As Dianne Dart tucks her 10-year-old daughter Ai Xin in at night, she whispers softly, "wo ai ni." The Mandarin expression for "I love you" is a touching tribute to her daughter's cultural roots.
Since adopting Ai Xin from southern China in 2004, Dianne and her husband, Jeff, have embraced the culture of their daughter's homeland.
They kept Ai Xin's birth name (which means "love from the heart"), enrolled her in Mandarin lessons at the age of three, and send her to a school where half the class is Chinese. The Melbourne-based Darts also dress in traditional costume to celebrate Chinese New Year, have hung Chinese art on their walls, and are planning their fifth trip to China as a family.
Dianne has learnt Mandarin, so she and Ai Xin can converse in China's official language. She is now working on a '100 Good Wishes Quilt', a Chinese tradition in which friends and family contribute pieces of fabric to create a quilt that contains luck, energy and wishes for a happy life.
"We definitely are a Chinese-Australian family and we're very proud of it," Dianne says. "It has enriched our life in ways I never thought possible."
Such is the bonus of adopting internationally: gaining not only that much-longed-for child, but also embarking on a fascinating cultural journey.
Since the advent of contraception, single-parent welfare and greater social acceptance of single mothers, few babies born in Australia have been adopted by strangers in the past few decades. As a result, parents who dream of adopting are increasingly looking overseas. They'll spend up to $50,000 on the adoption process and can wait up to five years to be allocated a child.
Once parents have successfully adopted from abroad, there comes a responsibility to maintain ties with the culture the child has been physically removed from. Adoption experts say it's crucial for a child's self-esteem and sense of identity – but overdo it, and it can be at the expense of them settling into their new family.
"By demonstrating that you are interested in the cultural heritage of your child, you are accepting everything about her. You are also validating her lineage and her physical realities," says Corrie Lynne Player, author of The Everything Parent's Guide to Raising Your Adopted Child.
Of the 384 adoptions finalised in Australia in 2010-11, 56 per cent were international adoptions, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Some 80 per cent of those international adoptions were of children from Asia: a quarter come from China (mainly due to its one-child policy), while 17 per cent come from the Philippines, and another 12 per cent from Taiwan.
Caseworkers encourage adoptive parents to make their child's culture 'something they see every day', through celebrating national holidays, cooking national dishes, displaying arts and crafts, playing music and reading stories from that country, exploring the country's religions, and learning at least a bit of the language.
"If you love your child, you love their culture, you love their country, you love where they're from," explains Dianne Dart. "It's part of them. Embrace it. You don't want to try to wipe it out, to cut out the birth parents and say, 'Life started with us.' It didn't."
Authorities consider the process so important that the Victorian government requires prospective parents to do projects on the country they wish to adopt from. In NSW, it's illegal to change the child's birth name. And parents who have demonstrated a special interest in the country – such as living or working there – can also be bumped closer to the front of the adoption queue.
The Darts are part of the Families With Children from China (FCC) support group, which – among other initiatives – holds an annual camp where children learn to make dumplings, and where they dress in cheongsams for dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant. Through FCC, Ai Xin has made friends with girls who were adopted from the same orphanage as her.
"She loves being with other girls from China just like her," Dianne says. "It's a really big thing, seeing all those familiar faces. It makes her feel good about herself."
The Dart family's next visit to China will be strictly sightseeing. Last year's trip to the southern town of Nanning – where a newborn Ai Xin was found by a policemen on the side of the road – was too unsettling for the child.
The Darts have been told Ai Xin was left with a red envelope containing some money, but have been unable to find out much else.
Some parents worry that the emphasis on maintaining cultural ties can come at the expense of helping a vulnerable child settle into a new environment. But Dianne says she never worries that she's overdoing the contact with Chinese culture with Ai Xin.
"For us, it's just part of who she is. It's always felt natural to talk about it, and she's always been more than happy to learn more about the Chinese culture. She'll say, 'I want to know all about my culture because it helps me, Mama', so I think that tells us everything we need to know.
"I feel confident we're doing the right thing for our daughter."
This article first appeared in Sunday Life.