Students Help Adopted
Children Connect to Vietnamese Heritage
By Kristen Cole
Phoebe Jessup was five months old when her mother traveled
to Vietnam and adopted her, so she has no memory of her birth country or its people.
But for the past few years, Phoebe, now nine years
old and living in Northampton, has been learning about the culture and language of
that country from Vietnamese Smith students through a class organized by the college
students for local adoptees.
About 7 percent of the Smith student body is composed
of international students, many of them participating in one of the nine international
student organizations and sharing their cultures with the rest of the campus and
“I’m from Vietnam, so of course I love
almost everything about Vietnam, and I would want the children to know those things
as well,” says Lan Phan '10, who helps teach the class for adoptees. “These
Vietnamese adopted children have been raised in the U.S., but somewhere inside them
there are Vietnamese characteristics and Vietnamese persons.”
As is common among children adopted from another country
and raised in American homes, Phoebe has made connections with other children who
share that experience, said her mother, Nancy Jessup.
“Pretty informally we have a group of families
whose children are from Vietnam,” says Nancy Jessup. “The Vietnamese
culture, their heritage, that’s part of who they are. It’s important
for my daughter to be proud of where she’s from.”
MyDzung Chu '09 leads a Vietnamese language lesson with adoptees
from her native country and other Vietnamese American children. "This is our
way of giving back to the community," she says. Photo by Mike Thomasson/PivotMeda.
About a dozen of the local families with children adopted
from Vietnam, and U.S-born non-adopted Vietnamese American children, participate
in the biweekly Smith class with their children, most of whom are in elementary school.
The college students provide something that the participants’ adopted
Vietnamese peers and American parents cannot -- a deep knowledge of Vietnam acquired
from having lived there.
The Smith students also act as role models for the
adopted children, says MyDzung Chu '09. As a youth, Chu immigrated with her family
to the United States, and she refreshes her own knowledge of the Vietnamese language
by participating in the group.
Working with the children is rewarding, she says. “We
feel like this is our way of giving back to the community.”
For the adoptive parents, the class helps them build
stronger relationships with their children by enabling them to share an interest
in the children’s country of origin, says Phan. Although many Americans associate
Vietnam with war, there is much more to know about a country that has a long and
fascinating history, she says.
“The country is small, the people are modest,
but what we have done to secure and develop our country through many challenges is
awe-inspiring,” Phan says.
This year, the Vietnamese youngsters and college students
will celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, together. The class has held a workshop
to demonstrate how to prepare the traditional soup, called Pho.
Phoebe says she loves the soup. And although she has
forgotten some of the Vietnamese words to the children’s game called “head,
shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes,” which she used to play with the
Smith students, she does recall many parts of the spoken language. Compared to the
Spanish that she is learning at her elementary school, the Vietnamese is easier to
speak, Phoebe says.
“I can do the tones,” she adds.