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Exploring the Significance of Heritage Travel: A Journey Back, A Journey Forward

Adoption Advocate No. 179 - Heritage travel includes a diverse range of experiences that help adoptees connect with their cultural roots and ancestral origins. Travel can involve exploring familial heritage within one's home country or embarking on international journeys to trace lineage abroad. These journeys provide unique opportunities for individuals to form meaningful connections and gain profound insights into their history.

Introduction

Heritage travel includes a diverse range of experiences that help individuals, including  adoptees, connect with their cultural roots and ancestral origins. Travel can involve exploring familial heritage within one's home country or embarking on international journeys to trace lineage abroad. These journeys provide unique opportunities for individuals to form meaningful connections and gain profound insights into their history.

Heritage travel can include specially tailored trips for adoptees, such as adoptee-only focused journeys, which are known as Motherland trips, and heritage tours, which welcome adoptees and their loved ones These experiences create supportive environments for exploring roots and identities alongside peers who share similar life experiences and may be in similar stages of their lives. Private travel options allow for personalized experiences with a chosen support team, while heritage tours offer comprehensive explorations of genealogy, cultural immersion, and historical sites in a community. 

For adoptees who were adopted domestically, domestic heritage travel can provide a chance to explore and connect with their birth culture and heritage within their own country. Ultimately, any form of heritage travel can offer a powerful, transformative journey of self-discovery, providing adoptees with an opportunity to reclaim their identities, understand their cultural heritage, and navigate the complexities of their dual identities with a profound sense of belonging and understanding. This experience can facilitate the creation of new narratives that add depth and meaning to their lives.

Ultimately, any form of heritage travel becomes a powerful, transformative journey of self-discovery.

Understanding Adoption and Identity

In the United States, we live in a society where “membership” implicitly and explicitly accords certain privileges and opportunities. Daily interactions can provide a basis for how an individual questions their place in society. Researchers studying intercountry adoption and identity have found that many adoptees who do not share racial identity with their adoptive families have difficulty coping with the racial and ethnic discrimination they encounter on a regular basis[1], which in turn contributes to lower self-esteem[2] and an overwhelming feeling of isolation[3]. This is compounded when family members and friends who belong to the ethnic and racial majority are unable to personally relate to the adoptee’s experience[4]. Moreover, transracial adoptees grapple with the necessity to assimilate into the white dominant culture of their family and community[5]. Intercountry adoptees of the same race as their adoptive family benefit from having racial mirrors; however, their nationality and membership may still be questioned due to their inability to claim

birthrights within the United States. Moreover, as Transue-Woolston[6] noted, adoptees are expected to “leave behind our original families, original identity, a quest for reunion or original documentation, or mention of any personal feelings of loss in adoption.”

To address these challenges, some scholars have highlighted the importance of incorporating the adoptee’s birth culture into the family’s everyday life.  In Yoon’s study[7], he found that parents’ positive support for their children’s Korean ethnic heritage yielded a positive sense of ethnic pride. Lee et al[8]. show that parents’ sensitivity to race and ethnicity and active involvement in cultural issues positively impact the child’s development of identity. Heritage journeys offer opportunities to enhance emotional well-being, support ethnic heritage, foster a positive sense of ethnic pride, and actively involve loved ones in cultural matters. Previous models of identity development were often linear in nature and proceeded in stages from denial to full acceptance[9]. While linear development models can provide invaluable insight into how adoptees may feel about their identity, and have formed the basis from which further studies on identity have emerged, it is important to note that the authors acknowledge identity formation as a lifelong process that is dynamic in nature and framed within the context of social groups and experiences[10].

Heritage Travel as a Tool for Self-Discovery

Heritage travel provides many benefits to individuals of all ages. It helps strengthen connections to cultural roots and ancestral origins while broadening perspectives through exposure to diverse cultures. It promotes personal growth, resilience, and adaptability by helping travelers navigate challenges such as language barriers and unfamiliar environments. Heritage travel can strengthen family bonds, provide historical insights, and foster a sense of belonging for adoptees, including reconnection with first families[11].

Positive racial and ethnic identity development can be facilitated by experiences such as travel to one's country of origin and interactions with people of the same race or ethnicity[12]. For adoptees, engaging with more diverse settings—whether in their country of origin or a similar region—can help them re-evaluate the meaning of culture, race, and identity.[13]

Heritage travel presents valuable educational opportunities, encourages cultural exchange, nurtures mutual understanding—forging connections across borders. Heritage travel offers adoptees a transformative journey of self-discovery, creating a meaningful link to their original culture and ancestral history. This experience is often most impactful when shared with other adoptees who understand the unique life experience of being adopted from the same country. As one adoptee who participated in a recent Guatemalan Ties heritage trip remarked, “What was really transformative about the experience was sharing it with the other adoptees. I’ve always felt like no one could understand what it’s like to be a Guatemalan adoptee, but after meeting the others, I feel like I belong.”

This experience is often most impactful when shared with other adoptees who understand the unique life experience of being adopted from the same country.

Through heritage travel, adoptees can reclaim lost connections and navigate dual identities. Returning to one's country of origin often enhances comfort with one's identity as an adoptee, particularly when accompanied by fellow adoptees from the same country. This bonding experience includes sharing meals, exploring cities, and embarking on daily excursions together. As they learn about their culture, adoptees often form distinct group identities that persist even after the trip ends. These transformative experiences can be essential for international adoptees to continually develop and strengthen their self and social identities.[14]

Describing their profound experience on a Korean Ties heritage trip, a Korean adoptee said, "I was able to connect with people who have such different experiences, but similar feelings." This connection, a unique and powerful aspect of heritage travel, added immense value to their journey, highlighting the significance of heritage travel in an adoptee's exploration of identity and roots.

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Additional Resources

About National Council For Adoption

Founded in 1980, National Council For Adoption (NCFA) is a leading authoritative voice for adoption and is passionately committed to the belief that every child deserves to thrive in a nurturing permanent family. NCFA’s nonprofit work promotes a culture of adoption through education, research, advocacy, and collaboration that aims to serve children, expectant parents, birth parents, adopted individuals, adoptive families, and adoption professionals. For more information, please visit www.adoptioncouncil.org

References

[1] Triseliotis, J. (2002). Inter-country adoption: In whose best interest? In Inter-country adoption (pp. 119-137). Routledge. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9780203029794-10/inter-country-adoption-john-triseliotis; see also Westhues, A., & Cohen, J. S. (1997). A comparison of the adjustment of adolescent and young adult inter-country adoptees and their siblings. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 20(1), 47-65. https://doi.org/10.1080/016502597385432 

[2] Lanz, M., Iafrate, R., Rosnati, R., & Scabini, E. (1999). Parent–child communication and adolescent self-esteem in separated, intercountry adoptive and intact non-adoptive families. Journal of Adolescence, 22(6), 785-794. https://doi.org/10.1006/jado.1999.0272

[3] Yoon, D. P. (2004). Intercountry adoption: The importance of ethnic socialization and subjective well-being for Korean-born adopted children. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 13(2), 71–89. https://doi.org/10.1300/J051v13n02_04; see also Yoon, D. P. (2001). Causal modeling predicting psychological adjustment of Korean-born adolescent adoptees. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 3(3-4), 65–82. https://doi.org/10.1300/J137v03n03_06

[4] Kaanta, T. L. (2009). Belonging: Identity, emotion work, and agency of intercountry Korean adoptees (Publication No. 3385160) [Doctoral dissertation, Colorado State University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. https://www.proquest.com/openview/9603a68dc0d1cc593499f73cc4091220/

[5] Palmer, J. (2001). Korean adopted young women: Gender bias, racial issues, and educational implications. Research on the education of Asian and Pacific Americans, 177-204.

[6] Transue-Woolston, A. H. L., & Stromberg, J. (2013). The declassified adoptee: Essays of an adoption activist. CQT Media & Publishing and LGA Inc. Kindle Edition.

[7] Yoon, D. P. (2004). Intercountry adoption: The importance of ethnic socialization and subjective well-being for Korean-born adopted children. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 13(2), 71–89. https://doi.org/10.1300/J051v13n02_04; see also Yoon, D. P. (2001). Causal modeling predicting psychological adjustment of Korean-born adolescent adoptees. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 3(3-4), 65–82. https://doi.org/10.1300/J137v03n03_06

[8] Lee, R. M., Grotevant, H. D., Hellerstedt, W. L., Gunnar, M. R., & Minnesota International Adoption Project Team. (2006). Cultural socialization in families with internationally adopted children. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(4), 571–580. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3200.20.4.571

[9] Cross, W. E., Jr. (1991). Shades of black: Diversity in African-American identity. Temple University Press; see also Kim, J. (2001). Asian American racial identity theory. In C. L. Wijeyesinghe & B. W. Jackson III (Eds.), New Perspectives on Racial Identity Development: A Theoretical and Practical Anthology (pp. 138-161). New York University Press; see also Soon Huh, N., & Reid, W. J. (2000). Intercountry, transracial adoption and ethnic identity: A Korean example. International Social Work, 43(1), 75-87. https://doi.org/10.1177/a010522; see also Wilkinson, H. S. (1995). Psycholegal process and issues in international adoption. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 23(2), 173–183. https://doi.org/10.1080/01926189508251347

[10] Ferdman, B. M., & Gallegos, P. I. (2001). Racial identity development and Latinos in the United States. New perspectives on racial identity development: A theoretical and practical anthology, 32-66; see also Kaanta, T. L. (2009). Belonging: Identity, emotion work, and agency of intercountry Korean adoptees

(Publication No. 3385160) [Doctoral dissertation, Colorado State University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. https://www.proquest.com/openview/9603a68dc0d1cc593499f73cc4091220/

[11] Wilson, S. L., & Kurtzahn, S. G. (2023). Relationships without borders: Clinical considerations for search & contact with first families. Adoption Quarterly. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/10926755.2023.2228765

[12] Brocious, H. L. (2013). Activities that promote ethnic identity development in transnational adoptees (Publication No. 1353395) [Doctoral dissertation, The University of Utah]. J. Willard Marriott Digital Library Theses & Dissertations. https://collections.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6md350f

[13] McGinnis, H. (2009). Beyond culture camp: Promoting healthy identity formation in adoption.

[14] Ponting, S. S. A. (2022). Birth country travel and adoptee identity. Annals of Tourism Research, 93, 103354. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2022.103354

[15] Hanlon, R., Davi, N., Quade, M., & Lindner, A. (2024). Profiles in adoption: Adult adoptee experiences. National Council For Adoption.

[18] Wilson, S. L., & Summerhill-Coleman, L. (2013). Exploring birth countries: The mental health implications of heritage travel for children/adolescents adopted internationally. Adoption Quarterly, 16(3–4), 262–278. https://doi.org/10.1080/10926755.2013.790865