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What about the Children?

23 Jun

What is happening in Greece right now is a real tragedy.

People often ask me to talk about the country I was born in nearly 33 years ago, and then left in 2004. My sister, my father and my friends tell me how they try to survive, how they no longer believe in the future, and how it is hard to explain what is going on to their children.

The other day, my friend’s 7 year old daughter was waiting for him when he came back from the bank, “What did the bank say daddy? Are we going to lose our house?”

My father fell into depression when he realized that although he’s been working since he was 15 years old to build his own business, he’s lost everything. He can’t pass on anything to his children and he can’t help my younger sister and brother, who still need his support.

The despair has brutal consequences for some.

In June, the Minister of Health presented a report  to the Greek parliament revealing that the suicide rate in Greece increased by 40% in the first half of 2012.

The Greek Association Klimaka opened a hotline for suicide prevention. They receive more than 100 calls daily, instead of the 10 before the crisis.

And then there are those who set themselves on fire.

There are also those families who, unable to send their children to school, or even feed them, have no choice but to place them in foster homes, and wait. For better days.

A friend who works at the SOS Children’s Village in Athens confirmed that children are fainting at schools for not eating. Physical education teachers prefer to cancel classes fearing that their students will pass out. Parent Associations are organizing and ensuring food distribution for their children themselves. “Illegal” markets are improvised behind toll stations and fairs. Places where families can find free food.

More and more people are feeding their families by picking garbage bins at night. Unemployment  is increasing constantly, hitting new records this year: 21% (54% in the 15-24 age group).

It is now difficult to be treated in Greece, hospitals are full. For a common cold, a father prefers to take his child to the emergency department at a public hospital where he will pay 5 Euros for consultation, rather than to a pediatrician who will charge up to 50.

Doctors of the World are asking for donations on television to help the poor.

Yes, the country is on the verge of an explosion. And how could it be otherwise? The obsession of draconian austerity plans  have plunged the country into its fifth year of recession. How can one live on 500 euros per month when rent alone is 300 euros?

“Did you hear about Ms Lagarde’s comments?” I asked a 36 year old friend who has been working crazy hours as an independent counselor and had to move back to her parents house. “Yes, I’ve heard, frankly I don’t give a shit anymore about what those people say. I haven’t been paid for the last 7 months and like most people here, I just hope they won’t cut my electricity so at the very least, I can keep on working from home. I don’t have enough money to put gas in my car.”

In a recent interview in the Guardian, the Head of IMF Christine Lagarde was asked of what lies ahead for the children of Greece: “Well, their parents are responsible, right? So parents have to pay their taxes” she said. She also admitted  having “more sympathy for poor African children than Greeks suffering under the country’s economic problems and austerity measures.”

This is certainly shocking rhetoric but symptomatic of how the world is looking at Greece. For the most part the media and governments are looking at the debt, the Euro, the market consequence of the default. They are not looking at the people, the children, and their real life struggles.

Born in Greece, I grew up in a bilingual French / Greek environment. I lived between Greece, Africa and France. My husband, “I”, French of Lebanese and Syrian origin is also multilingual: French/English/Arabic, and has lived in France, Africa and Canada. Our little girl “N” was born in China in 2011.


14 Jun

In April my daughter and I went to Greece to visit family and friends. I spoke to them in Greek but I continued to talk to my daughter in French, switching between the two. It was the first time she was exposed to this language as much. I have tried to speak to her in Greek but as I wrote in my post, Only French, I’ve never managed to do it properly. French had taken over for good.

On the third day at my father’s house, she repeated a few simple words like nai (yes), pame (let’s go), and papaki (duck). She showed interest in the language, and by time we left she was saying another 5-6 words clearly.As we were leaving Greece I promised myself I would introduce more Greek to her, read Greek books more often, and listen to more Greek music. I was highly motivated.

Only a few days after we arrived in China I took out one of the Greek books I used to read to her before our trip and I asked her, “Do you want to read this one?” She looked at the book and answered distinctly:


 I wasn’t expecting this. At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but after reading that book, I picked a French one and asked her the same question, “Do you want to read this one now?” She simply nodded her head,  her usual way of saying yes. I took the Greek book once again, and asked the same question.

Again, she said, “nai”.

I was amazed. She clearly associated this particular book with Greek.

A couple of days ago, I needed to call a friend in Greece.
I usually wait until my daughter is asleep before I call him. Like most people in Greece right now, he’s going through a lot, and I want to really listen and focus on the conversation.

 I had to call him early for the update on his situation. I talked to him for less than a minute when I tensed up. Things are looking bad for him. When our conversation was over, I finally turned toward my daughter to try to understand what she wanted from me. Although I was focused on the conversation I could feel her following me around, repeating, “ek, ek, ek.”

She was holding the Greek book in her hands.

It had been almost a month since I read it to her or even since I spoke Greek in front of her. She wanted me to read it to her right then.

Ek for Grec; for Greek.

My daughter is associating the sounds of the Greek language to a book I read to her. It’s a sentimental association.
That’s how she has “organized” and labeled Greek in her mind.

How do your bilingual / multilingual children organize their languages and thoughts?
Is it only according to the person they are talking to, or are there other associations?


Born in Greece, I grew up in a bilingual French / Greek environment. I lived between Greece, Africa and France. My husband, “I”, French of Lebanese and Syrian origin is also multilingual: French/English/Arabic, and has lived in France, Africa and Canada. Our little girl “N” was born in China in 2011.

Permission to Give Birth – Part 2

31 Jan

At my 37 week check up, my doctor told me, “Your water is low. Your hips are wide. I think I am going to see you before your 38th week. You are going to give birth.” We walked out of her office feeling skeptical. This lady was strange  sometimes..

I had a generally good feeling about her when I met her. I felt I could trust her. She was gentle and kind, and at the same time, extremely professional and precise in her moves. My first visits to her office were so positive that I decided to give birth in China instead of going back home.

So why was I doubting her diagnostic now? 

 An American nurse who we had met during prenatal classes told us she didn’t understand why my doctor was saying that.

“Your water level is normal, your baby’s weight is normal. Nothing indicates that you are going to give birth early.”

So when 4 days later, at 11pm my water broke, my first thought went to my doctor. How could she have known? Was she that good? Simply luck?  But no, it couldn’t have been luck. Her smile seemed confident the day she predicted the birth date.

I decided to stay home, do my breathing exercises, relax and try to sleep in my own bed.

We checked in at 6 am. In the admission room, I reminded the nurse that I wanted a “normal check up”. Chinese nurses tend to prefer to measure the opening of the cervix anally. How they can tell the opening this way is still a mystery to me.

The verdict was….1cm. ” In 7 hours? This is going to take forever!!!!!!!”  I tried to hide my disappointment and sleep a little between contractions. Nurses were coming and going quietly. My eyes were shut but I could feel warm hands massaging my lower back along with comforting words in relaxing tones that I couldn’t always understand.

Two hours later, they checked me again .  3 cm. Then one nurse said, “We are going down.” I wanted to ask why. I was comfortable in my room. I didn’t want to move, but I didn’t have the time to say anything before a painful contraction left me with my mouth open. By the time we arrived to the upper floor I was screaming and begging for an epidural.

In the preparation room a nurse checked me. Again. Between 2 screams I dared to ask, “How many centimeters?”

She said “sì” (4 in chinese).

I signed the number four with my fingers, “Four? That’s it?” (I knew I couldn’t have the epidural too soon and wondered how long I was going to endure this pain before I could have some relief.)

“No, not sì (4), shí (10)!!!!” and she pushed me into the delivery room.

I barely had the time to ask myself if I was delirious from the pain or if she just had said  that I went from 3 to 10 cm in less than a hour?

Suddenly I saw someone dressed in blue rushing into the room, It was my husband. I didn’t recognize him. His hair and mouth were covered. I could only see his eyes wide open with excitement (or was it panic?),”The doctor came back 5 minutes after I had signed the papers for the epidural you asked for, he said it’s too late, you are going to give birth NOW.”

Ten minutes later, my baby girl was born.

The umbilical cord was cut within seconds; the baby was handed.. to the nurses.

As I watched my baby being wrapped in a soft fabric and then handed to my husband, I realised I had forgotten to ask for the basic thing: I wanted to hold my baby right away!

I realize now that this was not a typical birth. I am lucky to have delivered so fast without any drugs, have a doctor who listened to my strange/foreign requests in a country were c-sections and formula rules.

You can read about other birth stories in China here.

A few interesting parts:

 Women believe that they will run the risk of fewer complications with a standard surgical procedure than with a natural birth. However, according to the vast majority of medical opinion, a c-section is much more dangerous, with the death rate approximately 3x higher. Chinese women are aware of this, but they still believe that a c-section is safer, because a natural birth can lead to unanticipated complications that the doctor might not be able to handle. Basically, lack of faith in the hospitals and the doctors leads women in Chengdu (and perhaps other parts of China and the world) to choose the known path of surgery over the unknown path of vaginal birth.”

If I am going to have a scar no matter what, said one woman. I would rather have it on my belly than anywhere else.

Also, women believe that they cannot give birth, because Chinese women are naturally more frail and less able to cope with the trauma and pain of childbirth than Western women. 

Other reasons included choosing an auspicious day for the childs birth, the fact that c-section mamas have their own recovery room in the hospital and work. It is not uncommon for Chinese women to visit a fortune-teller and plan their birth around their prediction of what will be best for the child. In China, August 31 and the week before a holiday are big days for c-sections. Any child born after September 1 is technically one year behind in school and women fear that doctors will be unavailable during the holidays.”

Read “Permission to Give Birth-Part 1”

N. at 3 months with the nurse that held her first..

N. at 3 months with my doctor


Pascaline is greek, she lives in China since 2008 with her french/lebanese husband I. In 2011 she gave birth to N. at Angels hospital in Chengdu.

Permission to Give Birth – part 1

25 Jan

The first thing a Chinese woman has to do when she discovers she’s pregnant is to get a “Permission to Give Birth” documentTo get it she has to apply for it – in a bureau and she has to take her marriage certificate. It is illegal for a nonmarried couple to have a baby. If she doesn’t get the permission to give birth, she can’t deliver in a hospital. This also means  that her child won’t be able to have identity papers, go to school, work, travel, or even live in another city.He will be marginalized; socially unaccepted. 

When I found out I was pregnant, I was extremely happy. I rushed to see my very close friend and neighbor to share my excitement.  The second thing was to see a doctor,who could confirm the pregnancy with a blood test.

The first question my Chinese doctor asked was, Do you want to keep this baby?” I said, “Of course.”

The only other questions she asked were the father’s name, my date of birth, and after a quick calculation, she asked me to come back in 2 weeks for the first ultrasound.

In the meantime she asked me to do the following:

– Not to use my computer

– Not to use my cell phone

Not to eat raw food

– To watch as little TV as necessary

– To drink fortified milk powder every day

– To stay away from cats and dogs

– To eat a lot of fruit

– To eat a lot of meat

Since my pregnancy was going well my doctor decided not to overdo it with excessive blood and urine tests, just the regular ultrasound  schedule.

As foreigners, we were allowed to know the gender of our child. Because of China’s one child policy, doctors are not allowed to reveal the gender of a foetus while it is still in the womb, but this is slowly changing in the cities because some doctors consider they are not dealing with farmers anymore who would get rid of the baby if it’s a girl. If the doctors are caught they can have their practice removed and face very high fines.

At our first 3D ultrasound, the nurse asked us if we wanted a DVD of the scans. We were excited. We said yes. She then informed us that they had a viewing roomwhere all our friends and family could watch the DVD’s of each ultrasound. That was a bit extreme, so we said no. But the truth is that when we got the videos, we sent them to our families by email.

At the second ultrasound, the same nurse screamed, “Aiiiiiiiiiiii, so cute! But look at the HUGE nose!!”

I didn’t understand, the nose looked normal. Even tiny. But then I was the mother after all.

Was my baby a monster?

They see babies every day. They must know better than me. Then she called another nurse who was walking by and told her, laughing,Look, look at this baby’s nose!

A very close Chinese friend who was present, noticed that I was on the verge of crying. She sweetly said,Don’t worry. We Chinese have very flat noses, so for us this is a big nose. But we consider big noses are good. To have a bump on your nose is even considered good luck.”

It made me feel a tiny bit better.

But it was the same story at every single ultrasound over the following 5 months.

Scan. “Heart ok”.

Scan scan. Brain ok”

Scan scan scan. ” Ooooooh look, look, look. A big nose. There’s laughing, calling out to the other nurses, and pointing at the baby’s nose.

At my 7 month check up, I requested a private appointment with the doctor to discuss my birth plan. I was a bit afraid of the cultural differences and wanted to talk about the  Chinese procedures. I asked for it because the visits to the doctor here are always made with an open door. Anyone can come in, ask a question, sit and stare at you until you are done. She simply said “no need for a private appointment” and closed the door. For the first time I saw her relax.

Shput down her pen, and with a smile said: “So what do you want to discuss?”

MeCan my husband be present at the birth?

Doctor: Usually family members are not allowed in because in China, hundreds of people would crowd into the room. I think it’s in the mother’s best interest to be able to focus. But if your husband manages to stay calm, he can be present.

Me: Unless there is a medical problem, I want to have a natural birth.

Doctor: Fantastic we encourage that! Currently at ourhospital we have only 40% rate of natural birth.The management has asked us to increase this number.

Me: If possible, I don’t want any drugs.

The doctor smiles: Ok, I will give them to you only if you ask.

Me: I want my baby with me at all times and I’mplanning to breastfeed exclusively. I don’t want anyone to give water or formula to my baby.

Doctor: your baby will be with you all the time. Nobody else will feed her unless there is a medical problem.

I am amazed. So far she says exactly what I want to hear.

Me: Can you wait until the umbilical cord stops pulsating before you cut it? In Europe we believe that it reduces the risk of jaundice.

 Doctor (suddenly more serious)We believe the opposite. The more you allow the baby to take blood from the placenta once it’s born, the more problems you have.

 MeBut can you please leave it if we ask you to?

Doctor: I’m sorry. I can’t do that. This is a medical issue. I am responsible for the delivery.

Then she asked “What do you want to do with the placenta?” I was caught off guard.

“What do you mean?”

Well, in China, some people want to take it home,she said, almost whispering.

That’s when I remembered someone had mentioned to me that some people here cook the placenta and eat it. Apparently it is extremely good for you.

No, no I don’t want it. I said in disgust.

Well you can rest assured, in this hospital we destroy it after birth.


For a second there, I had a doubt. This is country where  black markets are bigger than legal markets. I had to focus on answering the next question in order to forget the image of people sitting around a table eating my placenta.

Pascaline is greek, she lives in China since 2008 with her french/lebanese husband I. In 2011 she gave birth to N. at Angels hospital in Chengdu. This is the first part of the series “Permission to give birth”.


17 Dec

How  can babies can be brought up in different environments is the idea behind the documentary “Babies” by Alan Chabat and Thomas Balmès.

Follow 4 babies simultaneously, day after day for one year, as they grow up in different countries and cultures: Mari (Japan), Bayarjargal (Mongolia), Hattie (USA) and Ponihao ( Namibia).

There is no voice -over on this documentary, which points out something I strongly believe in: that there  is  no right or wrong way of parenting; when it’s done with love and care. The American father takes a shower with his daughter, the Mongolian mother spits water over her baby’s body to rinse him off, and the Namibian mother wipes her baby’s butt on her knee, and then removes the poop on it with a piece of corn.

The little Namibian and Mongolian babies play naked in the mud, take a bath with a goat, sleep next to a chicken, and put their hands in a dog’s mouth, just to explore it. They reminded me of my childhood in Africa, my sisters and I were spending our days outside, climbing trees, chasing little snakes, playing with colorful flowers and plants. We were completely free. These babies spend their days outside too playing with whatever is around them, quite the opposite of the little American and Japanese girls with their big toys, books, playgroups, sophisticated carriers and strollers (who reminded me of my baby growing up in China, yet she has her playgoup on Monday, baby group on Wednesday, music activities on Thursday,  sophisticated stroller & toys…)

In general, I loved all these babies because they reminded me of the world we live in and how sanitized it is. Despite my “multicultural” environment,everything is clean, in order, and secure around me .

This documentary raises questions but allows you to find your own answers through beautiful images and little events that will warm up your hearts from the first smile to the first step.













Only French

19 Nov

By Pascaline: Born in Greece, I grew up in a bilingual French / Greek environment. I lived between Greece, Africa and France. My husband, “I”, French of Lebanese and Syrian origin is also multilingual: French/English/Arabic, and has lived in France, Africa and Canada. We are both what some people call, “Third culture kids,” our parents being expats for most of our childhood. In 2008 when we decided to move to China, we became expats ourselves.

In January 2011, I gave birth to a baby girl, N.


“What languages do you talk to your baby?” I am often asked after introducing our family. Immediately, I feel awkward,”We speak French.”

“Only French?” is the standard reply.

I feel guilty.

My husband and I speak 3 languages fluently. We both speak French at home. I speak Greek with my family; he speaks Arabic with his. We speak English with our friends; we live in China, so Chinese is always around.

So, “Only French?” makes me feel really guilty.

Am I a denying my daughter precious knowledge?

Long gone is the time language specialists believed that having more than one language around babies “pollutes” their abilities and results in poor command of the language. Complaints or disadvantages ranged from: the bilingual child speaks later and less than others of the same age, he will have difficulty in his language development, and he will never be able to speak one language properly.

Today the (same?) specialists say that bilingual children are more creative, more open and flexible than others. Being bilingual is to be equally comfortable in both languages and have references in two cultures allowing to understand and accept differences.

So many advantages, so why is it so hard? Let’s be honest, to raise a child with two or more languages requires hard work. It’s easy to give in to pressure from the majority language – French for us – and forget the minority languages (Greek and Arabic). Both my husband and I learned our second languages in an unusual way.

My husband learned basic Arabic from listening to his mother – since he was a baby – talking to her friends on the phone or over cups of coffee. At first, he had a basic understanding, and then by interacting with people who speak Arabic, his ability to understand and speak has developed more naturally.

I was bilingual until the age of 7; my mother spoke Greek to us. When she passed away however, French became the only language at home. I completely forgot Greek. At the age of 12, we moved to Greece and I had to take Greek classes – beginner’s level. Despite that, I discovered that it was easier for me to learn Greek compared to my French classmates, I didn’t remember a single word from my childhood, but I was able to speak and write faster than the others, and I didn’t have a French accent!

I want to talk to my daughter in Greek. I want her to learn about Greek culture (and no it’s not only about the lousy financial situation, riots and paying of taxes for many generations). I want to find those sweet Greek words and I want to sing those Greek lullabies from my childhood. Later, it will be up to her to choose: to either develop it, or to drop it. But at least I would have given her the basis for a good start.

A close friend told me that in order to maintain the minority language to a satisfactory level, we have to offer the child a rich and stimulating environment in that language – books, songs, friends.

I bought Greek children’s books, but I always pick the French and English ones. The animals in the Greek books look at me strangely.

When I play lullabies for my daughter, even the Spanish songs sound better; the Greek ones are awkward.

Greek family and friends? As most people living away from their countries, we see them once a year, not long enough for our daughter to learn anything. And where we live now, we speak English with our friends.

So we have the books and the songs and a few friends, but with a common family language (French) and a social language (English), where can poor little Greek fit in? She hears a lot of French, some English, and some Chinese, but we speak only French to her.

And I still feel guilty.

Greek just doesn’t come naturally.

How did you introduce a minority language to your kids? How did you deal with it?

Related article – Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language