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My Multilingual Mothering Story

17 Nov

I’m often asked how I managed to learn so many languages and how I keep them apart. Well I must say a big part of my abilities come from my mother’s motivation during my childhood. She was a busy woman, but very strong in her belief that she was giving me an enormous gift, that today, I can thank her for from all my heart.

I decided to write this to encourage mothers not to be afraid to speak several languages to their children, if they are bi-or multilingual and wish their kids to become part of a true multicultural world. I realized very early that having several cultures and languages is enriching. There is nothing better in life than understanding other cultures from the inside, including their sense of humor and their way of thinking. The more languages you speak the more you are able to find yourself in the right place and situation.

My multicultural experience started when I was 3 years old. Another language and culture entered my life. Thanks to my mom I kept up my first language. I spoke both languages at the same time, adding on the new one like a parallel world on the top. My brain got more and more flexible and I learned how to separate them. The third language followed when I was 10, just learning it at home.  Actually that kind of passive learning was not bad either. I only realized it later when all the vocabulary I acquired was stored in my brain, and when I needed to speak it four years later, it seemed to flow out of nowhere. I started learning the 4th language at 15 years of age, the 5th at 20, the 6th at 23, the 7th and 8th at around 30, and today I’m learning my 9th one.

When my brother was born, 20 years ago I decided to help my mom with the difficult task of raising a bilingual child, understanding that with age one gets less motivated for all the extras about child upbringing. I wasn’t there all the time for him but my mom came up with other tricks to keep her language alive.

My own personal experiences strongly influenced my multicultural mothering choices from the moment my daughter was born. So when it was her turn I knew what to do but I had to choose between the languages I knew and chose to limit myself to 3.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was prepared.  I was lucky because we had the chance to move from France to Sweden before my daughter turned 2. At kindergarten she was immersed in one language, her father spoke a second and I kept up the third. She hardly spoke before the age of 3, but when she did she had a lot to say in all three languages simultaneously. I was optimistic and believed that the order and structure of each would come in due time.

Things became a bit more complicated when we moved to China four and a half years later. Two more languages were added: English and Chinese. The latter was added by a “storm” as it was a phenomenon moving from a Swedish to a Chinese kindergarten. A year later, English was smoothed in at an international school, even though she was part of the French section.

Today my daughter speaks five languages, not all very well, but I make sure I keep them up to a certain level. She will work out which she wants to continue with later, on her own. The most important job has been done though and I’m sure that one comes out of such experiences only stronger, not weaker as some people tended to think in the 70’s.

We live in a new era, in which we need to communicate with and understand each other more deeply to keep this world peaceful and to preserve the planet.  That will be the task for the multilinguals we are educating today.

Svetlana Furman is a contributing author at Multicultural Mothering. She is an independent business consultant living between Paris and Stockholm, where she just moved back to, after spending over 3.5 years in China. 

Her 9 year old daughter is attending the Lycee Francais of Stockholm.

And That’s How He Learned His Colors

14 Nov

You should have seen the look on my face when my four-year old walked into our house after school one afternoon and loudly exclaimed, “Mom guess what I am, I am brown!”

I was expecting him to come home and tell me what book he read at school or how many time outs he got at school but this I was not ready for. I quickly put on my curious cap on and began questioning him about what he was talking about and tried underplaying the comment by asking him if he ate chocolate, or dirt at school that probably made his mouth brown. But he quickly geared the conversation back to what he exactly meant to say which was, “Mama look at my hand and my face I am not white, I am brown.” I was surely not ready to have this conversation with him at 4. I had no fall back plans and no possible logical explanations for the future of where this conversation was heading.

In retrospect I might have overreacted a little in my head. My initial reaction was anger of course as to why and how this could have been introduced to him and who might have told him he was brown. But then of course I had to put on Mommy gear on and pretend like I was a grown up. I began doing some research on the how’s, when’s, where’s of introducing this very touchy matter of race to children. I have to admit that I went in with a lot of skepticism, but after reading a few very eye-opening articles on the matter I am happy to admit to myself and you that I am not as closed as I was when I my son accidentally forced me to visit the subject.

The crux of my initial reaction is rooted in my philosophy that children are colorblind and any initiation to the matter is environmentally derived. But you see I was wrong, there are tons and tons of research in the area, which disprove my theory. Children see differences around them from as little as six months old.  What made it take a positive spin for me was looking at it as just another social category. Imagine it just as a label to categorize people like we do with any other aspect in society. Children like to form patterns to fit into their life-learning puzzle. They see differences in hairstyles, heights, looks etc within their family members but they are all the same color, they make similar associations in other settings as well. When something does not fit the puzzle they notice the difference and move on. This is where our crucial role comes in as parents, the ability to let them move on without muddling their little heads with more differences and prejudices that we have as adults. It gives parents like me a positive spin on it. Not every aspect of race or color is negative.  Psychologically the word race prompts an immediate sense of discomfort. We as a society have dealt with so much history based on race that it only seems logical to be a little wary of it.

I grew up in a country where we were all brown and we were all Indians, but if you can imagine a whole color spectrum of shades of brown that is how many shades you had within that one country. A fairer shade of the same brown was considered supreme.  There is a whole cosmetic industry dedicated to creams that would make you fairer than the skin color you were born with. I am not condemning it.  My point of sharing this is that I am no alien to it even though I grew up in a country where everyone around me was the same race as me. An interesting incident comes to mind when I speak of India, a very close relative of ours remarked the minute she first laid eyes on our newborn son that he was not as fair-skinned as his parents were and that was alright because he had other beautiful traits in him that masked the lack of color. I was angry at that time, a mixture of new mom hormones and immaturity on my part I tried defending his color to her. But looking back I have to laugh at myself and wonder.

Why do we have such a love/hate relationship with the subject? Why do we cringe as a society every time it is brought out in the open? Why is it not polite dinner conversation? Why do we fear it so much? Is it because we harbor underlying prejudices of our own that we are too ashamed to face ourselves?

Lets be honest we all have opinions some strong some not so when it comes to this subject. I considered myself very liberal and often thought I was born in the wrong decade. I secretly live in the Hippie era and would love to have been raised a flower child but I am diverting.  As a parent you are put in very sticky circumstances that force you to reevaluate your foundations and what you stand for.

After several conversations with myself and reading a lot of material on it I have come to the conclusion that I will not whisk the matter under the carpet when my son wants to know more.  I will not give him reasons as to why it is OK for him to be the color he is or is not. I think we are what we are and the way we were intended to be.

Being brown or being white or being black or being yellow is all beautiful, we are just like the rainbow in all its glory, we live it and experience the beauty around us. If we were not all different imagine how dull life would be. And that, he needs to know as well.

I understand and am truly apologetic if this post caused any discomfort to any of you readers, but this is reality for me. I know we all have issues that we face as parents but I think an outside perspective on subjects like these make the job easier.

References: Children Are Not Colorblind; How Young Children Learn Race by Erin N. Winker who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Renu Venkataraman: 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.

Cool Doctor

1 Jul

It was on the 1st day of my 16th week, a Sunday, that I felt like my water broke; and then I bled buckets. I thought I was in the clear – I was in the second trimester after all.

I called our doctor.

He was at the Chengdu People’s First Hospital as quickly as we were.

On a Sunday, my friend’s 10 year old son fell down and seriously hurt his arm. She called our doctor. He happened to be 5 minutes away, playing basketball. He rushed over.

Another Sunday, a cat bit me. I called him.

When Rahul developed a rash and there was no way I could make it to the clinic before they closed, he came by after work; had a look and didn’t charge us a cent.

Our super cool American doctor, yoga student / teacher, surfer, slam poetry enthusiast, friend has answered many calls from me during my pregnancy and later, as a new mother.

It was the same a couple of months ago when Leila rolled off our bed. They were jumping and playing; we were laughing. After the thud, there was silence. Now it must be said that my kids have fallen on their heads before. MANY. times. So for the first few seconds I didn’t think anything of it.

Then, Maher who was closest to Leila, picked her up. Her pupils had rolled back. An impulse to throw up seemed to start at her toes. I saw the panic in Maher’s face and breath. I insisted on taking her in my arms. By then, she was limp.

“Leila’s OK. You’re OK Leila.” I repeated over and over as I walked around. Rahul was dead silent.

Finally, she came to. And then she cried her heart out for the next half an hour. Rahul looked at me. “You want to give her a kiss?” I asked. “She’s OK now.”

He nodded.

Maher handed me my phone. “Call the doctor.”

It was 7:30pm so I sent him a text message first explaining that it was an emergency. He replied immediately. He was on leave, but I could call him in a few minutes.

“It’s normal to pass out for a few seconds after a concussion. Watch her closely for the next few hours. If she throws up, slurs her words, or is suddenly lethargic, take her to the hospital. The emergency department at the First hospital can do a head  CT scan. Also, wake her up a few times during the night and see if she can make eye contact.”

She seemed OK. But she couldn’t keep her eyes open. I’d seen this in the past where a surprise hit to her head or elsewhere left her fatigued. But she seemed to be slurring her words. After a bit of back and forth, we decided not to spend the night in uncertainty.

In the mean time, we reached Marwan, Maher’s brother, and Liu Yan, his Sichuanese wife. My basic Chinese isn’t sufficient to deal with the hospitals here in Chengdu. Liu Yan could lead and translate for us.

At 8:30pm we followed Liu Yan and Marwan into the Chengdu People’s First Hospital. I pushed the stroller. The children were in their pyjamas busily pointing out ambulances, doctors, and nurses. Maher rushed off to find a bank machine.

Liu Yan asked around for the doctor on duty.

After fifteen minutes or so, a doctor led us into a bright little room with a bed and other hospital equipment. It smelled like medicine. Leila and Rahul panicked. “I don’t want injection mum, I don’t want injection.”

“We don’t deal with children here. It’s too much radiation to do a CT scan for a child just like that anyway, and there is no MRI machine. Go to Hua Xi (the main provincial hospital in Chengdu).”

“Won’t you even do a basic eye-contact and reflex check, to see if she is OK?” Marwan barked.

Liu Yan translated.

He refused.

I walked out coolly.

If it’s Hua Xi hospital, it means a long night for sure. It’s a nightmare there – there are thousands of people from all over the province of Sichuan seeking attention day and night.

“Let’s go to the Woman and Children’s Hospital.” I suggested. “Certainly they will see Leila.”

Not many cabs drive by the massive, but suburban Chengdu People’s First Hospital. Business Opportunity! Some guys hang around the hospital gates in their cars offering rides for money. We didn’t’ bother with negotiating the price; we dumped our stuff into the back of one little car and drove to the Women and Children’s hospital.

On the way, I called our doctor; apologised because it was almost 9pm. He couldn’t believe that the emergency doctor hadn’t even looked at Leila and didn’t mind her traveling half way across the city without confirming her stability. I remembered that Leila had a minor IVH (Intraventricular Hemorrhage) at birth, particularly common for babies born prematurely or at low birth weight. Leila was both.

“Well, since she had no issue with it later on, there’s no relationship with tonight’s fall. But yes of course the risk now is that she might have a brain hemorrhage. Let me know how it goes.”

I was having a déjà vu. After my big bleed at 16 weeks, the First Hospital sent me to the Women and Children’s Hospital. As we walked in, Maher, Marwan and Liu Yan also had flash backs of that day and the two weeks I spent there. Same gang.

It was not a pretty sight, even outside the hospital gates at 9pm. There were men carrying collapsed pregnant women on their backs; babies heads wrapped in bandages with Intravenous (IV) tubes stuck into their scalps. That’s how fevers are dealt with here – with an IV. And when it’s children the needle goes in the head.

Liu Yan and Marwan discovered that the Woman and Children’s Emergency Department only sees babies with colds and fevers.

With the children already asleep in the stroller we decided to walk to the Hua Xi Hospital. It’s only fifteen minutes away. That’s when I told the gang that our doctor was going to be transferred to Shanghai. Maher and I shared a wordless sense of helplessness at that news. And I didn’t stop thinking about it all night.

Despite directions from friendly doctors and nurses, after an hour of walking through many sections of the massive provincial hospital, going back and forth between locked doors and sections that looked exactly like the previous one, we made it to the Emergency Department. Once the paperwork and payments were sorted out, we waited.

The waiting-area is nothing more than the sidewalk – off a busy street with no escape from the second-hand smoke. We gulped down the bottles of water that Maher bought us from a little corner store. Liu Yan and I tried to figure out what a couple of kids in school uniforms were doing out at the corner store at 10pm,  gorging down instant noodles. Visiting hours had probably just ended.

1466 finally showed up on the screen. Leila woke up when I unbuckled her. She clutched me with her life, and repeated, “No doctor, no injection mama.” Marwan stayed with Rahul in the brightly lit hallway while the rest of us went into the doctor’s office. There were 10 other patients in there listening in on our conversation. They joined in the conversations at times.

The pleasant and confident doctor who examined Leila said she was fine for now. Considering she only fell off a bed, it can’t be higher than a metre, so she should be OK. However, we must watch her closely for vomiting, lethargy, headaches, and so on for the next 72 hours. He gave us an express ticket – valid for 3 days –  to have a CT scan if the need arises.

Maher and I slumped into the back seat of a cab, holding our children; we were exhausted but relieved. Marwan decided to walk home. Liu Yan opted to go with us, it’s a long way back.

The next morning I received a message from our doctor; he wanted to know how Leila was doing.

I am grateful that he was present that night, and before. And especially for his friendship.

Maher and I live in Chengdu with our two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul.   I was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until Our Little Yogis became the teachers.

Benefits of Being Bilingual

8 May

“Language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is the shaper of ideas… We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” (Benjamin Whore, 1897-1941)

Back before my daughter was born, which in some ways feels like a different life, I used to teach CEGEP (community college). In one of my courses, we talked briefly about knowledge and how language shapes it.

“How many of you speak at least two languages?” I would ask, as an introduction.

Every hand in the class would go up. Not only do I teach in bilingual Montreal, the school where I work is in a very multicultural neighbourhood where many students are first or second generation immigrants.

“How many of you speak at least three languages?” I would ask. Always quite a few hands would go up, sometimes most.

“How about four? Five?” Usually, at least one or two students in my class spoke five languages.

Then I would ask them, “In what ways does learning a second (or third, or fourth…) language contribute to and expand your knowledge of the world?” We would discuss. We talked about how translation is more complicated than just substituting a word from one language for a word in another. How languages are shaped by culture and context. I gave them some real examples of mis-translations to illustrate the point. For example:

“We take your bags and send them in all directions.” (In a Danish airline ticket office)
“You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.” (In a Japanese hotel)
And my favourite:
“Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.” (In an Italian laundromat)

Or did you know that Puijilittatuq is Inuktitut for: ‘he does not know which way to turn because of the many seals he has seen come to the ice surface.’? I guess we don’t have a concise expression for that in English because… we probably don’t need to say it very often!

Not only does knowing more than one language help you to function in an increasingly globalized world, it also expands your understanding of culture and language and the way the world works.

I was interested to see that apparently there are  10 Proven Brain Benefits of Being Bilingual. This article brings up some interesting points, some of them surprising (did you know that bilingualism apparently staves off dementia?). This makes sense to me though, because learning a second language doesn’t just mean memorizing more vocabulary; it means expanding your understanding of the world. I guess it makes sense that that makes your brain work harder, keeping it in good shape.

For all of these reasons, I’m happy to be living in a bilingual city and that my little munchkin has been being spoken to in three languages since the day she was born.

Many months ago, I wrote about speaking to someone who had taken a course in bilingualism. She said that it could actually be best for both parents in bilingual homes to speak both languages to their children, rather than taking the traditional approach of having each parent speak one language.

However, I eventually asked for more information about this theory and after reading through a stack of academic articles on bilingualism didn’t see anything direct or convincing about it. So we switched to the traditional approach- I speak English to M, and E speaks French.

We both slip up sometimes- I find it almost impossible to speak English in completely French settings, and E finds the same in English settings. But we do our best.

And E’s parents speak Italian to her… except when they forget and slip into English or French. Ok, so none of us are perfect. But we’re trying. And the important thing, I think, is that my little one is hearing two different languages on a daily basis and three on at least a weekly basis. I’m very curious about how this is shaping her perception of the world around her.

Last week I was invited to an event and brought M with me. Most people there were Latin American, and there was more Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese being spoken than French or English. Everyone wanted to see M- she got passed from person to person, and was spoken to in rapid Spanish and Portuguese all evening long. She didn’t seem surprised about it, and reacted to the people talking to her in the same way she reacts to anyone else. It made me wonder: what is going on in her little head? At this age is facial expression and intonation more important than actual words? Are Spanish and Portuguese similar enough to Italian that she actually can understand a little bit? Or is she just so used to hearing different languages that it’s no surprise that a few more might exist, too?

M is 13 months old now, and babbles incessantly, but she doesn’t speak many real words (that we can understand, anyway). I can’t wait until she starts talking, mostly because I’m curious about which language will come out. Will she automatically speak English to me and French to E? Or will she mix everything all up? Remember some words in one language and others in another?

I’m happy that M will know more than one language for the benefits to her brain explained in the article mentioned above (what mother doesn’t want her child to be creative, intelligent and environmentally aware?!). But also I’m happy that she’ll have a window into different cultures, different ways of seeing the world, different ways of structuring information. One of the benefits of ‘multicultural motherhood’ is the ability to give this gift to our children.

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.

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

Dragon / Phoenix Twins

27 Feb

“Are they Dragon Phoenix Twins?” I am asked every day, everywhere, and by everyone around me in Chengdu.

“Yes, they are,” I reply.

“Waaaaa” they exclaim with glee, and huge smiles,

“You are very lucky. How happy you must be.”

Twins generate as much or dare I say more excitement here in China as anywhere else; in particular, the Dragon / Phoenix (boy/girl) combination. The ancient Chinese emperor was symbolised by a Dragon, and his wife by a Phoenix.

Since boy / girl twins have the honour of being called the Dragon and the Phoenix they are at the top of the hierarchy, the best outcome possible, and so the highest blessing.

Total strangers seem genuinely happy for me, and always remind me of the gift of having them. They smile, caress the children, and try to carry them. Almost without fail I am told: “How cute, what curly hair, and big eyes they have.” This line sometimes reminds me of the scene where the wolf pretends he is Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.

But I have yet to come across someone who is envious or jealous. This is amazing considering the one-child policy in China.

Quite the opposite in fact. People here associate twins with joy and luck to such a degree that almost no one seems to realise that at times raising two same-age babies can be tricky and tiring.

Our ayi (nanny ) once asked, “Isn’t it strange that out of all the people who stop to talk to you and the children, no one ever mentions how much work it must be to take care of them?!” This came up on a day when both L and R were sick and in need of extra attention. My husband was out of town for work. Our ayi and I were exhausted and had to laugh at that thought.

Only once, a mum playing with her 2-year-old son in the kids area of a neighbouring housing complex asked if I wasn’t exhausted taking care of two.
Almost immediately, the 3 mums around us responded for me: “It’s pure joy to have two, and especially if they are a Dragon and a Phoenix.”

Had my Chinese been better, I would have answered myself: True I complain at times because I am tired from lack of sleep, or irritated by L and R’s constant hair pulling, biting, snatching… but man am I happy to have my Dragon and Phoenix.

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I live in Chengdu, China with my husband Maher and our two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. I was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until our little yogis became the teachers. Our Little Yogis

Lei La the Lao Wai

16 Feb

This evening my children and I spent a couple of hours running and playing at a neighbouring housing complex. A friend joined us. While the children were playing on the slides and mini monkey bars my friend stayed close to them, allowing me to respond to a text message on my phone.

A little girl accompanied by two men came over to play. Through the chatter, I heard Rahul say, “Ni hao shu shu,” (hello uncle), as he typically does when a Chinese man engages in some form of communication with him, or if he instigates the conversation himself.

Leila chimed in with her Ni hao!

One of the men asked how old the children are. My friend responded with the whole “They’re two and three months old, they know mandarin, yes they’re twins, not only that, they’re dragon / phoenix twins,” spiel.

“These foreign kids are the same age as you. Why don’t you play with them?” the man asked the little girl. He was beaming, bouncing internally, and obviously over-excited by the situation.

The little girl joined Rahul and Leila.

At one point the man shared the bars with Leila to stretch is his hamstrings; still smiling, he asked her, “Ni shi bu shi lao wai?” (Are you a foreigner?)

I was stunned.

“Lei-la,” she responded.

My daughter’s dignified response, albeit due to her ignorance impressed me.

Should I intervene? I wondered.

“Ni shi bus hi lao wai?” he repeated.

I couldn’t believe it.

“Lei –la,” she enunciated.

My friend, who is of Chinese heritage and fluent in the language explained that she is called Leila.

I wanted to say something; at least ask how he expects a two-year- old without the slightest notion of this concept or of the word at all, to respond. I mean he insisted.

But his “blissful” demeanor made me think that he obviously didn’t think it strange at all to ask this of a two year old, let alone ask it.

Or was he making fun of us because he thought I had no idea what he was saying? I have no idea.

I joined the group and a few minutes later Rahul and Leila were chasing me around the play area. The man told the little girl to join in, to chase “the two little foreigners, and the big foreigner.”

We ran and played.

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I’m Zambian; I live in Chengdu, China with my Lebanese husband Maher and our two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. I was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until our little yogis became the teachers.
Our Little Yogis:(http://natashadevalia.com)

What Babies Need

9 Feb

A friend of mine just called me today to tell me that she finally, after years of searching, found a job. It’s just a retail job in a second-hand clothes shop, but she and I were both thrilled. In the evenings after work she brings her four-year-old daughter with her to night school. Her daughter’s daycare is closed by the time her evening classes begin, but B only has another month of schooling before finishing the certificate she is working on, and she’s determined to complete it despite the new job.

I met B almost exactly 4 years ago, shortly after she had come to Montreal as a refugee from West Africa. I met her as a volunteer for a small organization called “Action Réfugié de Montreal”, which pairs volunteers with newly arrived refugees as a source of support and friendship.  When we first met, B had only been in Montreal for a few months and her daughter was three months old. Our volunteer relationship blossomed into a friendship, which has continued although the official volunteer “contract” finished a couple of years ago when B was finally allowed to move beyond refugee status to become a Canadian resident.

Now that I also have a daughter, our relationship has changed and deepened. While in the past she often came to me for advice or explanations about paperwork, procedures, and logistics, she is now the one who has more experience than I do in one very important area of life: motherhood.

B’s strength, determination and joy despite everything that has happened to her are an inspiration to me. She has faced many challenges. She was forced to leave her child’s father behind, in West Africa, when she escaped to an unknown city on an unknown continent. She arrived in a francophone city unable to speak a word of French. She had her baby shortly after arriving, and dealt with having a newborn while still trying to find a place to live, still bewildered and very alone.

B was only able to complete grade 5 in her home country, since after that her mother could no longer afford her school fees. This made finding a job in Montreal almost impossible, especially considering the language barrier. I have watched her struggle to improve her reading, both in French and English, so that she could understand all the important documents sent to her by mail. She managed to find an apartment, prepare her defense for the stressful court case that would decide whether she would stay in Canada as a permanent resident or be deported back to her country, apply to educational programs and jobs. A girl from a small African town has learned her way around Montreal, has acquired functional French, and has discovered organizations and programs that help new immigrants such as herself that I never knew existed. She has survived, despite all odds.

She has done more than survive; she has raised a beautiful daughter. Her little girl is her pride and joy, and has been her companion through all the challenges she has faced over the last few years. Despite her very limited financial resources, B always manages to make sure that her daughter has whatever she needs. When her little girl was still a baby, I watched B skillfully bargain the price of getting her ears pierced to an amount she could afford. She set up a small savings account for her future education, even though she can barely afford to pay the rent and buy groceries. Every year she scrapes the money together to throw daughter a birthday party, complete with a fancy dress for the birthday girl, cake, balloons, and as many friends as their little apartment can hold. B makes sure her little girl gets to talk on the phone with family members including her father on a regular basis, and they have met other West Africans in Montreal who have provided them with a sense of community and extended family. B’s daughter is sweet and beautiful, and she calls me “Auntie”.

I am thankful that when I think about all that I wish for my child, I don’t need to hope that she can meet her father one day, or that I will be able to somehow find the money to provide her with healthy food, a home, and clothing. But my relationship with B has shown me that many aspects of motherhood are the same no matter what culture the mother is from, or what her situation is.  Mostly what babies need is love, and all mothers, no matter where they are from, know how to give that to their children.

Maro Adjemian lives in Montreal, Canada, with her husband and 10 month old daughter.

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.