The “melting pot” in Cora Edmonds’ West Seattle home is not what’s sitting on the stove but is rather a metaphor for every facet of her life.
From her career as a cultural photographer and owner of an art gallery to her multi-racial family of seven. With the recent adoption of three Vietnamese-Ukrainian kids (that’s not a typo), her household is truly what the U.S. has proudly claimed to be for many years: a harmonious mixture of cultures and peoples.
“I’ve always had this intense curiosity about all things people and cultural,” says Edmonds, who came to the U.S. from Hong Kong when she was twelve. “So for me, I wanted to adopt internationally. It’s like walking my talk. This is what this gallery is all about.”
She is referring to ArtXchange, an acclaimed gallery in Pioneer Square that Edmonds has owned and operated for the past 15 years and where she showcases art “from around the world that reflects the diversity of influences shaping the Seattle community.” But as much as she loves her work, her priority now is parenting the children that have come into her life through a series of fortuitous events.
Being an international photographer, Edmonds has been to many countries and fell in love with their cultures. Vietnam, in particular, holds a special place in her heart. She first visited the country in 1995 and something about the wonderful friendships and hospitality has kept her coming back every year. She often visits orphanages and always comes bringing gifts like fresh food and eggs from the market. Vietnam was naturally the first place where she began her search. However, it wouldn’t be the last.
In 2009, the U.S. placed a moratorium on international adoptions from Vietnam and Edmonds was forced to look elsewhere. The pursuit went far and wide – Guatemala, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, and China, to name a few – and finally led to Ukraine, which currently rates 6th among international adoptions for the U.S.
With the help of a facilitator, Edmonds and her family were presented with files of children available and was “shocked” to find three mixed Vietnamese children in the Ukrainian orphanage: Karina, 11; Dima, 9; and Valeria, 8 — three siblings whose father is Vietnamese and mother is Ukrainian. She knew she found what she was looking for and decided to adopt all three, a unique and daunting task for any adopting parent.
For the next three weeks, Edmonds’ family visited the orphanage every day to get to know their new family members. Each afternoon, they were able to take the siblings out around town. Parks were a usual destination due to the kids’ “very high energy.” After travelling around Ukraine to collect paperwork and finalize the adoption, the family was ready to head home – plus three.
In her life and work, Edmonds has had many adventures but according to her, this latest one “takes the cake.” She admits the difficulty in simultaneously adopting and raising three additional international children.
“The universe never gives you more than what you can handle but I feel like ‘OK, I’ve met my limit,’” says Edmonds.
The challenge was “deep and significant.” Having spent years at the orphanage, the children were initially in their “survival mode all the time” which made establishing a connection extremely difficult. Then there was the language barrier – the kids didn’t speak English and Edmonds didn’t speak Russian. An interpreter even had to be present at all doctor and dentist appointments.
But after spending seven weeks in Ukraine along with her husband and two teenage step-children (all crammed into a one-bedroom Ukrainian apartment), and seeing first-hand the tragic background of their new family members [details will be withheld to respect the family’s privacy], they were full of empathy and compassion. Slowly and patiently, the kids were shown the love and care they had not experienced in a long time.
Edmonds says her and her husband’s practice of meditation over the last ten years has helped sustain them through the changes. She also enlisted the help of a friend who quickly became the children’s godmother. “There’s just not enough bodies to go around,” Edmonds says.
At Valeria’s birthday party recently in a children’s art store, all three siblings were indistinguishable from the other kids as they quietly concentrated on their masterpieces, looking up at times to make sure their “mama” and “papa” knew what a good job they were doing.
Although excited about the huge gains, Edmonds hopes that the kids, who are unmistakably Asian in appearance, will retain some of their multi-cultural identity. Karina, the oldest of the three, shares with Edmonds memories of her father cooking noodles for her and even believes she understands Vietnamese.
“These kids are so special and I hope they can retain their unique history, culture, and identity and not be assimilated into the mainstream American culture too quickly,” says Edmonds.
Not too difficult it seems. Among their favorite foods: chicken feet at dim sum and dried fish and squid for snacks. When asked about lion dancing, Dima says, “I want to be the head.”
And like all Asian children, their eyes opened wide and smiles stretched across their faces when presented with those familiar red envelopes during Lunar New Year. The children also have an opportunity to incorporate their new family’s culture, “surviving” a trip to Edmond’s husband’s home country of New Zealand for a family reunion.
Back in their West Seattle house, it “has gotten a lot noisier,” Edmonds says, and she has had to shift her focus away from work, but like a true photographer, she is never far from a camera.
“I’m always looking at my everyday life, looking at the beauty to document that poignant moment,” says Edmonds, her eyes scanning the gallery.
She doesn’t have to travel around the world for these moments anymore, they are flashing right before her eyes – three at a time.