After adoption: keeping your child's cultural heritage alive

It has been about 14 months since we brought our little boy Arie home from Moscow. Exploring our family's  adopted Russian heritage over the last year has been a pleasure, although not entirely without its challenges. Today I'm sharing what we've done to expose our family to all things Russian and how successful (or not!) those experiments have been.

I'm using the three categories of food, language, and culture to structure the post; for all you systematic thinkers out there, I realize these categories don't really make much sense because food and language are subsections of culture. I know- I'm killing you. Think of the word "culture" in this sense to describe the non-eating and non-speaking ways of Russian life. Kapeesh?

Here we go:


If you tell me that borscht is actually Ukranian I'll just put my hands over my ears and shout "LA LA LA LA!!!" In our house, borscht is Russian, or at least our primary culinary nod to our Russian heritage. We love borscht. In fact, even when Arie first came home from Moscow and would eat approximately three things (bananas, cheese, and yogurt), borscht was a hit! I will always remember how my heart sung as I watched my picky little eater slurp up spoonful after spoonful of that hearty red soup. Yum!
Fun game to play with toddlers in the kitchen: give them a sample of the ingredients and quiz them for the names! 
I am frequently asked what recipe we use. For us, it's always a vegetarian version and I go with one of two recipes. This one from the food blog Natasha's Kitchen or the borscht recipe found in one of my favorite recipe books Simply in Season

Proof of Arie's soup love affair:

As I've been experimenting with different Russian recipes, I've also- almost by accident- started cooking more recipes that aren't traditionally Russian but include traditionally Russian ingredients like potatoes, beets, cabbage, and rye flour. I say "by accident" because it happened one weekend after our friend Paul and his wife Lindsay had us up to their cottage for a few days. Paul loves to cook and as I was raving over the food he made for us, he showed me the cookbook he was using: Super Natural Every Day by Heidi Swanson. With his cookbook in one hand and my iphone in the other, I immediately placed my own amazon order and a few weeks later I had sautéed and baked my way through half the cookbook! Like I said, these are not specifically Russian recipes, but many of them incorporate those hearty and healthy Russian staples in a new and delicious way. That was quite a happy coincidence!

This summer I purchased a Russian food related memoir called Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen. I was excited to read this memoir because the author grew up in Moscow, which is where we adopted Arie. I thought of the story as a window into both his alternate future and also his birth mother's past. I am still excited to read it, however I have to confess to you that since the summer I have have developed a book attention deficit disorder; I've started a half dozen or so and finished approximately none of them.  You'll have to take an IOU on that book review.

Finally, we incorporated a new food tradition into our family which is that we cook and eat Russian foods for our Christmas Eve dinner. We just celebrated our second December as a family and our second annual December 24th Russian food feast. Both years we enjoyed easy and savory cabbage rolls as the main and a cold beet salad on the side. I changed up a few other sides and the dessert both years and will continue to do so. You can check out some of the recipes we tried and others we hope to on my Russian Food Pinterest board.
Our Christmas Eve dessert: Russian honey and poppy seed roll. 


My efforts to help Arie retain his Russian language have been something of a failure. I myself do not know any Russian besides a few basic words nor do I have time to truly dedicate myself to learning it and, as a result, I haven't been able to help Arie practice or retain his language. Despite the fact that he doesn't appear to remember much Russian, however, he still likes to watch the Russian language cartoon Masha and the Bear. We find the videos on youtube and watch them in Russian.

We also have three Russian Little Pim videos; Little Pim is a language learning program for kids. Arie does like watching the videos, but I'm not really sure if he is learning anything from them. He doesn't repeat the words in Russian unless I prompt him and he doesn't use any of the words in everyday life. Still, I'm going to keep watching them with him and see if anything sticks.
Little Pim DVDs and stuffed animal to the right.
On the left is a great pop up atlas- link below!
I feel wistful when I think about how Arie has lost his first tongue. I wish I knew better how to help him retain and learn it. At the same time, I try to give myself grace because we've been working so hard to help him catch up in English. I remind myself that he needs English more than Russian. When he's old enough to express interest, I have done some research about Russian language classes for kids (relatively) nearby; if he wants to re-learn it, I think it might be something we could accomplish together!


The first thing we ever did to start teaching Arie about Russian culture was simply go to the library and pick out a few children's books about Russian Culture. The books in our library are geared toward elementary aged kids, but we can still engage Arie with the pictures.
Library finds. 
One particularly memorable moment from our first weeks home with Arie was when we went to the library and saw on display a book about how Russians celebrate Christmas!  On that same trip to the library, I used the public computer to search for another book and wrote down the call number for my book on it. As I was checking out I flipped the scrap paper over and on the back was a photocopy of a newspaper clipping with a picture of an old man whose name was... Arie! Felt like something of a divine moment for me. Messages to remind me that both Arie's past and his future were being pulled together in our family.

Also from our library, we found this fantastic children's DVD called "Families of Russia" from a series called "Families of the World." The DVD follows two children through their daily activities: one from a rural place in Russia and one from a city. I think I loved the video more than Arie! And probably learned more too. I highly recommend this series for any adoptive family who can find their country represented!

Arie's baptism has been a touchstone of our efforts to learn more about Russia. We've been learning more and more about the Russian Orthodox faith and traditions, since Arie was baptized into the Russian Orthodox church when he was a baby. We have good friends Kelly and Dylan who are themselves Orthodox and function as Arie's honorary Orthodox godparents; they have helped us greatly in this area, teaching us and even buying Arie some Orthodox icons which hang in his room. One of the icons moves me when I see it as it is the same icon which hung in the director's office at Arie's orphanage! In addition, Arie wears a silver cross necklace which is a tradition of those who are baptized into the faith.
Morning of Arie's baptism renewal: wearing his cross necklace. 
Opening the icons from our friends at Arie's third birthday party. 

Back in November Kelly and Dylan, along with their son, joined us as we travelled an hour or so to a Russian Festival! We enjoyed listening to Russian folk music, watching our kids "dance" to the the traditional "balalaika," and eating hot soul-warming cabbage rolls. By coincidence, we went to the festival only days before the one year anniversary of bringing Arie home. John and I both felt emotional overhearing Russians speak in their native tongues; a language that sounds both strangely familiar and foreign in our ears.
Russian Festival 
Some music and dance for the kiddos! 

Russians are famous for loving and leading in ballet. The only ballet I had ever seen prior to bringing Arie home was watching one of my friends practice her dance in middle school. I had always wanted to acquire an appreciation for it and bringing home our little Russian seemed like the perfect opportunity! As a family we enjoyed a ballet performance for children when we celebrated our one year anniversary from our court date in Moscow last October.  We also went to a Christmas ballet with John's mom in December. Arie loved both and we are hoping to continue enjoying more performances as he grows! In addition to watching ballet, this fall Arie and I signed up for a "Mommy and Me" ballet class at a local studio. With a class full of 2 and 3 years olds you can imagine how much fun we had! I decided not to sign him up for the winter semester as the class was a repeat of what we already did, but we hope to see how he does in the preschool class this fall!

I made an attempt to introduce Arie to some Russian music with Meastro Classic's awesome recorded performance of Peter and the Wolf. Besides being Russian, this is a great way to introduce your child (and in my case- yourself!) to classical music. I don't know if this is a testament to my son's sensitive spirit or the power of music (or both!) but Arie is terrified of the "wolf" parts of this composition! Ha! So we've put our copy on the shelf for a few months until Arie matures enough to handle it. I look forward to that day!

Finally, we are slowly building a library of English language Russian story books. One of my favorite finds over Christmas was a book called, "The Miraculous Child" which is supposedly a folk tale (although one of my Russian blog readers told me that it is not actually a folk tale) about a Russian family who entertains an angel unaware. Whether or not it is a folk tale, it has Russian elements and illustrations and I think it is a beautiful nod to the country and to the Orthodox faith. We also love Lori Don's rendition of the popular Rusisan story Masha and the Bear.  It is currently one of Arie's favorite reads!


This is a bonus category because it is so small, but we are working on the simple task of being able to pick out Russia and Moscow on a map. If we use a familiar map like our favorite pop-up atlas, he can do it 9 times out of 10. A strange map though- less so. He'll get it soon! Once he knows Moscow we'll teach him Michigan too. As his brain is able to think more conceptually we'll teach him more about distances and travel. Right now he doesn't get it as is exemplified by his casual weekly request that we, "Go to Moscow after dinner." Ha!


That's our journey so far. If you've adopted a child from a culture different than your own, what are some things you've done to keep his or her heritage alive? To embrace it as a family? If you're a soon-to-be adoptive parent, what are some of your hopes and plans for this part of your adoption? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below or on facebook!



  1. I love what you've done so far! We haven't brought our kiddo home from China yet (praying that it's this year), but we have plans to do a lot of the same things that you mentioned. I added the "Families from China" DVD to my WishList (and "Families from Germany" too for our bio DD). We're also planning on incorporating a few traditional Chinese festivals into our year—Lunar New Year, Lantern Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, etc. It's exciting to add these kinds of new cultural elements into our very American lives. I hope I can be as proactive in learning traditional Chinese cooking as you have with Russian!

    1. Oh man my heart skipped a beat when I read "traditional Chinese cooking." You are going to learn some great skills and have delicious food!! Do you have an asian market near you? They will be your best friends when searching for authentic ingredients! I love Asian fusion and have always wanted to learn more authentic methods but have not done so yet. You'll have to pass your favorite recipes on to me!!

      I think you will love the Families from China DVD if it is anything like the Russia one! And those festivals... so cool. A great way to spice up a typical American life! That is one of my favorite things about cross cultural adoption- makes life so rich!

  2. Loved this post Jill! So many great ideas. I'm struggling with a bit of a backlash about Russia from Zenya. She has so many scary, painful memories that she wants nothing to do with anything Russian. Hearing the language especially is a huge trigger right now. I'm hoping with time that those wounds will heal and she'll be more receptive to knowing about the beautiful parts of her culture.
    2 great books we have, and maybe you already know about them are When I Met You, and Mishka; an Adoption Tale. Both stories about children being adopted from Russia. They have great illustrations of the country and the orphanage and tell the story of 2 different kids coming home to live with their new families.

    1. Ugh that's so hard. Our children come from such rich cultures, but the reality is that they often experience the worst of their culture and not the best. I think your girl's heart and healing is more important than learning to appreciate her culture right now. I hope with you that when her wounds heal she will be more receptive. I think you have every reason to hope!

      We have both those books and love them! Especially Mishka. Arie likes it when I change the little boy's name to "Arie" and read it as if it is his story; and it almost is, word for word! Crazy! :-)

  3. Anonymous1/19/2014

    This is something that I wish I was better at-- I think I'm going to order that atlas right now!

    1. We have a few Eastern European themed adoption books-- the two Candice mentions above, plus Borya and the Burps and Nikolai the Only Bear. We also have a book called "Max moves to Moscow", which is a favorite here. It has some beautiful illustrations of Moscow landmarks.

    2. We own the Little Pim set, too, but my kids never want to watch it. :( They're more likely to play with our Russian alphabet book. My kids also listen to a mix of Russian and English lullabies at night.

    3. We hosted a Ukrainian chaperone from the orphan hosting program for a few weeks. That gave my kids an opportunity to hear a tiny bit of Russian. And Reed asked him lots of questions about things in Ukraine. Important stuff, like "do kids take bathes?"

    4. The last 2 years, for Easter, I've baked Paska bread, and last year we dyed eggs using onions, which is another Eastern European tradition. Besides that, we don't really do a ton of Russian or Ukrainian food, because my kids just aren't interested.

    I love hearing other people's ideas, because sometimes I find it rather overwhelming!

    1. Awesome! Enjoy the atlas! I love your suggestions- I am going to look up those books! Thank you!! Did your kids have any visceral reactions to hearing their native tongues? Arie still seems to recognize Russian when it is spoken around him and he gets really serious when he hears it.

      I am going to look into that dying eggs with onions thing! Love that! Thanks for the advice!!

  4. Very interesting and inspiring, adopting a child is really great thing to do.


I love reading your comments! Those left on posts older than 2 days will require moderation.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...