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5 Cultural Differences to Be Aware of When Adopting From Hong Kong

Boy running by the river in Hong Kong
Sam in Hong Kong, before moving to Los Angeles.

For the first five years of his life, Sam grew up in his native Hong Kong before moving to the U.S. with his family. Here, his mom, Yanwu, shares her insights about the cultural differences children adopted from Hong Kong may also face as they adjust to living in the U.S.

By day, 5-year-old Sam loved the 1,000-square-foot apartment he and his family moved to in Los Angeles from their native Hong Kong in 2019. He could run around and play freely. But at night, Sam’s bedroom seemed large and scary. It was quiet — and even though his parents were in the bedroom next to his, Sam found it hard to sleep. One day, Sam began constructing tents made of cardboard boxes to fill the empty spaces in his room, sometimes even sleeping in one. As Sam recalls, “It was safer to stay there.”

Now age 7 ½, Sam has adjusted to his new room and to other aspects of life in the U.S. “He is a talkative boy, who is always calling out to our neighbors’ kids at their windows. And he loves the lunch gatherings with our fellowship families every Sunday,” says his mother, Yanwu. But Sam’s adjustment to life in the U.S. took a little time, and there were certain cultural and social practices he initially had to get used to.

If you are planning to adopt a child from Hong Kong, they will likely have lived with a foster family or in a group home before joining your family. If you adopt an older child, certain habits may be ingrained and certain lifestyle norms that are customary in the U.S. may seem strange to them. To help your child make the transition to life in the U.S., and to help you prepare a bit for your travels to Hong Kong, Yanwu — and the Holt China Regional Team — offer the following insights and suggestions.

1. People in Hong Kong tend to live (and sleep) in smaller spaces.

When Yanwu was growing up in the New Territories region of Hong Kong, she and her family of five — two parents and three children — lived in a 400-square-foot apartment. Yanwu and her siblings didn’t have their own room, but rather they all slept in bunk beds in a corner of the apartment. Before moving to the U.S., Yanwu, her husband and Sam lived in a 560-square-foot apartment, where Sam’s room was adjacent to his parents’ room. “He could hear us, and we could hear him,” she says. That’s why, when the family moved to Los Angeles, Sam initially found his room to be too quiet, spacious and scary.

Boy in tent fort
When Sam first arrived in the U.S., he built cardboard tents in his bedroom to make it less empty and scary.

Likewise, your child may have lived in very small quarters in Hong Kong — and likely did not have their own room. In foster care, children typically sleep in the same room as their foster parents, while younger children may co-sleep in the same bed. In group homes, older children usually sleep in rooms with peers of a similar age group.

When your child first arrives in the U.S., it’s important that they feel safe and secure. Depending on their age, you might allow your child to co-sleep with you (or sleep in your room), or share a room with a sibling. “I found that when I slept with Sam, he fell asleep very quickly,” says Yanwu. “It may take some time, maybe even several months. But in my opinion, a child needs someone to accompany him until he feels good and safe.”

2. Your child may be unaccustomed to playing freely outdoors.

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and many families — including foster families  — live in high-rise buildings with no type of outdoor yard. In addition, there are fewer (and smaller) public spaces where children can play outside.

When Sam first came to Los Angeles, he was reluctant to step on the grass in public city parks, because in Hong Kong, this was not allowed. “This was a really big difference for my son,” says Yanwu. Sam also didn’t want to play with sand, thinking it was dirty. He was afraid of getting sand in his shoes. It took about six to nine months for Sam to adjust, but once he made friends, he wanted to do everything they did. “Now Sam loves to run around the playground with the other kids, sometimes wearing sandals or no shoes at all!” says Yanwu.   

3. Your child may need time to warm up to other children.

Sam is a friendly child who likes other kids. But when he first started school in the U.S., he was quiet, observant, shy. In Hong Kong, the education system is highly rigorous and children are not encouraged to speak out in class. Instead, they are taught to watch, observe and memorize. Children are taught to please adults, and compliance is valued over self-expression. So when Sam began school in the U.S., he was reluctant to speak out in class or to engage with the other children. Though he knew the names of all his classmates, it took some time for him to reach out and play. “Sam had to assess who was ‘bad,’ and who was ‘good.’ He had to make a judgment,” says Yanwu. Children from Hong Kong may seem initially more reserved than American kids because of their educational and cultural background. But they will warm up over time, she adds.

4. Your child may be used to a different form of discipline.

Boy playing on playground in Los Angeles
Sam, enjoying the park in Los Angeles!

Beyond the scope of the classroom, children in Hong Kong are generally not offered many choices — or the chance to negotiate with grown-ups. Instead, they are given directions and disciplined for not following them. (When they comply, children are commonly praised and rewarded with sweets or other food.) As a result, “children growing up in Hong Kong may appear less independent … and not as process oriented as children in America,” says Yanwu.

To help your child adapt to new ways of thinking — and being — Yanwu suggests engaging them in activities such as sports or church, or having them play freely outdoors or in a park. “When children make new friends, and learn to play together or even ‘fight’ with one another, they learn to negotiate and become more flexible,” she says. “This is a crucial part of their adaptation.”

5. In Hong Kong, flowers aren’t always the best gift.

Parents adopting from Hong Kong typically spend five to seven days in country when traveling to pick up their child. Upon meeting your child and their foster family, Yanwu suggests presenting each with a small gift. For example, you might give your child a “red pocket” (small red envelope) with a chocolate or a warm welcome card inside. Or if you’re traveling around the Lunar New Year, you might gift your child with a red paper lantern. Foster families might appreciate a special treat like a pineapple cake or moon cake, some fruit, or biscuits or chocolate from the U.S. But it’s wise to avoid giving flowers. “Flowers are given at weddings and funerals, and daisies are reserved for burial ceremonies,” says Yanwu. “So they’re probably not the best gift for a foster family!”

Whether your child is 5 (like Sam) or 15 when they arrive in the U.S., be prepared for a period of adjustment. They may need to co-sleep with you, or in your room, or construct cardboard tents in their bedroom for safety. They may be shy or reluctant to reach out to other children in school or at the playground. Or they may be resistant to step on fresh grass in a public park. But know that in time, with new experiences and friendships, consistent love and support, your child will make the cultural adjustments they need to adapt to their new life in America.

photo of adoptive family with adoptive parents holding two daughters

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