Protocol for Meeting Adopted Ukrainian Niece/Nephew in the US?
July 26, 2019 7:59 PM   Subscribe

This year my expat brother and sister-in-law (who are longtime residents, fluent in Russian) adopted a brother/sister pair in Ukraine. We're meeting them next week at a family reunion. What's the protocol for my family to meet them to be loving, welcoming and respectful?

My brother and sister-in-law have lived in Ukraine for ~20 years and are totally fluent in Russian. They have two biological kids of their own, and this year adopted a very sweet brother (13) and sister (9) pair. The newly adopted kids have been living with this American family for roughly a year, and have learned English and are excelling in school and doing well by all accounts. They are on their first trip to the United States for a family reunion this summer and we're about to meet them. How can I and my partner welcome them into our family? Is it better to treat it like a first meeting (handshake?) or treat them like family (hug?)? Should we learn something to say in Russian? Gifts?

My brother says don't do anything special, but that feels weird too, to not acknowledge and welcome them and show them our love....

We'll be staying together for nearly two weeks.
posted by amoeba to Human Relations (15 answers total)
Is it possible for you to meet them virtually first (over a FaceTime video chat or something like that you tee up with your brother so the kids are in the room but not expected to do anything than wave hello if that’s all they want to do) - if they are like other teenagers or near teenagers they may be very used to that virtual format and you’d be meeting them under a much lower pressure situation, which could help both sides be normal and get a read of each other with no physical awkwardness or need for worrying about gifts etc. It’s not a Hallmark Card first greeting for sure - but it’s real life and normal. Plus allows for small talk on first IRL meeting - “hey, good to see you again - you’re much taller in person than on the screen dude!” Etc.

Others will have more experience but I’d personally approach it exactly the way you normally would greet family you haven’t seen in a while (within reason) and be genuine. Kids will spot if you are faking it. On the day maybe try and get a read on them first before you get introduced. And respect boundaries and have low expectations that they will be as excited as you are (they may be guarded or be having who knows what natural emotions).

In addition remember they are kids. Nine year old me found family get togethers stupid boring and I’d rather have been anywhere other than meeting a bunch of blah blah blah relatives. They may or may not think this is as big a deal as you do.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 8:40 PM on July 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yeah, you need to follow your brother’s advice here. You feel weird, but don’t put that on the kids. They’ll be meeting lots of new people and it might be overwhelming. Treat them like they’re kids you care about whom you’ve just met. Don’t force a hug. Don’t handshake. Maybe just give them a warm greeting and tell them how excited you are to meet them, and then talk to them when you have a few minutes here and there.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:40 PM on July 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

As someone who participated in several international exchange programs as a teen and later university student - I remember feeling very self conscious and put on the spot whenever people would make a big fuss about me when just meeting me. Paradoxically, it made me feel like I did not really belong or like I was exotic to them. This was back at a time when my country was seen as Europe's poor cousin of sorts so maybe that colored my perception at the time.
I liked when people were just low key friendly and just let me participate in normal family life.
Personally, I would not recommend you greet them in Russian or anything like that. I'd say hello, smile, say nice to meet you, ask them about their hobbies, do some stuff together one on one (even stuff like preparing a dish together in the kitchen), go for a walk, include them in conversation. Think of low key activities to do together as a family - museum trip, Frisbee, whatever all of you enjoy.

In short, I would let a relationship develop naturally and spend some quality time together trying to get to know them like you would a new friend.
posted by M. at 2:31 AM on July 27, 2019 [11 favorites]

You need to low-key it. Wave and say something like "It's so nice to meet you, welcome to the family!" Do not hug them. It's very American, and also doesn't model respect for their boundaries.

Maybe bring them a small gift each, maybe something like a board game you can play together over the next two weeks? Or something cool like a deck of cards each and a book about card tricks for kids! You could all learn magic tricks together with the flexibility to watch instructional YouTube videos if that works better.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:31 AM on July 27, 2019

Seconding a small gift that leads to a common activity. I thought of Shrinky Dinks for some reason although they are probably too old for that unless they're into crafts. But something connected to their hobbies maybe?
posted by M. at 2:40 AM on July 27, 2019

On top of what others have said, after the greetings are over, try to pull them in for small errands - can you put this bowl on the table? Can you tell Uncle Jim to come in? In a Slavic cultural context that's the difference between family and guests, and it'll give them something concrete to do rather than stand awkwardly.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 3:08 AM on July 27, 2019 [14 favorites]

My brother says don't do anything special, but that feels weird too, to not acknowledge and welcome them and show them our love....

You have to follow your brother’s advice. He knows the kids, what this trip will be like for them (overwhelming enough without special fusses, I’d imagine) and what will be best for them. With kindness, you wanting to do something other than what he recommends is maybe about you trying to make yourself comfortable (by doing what would be normal for you) rather than the kids.

I’m not a parent, but have lived overseas, and I think having people make a big fuss over me in a context where I was uncertain of how to respond would be exhausting as an adult, let alone as a teenager.

That doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge it’s a special day, but a “Welcome, we’re so happy to meet you” followed by giving them a lovely day the same way you do for the rest of the family sounds fine to me, as others have suggested spending time with them through the day, rather than a lot of intense focus on them at a specific point.
posted by penguin pie at 4:43 AM on July 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

Hi, I was adopted. Follow your brother’s lead. Their entire world has changed utterly over the past several years. They have lost their family of origin. They have acquired a new nuclear family who speak a different language and have a completely new culture than the one they’ve spent their lives immersed in. The kids are starting from a position of loss, no matter how positive the adoption situation may have ended up. This is not just an ordinary family reunion situation for them. Even if they don’t recognize it or express it, there is grief and loss in their existence as international adoptees. No other precedent applies—definitely not international exchange student programs.

It’s important to take your brother’s lead here. Don’t hug them unless they initiate it. Verbally and warmly welcome them to the family. Let them know you’re glad to get to know them. Try to refrain from introducing them to your family members with emphasis on new nominal-only relationships such as “And this is Maggie, who I guess is now YOUR NEW GREAT AUNT.”

Be low-key, kind, and steady. You’ve got this.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:54 AM on July 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

Plenty of good advice above, and while Shrinky Dinks are very fun and very nostalgic, what games are part of the family experience? Bringing a deck of cards, Uno, Jenga, and a portable chess game with a roll-up board would cover our family nostalgia/reunion and might be an opportunity for them to hang out. We have them at many family houses, so no shopping is necessary and no one has to worry about packing it on an airplane to get home. Exploding Kittens is popular with middle school kids, but can be a know-your-audience introduction. Similarly I didn’t say Monopoly on purpose if low-key is the goal.
posted by childofTethys at 6:38 AM on July 27, 2019

I'm the mother of an adopted son. I noticed you said "biological kids of their own". These two children are now "their own" too! If you find yourself introducing the children to other family members use whatever terms the bio-kids use: this is auntie Jean, this is uncle John, etc. If you're giving presents give all 4 kids presents or a present for all four, or a present for all of the kids who are going to be there. Keep it all low-key.

Also try to avoid bringing up the opinion that bio-kids are the spitting image of some other family member. Don't emphasize how much they've grown since the last time you saw them.

It sounds like it's going to be fun times.
posted by mareli at 7:09 AM on July 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Personally I think gifts are a definite yes - they don't have to be anything big, but you want to treat these kids like family, right? I'd absolutely bring gifts to a niece and nephew I don't see often, never mind ones I'm meeting for the first time.

Instead of trying to show respect for their lives by learning something in Russian (which is a very nice instinct but can easily get awkward), you could show respect by taking an interest in their lives, school, friends, neighborhood, interests, etc. Share some things about yourselves too (too often adults do a kind of one-way interrogation thing with kids, but I think it's much nicer as an exchange). Try not to say things like "isn't America great? What do you think about America? You must be so excited to be here. Do you have anything like this at home?" (The last one might sound innocuous, but it often comes across as condescending because it conveys an assumption that they wouldn't have it at home, that their home is some weird and foreign kind of place.) And it's important to make it clear you have no problem with them speaking in Russian around you (this is a thing a lot of non-speakers of a language feel insecure about or consider rude, but keeping people, especially kids, from speaking their own language with their family is a good way to make them feel uncomfortable and alienated). If they ask you what something means in English, it might be fun to ask them how to say it in Russian, as long as you can have a good sense of humor about pronouncing it wrong and practicing.

Maybe bring some pictures or funny stories about your brother when he was young and ask if they want to see/hear.

Good luck, and enjoy!
posted by trig at 7:33 AM on July 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Re Russian: are you certain they speak Russian? Quite possibly they speak Ukrainian, which sounds similar but is not the same.
As this can be a touchy subject (due to current political situation), I would avoid greeting them in Russian unless your brother confirms that they speak Russian and not Ukrainian. You might also want to read up or ask your brother. I meet many exiled Ukrainians through work and found it is very easy to unintentionally insult someone by equating Ukraine and Russia.
I am sure your brother can explain it better than I could.
posted by 15L06 at 8:33 AM on July 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

Ps if you look for more Info on Ukrainian recent history i can recommend Timothy Snyder, he explains complex stuff really well.
posted by 15L06 at 8:45 AM on July 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would offer to tell them stories about when their father was the age they are now. It is always great to hear silly/slightly embarrassing stories about when your parents were younger. . Obviously you will have to watch their reaction - giggle and "tell me more" are good, bored expressions aren't.
posted by metahawk at 12:41 PM on July 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Another point about whether or not to learn Russian phrases: please remember that these kids have experienced significant trauma. Speaking to them in the language they don’t use with their parents isn’t something you should do without asking your brother. Really, there should be no surprises, nothing you haven’t asked your brother about in advance. International adoption of older kids is very complicated and hard to understand from the outside. Please trust your brother over internet strangers who aren’t part of the adoption triad, and do listen to adult adoptees like ImproviseOrDie.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:19 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

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