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Eagle County: Adopting a culture

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
Mallory Olenius/Vail DailyNatasha, 17, stands between her two adopted sisters, Lusa, 10, left, and Remmington. Al three were born in Russia and now live in Beaver Creek.
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Life would have been vastly different for 9-year-old Nicole Gustafson if she had grown up in the rural village in China where she was born.

Instead, the Edwards third grader was adopted from a remote village in south central China when she was nine-months-old by American parents. While she dances ballet, takes voice lessons and attends Vail Academy, she also likes lo mein, can spout off a couple words of Mandarin, and her room is littered with Chinese decorations.

“I planned all along for her to be integrated into Chinese culture,” said Nicole’s mother, Marie Gustafson. “It’s very important that she have a strong sense of self, where she came from and be proud of her heritage.”



For her, that means teaching Nicole about the history and culture of China through books, taking her to the Asian district of Denver, making sure she always has a Chinese outfit that fits and meeting with other families who have adopted Chinese children.

“It started off with about 17 families in the valley, and now the group is almost 50. We meet for Chinese New Year’s and picnics in the summer,” Marie Gustafson said.



For some parents, a key part of the experience is bringing their children back to their native countries.

The Gustafsons plan to take a Yangtze River cruise trip next year. Nicole said she can’t wait to see the Great Wall and be on the boat.

Next year’s trip will be a fun vacation, but Marie Gustafson said she hopes that when Nicole is a teenager, they can return for a more serious journey.



“I want her to see where she came from, but also I want her to see how poor people are. I plan to take her back to her hometown,” she said.

Mark and Tracy Gordon, of Vail, plan to take their 5-year-old son Sasha back to his native Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Mark Gordon said his family has roots in Russia, and the family cooks some Russian foods and tries to teach Sasha about the country. Still, they feel Sasha has lessons to learn in his homeland.

“It’s where he’s from. Everyone’s roots are important to them,” Mark Gordon said. “I just hope he learns and understands that our life here in Vail is not necessarily what everyone else leads.”

Still, parents have the choice of how much their children are integrated into their native cultures. Edwards resident Camille Cooper, who adopted Mia, now 6, from China when she was 8 months old, said she only plans to make Chinese culture a part of their lives to a certain extent.

She reads books about China with her daughter, reads her daughter newspaper articles about China, buys her Chinese dolls and plans to “overdose her with the (Beijing) Olympics” this summer.

One family she knows moved to Denver in order to send their adopted children to Chinese language school. However, she doesn’t plan to have Mia learn Chinese.

“I don’t go way out of my way. Your culture is more what you’re to exposed to everyday, and your heritage is where you’re from. I don’t think it should be the other way around,” she said.

Still, her daughter has a keen sense of where she’s from, Cooper said.

“We’ll go to Chinatown in San Francisco, and she just wants to go in every store, and she loves listening to long conversations she doesn’t understand a word of,” she said.

Scott and Margaret Olle said they had to let their oldest daughter Natasha, who was adopted from Russia at age 10, want to learn about the culture for herself.

Natasha, now 17, used to attend Russian language school, do translation work, and work with other Russian adoptees.

“It got to the point we were trying to force it on her, and she just wanted nothing to do with it for about three years,” Margaret Olle said. “And you know, at what point do they stop being your adopted child and are just your child?”

Now Natasha has a renewed interest in her native culture ” the Battle Mountain High School senior wants to study Slavic languages, and plans to revisit Russia next year.

“I hope she sees a country she can embrace and love and see as part of her life. She has a history there,” her mother said.

The Olles also have two other Russian daughters, Remmington, 9, and Lusa, 10, as well as three biological sons ages 17, 13, and 11. Their younger daughters were adopted as babies, so they have less of a memory of Russia.

Margaret Olle said the girls love to take out their Russian dresses and headdresses and dolls, and are always excited to do school reports on Russia.

For many American parents, that means adopting a culture that is not their own. Marie Gustafson said the entire journey has been a learning experience for her, too.

“It’s been great. I have so much appreciation for the Chinese culture that I never had before,” she said, pointing toward the Chinese art and furniture around their home.

The Olles have embraced Russian culture as their own.

“It’s great because I have no heritage. I’m blah, a mish-mash of everything,” Margaret Olle said, laughing. “I always wanted a heritage growing up, to be Italian or Jewish or something.”

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 748-2928 or mwong@vaildaily.com.


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