Archive | June, 2013

Faces

28 Jun

My father is from Nigeria.  My mother is a first generation Canadian, caucasian with straight hair and dark eyes.  She blends in a way that people don’t feel the need to ask her where she’s from, or makes them unafraid to ask.  I look like her, in the shape of my jaw, my eyes and my ears.  You have to know the two of us well to see our similarities, which I’m sure is the case for all apparently mono-racial parents of obviously bi-racial kids.  It’s something we get used to and don’t question until we see that hesitance in the eyes of someone who wants to ask but doesn’t want to offend.

I live in Canada, not the United States, but because our media is predominantly American we live with the assumption of an Afro-American or American Black sensibility in the eyes and minds of many who see us.  For the record, I’ve known poverty and I’ve been hungry and I’ve done some things that I was embarrassed about until I came to value those acts for the way they’ve shaped the person I am.  I’ve lived in low income neighbourhoods and spent childhood summers without shoes on my feet and have known too many who were criminals because they had no choice, and some who were criminals because they wanted to be.  There are parallels between American Black and Canadian Black people, perhaps most strongly felt in our shared history.  Many of our ancestors have the Middle Passage in common.  Most of our ancestors knew slavery.

But the majority of Canadians who look Black emigrated to our country in the last two or three generations.  We are the children of skilled practitioners exploring North America after immigration laws relaxed in the 1960s, from the countries of Africa, or the Caribbean, or Central America, travelers riding the post-slavery, pre-equality diasporic wave.  We are refugees filtered through the United Nations.  We are students who chose to study abroad and wound up in The Great White North, and formed ourselves to fit our new cultures.  We are the children, some of us, of those who found the place too cold, too inhospitable, and too different from home, and ultimately returned without us.

I don’t know my father.  We’ve exchanged letters a few times over my three-and-a-half decades.  What I know of Nigeria’s cultures comes from Ben Okri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Chris Cleave.  I know the greed for oil has killed people there, as it does with varying body-counts wherever there is oil and money to be made through its extraction.  I know my father has other wives and other children, and that I have uncles in Europe and cousins in the USA.  I know he was of the Igbo tradition, which means our people were bound, shipped and traded, despite his vehement protestations otherwise.  I know he called Nigeria the most beautiful country in all of Africa and thus the most beautiful nation in the world.  He wrote to me to come to him when I was fifteen.  He had a place for me in a good school in Benin City, he wrote.  He knew a family that would take good care of me when I was ready to marry, he wrote.  He named me “Princess” and sent love to my mother.

I didn’t go.

My children know none of this.  When my daughter was assigned “Kumbayah” by her piano teacher, I side-stepped the teacher’s request that I explain the song’s provenance for her.  At seven years old, my daughter is innocent.  History sloughs around her, but does not touch.  So when she plays “Kumbayah”, it is spritely, happy, almost joyous, her little fingers skipping over the keys, and I love to hear it.  She has just recently realized some people choose not to be married, after months or years, and so their children have two houses and two bedrooms, or one house that is emptier.  She has come to understand that people might have babies before getting married, or might welcome babies from other parents to raise as their own and love with their whole hearts.  She is learning how people are mean to each other, and make bad decisions, and hurt each other deeply on purpose or by accident.  She knows how people, like her, have parents for whom the shape of their eyes or the colour of their skin or the bend of their hair mean nothing compared to the scope of their love.  And that’s enough.  For now.

Last week, at the library, I saw NIGERIA in bold print across a children’s magazine.  Faces, it was called.  I picked it up.  Put it down.  Grabbed it quickly and checked it out with the stacks of picture books and early readers.  I placed it with the other books on the table by the blocks at home, and when my daughter picked it up, I told her, “My father is from Nigeria.  He lives there now.”  And then we learned, together, about the many languages spoken in Nigeria, and the gorgeous red tomatoes in the Lagos market, and the value of elders’ wisdom, and how to make Puff-Puff, which the editors declare a beloved snack.  Later, while she was resting, I learned that I’d chosen a biracial Nigerian vocalist for my wedding song, and that I’d named my children for family and place in the tradition of a people I had never met.  I sat with that magazine and remembered going to the library in Calgary by myself and sitting on the floor in the World History section, and laying eyes on photographs of my father’s nation, of his people, for the first time I can remember.  I felt the ache in my chest as I had when I saw a Benin Bronze in an archaeological text, and how the shape of her head is just like mine.  Just like my son’s.  Just like my father’s.

Nigeria is not my country.  I am Canadian, as are my children.  Multiculturalism is official policy, here, and minority rights are constitutionally entrenched.  It doesn’t mean there is no racism.  There is racism in Canada.  It doesn’t mean there is ethnic, cultural, or gender equality.  We still have a long way to go.  It doesn’t mean we are more culturally aware, or above ethno-cultural derision, or a true mosaic of the world’s diversity.  What it does mean is that a biracial woman born out of the 1970’s wave of West African immigration can walk into a public library and pick up a magazine about a faraway place representing an integral piece of who she has become.

It means that I can sit with my daughter and show her a luminous reflection of who we are, and talk about going to visit, one day.

(This was originally posted at The Valentine 4 blog.)

Smiling Baby

21 Jun

I am Chinese and my husband is Lebanese-French. We live in Chengdu, China with our 7-month-old daughter Mina.

When she was born I chose to stop working and be a SAHM (Stay At Home Mom), because I have a few SAHM friends around me, they take great care in raising their children and they turned out wonderful.

I don’t want to miss any part of Mina’s childhood. There are not many full-time housewives in China though. The liberation of women was so thorough during Chairman Mao’s era that it was such a glory for women to work that no educated women would dare stay at home.

“We didn’t send you to university knowing you’d end up a housewife!” My parents will never understand my decision.

I decided not to ask my parents to live with us as everybody in China does after the birth of a baby, so I could have private time with my husband. Here, we believe baby is the most important thing in a family, which means after a baby is born, the entire family gathers around the new parents and baby to help. It is common to have the grandparents, usually from the mother’s side, staying with the couple for 1 year or even longer.

I also decided to breastfeed Mina after reading some English pregnancy books. The breastfeeding rate in China is low, partly because the advertising and promotion of formula is strong, and most women return to work 4 months after giving birth. Luckily, I have 2 friends who are breastfeeding their babies. They encourage me and have armed me from head to toe with breastfeeding equipment, books, and they have shared their experiences with me.

I even tried to minimize the help I needed. It is not expensive to have domestic help in China. Hiring an ayi (nanny in Chinese) to help with the baby and housework is easy and normal. But I thought that it would be uncomfortable to have another person walking around the house all the time and I was sure I’d be able to handle a baby myself.

And then…..I was exhausted to death the 1st  two months after Mina was born! I struggled with breastfeeding, there was no milk, there was too much milk; Mina had strong reflux, we had to hold her upright for 20 minutes after each feed; I didn’t know how to make her sleep: I rocked her, I fed her, I strolled her. She cried and cried.

Liu Yan and Mina

Luckily my mom insisted to help me with the cooking, so when my husband went to work, I didn’t have to starve.

And forget about the quality time I thought I’d have with my husband. If I don’t yell at him, it’s “quality time”. We were exhausted to a point (with me panicking all the time) that I was considering a 24-hour nanny.

Well, things got easier as time went by. The annoying reflux was gone after 2-months, Mina gradually developed her routine and started to interact with us. My milk supply regulated and I am enjoying being a mom more and more.

Today, I am thankful to my daughter for coming to my life. She has allowed me the privilege to love devotedly and unconditionally. And what a wonderful feeling that is!

Without her, these 7 months would have been like any other 7 months, quickly forgotten in the currency of time. She takes me back to the starting status of life, getting up at sunrise, sleeping at sunset, observing and learning about “new” objects. I am so happy that I took the time to stay with her, quietly watching her grow up.

Mina is turning out to be a very happy baby, active and playful. She smiles all the time. She is the center of attention when we walk around the neighborhood, as all passers-by marvel at the Smiling Baby.

I don’t know whether it’s just her nature or from my mothering, perhaps partly both. But that doesn’t matter. This mother is very proud. And all the struggles seem a distant dream, well, until she wakes up at 3 o’clock in the morning.

——————–

Liu Yan, contributing author at Multicultural Mothering, is 30 years old, born in Leshan, China. She used to Work as an English teacher, newspaper editor and translator. Now she is learning to be the mother to her daughter of Chinese / Lebanese blood with French Culture in the crazy fog of Chinese modernization.

Colour-Agnostic

21 Jun

My 7-year-old children aren’t colour-blind. They are, however, race-blind.

The other day, my daughters asked to watch the video of Madonna’s performance of the song Vogue from the 1990 MTV awards. I’m all about making sure my kids are well-versed in the pop music of 1980s. I mentioned to them that the video was from my childhood, which prompted M to ask whether Madonna was a mommy. I looked up the answer and informed my daughters that the superstar has two daughters and two sons. Two of her children were adopted (from Malawi) and two were biological. We looked at photos, and I noticed that the younger son and daughter had dark skin while the older kids were fair skinned. J offered up that she thought that the daughters had come from Madonna’s belly and that the sons were adopted. Clearly, skin colour played no role whatever in J’s concept of how to differentiate a biological child from an adopted one.

M and J’s drawings of our family and friends reflect our differences in pigmentation. They describe their own skin colour as peach and call mine brown. They refer to their paternal grandmother as being pink. Their friend Olivia is dark brown. If they’re trying to distinguish two friends with the same first name and don’t know their last names, they’ll resort to skin colour as often as hair colour or gender or height to describe them.

J's art indicates that she and I share the trait of having antennae instead of hair. She also correctly perceives my skin as being darker than hers.

J’s art indicates that she and I share the trait of having antennae instead of hair. She also correctly perceives my skin as being darker than hers.

J and M are themselves multi-racial, with two Bangladeshi British grandparents, one White (pink) American grandmother and one Mexican American grandfather. We live in a very diverse area of Central Texas, and at least two of their closest friends have Black fathers and White mothers.

J and M with their multi-coloured grandmothers, grandfather and parents.

J and M with their multi-coloured grandmothers, grandfather and parents.

Perhaps this post doesn’t even belong here. This blog is a discussion of multiculturalism. My point is that my girls don’t look at people through the same prism that I do, or that the world has for time immemorial. This post is about the erasure of the cultural assumptions that accompany race and ethnicity. My children have devised for themselves a singular colour-agnostic culture, rather than the complex of multiple cultures I perceive myself to be part of.

I think, though, it’s a huge stride towards truly being able to embrace multiple cultures in their full richness. Our children can judge cultural differences on their merits. Unlike the generations that came before, my daughters and their peers explore each others’ cultures without biases inherent in a pigmentation-based categorization of people.

Jet-lag with Twins

5 Jun

We are back in Samui, un-doing our 11 hour time adjustment to two weeks in NYC. Of course, it was only in the last 3 days there, that we made it out to a 10 am museum opening, and didn’t have angry hotel guests complaining about the, “two bratty kids screaming in the hallways in the middle of the night.” Central Park at 6 am became our hang-out as well as The Disney Store at Times Square. And not a person looked at me twice for pushing a double stroller down 7th Avenue at 1 am. In fact, there were lots of other little kids at the store dressing up as Rapunzel and Ariel waving their wands at the magic mirrors.

The first few days adjusting to a 180 degree shift in time means that at least one of the four of us is asleep during all 24 hours of the day. What might be naps are a little longer than usual. “Sleeps” are a bit shorter than a typical full night. While one twin is having a nap, the other is playing then falls asleep for the “night”. And then the napping twin wakes up, is ready to snack, play, have dinner, then sleep for the “night.”  Soon after, the other wakes up for the “day.” One of us adjusts to Paris time. The other stays at New York time. Phew, we’re finally all back in Samui!

Here’s a post I wrote a year-and-a-half ago about some jet-lag experiences of our family trip from China to Canada.

Jet-lagged in Montreal

It’s early September, 3 am, in downtown Montreal. The night-streets abound with young people, bar-hopping, club-hopping, bunny-hopping; many strange things happen during Frosh, the first week at university. Teenagers go out in teams to discover the city, and each other.

This year we are part of the drunken masses, 10 years, OK, well over 10 years after we were freshmen here. But this time with a twist. We’re with our almost 2-year-old twins. The thing is, 3pm in Chengdu, is 3am in Montreal, and like most toddlers, Leila and Rahul need to exhaust their post afternoon-nap energy surplus.

I clearly remember three o’clocks decision time: coffee, pizza, or shawarma? Home or an afterhour’s club? The children could do with an afternoon snack. We head to my favorite 24 hour café on Park and Milton, bang in the student Ghetto.

We stroll past the smokers on the terrace, and push through the café’s narrow, double doors. You’ve got to get through one, and then another door. It’s when you have a double stroller that you notice these things. We sit next to a man with dreadlocks, cup of coffee in his hands; working on his laptop, and studying through massive text books. He smiles.

I ask for 2 hot-chocolates and an opinion of the café’s least-sweet chocolate cake. A man with the Second Cup logo embroidered in gold on his black t-shirt grins. “It’s chocolate. It’s all sweet,” he replies in his tall, blond, Russian accent. I get a bagel and cream cheese. Leila and Rahul can’t sit still. No surprise. We are fresh off a 30 – hour trip, and a full day at home. They pull on the leaves of a large plant, run around leaving a trail of crumbs. I clean up behind them.

Three young guys in smart, blue jeans, and preppy t-shirts, gelled hair and all, peer into the café windows. One is holding a red rose; he’s serenading a couple of young women who’ve just walked into the café. The two girls in high heels and tight, short skirts are not amused. Leila and Rahul watch intently.

It’s now or never. We collect our stuff. I go to the washroom with Leila. A homeless man leans against a graffiti’ed wall, waiting his turn. We are back in the real Montreal sharing common spaces with all. A female student walks out of the Ladies; her look of disbelief says it all:

Are you out of your mind? I should call Social Services on you.

I smile, walk into the booth with Leila. Change her diaper. Repeat the process with Rahul, pee myself, and we head out. If only she knew.

Rahul and Leila insist on walking back. Of course that means they explore every stone, leaf, and empty beer bottle along the way. Despite our pace, we pass the 3 guys from outside the café, there’s a waft of alcohol in the air, rose still in hand. They’re arguing about something.

“Shouldn’t they be in bed by now?” one of them slurs.

My thought: Shouldn’t you?

With Leila on my shoulders, Rahul on Maher’s, we enter McGill University through the Milton gates, all very familiar to us. The crickets are doing their thing; the stars theirs. At first sight of the football field, the children throw themselves head-first off our shoulders. They pick up some wet maple leaves and run around the field like crazy kids. Moments later, we’re all running.

Amidst our excitement, we almost miss a couple walking by: a man tightly holding a woman in an elegant green dress with matching heels. She’s wearing her partner’s black jacket. There are uncomfortable glances. The woman leans even closer into her man, and whispers something. Well, it is 4:30 am, and we’re on campus playing with our toddlers. Maher suggests that we paint a “Jet-lagged,”sign on the stroller. We both laugh.

While Maher and Leila are still running around, I introduce Rahul to James McGill. Rahul manages a quick wave and a forced hi. The statue of Mr. McGill, small as it is, can be scary at this time of night. While I pick Rahul up, I notice a security guard watching the 4 of us intently. He’s standing upright, muscles flexed under his all-black outfit. He fidgets with his flashlight as he waves it around. We all meet at the stroller and decide to head home.

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Just outside the gates, Leila asks for milk. I prepare it quickly. Then Rahul says “num num.” Think fast. It’s lively at Amir, the Lebanese sandwich joint on Maissoneuve and Cresecnt. I wait outside with Leila who is fast asleep by now. Maher and Rahul order some food.

A skinny woman, with dark circles around her protruding eyes sticks her palm out. She asks for change in a hoarse voice. The wind blows through her stringy, brown hair.

She looks defeated; she’s one of the city’s many junkies.

A young man who must have spent his night clubbing on Crescent Street, motions her through the large open windows, to wait. He puts what’s left of his fries, pita bread, and chicken into a brown paper bag, and hands it to her. She wolfs it down.

A moment later, Rahul has his first taste of a chicken shawarma sandwich, and of potato squares sautéed in garlic and coriander. The hummus makes him scrunch up his face.

“Too much garlic?” I ask.

“Garlic,” Rahul repeats.

Over the next few days, many things taste like garlic.

As we climb the hill, close to home, Rahul falls asleep.

It’s 6:15, I can still catch the Mysore class at the Ashtanga Yoga studio a few blocks away.

My body is warm and flexible from the night out; my mind tired and ready for sleep. The yogis around me are fresh, ready for the day to begin.

—————-

Natasha: I am mum of 3-year-old twins Leila and Rahul, recently moved to Koh Samui, Thailand after 7 years in China. Just started teaching yoga part-time again.  My first class back last week, after NYC, was 4 hours after I got off the plane. I didn’t believe I’d make it through my heavy eyes!

Catch more of our stories at Our Little Yogis