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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 beyond.

“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.

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