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Culture Shock and Adopting Kids Abroad

There are five more days left of our Costa Rican experience and every morning right now I wake up with the same thought: I can’t wait to go home.  I have many many other very complicated thoughts and emotions that tangentially relate to this main thought, which has caused me to become…mentally constipated. I honestly don’t know where to start and a big part of me just wants to focus on going home and stop thinking about being here anymore.

At the beginning of our trip, I wondered how I would feel at week 6. I wondered if I would feel the culture shock that people talk about. Six weeks is a major turning point for a lot of people apparently. This is about the amount of time required for people abroad to start thinking the new culture starts seems just stupid and irritating. I’ve never been gone from home for more than 6 weeks overseas, so I’ve never experienced the psychological turmoil of culture shock. A part of me was hoping that I was made of the kind of fiber that would be immune to it. But alas, I’m not.

We visited two Costa Rican orphanages while we were here in this country, which relates to culture shock in a weird way. John and I have had foster children before. These have all been kids in our community that were having problems of some kind at home. These kids experience culture shock when they move into a new family from their family of origin. It’s hard to understand what they must be going through when that 6 week mark rolls around and they just feel like the foster family is stupid and irritating and they just want to go home. As an adult, these are hard feelings to contend with, but as a kid, it would be downright confusing and debilitating.

Going a step further, if I were to adopt one of the kids at the Costa Rican orphanages that we visited, it would be a remarkable difficult transition for them. Adopting a foster child in the United States who is used to U.S. culture and just has to adapt to a new family or a new community is hard enough. But then, take a child out of their home country into a new family and that’s a recipe for psychological meltdown. In all my years working through graduate school in child psychology, never has the idea of culture shock been noted in regard to kids and families. Indeed, our foster parent training classes made no mention of it and no continuing education credits have ever dealt with this topic. But I’m sure it exists. One could probably set a timer by it. Six weeks is about as long as anyone can stand trying to “fit in” before they start to lose it. Kids who are adopted from abroad would go through an even bigger psychological earthquake.

People who adopt children abroad are not prepared for their adopted child’s reaction to the new culture. I mean, children are adaptive, it’s true, but going from an orphanage in culture to a family environment in another is a big change. I can’t imagine how hard that would be for a newly adopted child.

Right now, I feel like a total mess. I’m annoyed by the sounds of the roosters crowing all day every day. I’m sick and tired of torrential rain and power outages. I miss the Great Plains (how is that possible?). I miss carpet and chocolate. I’m annoyed by how quickly the fruit here goes bad and how there are hardly any streets to walk on that don’t have a super steep incline.

If I were going to live here permanently, I would start manipulating my environment to make things more comfortable for myself. Or I’d start to go mad. I’d buy comfortable furniture that actually fit into the house I’m living in. I’d work really hard on the roach and ant problem in the house. I’d install a dishwasher and I’d scope out a running path that was flat(ter). But we’re leaving in a few days. So there is nothing worth manipulating. I just have to accept the way things are here for another five days and it seems like a long time to me right now. I’ve oscillated between accepting this state of mind/emotion and being hard on myself for having it. When we first got here, I was curious about culture shock. Now I just want it to end.

I’ve thought a lot about kids and culture shock because the woman at one of the orphanages here asked us if we were interested in adopting a child in Costa Rica. I can’t say that we wouldn’t be interested in adopting from Costa Rica (or any place), but that wasn’t the focus of this trip, at least. Needless to say, ever since the woman posed the question and then proceeded to touch the top of each child’s head who was “available”, I’ve thought about what it would be like to actually adopt a child here and take it home with us. I think it would be traumatic. Really traumatic. For both the child and the parents. It’s not something that we (or other people) could get through, but the people who facilitate adoptions (namely social workers) don’t understand how traumatic adoptions abroad are for parents and children. When things start to go bad, no one knows why. Why is the new child with the forever family starting to act out and start fires in the house six weeks into the relationship? Why is the new child completely freaking out? I think that parents who have to go live in the foreign country themselves for at least 6 weeks could understand why adopted kids start to act out after about 6 weeks.

It’s not a deep thought, but it seems important to me. There are a number of situations in life that can bring on culture shock and once it happens, it’s really hard to deal with. That being said, I don’t think the experience is “bad”, just difficult. Indeed, I think culture shock can be a really positive experience if you know what’s going on and can draw upon your inner resources to cope with it. But I think it would really hard to leave one’s culture forever and never return, especially for a young person who doesn’t fully understand what’s happening.

There’s an inner landscape that people encounter when they travel as well as the more familiar outer landscape and one is superimposed on the other.  For the past two weeks, my inner environment (in a state of culture shock) has had a really bad climate and civil unrest, which makes me just want to go home (though the sun shining and the breeze outside has been perfect today). If I had to stay here, it would take a lot of time to adapt and see Costa Rica for what it really is, especially if I didn’t have control over my comfort or my environment at all. It’s a piece of insight I never had before and I think it could be valuable to parents who adopt kids abroad.

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