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Entering motherland: a cross-cultural adoption story

cross-cultural adoption picture of Caitlin and Elizabeth

On their first day together, Caitlin’s daughter, Elizabeth, didn’t know what to make of this strange blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman who had come to take her from China to the United States through a cross-cultural adoption. At any age, the concept of leaving what you know to go live in another country is daunting. At three, it’s incomprehensible.

After completing the adoption paperwork, Caitlin took her daughter to a store for a few snacks and supplies. Elizabeth’s eyes lit up when she stumbled upon a pretty pair of shoes. “It was the first time she smiled all day,” says Caitlin.

Finding common ground over shoes may seem like a small victory—but really, it makes perfect sense. If you’re going to take those first few steps into the unknown, it helps to do so with the right footwear.


what is cross culture

Traveling with students on an EF tour in Ecuador


All in on the unfamiliar

Well before Caitlin ventured across the world to meet and adopt her daughter, she was an avid traveler. As a science teacher from Connecticut, she’d taken her students on EF educational tours all around the world. However, this was her first trip to Asia. And if diving into a completely different culture gave her any trepidation, it was nothing compared to the nerves she felt over becoming a single, first-time parent.

Still, her previous travels had prepared her for the unexpected. “Having led my students on tours all over definitely made me feel a lot better about going somewhere as different as Asia,” she says. Plus, those tours helped Caitlin prepare in another way: The EF Global Rewards points she earned while traveling helped pay for her flights.

Her preparation extended into the itinerary, too. She arrived in China a few days ahead of meeting Elizabeth. While Caitlin couldn’t get her daughter off of her mind, she decided to make the most out of her extra time. She was excited to experience a new country, but most of all, she wanted to get to know the place where her daughter was from. So, she wandered through Beijing’s hutongs, sampled foods she’d never heard of, and even walked along the Great Wall. Everything was different—and she embraced it all.

“I knew another woman who traveled to China to adopt, but didn’t walk around at all,” Caitlin says. “I felt so bad. She missed out on a huge opportunity to experience her son’s home country, all because she was scared to leave her hotel.”

Now, whenever she speaks to parents who are traveling to adopt, she tells them to spend a day in their nearest metropolitan city before they go abroad. This way, they can get accustomed to traveling before they have to navigate new streets and the stressors of being a new parent.


Culture shock, two ways

Finally, the day came for Caitlin to meet her daughter. She was overwhelmed with joy—but she knew that any anxiety she had been feeling over the past few days, her daughter was experiencing trifold.

Caitlin had learned a little Mandarin, but there was still a huge language barrier. On top of that, Elizabeth was scared by Caitlin’s appearance. She had never seen anyone who looked like her before.

That’s why, when a group of Chinese children began pointing at Caitlin’s blue eyes, she turned their curiosity into a learning opportunity. “I invited them to come over and take a closer look,” she says. “I wanted my daughter to see that yes, I’m different. But that’s okay.”

As the days went on, Caitlin found ways to blend Elizabeth’s routine experiences with those she’d have in the States. She played her the same Mandarin nursery rhymes in the hotel that she’d later play at home, and she FaceTimed with her parents so Elizabeth could get a glimpse of the people she’d be spending time with.

Back in the States, Caitlin helped Elizabeth get used to American foods. She’d give her something for lunch that was common in Chinese cuisine, like noodle soup. Then, she’d make noodles for dinner, along with a vegetable or side dish Elizabeth had never tried.

Caitlin did everything she could to ease Elizabeth’s transition into American life. However, it was just as important to her that Elizabeth stay connected to her Chinese heritage. From the foods they ate to the books they read, Caitlin made sure to incorporate aspects of Chinese culture into their everyday life—something she continues to do to this day. She wants to make sure Elizabeth understands where she came from, and more importantly, that she’s proud of it.


A family of global citizens

It’s been four years since the pair began their cross-cultural adoption journey, and today, the mother-daughter duo couldn’t be stronger. Elizabeth has inherited her mother’s love of travel, and together the two have ventured to destinations ranging from Canada to the U.K., Florida to Belize. They haven’t been back to China yet, but it’s on their list.

Caitlin and Elizabeth taking broomstick lessons. cross-cultural adoption

The frequent flyers taking broomstick lessons in England.


Back home, they continue to weave Chinese culture into their day-to-day routines. They have their go-to restaurants for authentic food, and they cook just as much of it at home. They shop at the Asian market regularly, and they take trips to the Chinese Museum of America in Manhattan. On occasion, Caitlin visits Elizabeth’s classroom to read stories by Chinese authors.

For Caitlin, it isn’t just about giving experiences like these to her daughter. It’s about sharing them with her. “Our family is part Chinese now,” she says. “And that’s not only okay—we’re better for it.”

Editor’s note (2021): This piece has been updated for clarity, accuracy, and relevance.

Sarah McLaughlin

Sarah is a senior copywriter at EF Education First. When she isn’t writing, you can find her browsing through bookshops, trying to cook, or going to improv class (which is basically just an excuse for adults to play make-believe).

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