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Values Made Easy

5 Feb

Multicultural or Multiconfused? Speaking for myself of course, I’ve never had to pause so long or think this hard about a simple question. “So where are you from?”

My response, “Ummm well, I’m Indian but have lived in the United States for most of my adult life, and I’m here now in China”.

My confusion does trickle down to my children A & A who are three and a half, and nine months old, respectively.  I find myself at crossroads several times a day about simplest of mothering issues. I was raised a certain way, I believe, think, and act differently from that, and my style of parenting is still being defined as the needs of my kids change.

I used to be a strong propagator of creative parenting, which spurred from the techniques I would use as a teacher for children with special needs. I would cater my teaching style to individual children and their ways of learning, which involved tons of creativity from me as their teacher. Before I became a mother I often wondered about how fabulous it would be if I had kids of my own. I imagined spontaneously taking my kids to the zoo,  or to museums to teach them about animals, or taking long walks during the fall and collecting leaves of different colors, then going home to make a scrapbook out of them, and a billion other ideas.

But reality sinks in and those ideas remained just ideas. Lunch at 12 every day, and three-hour afternoon naps become the biggest priority of my role as their mother and those spontaneous visits to the zoo and walks become short little trips that were pre-planned and orchestrated for months before they actually took shape.

I have to confess that I am grateful to my state of confusion now because it is that which has introduced them to 3 cultures. And I have to thank my husband’s constant curiosity for change and his power to convince us that this global diversity is very essential in defining and molding our kids’ lives. I love mothering the multicultural way. It has opened a window for me to bring back the creativity I thought was lost.

My children will be different everywhere they go. They’ll have experiences to share that very few kids their age would have had. They will learn languages, see and experience life in a new light.

China and its proximity to India, both physically and culturally has helped me teach values such as sharing and curbing the need for over indulgence in my 3 year old son. We now take those walks more out of necessity than for leisure, and they give me the time and patience to talk to my kids like I have wanted to. I am learning from mothers from all over the world here in Chengdu and it has opened my mind to a large extent.

My recent trip to India allowed me to teach my son the need to give and share.  He, like a typical American born child didn’t grasp the concept of what it feels to not have or to go without.  The concept of sharing was a very abstract one for my son.  I seized the opportunity to help him understand this concept during one of our many cab, auto, and train rides in Mumbai.

For those of you who might be wondering what I am talking about, little kids are often used as tools to bring money to impoverished homes. It is a common sight at almost every traffic light or crowded train compartment across Mumbai. A little child not more than 2 or 3 years old stretches her arms out for money or food or anything that you are willing to share.

When my son saw this for the first time, he looked at me questioningly – a hard situation for me as a parent to explain poverty to him. I told him these kids didn’t have a toy or candy, and they were wondering if he would share his with them.

So at his request we decided that we’d carry a little something with us the next time we traveled. I was taken aback at his gesture of kindness; he picked out his favorite candy and put it in my purse.  He was enthusiastic to pass it out and see how it lit up the little boy’s face at our first traffic light. He was willing to bring his favorite dinosaur toy as we were stepping out to run an errand.

This was the beginning of a big learning experience for him, and me.  He would leave a little bit of his pasta or a few slices of his pizza when we went out to eat at a restaurant just so that he could share it with some little boy or girl he might run into.

Surprisingly, he was more willing to share his favorite toys with his little sister. That was unimaginable just a few weeks prior. I had to step back and watch my son grow up right in front of my own eyes; it was a heart wrenching moment for me.

Different cultures bring diversity to us in amazing ways. My trip to India was life altering. I didn’t anticipate a big life lesson that he’d be learning during this trip. I was hoping for him to get some exposure to his mother tongue and meet family that he’d never met. We won’t forget the looks on the little children’s faces when he handed out those treats to them.

There was no difference between him and those kids; in his mind he was just sharing his stuff with them. He didn’t have a clue about the social or economic differences that existed between them.

I cherish my life here in Chengdu everyday; I am no longer scared about how my kids will adjust to the new place, new environment, and everything else around them that is new. I know they will be just fine and because they will be fine, so will I.

By Renuka Venkataraman – contributing author here at MM.

“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 Daschund 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.”

Relative Isolation

30 Jan

Six months after arriving in Zurich, I finally began working on learning German. The class was run by the local government office and met twice a week. I have studied many languages before and I was looking forward to a little motivation (as an added bonus, the course included free childcare so, for the first time since moving, I felt like I was doing something just for myself). The first class was a hour’s worth of introductions and stumbles. The second class began with the alphabet, and I quickly realized that the pace would be remarkably slow. I simultaneously realized that I was not the target audience. Of the fifteen members of the class, I was the only one who used the Latin alphabet in my native language. The relative isolation I had felt during the previous six months quickly became remarkably clear. While I struggled to meet people outside of my husband’s work and find ways to fill the days with a two-year old, the effort I needed to put in was nothing compared to that of my classmates. I observed an Eritrean couple, a Greek man, a Turkish woman and her husband (who already spoke German but came to make sure she settled in well), a Vietnamese woman who wouldn’t speak a word except to the Chinese woman who had previously lived in Vietnam, two Tibetan women, a young Nepalese man, an Egyptian woman and, finally, a young, pregnant Ethiopian woman. While I didn’t continue with the second session of the course, this final classmate has since become a friend.

Though we didn’t meet socially while the class was in session, we have since been able to get together a couple of times. The first time we met, I was not looking forward to it. I was busy, and I did not want to awkwardly make conversation in our very limited German. We met at the train station. I thought we were going to walk along the lake, but she led me back to her nearby apartment. However, the moment I entered her home, I was awash with familiarity. Due to my time in Africa and Kyrgyzstan, the layout of the home, the generosity of my host and the offer to look at her wedding video all put me at ease. Not only was I comfortable, but I realized that I missed the indescribable feeling present in that home that I don’t find in the homes of my European, Canadian or American friends’ homes. The two of us drank coffee, ate homemade bread and stared at our two baby girls with little conversation. I heard the story of how she came to Switzerland, and considered the immense isolation she must feel- far from home with no community to slide into and no support, especially as a young mother. I was spurred into reflection of the non-compassionate feelings I had earlier in the day, dreading the meet up. My distance from home and feelings of isolation were put into perspective.

Now I try to meet with her every couple of weeks. Our text messages and phone conversations are indecipherable to anyone else, but face to face we communicate well. She has given up on learning German for the time being and is working on improving the bits and pieces she learned of English while in Ethiopia. Our habits, cultures and expectations are quite distinct, but we share a common community of motherhood, and are finding our bonds within it.

Kalley is a mother of two girls. Prior to 2010, she worked as a teacher; currently the girls are her number one job. She and her family live near Zurich, Switzerland. Kalley also has an inconsistently updated cooking blog, Culinary Adventures.

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”.

You Are My Sunshine

16 Jan

I sit in the darkness, my son nursing in my lap, my daughter lying beside me under a pile of warm blankets, holding my hand. The room is still as I sing the familiar lullaby lyrics I sing every night.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy, when skies are grey…

I treasure these words. How true they are, I think to myself, as I stroke my daughter’s silky cheeks and listen to my son’s soft, snurfling breathing against my sweater.

Anyone who has visited or lived in Chengdu knows that the skies here are grey—simply grey, or yellowish-grey, or grayish-grey, or whitish-grey. On a very rare occasion, they might even be described as bluish-grey, even sunny-ish-grey if you’re really, really lucky. But they are always and forever grey. It’s fog, it’s smoke, it’s coal particulate, it’s clouds…whatever the case, it’s grey.

My son has never seen his shadow, and on bright-ish days when the obscured sun “shines” in the midday sky, my daughter excitedly points and says, “Mommy, look! There’s the moon!” That’s exactly what it looks like, too.

It’s not easy living under a thick, grey sky…far from home, far from friends and family, far from like-minded mothers and parks and open spaces that stretch majestically beneath a clear blue sky. It’s not easy struggling day after day with a colossal language barrier and the constant challenges that come with living in a foreign culture. The skies can feel very grey indeed.

I hold my glass under the water dispenser and make frog sounds—gung, gung, gung, gung—to imitate the sound of the air bubbles as the water flows into my glass. My son, who is sitting on my hip, starts giggling, and before long the two of us are laughing ourselves silly.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you…

We head outside, and my son spots the gate guard at the entrance to our apartment complex. He is an older gentleman in a black police uniform, small in stature, with bright, mischievous eyes and a wide smile. His eyes twinkle when he sees us, and he growls a menacing growl; their daily game of chase begins. My son hides behind my legs, peeking out and squealing with delight. Soon all of us are laughing.

At the market, on the way home from preschool, by the fish pond, at the park, on the sidewalk, my children make friends. No matter that they speak only a handful of Chinese words. Everywhere they go people greet them, smile at them, offer them gifts, and laugh with warmth and friendliness. Barriers dissolve, hearts open. We connect with the most unlikely souls—construction workers, street sweepers, taxi drivers, fruit sellers, grandparents, noodle-makers, cashiers. The bonds are fleeting, but each is genuine and warm-hearted.

I often hear that children are the true ambassadors of peace in the world. I can completely see why. I am so grateful to tag along behind these two beautiful kids, their senses so vibrant and clear, their spirits ever buoyant, their hearts and minds so wide open. Without them, my feelings of isolation here in China would be so much more intense, and the grey skies above me would be so much more oppressive. Thanks to them, my days are flooded with the brightest, warmest sunshine.

Please don’t take my sunshine away.

 

For the whole song (I only ever sing the first verse), visit http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/games/songs/childrens/sunshinemid.htm

——————
Heidi Nevin, who is not normally this sentimental, resides in Chengdu, China with her Tibetan husband and two young kids, ages 4 and 1.

Culture Shock

31 Dec

The day after returning to Colorado from Switzerland for the first time since moving there I took my parent’s car out to the grocery store. In that quick drive I instantly noticed how wide the roads were, and had to catch myself from using stop signs as yield signs. Once in the store, a $1.99 bundle of asparagus caught my eye- both for the price and the seasonality (asparagus in December?). However, after these small realizations, I haven’t felt the culture shock I have usually experience before when returning from overseas.

On the other hand, every time my three-year old realized someone was speaking English she pointed it out. For the first few weeks she would pause and say “He is speaking English” or “They speak the same language as we”. She verbalized these thoughts, and I can only wonder what other differences she has picked up on. This trip is the first time I have heard her express thoughts of culture shock. I think it is due to both her age and the duration of our time away (18 months- nearly half of her life).

Though I experienced culture shock after my first time overseas (a semester in Kenya when I was 20), the process was first explained to me while in Peace Corps training in Kyrgyzstan a few years later. Like most people, I assumed that culture shock occurred while in a foreign country, away from home. However, experience, conversation and the Peace Corps explanation showed that culture shock happens just as much, if not more, when returning home. A typical cycle looks like a W with honeymoon, frustration, integration and acclimatization stages in the foreign country and a repeat of the same stages in the home country. For those of us living overseas, I can only imagine this W turning into a continuous zig-zag!

My daughters will grow up as “third culture kids”. I know we will always have a home base in Colorado, even as we (potentially) move from one overseas job to another. But what will be their experience with culture shock? Will they adjust from one new place to another with more ease than my husband and I? Will they be more or less perceptive of the differences between places and people? Will they have an easier time adjusting to Colorado if we continue to live in European countries? How will their abilities to adjust change with age? And finally how will this ride impact their living choices once they are adults?

Kalley is a mother of two girls. Prior to 2010, she worked as a teacher; currently the girls are her number one job. She and her family live near Zurich, Switzerland. Kalley also has an inconsistently updated cooking blog, Culinary Adventures.

Winter Wonderland with a bit of Salsa

21 Dec

Paty: I was born in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mom and Peruvian dad. I left DR when I was six years old and grew up in many countries around the world, mainly in Latin America but also in Africa and Europe. I guess you can describe me as a ‘Citizen of the world’, ‘Third culture kid’ etc. I speak Spanish and English.

I met Øivind at university in the UK, where we now live. He is Norwegian and grew up in Oslo, speaks English and Norwegian, and can defend himself pretty well in Spanish!

We have a little girl called Mia; she is the apple of our eyes, born in August 2010. I don’t speak Norwegian, but I better get my act together soon otherwise Mia and her dad will have a secret language.
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Winter Wonderland with a bit of Salsa

As we gear up for the festive season I’ve been thinking about the contrast between Ø’s traditions and mine; and about our cultural references surrounding Christmas. How will Mia take in these differences? Mia’s dad is from a Nordic country and I am from an island in the Caribbean, even though I left when I was very young. Most couples take turns on whose family they spend the holidays with; this means adapting to each others’ traditions; but in multicultural couples it is also about adapting to another’s culture.

This year we will spend Christmas in Norway with Ø’s family. It will be Mia’s first Winter Wonderland Christmas experience. Christmas in Norway is very different to Christmas in the Dominican Republic, or in my family’s home.

Ø’s Norwegian Christmas experience = cold and short days, a tranquil environment, a burning fireplace, carol singing, food, presents and a beautiful snow-white outdoor.

My Christmas experience = food, presents, a big family gathering and lots of dancing; and the setting was wherever we found ourselves!

My experience in Norway has always been very nice, though very calm compared to what I am used to. Despite that, it involves a packed schedule: Christmas Eve at my in-laws, Christmas day at Ø’s aunt’s house, and Boxing Day with some close family friends. In between, there are beautiful walks in the forest and by the stunning, frozen Oslo fjord.

At my family home, we celebrate Christmas Eve with a big dinner and the next couple of days are relaxed, meeting other families (if we are in the Dominican Republic) and friends, informally. In the background there is always music.

What traditions will Mia absorb? I realize that of course I cannot choose what things Mia will enjoy the most; we can only expose her to the things that make us happy in the holiday season. Having the Christmas tree up on December 1st marks the start of the festive season for me. For Ø the tree goes up a couple of days before Christmas. I could go down a list of all the things that we grew up with, from celebrating advent, the spiritual meaning of Christmas, Santa or no Santa, to the Three Kings day.

The truth is that I would love for Mia to just take in the best of both worlds – enjoy the traditional picture perfect white Norwegian Christmas with the warmth, and lively togetherness of my family celebrations. White Christmas with a bit of salsa!

Being far away from our families means that during the festive season we travel back to see them, but I guess that as time goes by there comes a point when we will start to create our own traditions in the place we call home, even if this place keeps changing!

How do you combine your family celebrations? And how do you do it if you and your partner grew up celebrating different holidays?

Best wishes wherever you all are during this festive season and Happy New Year!!

Travel with Tots

14 Dec

When my older daughter was 7 weeks old, my husband and I packed her up and flew to China. While checking in at the airport, a woman in front of me cooed and mentioned how she had flown with her daughter at 6 months. I instantly implored her to tell me any tricks she had, to which she responded, “Well, I just had to relax about her grabbing everything and hope she wasn’t going to get sick.” That information was about as far from the advice I was hoping for as it could get! I thanked her, and then went back to mental images of a screaming baby and irate neighbors on the 25 hour trip.

Three years and over 30 flights later (with at least five being transoceanic), I have a whole range of tips for any new mother who might happen to ask. As an expat family, we travel back and forth between Colorado and wherever we are living, as well as holiday trips. During our most recent trip (our youngest first at 6 months), I traveled alone with both girls. While no tip is guaranteed to work, I have found the following to at least sooth my mind and make me feel as if I am doing something.

Birth to six months:

  • When checking in, ask the airline representative if the plane is full. If it isn’t, ask if they can put a hold on the seat next to you.
  • Change diapers right before boarding the plane.
  • Always give something to suck on during take-off and landing.
  • Pack at least one change of clothes for the baby and an extra shirt for adults.
  • Book seats at the rear of the plane. You are closer to standing areas and the noise from the engines both sooths the baby and drowns out the her cries.
  • Most airlines require babies to use an infant seatbelt (attached to the adult’s) whenever the seatbelt light is on. Try to have it on when the baby falls asleep so you don’t have to wake her if it comes on later.
  • Think about booking the bassinette seat, but remember that the bulkhead seats have no under seat storage, the armrests don’t raise and they have huge screens directly above the bassinette on planes without in-seat entertainment.
  • Bring a front carrier in case you need to stand and sway for hours at a time.
  • Give saline nasal drops to keep breathing free in the dry plane environment.
  • Remember one or two favorite (but quiet) toys, but don’t over pack. My babies didn’t need variety when that small.

Six months to one year:

  • Remember the first six tips listed under birth to six months.
  • If using a stroller, always ask if you will be getting it back at the gate. Ours was once sent straight to our destination when we had a four hour layover in the middle!
  • Bring your own food with plenty of small finger foods for entertainment.
  • Bring a large variety of small toys- some new and some favorites. Consider wrapping them individually to add a few extra minutes of entertainment.

One to three years:

  • Again, bring plenty of finger foods, books and toys. Good choices include raisins, lollypops, stickers, coloring books, an AquaDoodle or MagnaDoodle, and anything with buttons, magnets or Velcro. Keep all treats in a non-transparent bag so you can pull them out as you choose instead of as demanded by a bored toddler.
  • Always order the child’s meal as it comes before the others eliminating the need to share tray space.
  • Consider using an i-Pod with favorite tunes as well as kid-friendly headphones that limit the decibel level to protect young ears.
  • For older kids, consider bringing a portable DVD player in case the plane doesn’t have in-seat entertainment. Stock up on old favorites as well as new movies and shows.
  • Think about giving paracetamol/panadol to “take the edge off”.

Above all, RELAX (take homeopathic stress aids if you like)! It is nearly impossible to control whether or not your child screams or sleeps and the screaming will always be harder on you as a parent as you try to sooth. Think about bringing a bag of earplugs to pass out as a kind gesture.

Please add any additional suggestions!

Kalley is a mother of two girls. Prior to 2010, she worked as a teacher; currently the girls are her number one job. She and her family live near Zurich, Switzerland. Kalley also has an inconsistently updated cooking blog, Culinary Adventures.

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.

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“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

Thoughts on Learning 3 Languages at Home by Catherine Walter

19 Nov

Catherine: I’m a mom of twins living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I grew up in NYC and spent most of my formative years there although I was born in Warsaw, Poland. My husband is German. And my identical twin girls, Zoe and Luna, were born in Bangkok, Thailand, live in Vietnam and hold dual citizenship (US & German). Growing up I thought I had it tough being torn between two different worlds, but look at them!

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Growing up as a global citizen may come with its particular set of challenges, such as not knowing a sense of belonging or losing touch with your heritage. But it’s the way of the future. Our economy is more globalized and interdependent than ever before. Just look at how the West is relying on Asia to be the engine of growth during the recession. The West doesn’t polarize the world as in the past. Rising stars in the East such as China, are contributing more than ever to the global economy and our lives. And thanks to technological advances and accessibility, we are linked as never before in human history – through online media. The world is getting smaller. In view of these developments, I believe that our children’s future success will depend on how well they relate to those different from them.

As a parent, I feel that one of the best advantages I can give my girls in life is the ability to communicate fluently in several languages. In our home, we each speak our native language to the girls. My husband speaks German to them in the early mornings, after work and on weekends or holidays. Our Vietnamese nanny and maid speak to them in Vietnamese each day except for Sunday; and I speak to them in my American English, which is the language they are most exposed to.

English is not technically my native language, but it’s the one I speak most fluently and have spoken for most of my life. However, this presents me with a dilemma as I essentially do speak Polish: Shouldn’t I pass that language on to my girls as well? But as I moved to NYC when I was 4 years old, I speak Polish with an American accent at the level of a fifth grader. I don’t speak it like a native anymore.

I keep finding in the research that you should choose one language to speak to your child and stick with it. But I have taken creative license with that, and I read the girls Polish poetry at bedtime. They probably won’t learn to speak it this way, but at least they’ll be exposed to rolling r’s, and the diversity of -sh, -zh and -ch sounds, which are so plentiful in Polish. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the experiment will work.

So now that my girls are 15 months old, are we seeing results yet? Nope. I just got back from the pediatrician. Language was a bit weak on the Denver II test behavior chart. It’s used to track their social, fine motor, language, and gross motor skills development in relation to their age. Compared to the rest of the indicators, they seem to be about 3 months behind on language. They are only really using 3 words consistently so far (2 in English and 1 in German). But I’m not worried.

According to our pediatrician, children brought up in several languages do not learn to speak any later then their peers. I also found this in my research. There is apparently no solid, scientific evidence to suggest a delay in speech. However, I did come across anecdotal evidence among parents who sense that multilingual children begin talking a few months later than monolingual children. In the end, I don’t mind if it takes them a bit longer to begin asking “why?” a million times a day.

And I’m not too bothered about them actually speaking all 3 languages all the time. German is the minority language you could say, as they only hear it from Dad (although research shows that a child needs to be exposed to a language 30% of their waking hours to actively speak it, so it just might be enough!). But as long as they have the capacity to understand German, it will be that much easier to learn later in life.

Even if they don’t end up speaking Vietnamese once we’ve moved to another country, at least they have the capacity for tonal languages. It’s the connectivity of the neurons in the brain that will be stimulated and developed. That is what I’m primarily concerned with; overall brain development. Who knows, it may make them better thinkers and communicators than they would have been otherwise.

I leave you with some food for thought: by some accounts, 80% of communication is non-verbal, what are the implications to multilingual/multicultural children?

Far From Home

19 Nov

By Kalley: I grew up on a cattle ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I couldn’t wait to leave my small home town after graduating from high school and attended university outside of Los Angeles. That transition was perhaps the biggest change I have experienced to date, and I loved every minute of it. After university I served in the US Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, meeting my husband in Kyrgyzstan where he was also a volunteer. We both lived in New Mexico on the Navajo nation, and then moved to China. We are currently living in Zurich, Switzerland. While neither of us is fluent in a language other than English, we have both studied a number of languages and hope our daughters will surpass our abilities.

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I have a strong sense of home and it pervades my personality. My father recently moved out of the home he had lived in since he was 2. My mother had lived there her entire married life. My older sister has moved into that same home with her three young children and they will likely live there for the next 20 years. My childhood home was a 45 minute drive from any gas station, grocery store or friend’s house so my sisters and I learned well to find entertainment at home and would stay there for days on end. Thankfully, this home is a beautiful Colorado ranch with all the fresh air and open space a kid could want, but our dedication to this one place has built in me a strong desire for place based traditions and experiences – perhaps to a fault.

My husband and I have chosen to raise our family overseas – moving from place to place as wanted and needed – as international teachers, and this decision invades my thoughts on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

At least once I month I am angry. I am angry because I can’t find a suitable place for my perception of a birthday party. I am angry because our small apartment has a cramped concrete balcony where my 3-year old rides her new bike around in circles. I am angry because my daughters will not experience Friday night high school football games – growing from the young kids who play tag in the dark to the preteens who practice flirting to the teenagers who actually watch the game and cheer for their classmates.

About once every other month I feel guilty. The guilt comes from not being able to support my mom as she goes through a medical crisis (and from hoping that my older sister is strong enough to help our mom on her own). It comes from not seeing my niece grow from an 8-month old who can barely sit up to a walking, talking toddler, and from not meeting my nephew until he is 10 months old.

More often than angry or guilty, I feel sad. I am sad because my dad doesn’t have the chance to wiggle my infant’s kneecaps and fold her ears while marveling at the flexibility of little ones. I am sad because my daughter doesn’t always recognize pictures of her aunts. And I am sad because it feels more appropriate than angry or guilty.

And more frequently than any other negative emotion I am scared. I am scared that without the consistency of place I experienced growing up that my daughters will feel lost, and that, more realistically, they will wander the globe leaving me far from my grandchildren when that day comes.

Fortunately, for as many times as I have negative reactions to being far from home, I also have positive thoughts about the experiences we have. My daughters will know the absolute deliciousness of bitter lemon soda. My oldest calls churches “temples”, and knows to be quiet and respectful inside both. She can count to 10 in three languages. We make the most out of every new friendship and every old visitor. And our home is our family unit, able to feel joy whenever and wherever we are together.

Do others have fears similar to mine? Do you also find they are balanced with positive experiences? Where and what do you seek on the days when the scales tip toward negative?