Finding roots

UGA’s Asian students help put kids in touch with their heritage.

Finding roots

UGA Student Joy Jen - a UGA Junior from Kennesaw, Georgia majoring in Microbiology (right) - works with Sophia to make a fan out of construction paper.

Photo by: Paul Efland

Cuisine is a part of everyone’s culture, with recipes passed down from generation to generation. Think paella in Spain, fish and chips in England and grits in the American South.

For John Birchenall, right now it’s just an edible art project that he can mold with his chubby 3-year-old fingers.

John and Kevin Kao, a UGA junior from Atlanta, are making rice balls, a traditional Japanese dish that can be eaten as a snack.

Kao is John’s mentor through the Asian Children Mentoring Program, a UGA student organization that helps educate children adopted from Asian countries about the language, food and culture of their native land.

“It’s really an organization that was created to fill in the gaps that adopted parents can’t fill culturally,” says Dorothy Boothe (BS’ 83, MS ’85, PhD ’91), the group’s advisor. “Most parents aren’t the same race as their adopted children.”

Boothe founded the group in 2006, with Chen Lin (BS ’07), then president of two Asian student organizations. Students who want to be mentors must commit to at least a year with the program and attend training sessions with an adoption professional to learn how to deal with identity-related questions that could arise during conversations with the children.

Kevin Kao, a senior from Atlanta, races cars with John Birchenall, the child he mentors through UGA’s Asian Children Mentoring Program.

Photo by: Beth Newman

Mentors spend time individually with the children and come together occasionally for group activities. A spring event called JAM night brought the mentors and children together to make traditional Asian foods and learn to eat with chopsticks.

In their individual get-togethers, Kao has been teaching John some basic Chinese words and numbers and the two have been reading Chinese folklore. They also play soccer.

“I feel like I’m contributing something significant to his life,” Kao says. “Hopefully I’ll continue to stay in touch with him after I graduate and help him in any way I can.”

Parents say mentors help the children get a better sense of who they are.

Boothe’s daughter Christina, who was adopted from China in 1999, takes Chinese dance and language classes and works with a student mentor.

“I can’t completely teach my daughter about Chinese culture, but I want her to learn it,” Boothe says.

“Once she’s a teen she may turn from it—teenagers don’t like to be different. We’ll let her decide what she wants to do with it (as she moves) into her college years, 20s and 30s.”

Marisa Pagnattaro, an associate professor of legal studies, has two daughters—one adopted and one biological—who both work with a mentor. Learning about Asian culture together gives the girls a stronger sense of connection and teaches them to celebrate heritage, Pagnattaro says.

The group also provides parents a way to connect and share their experiences and concerns.

John Waldsmith has two adopted children, Joi, 11, from China and James, 10, from Vietnam.

“It’s a good group,” he says. “It gives us a nucleus, our own network, and we all pretty much know each other.”

In April, the Asian Children Mentoring Program received a UGA Student Organization Achievement and Recognition (SOAR) Award for Outstanding Service in the Community.

“I love being a mentor,” says Michelle Chua, a senior from Decatur. “I grew up with my (biological) family, so I’ve never felt like I didn’t know who I am or where I came from. But being able to give that to someone else makes me feel good.”

In 2007, 42 percent of all international adoptions were from Asian countries, according to the U.S. Department of State. Here are the Asian countries with the most U.S. adoptions that year:
1. China 5,453
2. South Korea 939
3. Vietnam 828
4. India 416
5. Philippines 216
6. Taiwan 184
7. Thailand 67

Get More

For more information about the Asian Children Mentoring Program, contact Dorothy Boothe by email or by phone at (770) 725-0301.

About the Author

DeShaun Maria Harris was an editorial assistant for GM before she graduated in May.