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“Where are you from, mum?”

26 Aug

My children started preschool on Thursday.

At lunch on Friday Leila asks me, “Where are you from?”

I feel the skin on my forehead scrunch up as my eyebrows move toward each other. I catch Maher’s subtle uncomfortable movements.

“Well, we live in Chengdu.” I begin my answer as I would if anyone asks me where I’m from. “I’m Zambian and of Indian origin,” I continue. “Did someone ask you that question at school?”

“My teacher.”

“Well, you’re French.” Maher says, speaking in French as he always does with the children. He looks at me and continues on, “One of your great grandfather’s is from India. And you know where nana and nani live?”

“Zambia,” Rahul replies.

“And you know where teta, jiddo, and jiddo Raymond live right?”

“Lebalon,” Leila says.

“So you’re French, Zambian, Indian, and Lebanese,” I say.

Unconvinced with the heaviness and level of disconnection from our reality in that answer, I take solace in the fact that these two-year-olds, whose favorite foods are egg and tomato noodle soup and Sichuanese style fried spinach with rice, whose toys live in our apartment in a tall building in Chengdu, don’t yet know what the question really means, nor what we’re going on about. I stop short.

They were ready to get out of their seats and play anyway.

“Let’s go on the boat quickly, before the crocodiles get us. Come on Princess Leila.”

“Ok Prince Rahul. Let’s go to Zambia on the boat. Take your horse with you.”

Heritage plays a role of course. But how much can you really carry with you? Will R and L feel Zambian, Indian, Lebanese, and French, and respond that’s where they’re from even though they probably won’t live in any of those countries, and might not know much about the traditions, history, politics, and way of life there.

We’ve begun to celebrate Christmas with Maher’s family, and Raksha Bandan (a Hindu festival that celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters) with mine. That’s about it for family traditions.

We enjoy visiting these countries and spending time with family there. L and R have strong memories of the people we meet and places we visit. They go on fantasy trips to Paris, Zambia and “Lebalon” in the playground when they swing high in the sky, or when they ride their horses from country to country room to room in our apartment.

But then, they also trip on playing with their friends in Koh Samui, sometimes they go to the park in Hong Kong, and in the last two days their travels have taken them to Montreal.

Other than their heritage, part of it depends on where we live and what interests them. If we lived in Canada say, in time we could be considered Canadian, where in China we are always going to be lao wai or foreigners. But that’s a topic for another post, and Catherine Platt talked about that poignantly in her post White Ghosts.

How do you deal with, “Where are you from?” And how can we help our children figure this one out either from a sense of belonging, or peaceful detachment from it all?

 

I live in Chengdu 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.

Family Stories

18 Jun

We’re both new parents in our 40’s. There aren’t major differences between new parents in their 20’s and new parents in their forties – both are learning as they go on the wonderful journey of parenthood. Perhaps there are subtle differences: finances may be in order, careers more established, and older couples are more settled. Most people are a bit more tempered and practical at 40 than they were at 20.

But one thing I do think is different is we seem to have an increased sense of urgency about researching family history. Maybe it’s because our daughter is “new”; maybe it’s because we are older and subsequently our parents are older. We think more about the possibility of caring for aging relatives than we once did. And I know our sense of urgency is amplified by the fact that we are from two different cultures. I was born and raised in the US; my husband was born and raised in Japan. We both live far from our families and there is the strong possibility that there are relatives she will never know. I sit here and I think, what will be our family story?

I used to wish for the day when I could discover some secret hidden diary that would reveal all of my families’ secrets. It is the writer in me that has a tendency for the theatrical. I have reluctantly come to terms with the fact that such a thing is not likely to happen. I will not receive a stash of hidden wartime love letters or stumble across the name of a grandparent in declassified government files. A mysterious stranger will not show up on my doorstep claiming to be a long lost sibling nor will the discovery of keys to a safety deposit box lead me on an intercontinental chase.

If my husband and I are lucky in our family research we will track down some birth certificates. Perhaps, we’ll find a yellowed piece of paper where someone had attempted to write a family tree or an old Bible with everyone’s names spelled correctly. We currently have two cardboard boxes of photographs with names scrawled on the back. We spend long afternoons trying to put names to faces that we barely recognize. I received several photos at a family reunion. They were left over from my grandmother’s things when she passed away. When I don’t know who is in the picture – which I am ashamed to admit is often – I make up little stories about them to whisper in my daughter’s ear.

My husband has photos stuffed in envelopes. Many of the people he cannot identify beyond “aunt” and “uncle”. Though, like most people, he does much better with cousins from his own generation. Japan has a complex system of record-keeping, so a few years ago, he decided to go through city office records and gather any information that he could.

There is a part of me that envies the ability to have such ample paper records. For most of my family’s African American history, those sorts of things are not possible. Slaves were not considered people. Even when slavery ended, most poor, ‘colored’ people were simply not considered important enough to register or have their lives recorded. If it were not for the work of dedicated scholars – like the late John Hope Franklin – the importance of keeping African American history would be lost.

I am fortunate my maternal grandparents’ hometown was one of the first freed “colored towns” – in the nomenclature of the time. Their town was the subject of a research project and though my family was not directly mentioned I was able to get something other African Americans do not often get – a peek into the lives of my forebears and the town they helped to build.

I end with this anecdote. I once attended a seminar on memoir writing. One woman was a particularly gifted storyteller. She delivered a grand tale about some long gone uncles and aunts. It was filled with picturesque descriptions, elaborate gestures, and lots of jokes. At the end of her performance, she confessed that she wasn’t sure if the uncle and aunt in the story were actual blood relatives. Nor was she certain that she had the correct year or the proper names of all the characters.

But did any of us care? Not at all, because it was a great story.

 

Winnie Shiraishi is a contributing author at Multicultural Mothering. She’s an expat American writer living in Japan. Her work has appeared in Tokyo Art Beat blog, Kyoto Journal, and other publications. She can be reached at wsinjapan [at]gmail [dot] com.

Zamsick

3 Apr

I’m finally going home in May. It’s been 9 years.

I moved from Montreal to Lebanon, then to Moscow and back to Lebanon, and to Chengdu during that time, got married in Montreal, dropped out of a master’s program in Beirut, took up yoga, did a Teacher Training in Thailand, supported Maher through a stroke, seen a few too many gynaecologists and IVF experts, trusted a fantastic doctor in Ahmedabad and gave birth to my twins in Hong Kong – so, that I didn’t stop off in Zambia since my last 3 week visit many years ago is beyond me. I constantly go back and forth about how that happened.

How could I have been that complacent?

I thought my mum was crazy when she told me she was going back to Bombay after 10 years. I will never be like that when I grow up. I remember how alive and confident she was weaving around Fashion street and Crawford market in Bombay, chatting and bargaining with the salespeople. She proudly  introduced us to Badsha, her favorite falooda (ice cream drink) joint in Bombay.

I can’t lie, I have  I’ve had a mental drama about home, what it means, if the concept will ever exist for me again, and especially for my children? When I recently told my brother how long I’d been away, he did a quick mental calculation and said, “But that’s almost a third of your life, can you even call it home?”

I can’t lie, I miss home. I don’t have the words to express it. My first, only attempt at a poem ever, was inspired by an uncontrollable nostalgic moment.

Whenever I’ve brought up my need to go home, Maher reminded me that we’ve seen my family here in China, in Canada, and in India, depending on where they or we were.

But it’s not just that –

It’s the smell of the wet grass when the drumming rain keeps me curled up in bed devouring book after book, the feel of the red earth between my toes, the mango trees at my grandparents house in Livingstone, and the size of the avocados, of my solitary bike rides and road runs around our neighbourhood, of the rocks along the banks of the Zambezi river, of my school and my friends – some still there, many also living in different places.  But then it’s also the Rotary clubs, and politics that my father was always too busy with; it’s the street kids, the AIDS, and the corruption.

When I was 13 or 14 I decided that I would become a doctor. I was adamant. My parents and I went to see the principal, who was also my English Literature teacher, and running-group leader – without a doubt my most inspiring teacher. Now, I realise that during that meeting he gently tried to persuade me not to switch out of history and literature, that there were other possibilities out there for me. He bothered to try. I was stubborn, and I had my father’s backing on this one. My mother understood me better than I thought I knew myself, but she never imposed anything on me. She’s always trusted me, and in her typical manner, she let me figure things out my way. But she always listened big when I mentioned switching into naturopathy, or anthropology during my university career.

Back to when I was 14 in Zambia, I asked one of my parents doctor friends if I could intern at her clinic for the summer. I went in at 8 every morning, mainly helped with computerizing patient files at the reception, spent a couple of hours with the lab technician every afternoon, and went home for my evening runs. That’s the thing, while I was a teenager in Lusaka, there wasn’t much to do over the holidays; kids were either involved in sports and engaged in the community, or doing drugs and having sex. I fell into the former category.

But I digress…

One afternoon the lab technician was showing me how to actually carry out a malaria test. He put a drop of blood that he’d drawn earlier, on a glass slide. We examined the sample through a magnifying glass to identify if the parasite was present. The patient had come in specifically with a malaria query, but the lab technician was on a teaching spree and decided to show me how to perform a HIV test. He took a little more of the blood (don’t ask me about the ethics / human rights of it all especially since he knew who the patient was), and it was positive.

A number of caregivers from my past have died, usually young, and after a lot of suffering. More often than not, it’s AIDS. The man who cooked for us throughout my childhood and until a few years ago is one of them. The man who drove me to school and back every day, who taught me how to drive, who told me it was his dream to drive trucks – the only person who ever called me princess, playfully, just because he knew I hated it, is living with HIV now. He sent me gifts when my children were born – 2 chitenges (traditional cloth that women wrap into skirts, and use to carry their babies on their backs). He quit working for my parents a little while ago. I can’t wait to see him; to hear him joke.

I couldn’t wait to leave home when I was a teenager; now I can’t wait to return.  I’m not sure how I’ll react after so long, but I want my children to feel a slice of the simplicity, play in the dirt with the chongololo’s (millipedes), imagine the white clouds are cars in a blue sky, run barefoot in real green grass, play football with their uncle, eat nshima  (thick maize porridge – local staple food) and curry, see elephants, kudus, and lions in their natural habitat, all that alongside people who smile wide, who smile for life.

—————–

The idea that we can and should feel at home anyplace on the globe is based on a worldview that celebrates the solitary, mobile individual and envisions men and women as easily separated from family, from home and from the past. But this vision doesn’t square with our emotions, for our ties to home, although often underestimated, are strong and enduring.
The New Globalist is Homesick, the International Herald Tribune

—————–

I live in Chengdu 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.

Parenting The Enemy

2 Apr

by Janice Lindegard of Snide Reply

I wanted a girl. No question. Oh, sure, I told people I just wanted a healthy baby, but really, I wanted a girl. So, when my son was born, it was more than drugs and exhaustion that had me on emotional overload.

I was a feminist. I was prepared to rear a strong, self-possessed woman. In my feminist readings, I ran across a piece on women in heterosexual relationships that likened being married to a man to sleeping with the enemy.  How the hell was I supposed to parent the enemy?

The first week of parenthood featured little sleep, lots of poop and a humiliating tendency for my body to do really revolting things completely out of my control. I remember one day, though, sitting on my back porch. The Little Enemy was asleep, finally. I had a lovely rose garden, but I wasn’t admiring it. I was completely absorbed in an epic wallow of self-pity. I had a boy. Boy, boy, boy. No little soul sister, I had a miniature man.

I started to cry. I stared out at my rose garden and wept. I got maudlin. I wept for the sassy girl I wouldn’t have and the beautiful woman I wouldn’t know. I wept because my child would never wear my wedding dress. And then I thought of Dennis Rodman and I laughed out loud. At that time, Mr. Rodman was wildly infamous for his outrageous behavior, which included going clubbing in a wedding dress. Immediately after lamenting that my child wouldn’t wear my gown, I pictured the beastly ugly Rodman in his and thought, “God, I hope not!”

I’ve said that nothing made me more of a feminist than raising a son. When I do, more than a few women look at me like I’ve either lost my mind or made a very unfunny joke. But it’s no joke. If our society beats down girls, it beats down boys just as cruelly. The problem is that while we’re eager to help girls with their self-esteem, their body image, their academic standings and their professional opportunities, most people don’t even want to recognize that boys are bound and gagged by our society, too. After all, helping boys would be the societal equivalent of aiding and abetting enemy combatants.

At this point, you may be wondering what the heck I’m talking about. Boys don’t need help; boys aren’t discriminated against. Boys never had to fight to get into anything. From Little League to Harvard to the White House, boys—especially white ones—have been living the high life.

I am not delusional, though. From the time my son was born, he was treated differently than a daughter would have been. Even in infancy, we expect boys to be tough. Baby boys are picked up less frequently than baby girls. Just because of a roll of the biological dice, one child is cuddled when she cries and the other is left to seek comfort in his little blue blankie. Being born male even reduces your chances of being adopted. Globally, more girls are adopted than boys, not because more girls are available but because people feel safer adopting a girl. In fact, you can probably cut your wait time to adopt merely by stating a preference for a boy.

School is supposed to be where the rubber begins to hit the road in discrimination against girls. But, seen through the eyes of boys and their mothers, school is set up for the male to fail. Standing in lines, communicating verbally, sitting still, pleasing the teacher are all behaviors that, for whatever reason, girls seem to master more quickly and easily than boys. Let’s not get sidetracked discussing why girls are able to do it. Let’s think about what it means to boys that their genetically codified behavior is more likely to get them a pass to the principal than a gentle reminder or exasperated sigh.

I don’t have enough space left to discuss how my son’s middle school career might have differed if he were a girl. I have a hard time imagining he would have been called lazy and unmotivated if he were a girl failing in the gifted program, though. One day he forgot to bring pencil and paper to the library. His teacher gave him a detention for defiance. If his name were Emily, I wonder if she’d just roll her eyes and hand her some paper.

As my son gets older, I’m less and less concerned about how his school treats him and more concerned with how his society treats him. Recently, a friend posted a screed on her Facebook wall. The gist of the post is this: if the parents of boys raised sons who kept their hands to themselves unless invited, then the parents of girls wouldn’t have to worry how their daughters are dressed.

At the same time, I’m dealing with my son’s sexual maturity. Overwhelmingly, his society paints him as barely able to contain his desires. If he has unprotected sex with a girl and she gets pregnant, it will be his fault. Don’t think so? When was the last time you heard someone refer to the boy involved in a teen pregnancy as “a nice young man”? Nope. He’ll be “that jackass who got Susie pregnant.”

The idea that boys have to be controlled for the world to be safe is insulting at best and hypocritical at worst. At the same time we are telling little boys to keep their hands to themselves, we think it’s cute when little girls chase them to steal a kiss. The boys don’t think it’s cute. The boys think it’s harassment and they get mad when we don’t stop the girls.

We ridicule boys who dance, want to be nurses and love to play with dolls. If you think we don’t, then you haven’t raised a boy. When a girl wants to box, play hockey or quarterback a football team, we say “Why not?” We may even get angry if she’s not allowed to. Imagine the reaction to a boy who wants to dance Giselle. Not really seeing the outrage, are you?

Let’s call a truce. Let’s teach boys and girls to keep their hands to themselves. Let’s admit that girls want to have sex as much as boys do. Let’s teach all of our children that they can be whatever they want to be . . .and mean it.

Janice Lindegard is a writer, blogger and columnist living in Naperville, Illinois. She is mom to two children: a bio son with ADHD and a daughter adopted from China. She tries, often unsuccessfully, to follow the teaching of Buddha, is married to a Jewish man and was raised by Roman Catholics. She writes a parenting column for Naperville Patch and blogs about her life at Snide Reply.

Historiography

1 Apr

I have a term paper due in 16 days.  As I write this, I am perched on the edge of my creaky steno chair.  A space heater is cooking my feet.  My laptop is situated in the half-square-metre of space available on my desk.  Finn McMissile and Mater are grinning at me from among the broken toys awaiting repair.  There are crumpled tissues of unknown provenance.  And the user’s manual for a George Foreman Grill….

My paper is meant to explore evidence of cosmopolitanism in ancient Rome, and then hopefully draw some parallels between now and then.  Possibly shed some light on the social construct of race, in all its arbitrary and divisive mystery.  And maybe break it down, just a little bit more, in this slow and precarious progress toward an “us” without a “them”.  But I did not expect to be confronted with the vitriol of two hundred years of scholarship.  Of black scholars fighting for voice.  A white scholars fighting for silence.  And the well-meaning of all races writing and rewriting and then vehemently protecting their personal empirical interpretation statement of history.

Emphasis on the ‘story.

I chose this topic because Kwame Anthony Appiah’s explanation of cosmopolitanism makes such perfect sense to me.  We don’t need cultural homogeneity.  We don’t need for all of us to be the same.  We need to accept that we are all different people, with different traditions, and different values.  We need to suspend our judgement unless and until people are getting hurt.  And we are obligated to educate and to become educated.  To say, “Hey, man.  I don’t understand why you’re doing that.  Maybe if you explain it to me, we can work out a better solution.”  This learning before judging, this conversing before condemning – imagine the world we would have if all of us could work that way.

It’s the sort of idealism I teach my children.  And I do that because I believe it to be possible.  I believe that choosing to learn in the face of ignorance, anger, fear, and condemnation is the bravest act that anyone can commit.  Second only to protecting others from harm.

Perched on this chair in this space surrounded by tasks not completed, obligations not fulfilled, projects not initiated; my head is spinning with the implications of these words:

“History is not about fact.  It is about interpretation.” – Maghan Keita

In this space with the detritus of my life stacked all around me, on a continent where fear kills minds and boys with brown skin and women in black robes and thousands of other faces I will never know or see or love….

It is very, very hard to feel brave.

———

I’m a mother, corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider.  I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, living healthy, and learning with kids over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day.

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

Teaching My Son to Write

29 Feb

I’m a graduate student in educational theory (Master of Arts, Integrated Studies, to be precise).  For several weeks, I’ve been immersed in feminist theory, race theory, Marxist theory, the birth of sociology, the jargonistic musings of Judith Butler on the intentionally difficult to comprehend Foucault….  And I have the kind of cold that kept me awake until 4am last night with fever chills and has left me giddy and directionless, today.

Forgive me if this post is somewhat less than concise.

Kwame Anthony Appiah has written and spoken often about his reasoned disavowal of race.  He doesn’t believe there are any races, and deconstructs both the original concept – as defined in North America with the African slave trade – and the current relevance of this sort of cultural leftover in his Tanner Lecture on Human Values (1994), among other papers, interviews and speeches.  I mean, we’ve established that people of all ethnicities are equally capable, moral, feeling, loving, hurting people….  Right?

So, why do we need to talk about it anymore?

Well, because race is socially determined.  Our culture tells us what race we are, establishing visible majorities and visible minorities and an increasingly difficult-to-determine mix of bi-racial, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, mixed-race, erm… people.  Black and white, gorgeous and beige, my kids fall into that last category.  And while I’m hoping hard that the strident voice of bell hooks and the educated bluesman musings of Cornel West remain sources of profound pride for American black people; here in Canada – in multicultural Canada – I’d like to see my kids’ generation drop their divisions, deny racial solidarity, and embrace something more like Appiah’s cosmopolitanism.  There is something so calmly appropriate about a theory of philosophy that refuses race, encourages knowledge of other cultures, and denies cultural relativism.  You don’t have to be just like me to be my brother.  I will love you, just the same.  And through my love I’m committed to learning more about you.  But I will NOT stand by and let you hurt people.  We have a human responsibility to protect each other from harm, even if it’s you – my brother – who is doing the harming.

To me, that sounds just about perfect.  Multiculturalism without assimilation.  Globally situated learning and citizenship.  And the outright refusal to allow nations to commit crimes against humanity just because their culture or their religion says that they can.  Does it GET better?

And so it was from this warm, fuzzy, I’d-Like-To-Teach-The-World-to-Sing perspective that I sat down with my kids and a bowl of popcorn to watch Discovery Atlas’s China Revealed.

Now, this film was done in 2006.  China was going crazy with preparation for the 2008 Olympics, and aside from a few ethnic Chinese family members, extra kids, students and friends, I really don’t know very much about Chinese culture.  I am NOT an educated observer, here – let me make that very clear.  But it was hard not to stare at the sheer focus demanded of children, in that film.  It was hard not to cover my mouth when a father spoke of beating his young daughter because she didn’t want to return to gymnastics boarding school, in that film.  It was hard not to just stare in fascination at Wushu city, and at thousands of workers performing calisthenics together to ensure an injury-free day at the factory; at adult children with the same single-minded focus to please their parents, to serve their parents, as appears on the faces of elementary school kids.  At the drive.  At the SOLIDARITY – in that film.  (I’m repeating this phrase because I do know that one film cannot adequately capture the depth and nuance of any culture.  There is so much more I need to learn!)

But, HOW can one deny the existence of race in the face of that?  Even while considering the vast differences of language and tradition within China’s borders.  Do we relabel it “culture”, and continue to reach out, hold hands and sing Kumbaya?  My kids will be competing with children from families with similar cultural influences for scholarships, jobs and promotions.  My kids, who have been raised without corporal punishment, who have been encouraged to cooperate before competing, who walked early, talked early, and were reading by age three….  They can’t do simple multiplication, like some of their first generation Chinese Canadian friends can.  My kids have always been given the option to work on reading, work on writing, work on language study, science or do anything else we come up with together in our afterschooling home.  (It really is up to them.)  And they have always been rewarded for their efforts in these areas.  Not punished for their shortcomings.

I’m a little worried that they won’t be prepared for their global reality, fifteen years from now.

Anyway, this post was about teaching my son to write.  I’d decided to post about that before diving into race theory and watching that documentary, and now our little writing exercises read with a decidedly different flavour.  I do apologize.

My Bug asked to learn how to write his name, so I told him I would help him.  I wrote out his name for him to copy, and that was difficult for him.  Frustrating.  I wrote out a letter for him to copy.  Still frustrating.  I printed out a preschoolers’ letter-tracing page from some website we found together.  Didn’t like it.  The dots were overwhelming and made no sense to him.  So, I wrote a letter, just one, with a highlighter and asked him to keep his pencil on the green line.  He took the pencil with some hesitation.  Standard pencils are small and awkward for his three-year-old hand; fat round or triangular pencils are too big and clumsy.  (He’s always preferred paintbrushes.)  But then?  He did it!  HE DID IT!  And asked for a page more.  And then I gave him the parts of the other letters in his name, not all together, just a page of lines, a page of curves, a page of initial connections, all written with electric green highlighter….

And I watched him light up with the joy of his own success.

I don’t know if my kids will be able to compete at the global level.  In many ways, I hope they won’t have to.  But, mostly?  I hope this light, this spark they have – that we can keep it going for as long as possible.  I’m hoping hard for forever 🙂

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I’m a mother, corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider.  I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, living healthy, and learning with kids over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day.

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

An Orange, 3 Mandarins, and 2 Sesame Candies

20 Feb

An orange, 3 mandarins, 2 sesame seed candies, 2 mango candies, 1 Dairy Milk bar, 1 yogurt drink pack, an apple, many cookies, 2 chocolate wafers, yaoyao rides –colourful, musical, electronic animal rides- and many more things that I can’t even recall, have been gifted to Aarav – my 19 month old son – mostly by ayis(aunties) and sometimes by shūshus(uncles). Ayis often say how cute he is and give him something from their bag, to show their love.

I took their words seriously. My son must be an outstanding and beautiful little guy. So, wherever we went, I kept collecting the goodies and saying thanks for such wonderful comments. Hence, I was looking forward to such compliments and brief talks, when we went on a short trip to Hong Kong and Australia; but not a single person stopped by our side to flatter my boy. Was it the rain in Hong Kong or the hot summer in Australia?

I was really becoming uneasy with all of this. In a Melbourne elevator, we met a Shūshu from Beijing. He smiled when he saw my son and took out a strawberry milk pack from his bag. He gave it to Aarav and said he is very “kě’ài” – the Chinese word for cute.

I finally calmed down and told myself that my son is still kě’ài and I should not worry at all. Back in Chengdu, the ayis and shūshus continue to make him feel special by showing their affection.

After giving birth to my son in India, when I joined my husband in Chengdu, I was really worried about how well I would do? As it is my first experience as a mom, I read a lot about raising a child. I also had long chats with my sisters, my mother and my friends back-home. But when it comes to local conditions and survival strategies, then my good friends in Chengdu have been a great guide to me. However, I never realized that I would get great advice and tips from nǎinais – meaning grandmothers – who are total strangers to me.

When I am out with my son, nǎinais often hold him. In the summer time I receive suggestions like, “He weighs good. But he is red, so give him much more fluid and try to take him out without a diaper because it is very hot.” They would check if he had his meals on time and what his favorite foods are. They do not like the idea of Aarav being a vegetarian little guy. They would strongly suggest that meat is a very important source of protein and that he needs it very much at this growing stage. But they do not insist.

Being out with my son in Chengdu and interacting with ayis, shūshus, and nǎinais is very interesting. I get a good chance to see others’ perspective on raising children and yes, to continue listening to how “hao kě’ài” my baby boy is!

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Deepty Tiwari is a contributing author at Multicultural Mothering. She has lived in Chengdu for the last year and a half with her husband and son. She used to work for United Nations; since becoming a mum, she is also a freelancer for humanitarian development projects.