. Thinking this through, I imagine adoptive parents will jump on any positive response they can get out of an adoptee as perhaps corroborating their view of it—the camp for adoptees is harmless fun, and why overburden the discussion with anything beyond that?

I think what most bothers me is the very word “camp” to begin with—because historically speaking it seems that such a term has more often than not negative connotations as relates to race, ethnicity, religion, or other identity markers: concentration camps; internment camps; refugee camps; reservations; etc. What I mean to say is that in most cases, when the dominant culture decides to make a camp for subaltern cultures, it is not based on any idea of “celebrating” that culture; quite the opposite.

So here we have such a scenario, and perhaps at first glance it seems pretty “harmless”. But the question remains, what is the real purpose? Why the obfuscation of terms—culture vs. heritage? Heritage seems hugely problematic as a term to use, etymologically sharing roots with “inherit” and “hereditary”. Linguistically speaking, this is a poison dart.

But a digression. This past Friday I went with a friend of mine and her kids to a town north of Beirut, to a more or less exclusive swim/beach club. The Lebanese “culture” here is bizarre to me, reflecting a penchant for all things Western (mostly French), especially language, fashion, mores, education, etc. This is the culture of my orphanage, of a large part of the diaspora community. This is the culture of the Lebanese who make up a big percentage of my hometown in the States. My Lebanese friends growing up reflected this, and manifested (as did I) a hatred for our dark skin, hair, and eyes; a desire to not be seen as Arab or Muslim. The French spoken is learned and pidgin, has no capacity for evolution linguistically speaking, and I am regularly misunderstood for speaking the French I learned from actually having lived in France.

Yesterday, quite on the contrary, I traveled with members of the artists’ collective we’ve started here to visit the village of one member whose family resides in the Bekaa Valley. We went to the Baalbek ruins, and to spare my bald head from the harsh sun, I bought a counterfeit kufiyyeh from a boy in a shop who tied it for me in the local Bedouin manner. This boy had blondish hair and green eyes, reflecting the time of the Crusades as passed down genetically speaking. His Arabic had the lilt of those in this part of the country. Despite it making local “sense”, most of the tourists ignored this local and traditional protective garment for baseball caps or straw hats.

The kufiyyeh is made in China, and reflects the traditional Palestinian pattern, different from the Syrian, or Jordanian, or Iraqi (as we call these nation-states now). Our collective has been working with the last kufiyyeh factory in Palestine, put out of business slowly by embargoes and cheap knockoffs. The machines that weave the kufiyyehs were supplied during the silk boom in Lebanon, which itself died when the French pulled it out to move to cheaper locales—Japan and China. So in this one piece of cloth, there are overlapping cultures and stories, origins and history.

At the Baalbek ruins there is a museum which focuses on the Roman influence on the region; this is no idle choice, and again reflects a political desire to locate one’s worldview centrally and historically to Europe. It becomes a strange exercise for me to map true Roman ruins onto the architecture of Washington, D.C., or any major Eastern seaboard city and their architecture which in no way reflects the depth of craft, culture, and art revealed in the details of these ruins. American revivalist architecture is thus a barren shell, a mimicry without soul—like the Chinese kufiyyeh.

Baalbeck also stages in the summer a series of concerts, a cultural event that draws mostly tourists and those from outside the region. The Bedouin I have worked with in the past, on the other hand, have a mostly oral culture, and local crafts and traditions that do not “expand out” to the national level. The local residents certainly cannot afford the ticket prices for these concerts. Their village literally serves up an elitist culture to an outside elite.

The Bedouin influence brings me back to my neighborhood, which has a huge population of inland Syrian and Kurdish workers. My language is inflected now with their accent and expressions, and I am more familiar with Syrian debke dance than I am with the Lebanese versions. To speak Syrian in Lebanon “marks” me among those of the dominant culture, who now refer to me using the same epithets that condemn those low in terms of class strata to their status in life. One neighborhood away, across the former Green Line dividing Beirut, is a part of the city that more reflects the beach club denizens I mentioned above; culturally speaking I find it alien and lonely, barren and outsider; ironically, my upbringing allows me to walk in that neighborhood unimpeded; my Syrian friends do not have this same luxury.

The reason I am elaborating this to such an extent is that if I had to imagine such a thing as a “Lebanese culture camp”, I am absolutely positive as to whose culture it would be, and what it would avoid. I can only say this now after coming back and living here in a definite attempt to forego what is most familiar to me. That “heritage” in Lebanon means preservation of the architecture of the colonialist period for the most part, or that the markers of culture such as the kufiyyeh are no longer even produced by the culture they represent, show up the falsity of the dominant culture’s attempt to “preserve” or “pass on” culture or heritage. Culture becomes a cipher; an empty symbol; a dead and, more importantly, unlived product to be repackaged and sold.

So the modes and institutions of dominant culture, whether the museum, or the national heritage site, or the music concert, or the adoptee “heritage camp”, all have one purpose, which is the exact opposite of what they claim: An erasure of history; a destruction of local, living culture; an imposition of a foreign and alien replacement.

If I am a child from the urban or rural poor regions of this country, of what benefit, then, to learn imperialist and colonial culture? If I am a child of the urban or rural poor of Korea, how offensive, then, to learn the dances of the royal court? That this erasure and destruction of local culture maps directly onto adoption, and by extension colonialism, Orientalism, racism, and imperialism should, I think, give us all great pause. It’s not as simplistic as and cannot be reduced to saying: “let the kids have fun”.


Marxism and Modernism, by Eugene Lunn.

Black Athena, by Martin Bernal.

Markets of Dispossession, by Julia Elyachar.

Debate Tactic: Culture is an expression of local lived reality. Culture is no consumed, it is lived. Culture cannot be reduced to a “list of ingredients”. Those who have the luxury and privilege to “choose” culture are usually also the destroyers of culture.

About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
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4 Responses to Is there any value in an adoptee cultural camp?

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    I share your well founded misgivings on the adoptee heritage camp phenomenon as an exercise in assuaging white guilt, at least in America. One positive thing I have witnessed at a camp I participated for Vietnamese adoptees was, apart from the machinations of the mostly well-intentioned if misguided adults and parents, the connections made between the adoptee children themselves.

    I didn’t meet a fellow Vietnamese adoptee until I was in my early 20’s and struggled greatly for it. Knowing your not alone is a powerful therapeutic balm. This is not to say that the removal of the adoptees from their native culture is justified. Just pointing one positive aspect that I witnessed, firsthand. Thank you, Daniel, for being a voice for all of us adoptees.

  2. I’ve no idea what a “culture camp” is like, unless it is the inverse of:

    Having “Fresh Air Children” (‘Colored’ kids from the city) spend a summer’s week in the good ol’ conservative, White countryside — they were probably too young to fully get the message: “If only you were white, you could have the safety of non-urban life and have food security too! Too bad you have to go back to where you came from…”

    Being an M-M-K in Nigeria during the last part of the Biafran War (probably the beginning of ‘My Great Disgust’), and living within a White and decidedly American enclave that, while living separately from those they were about to save, spoke of the indigenes in unkind terms.

    Visiting Beirut (I sometimes flash-back to the trip from the airport to Beirut where we passed by seemingly endless rows of tents at a refugee camp) and taking a side-trip to Syria to see where Roman gods used to be worshiped (and wondering if the members of the Syrian military would turn out to be members of Black September who would make good on that group’s threat to eliminate “Americans”).

    Viewing multiple cathedrals and other buildings and sites (all looking virtually alike) that were said to be of a sacred nature (the sacred figures and figurines were all white…I wonder why…).

    Hmm… Maybe I do have an idea as to what “culture camp” entails. It seems I attended one type of such a camp throughout my childhood and teen years. It’s too bad that “culture” was clear in expressing that it did not want me present. It’s too bad that “culture” was not mine…

    *Please keep up with the great work, Daniel*

  3. I don’t know that I am a voice for “all of us”; I’m hoping that a different perspective might be helpful to others coming up with me and behind me. Because I know that there are adoptees who wish I would shut the hell up! But so be it.

    Brent, your description of the “indigenes” was my experience at the American University here. It was and remains very bizarre to me how people choose to “see” me according to their needs. So when they needed to go off on the locals, they would see me as “American”, or a “New Yorker”. When they needed some street cred—like when stuff would go down in my neighborhood—or needed help communicating, they would see me as “Lebanese”.

    The selfishness of it is appalling, and is so reminiscent of the mindset behind adoption that I can’t at all tolerate it. Sounds like you were here during what they call the waning days of the civil war or soon thereafter? Nothing much is different; things are just formalized into official violences. I joke that I gauge Lebanese politics at any given time by whose checkpoints I would least mind going through. It defines where I go and where I feel comfortable.

    The dominant culture’s “culture camp” is more readily referred to as “patriotism” and “nationalism” if I think about it. It is hardly representative of those who actually end up literally or figuratively put in camps or encampments.

    Thank you both for your kind words!

  4. Pingback: Racism, Class, and Adoption  Dark Politricks

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