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Visiting Orphanages in Cambodia & Vietnam

By Joyce Yiu & Iris Culp, Lotus Travel

Conducting a return visit to an adoptee's homeland is often a powerful experience. Positive cultural heritage reinforcements provide a healthy context for adopted children. According to clinical child psychologist Dr. Rebecca Nelson, birth country visits are essential as they are considered to be "prime opportunities for adoptees to learn about themselves and further a positive adoptive identity within a guided and emotionally supportive context." Learning and exploring their ethnic backgrounds under parental guidance and unconditional love supports a child as they mature. Such an experience enhances self-confidence and is a key to develop a positive personal identity.

How does it work?

In Cambodia and Vietnam, the orphanage visitation approval process is relatively simple. Visitation access is granted by the local orphanage director. However, permission to visit does require prior notification and request, typically several months in advance. The visit needs are usually set up through a local representative or an agency like Lotus Travel. An orphanage visit will usually involve an on-site visit at the facility and meeting with the orphanage director and staff members. Returning, adoptive children and their families are often warmly welcomed upon returning to visit.

Appropriate Gifts for Orphanages in Cambodia and Vietnam

Orphanages often lack children's clothing, toys, crayons, basic stationeries and story books. These items as gifts are greatly appreciated. Orphanages located in large cities are sometimes visited by foreigners and children there may receive candy and other non-essentials, while the staff members would prefer to have gifts of fresh fruit given. One can also request that Lotus Travel adviser checks with your specific orphanage regarding its needs and “wish list” before deciding what to donate.

It is customary to give a small, token of appreciation to officials when returning for a visit. Perfume and cosmetics are good selections for female orphanage directors and caregivers. If you are uncertain about the gender of the directors, an appropriate gift could be a basket of fruit or a box of chocolates. The recipient may initially decline as is customary. Since a gift recipient is expected to initially decline a gift at first offering, it may be necessary to offer the gift more than once. Don't be surprised by this. Avoid giving a gift that is black in color, handkerchiefs, yellow flowers or chrysanthemums; they all have negative connotations for gifts.

Observing Cambodian and Vietnamese Customs When You Travel to Orphanages in Cambodia and Vietnam

As parents, it is important to make prepare your children for cultural differences between America and Vietnam to children prior to your trip.

Cambodia and Vietnamese Culture

The teachings of Confucius influence Cambodian and Vietnamese culture and the position of an individual within society. As a result, there is emphasis on defined obligations of people towards one another. Specifically, there are strong obligations codified between husband and wife; parents and children; brothers and sisters; friend and friend. Each obligation is centered on duty, loyalty, honor, filial piety, respect for age and sincerity. It is a common arrangement for three generations to be living together under one roof.

Also common is the concept of “face”. This is integral to understanding and communicating in the Cambodian and Vietnamese culture. The concept is so deeply ingrained in the society, but can be generally equated to the concept of a person's reputation, dignity and prestige. One can give face, lose face or save face. It is a core, underpinning belief to many actions. Someone can be given face by complimenting another for their hospitality or business acumen. If someone is publicly accused of poor performance, it is considered devastating, and “face” is lost.

Social Etiquette and Customs If someone disagrees with another person, there will be silence in the room, not open disagreement. To openly disagree would cause “loss of face”. It is considered offensive to touch someone's head or pass something over someone's head. You may not touch a member of the opposite sex. Handshakes typically only occur between members of the same sex. Do not point with your finger or touch someone on the shoulder. If you need to point, use your entire hand.

Meeting with orphanage directors and staff

Dress code: business casual is appropriate and one should always dress conservatively. Wearing jeans & T-shirts attire would not display appropriate decorum for the occasion and the staff.

Wait to be invited to be seated and to be shown where to sit. It is the respectful way.

Background & Preparation for the Visit

It is not unusual for birth parents to relinquish a child directly to an orphanage, so there are often records identifying birth parent(s). Some adoptive families choose to request records and attempt contact with the birth family. There are cases in which birth and adoptive families meet and maintain connections. However, in some instances, the birth mom/family may be located, but does not wish to meet with the child or adoptive family. The reasons may vary with each situation, but it may be that their current family of the birth mom (which may include a new husband/new children) takes precedence and they do not know of the adoptive child. It is with careful consideration that an adoptive family should think through attempting to make connections with birth family members remaining in Cambodia or in Vietnam. Some families wanting to make connections with a child's birth family does not discuss this aspect of the planned trip until they know that the birth parent will be interested in meeting with them.

Within the adoptive community there are different and conflicting viewpoints about adoptive parents who would like to make the connection with the child's birth family. While some think one should make every effort to connect with a birth family while visiting, there are others who vehemently disagree. Some conclude that the information gathering and searching to be done is strictly the “identity work” which belongs to the child, and should only be undertaken at the initiative of the adoptee, even if only done as an adult. This group says that to do any contact or searching steals valuable parts of the identity searching piece that is essential to the adoptee coming to grips with the loss inherent in the adoption process. Still others take a “middle of the road” approach and advocate collecting relevant information that is available while the child is young. Then, at an older age, near to adult age the adoptee can decide whether or not to pursue the information any further. The primary point everyone agrees on it is that this decision is a very personal decision and one with lifelong implications.

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