Archive | March, 2012

What Does Bilingual Mean?

18 Mar

“What does ‘bi-lingal’ mean?” my daughter M asked me as I dried her post-bath hair last night.

I gave her the first definition that came to mind. Someone is bilingual if they speak two languages equally well. I pointed out that the teachers at her school were all equally proficient in Spanish and English.

“Like Mrs. G always talks to Mrs. M in Spanish, and she talks to us in English!” M exclaimed.

“Yep. And Mrs. K speaks to some parents in Spanish and some parents in English. Do you speak some Spanish?”

“Yes,” M agreed. “But not much.”

“I don’t speak much Spanish yet,” I confessed, “but I do speak English, Bangla, French and Italian. That’s called ‘quadrilingual’ for 4 languages.”

Yes, pero...We live in El Paso, TX,  less than 20 miles from the US-Mexico border. There are two main communities that I’ve observed living side by side: the local Mexican-American population, and the army community, made up of soldiers between deployments and their families. The latter group is fluid, moving every year or two. Many army spouses are from countries other than the US, met during soldiers’ international travels. Spanish and English are the languages most often spoken on the street, but I hear plenty of German when I go to the girls’ school to pick them up or onto Ft Bliss, the local base. I used to hear a lot of Korean at our last base, but I haven’t noticed a ton here.

I expected that the richness of the language landscape here would lend itself to an appreciation of the benefits of bilingualism. I was shocked, therefore, to learn the there was no Spanish used in the bilingual classrooms at our daughters’ public school. In this school district, “bilingual” is simply code for “English as a Second Language” or even “Spanish monolingual.” The only Spanish-English dual immersion school programs are “on the other side of the mountain” in the more affluent Caucasian neighbourhoods to the west.

I once toyed with the idea of getting a PhD in code-switching, the interweaving of two or more languages by people equally comfortable with all the languages in use. After having lived in El Paso for 6 months, I think a more fascinating topic is the relationship between people’s language usage and attitudes in multi-lingual communities.

Although my husband and I are members of the army community, our dark skin makes us blend into the long-term El Paso community. The language use I’ve observed in local places of business has been an eye-opener. At shops that are part of national chains, the initial welcome from the staff is in English, but the next utterance is in Spanish. If the customer responds in English, the conversation switches to English. If the customer responds in Spanish, the remainder of the conversation continues in either Spanish only, or Spanish with some English words. If the customer is fair-skinned, however, Spanish doesn’t make an appearance. The contrast was noticeable when my very fair mother-in-law visited. When we go to local mom-and-pop establishments, though, conversation is in Spanish exclusively until my husband forces the issue by holding to his English, or my mangled Spanish causes the store employee to take pity on me.

I hope that my daughters learn the utility and beauty of bilingualism from their classmates before the narrow-minded perspective of the local school system imposes itself on them. I want them to know that being bilingual is a strength, and something to be admired. It doesn’t equate to not speaking English.

You’ve heard the joke, right?

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language?
American.

Not if I can help it.

Sadia was born in the United Kingdom to parents who were born in Bangladesh back when it was still East Pakistan. At the age of 8, she moved “back” to Bangladesh with her parents, where she lived with one foot in her local extended family culture and the other in the expatriate world. She found her way back to the life in the West pursuing degrees in California and Texas. Since that was far too simple an identity for one person, she mixed things up by marrying an American soldier of Mexican-American and Scots/Irish/French-American descent. Their identical twin daughters, M and J, are now 5 years old, and would probably identify themselves as Twin-American above all else.

Mama…Why, When, Who, How?

13 Mar

Ever heard “The Logical Song” by Supertramp? It takes you through an extraordinary journey of questioning the world around us. I thought of this song when my three- and- a- half year old son started bombarding me with questions, some were answerable others needed some serious soul-searching from my end.

Parenting, I tell you, isn’t easy.

I see numerous moms around me who make it look like an effortless fairy tale, but me I am constantly fumbling over issues. When I look back at the time I began this fascinating journey of motherhood, the initial few years now seem like a breeze. As my three-and-a- half year old is growing and becoming inquisitive, my job as his mother is more interesting, but challenging. The journey is hilarious, fascinating and mind-boggling all at the same time. I have to admit there are times when I have to sit back and make a serious analysis of how I need to ensue. Those first years seem like a breeze because my primary role as mother was satisfying my sons physiological needs; lack of sleep and a small level of fatigue were my biggest issues. Today, his questions that are often accompanied by that: Don’t fail me mama, I will find out, look makes it tough.

I was born in a Hindu household in India. Unlike most typical homes where god played a central role that guided the lifestyle of most Indian families, my parents were not big advocates of religion or god. We did not go on annual pilgrimages during our summer breaks, our weekends did not consist of touring nearby temples, and most importantly my parents never really forced the concept of religion or god on us. We celebrated festivals like any other Hindu family, we were told stories about magnificent god kings, but festivals meant new clothes, goodies to eat, and stories with colorful scenarios that would send any child’s imagination soaring.

In retrospect, I don’t think my parents were non-believers, they were busy with their careers, and god did not seem like something that was a significant part of their lifestyle. My husband, however, comes from a family that was different from mine. His summers consisted of touring various temples around south India; he is well-versed in all the mythological characters that exist in Hinduism, in a nutshell religion and god played a big part in his family.

So here we are, as parents with two very separate childhood experiences and different ideologies with regards to god/religion. This difference does not in any form or fashion interfere with our daily routines, but we do have healthy arguments about how things should be done or not done on the matter.

I’ve had interesting dialogues in my head about the why’s and how’s regarding this very confusing chapter on god/religion. As I mentioned earlier, my parents were neither biased in their love for god, nor did they completely shun the concept. But lately in her retired time off, my mother has taken to it very seriously, the consequence being that I was taken on a guilt-trip on how I should begin inculcating a bit of god in my children. This is very confusing to me, I do not necessarily see the point of it and I am not against it either. I am not mostly against it because of that unknown guilt that harbors in me when it comes to the mysterious religion issue.

So during my recent visit to India I decided to teach my son some Hindu prayers – just to placate my mother. My son repeated and learned them quickly. He got exposed to a lot more of it as our stay in India progressed, till one day he stood up straight and asked me, “Mama what is god?”

Whoa! This completely confounded me. I’m not ready for the question myself leave alone explaining it to a three-and-a-half year old. I managed to burble something on the lines of god loving everyone and all the good things that are associated with the concept of god that he would understand at his age. I was angry and disappointed with myself for doing so; I always prided myself on being a mother who was honest with my feelings and beliefs, particularly when it came to my children.

This was a deal breaking moment for me. It was time to catch the bull by its horns. As an adult I have had several moments where my personal version of god/religion has come to my refuge, but I have never labeled myself as religious or not. Yes, it was a convenient option for me, but children don’t need convenience, they need permanence. Until this point, it has been a very personal choice, but it seems like I cannot continue on this way.

As a parent, I have to take a stand on every issue; it is the only route to take. Children need direction and consistency; in my son’s mind he needed a reason for being asked to say the prayers everyday.

As a parent, I either had to continue with this practice when we returned home to Chengdu, or give it up completely – till he is old enough to make up his own mind about whether or not to embrace god/religion. I’ve chosen to let my son be the judge of how he wants to approach the issue when he is older and hopefully wiser.

But in the meantime I have begun to re-evaluate myself as a mother. I have begun to consciously take a stand on most issues in my life, at least the ones that I plan to expose my children to. I want to be ready when my son poses the next big question.

I am getting there slowly, but surely.

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Renuka Venkataraman is a contributing author at Multicultural Mothering.

“I was born and raised in Mumbai, India. I lived in Dallas, Texas for almost 15 years and worked as teacher for special needs kids for 10 of those years. I moved to Chengdu in September 2011 with my husband, two kids and our miniature dachshund Zen. I’m looking at motherhood under a very different light here in Chengdu. It has brought a sense of positivity and purpose to my life in many ways I can’t wait to experience and share with all you other Multicultural Moms.”

 

There’s No Such Thing as Half Italian

10 Mar

The other night, while guiltily attempting to enjoy the silence of a first-ever empty house, I settled into my sloppy, toy-covered living room with the remote and a fleece blanket. I was thrilled about the opportunity to watch adult television, at a normal volume, without the worry of tripping noisily over a toy, or sneezing, or breathing. The silence, though a blessing in the face of recent stresses, was ill-placed. I’ve never been without my children in the evening, and it was downright disquieting.

I sought to distract myself with some enthralling entertainment, something into which I could dive headfirst, something that would help me forget I was alone.

Redemption came in the form of PBS pledge programming. I’m a sucker for PBS pledge programming. PBS is responsible for my love (turned lust, and then safely back to love) of Harry Connick, Jr., Cirque du Soleil, and musical theater, to name just a few. Needless to say, I was more than ecstatic when I noticed an Il Volo concert has just begun.

Who are Il Volo, you ask? Well, they’re a motley crew of young adult tenors brought together, in 2009, by an Italian talent competition. And they’re wonderful. As soon as you get past the, ahem, motleyness.

I sat, legitimately absorbed by the concert (to the point where I spent two hours arguing with myself over the practicality of buying tickets to an upcoming show), their shaky but charming English, and their beautiful, yet very distinct, voices.

During one of their songs, a song about mothers, black-and-white family video reels played on a screen above the stage. Grandmothers and grandfathers, whom I imagine are no longer with us, smiled, laughed, drank, and ate at large, food-covered family tables. At the end of the song, each young man presented a single rose to his teary-eyed mother before kissing her gently on the cheek. I have to admit, I got a little misty.

And that’s when it hit me.

This is me.

I am half Italian. But as anyone who is half (or more) Italian, knows, there is no such thing as half Italian. This culture, much like an allergic reaction, has a way of spreading over your body, your spirit, your life.

Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (...

I have had a love-hate relationship with my Italian heritage for as long as I can remember. I love (and hate) the importance of family, I love (and hate) the emphasis on food, I love (and hate) the stereotypes, and I love, no, well, just hate, the portrayals in the media. The Godfather, though I could sit, mesmerized, for the nine hours it takes to run on network television, rather disgusts me. Just about everything filmed in New Jersey raises my blood pressure. And Mario and Luigi? Well, they’re okay. I don’t mind them.

Anyone who reads me regularly, or maybe even sporadically, knows I have a chip on my shoulder about Jersey Shore. Do you want to know why? Really why? Because they’re whom I’ve been running so recklessly to avoid, to avoid being, my entire life. And there’s also that kid from Rhode Island, whom my cousin, and several other acquaintances, know. Personally. What can I say? Small state. The proximity, coupled with their, uh, antics, create a perfect storm of emotional turmoil for me. That and the tanning.

I’ve tried to deny my maker on several occasions, tried to walk away from the gold chains, the accents, saying things like “fuhgeddaboutit” and “sangwich”, and the unnecessarily large holiday spreads, but I’ve only been marginally successful.

Now that I have children, who are now a quarter Italian, a smidge Armenian, a pinch Polish, and half Egyptian, I can’t help but sit here and wonder what we’ll make of that soup, which veggies will float to the top, what direction we’ll take, and how they will ultimately identify themselves. Because though there’s a lot I’d like to forsake about my own culture, I can’t (and won’t) let it go.

I secretly love it when my soon-to-be 81-year-old grandmother hauls off and starts shouting the names of saints when she’s angry, or sits me down to impart some generations-old wisdom. Each time, the conversation begins with her trying to accurately translate some epigram, awkwardly explaining it, then ending with, “That’s what my mother used to say, Steph, but it sounded better when she said it. It sounds better in Italian.”

I know, Gram. I know. It does sound better in Italian.

Fuhgeddaboutit.

Stephanie is a former behavioral health professional who gave up the glitz and glamour of human services for stay-at-home motherhood. She is the proud, but exhausted mother of a feisty two-year-old boy, one-year-old fraternal twins, a husband with a rotating work schedule, and three cats. She can be found sharing her tales of woe at Momma Be Thy Name, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Because Misery Loves Company