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My First Racist Comment?

15 Oct

Yesterday was a comedy of errors. The kids’ (Texas public) school was closed for Columbus Day, so I figured they’d attend the full-day program they usually go to for school closures. We showed up at the school that hosted this program last year, and there was no one there. We went to the main YMCA office, and they said they knew nothing. I was on my way out the door when the woman I’d spoken to called me back, saying that they had a $5-an-hour program after all, but on-site at the main location, not out at a school. I enrolled the kids and paid. When I walked them over to the childcare location, the person there told me that the full-day program was only available on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I just handed her my receipt and asked her to arrange for reimbursement. I’d rather conserve my energy for my kids than spend it on bureaucracy. I called into work and let them know I wouldn’t be coming in.

The girls and I had a nice morning. It was a rare rainy day in Texas, and we were happy for our yard and the relief from our ongoing drought. The kids helped me cook oatmeal with raisins, apples and brown sugar for morning snack. We went to the local optician to have the broken nose piece on my glasses fixed. I managed to talk my 7-year-old twin girls, M and J, into trying an Indian restaurant for lunch. Misses Picky and Pickier (J and M, respectively) enjoyed their meals, which was a pleasant surprise after all the years of their rejecting all efforts on my part to introduce them to Bangladeshi cuisine.

While I was paying for our meal, I noticed a couple of women at a nearby table eating with a brood of kids. Included among the children were two infants who looked around the same age. I smiled at them and asked if the kids were twins, quickly adding that mine were, so I have a tendency to think I see twins everywhere. They said they weren’t, and I smiled and waved.

whaI quickly lost my smile when their friend, who had just emerged from the bathroom, grinned at me and said, “I guess all we white people look the same to you.”

I recognize that people unfamiliar with twins often have an unexamined assumptions that all twins are identical, so perhaps she thought I thought the babies looked alike. Really, though, I just noticed the babies’ ages. I’ve been known to ask if kids who look to be of different races are twins; after all, I have multi-racial children and know that the same two parents can have very different-looking kids.

MSJI’ve never encountered racism in the US. Never. I’ve been known to joke that people assume that I’m good at math because I’m “Indian” (actually, Bangladeshi), and that I am, in fact, good at math. In all seriousness, though, I really haven’t encountered racism beyond people mistaking me for my kids’ nanny since we don’t look to be the same race.

I was a South Asian in an Indian restaurant. Maybe I’ve avoided racially-tinged comments by avoiding being in “Indian” contexts. Perhaps this wasn’t a racist comment, as the woman insisted was true after I called her on it. Maybe she was “just jokey.” Perhaps I overreacted.

I went out to the car, buckled the girls in, and waited for them to get engrossed in their books because I allowed myself to cry. I guess there’s one good thing about the complete oblivion that overcomes J and M when they’re reading.

So, did I overreact? Is there a non-racist interpretation of this woman’s comment that I’m missing?

This post was originally published on the mothers of multiples blog How Do You Do It?

Faces

28 Jun

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

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

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

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

I didn’t go.

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

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

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

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

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

Smiling Baby

21 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liu Yan and Mina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————–

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

Jet-lag with Twins

5 Jun

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

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

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

Jet-lagged in Montreal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My thought: Shouldn’t you?

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

“Too much garlic?” I ask.

“Garlic,” Rahul repeats.

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

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

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

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

—————-

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

Catch more of our stories at Our Little Yogis 

Feeling like a Fake

10 May

A blue sari with gold border detail.My daughters’ school held an event to celebrate the diversity of the student body. Parents could volunteer to put together a display of artifacts representing their culture. Since Bangladesh seemed likely to be more mysterious and interesting than the United Kingdom to Texan elementary school students, I offered to represent Bangladesh.

My parents are originally from Bangladesh; it was still part of Pakistan when they were born but was an independent country by the time they started their PhD work. I was born in the UK, where my father was teaching chemistry, and split my early childhood between England and Scotland. Our whole family moved to Bangladesh when I was nearly 8. I spent a decade there, in the capital Dhaka for the most part, although I spent a year in deep rural Bangladesh, at the orphanage my mother managed in Kurigram. I left Bangladesh for the US to go to college when I was 18 and have lived in the US since. I’ve been here nearly 16 years.

Bangladesh circled on the world map.

Bangladesh is (almost) surrounded by India.

You’d think that spending 10 years in Bangladesh during key formative years of my childhood would bestow me with a deep degree of identification with Bengali culture, but it didn’t. I spent those 10 years feeling like a foreigner, likely in part due to my early childhood in Britain. The other contributor to my sense of alienation was that I lived with one foot in the expat community. Although my parents were Bangladeshi, and countless cousins were nearby, my life revolved around the American school I attended along with many embassy, UN, and non-profit kids from around the world. I felt little kinship to the few extremely well-off and entitled Bangladeshis who also attended the American school.

Let’s return to Texas in 2013.

The weekend before the diversity event at my twin daughters’ school in suburban Austin, I went shopping for clothes for my girls. We thought it would be fun for them to wear Bangladeshi clothes, but they’d outgrown all such outfits we owned. As luck would have it, I had run into a lady who lived near our home and imported traditional clothes from India. We went to her home to shop. M selected a shalwar kameez, J a lehenga. As usual, while they started the shopping expedition with the intent of getting matching outfits, they couldn’t agree on anything that they both liked.

J and M

The house where we were shopping was full of women and children, sifting through bright, bejeweled clothes. I spoke to the lady and gentleman of the house in Bengali; everyone else was speaking Hindi/Urdu, which I kind of understand, but don’t speak. I felt like a fish out of water. I didn’t know whether the girls were allowed to try clothes on. I didn’t know how to appropriately get the owner’s attention to ask. I had no idea what length of kameez or style of shalwar was fashionable. I committed a faux pas by whisking my checkbook out in the room where the clothes were laid out, instead of waiting until I entered the private office. I was wearing the clothes I’d worn to work: jeans and a solid coloured top. All the other women were in South Asian wear.

I’d felt similarly out of place when I’d attended the local Bengali New Year celebration a few weeks earlier. I’d intended to take my daughters with me, but their father and stepmother were suddenly able to spend the day with them, so I went without them. The only person I ended up having a real conversation with was the older sister of an old classmate from Dhaka, a woman who, like me, considered herself part-British and had married a white man. As she put it, “Our kids don’t even look Bengali.” Except when I was chatting with her, I felt like I was being judged, something I hadn’t felt since I was an awkward teenager. I was convinced that I was being sized up by the top to bottom looks some of the other attendees gave me. I was wearing a sweater dress, not a sari or shalwar kameez. I didn’t trust myself to drape a sari correctly, and I knew all the shalwar kameezes I owned would be terribly out of date. I smiled at strangers, as I would anywhere else in Austin. Unlike elsewhere in Austin, the smiles weren’t returned and no conversations took off, except with young, presumably Bengali-Texan, children.

When the diversity event came around at the girls’ school, I wore one of my old salwar kameezes, 12 years out of fashion. I put together a collection of trivia on Bangladesh on sticky notes, pulled up a looping slideshow of images from home on my laptop, and laid out my entire collection of saris and knickknacks on a cafeteria table. I made sandesh from cottage cheese, sugar, and cardamom, and I offered to show kids what their names looked like written in Bengali script.

Miniature rickshaw made of brass.

The whole time, I felt like a fake. I may look the part and speak the language, but I’m not Bangladeshi in any meaningful way. Perhaps I never have been.

My daughters know that Bangladesh is part of their heritage, and that I used to live there, but they’ve never been. They understand only very basic Bangla. They don’t have a single Bangladeshi (nation) or Bengali (ethnicity) friend. On the rare occasion that I cook Bengali food, they won’t eat it. I sing the 4 or 5 Bengali songs that I remember quite frequently, but my Western classical repertoire runs into the hundreds of songs.

Have I failed my daughters? Should I teach them more about this culture that feels so foreign to me? Or if I try, will I just be faking it?

Sadia is a divorced mother of two who lives in the Austin, TX area. She works in higher education information technology.

The Religion Talk

15 Apr

After dinner, one of my 6-year-old twins, J, asked what she probably expected was a straightforward question: “Are we Christians?” I assume that it was prompted by the morning’s Sunday school lesson, today’s topic having been the denial of Peter.

My answer was anything but straightforward.

It’s not the “Christian” part that’s complicated. It’s the “we” part. I’m atheist. My ex-husband, the girls’ father, is Catholic. We agreed to raise the girls Catholic until they were old enough to make their own decisions about what they believe. Getting divorced didn’t affect my commitment to honour his faith. Our daughters and I continued to read Bible stories, attend church, pray nightly, and talk about how to apply Biblical allegories and principals to our daily lives. The girls weren’t particularly keen on attending church until their babysitter took them to hers. The girls begged to switch from Catholic church to our babysitter‘s nondenominational Christian church, which we’ve attended since.

I have been readying myself to answer J’s question for 20 years. I actually expected it to come from my sister, 10 years my junior and, like me, raised Muslim. She never asked. I was 7 when I decided that I was an atheist, so I’d been anticipated that my girls would start examining their own beliefs any day now. They’ll be 7 next month.

“Being Christian is something that each person needs to choose for themselves,” I told J. “You have to decide whether ‘Christian’ describes you. If you believe that God made the universe, that Jesus is His son, and that he sacrificed himself so that humans could be forgiven for their sins, that you’re a Christian.”

“I’m a Christian,” J responded, without missing a beat.”

“Me, too,” M added.

“What about you, Mommy?”

This was it.

“No, sweetie, I’m not. I think that Jesus was a great man, and I try to live the important lessons that his life taught us, but I don’t believe that he’s the son of God.”

“WHAT?” Both my daughters were shocked.

“If you’re not Christian,” M followed up, “Are you Jewish?”

“Nope. Not Jewish. But do you know that Jesus was Jewish?”

“What!?”

“Yep. If you have to accept Jesus’ sacrifice to be a Christian, then there couldn’t be any Christians until after Jesus died, right? So he couldn’t be Christian.”

M nodded, then focused back on the real topic of our conversation. “Why don’t you believe in Jesus, Mommy?”

“It’s God that I don’t believe in.”

“So you don’t say, ‘Father, Son, Holy Spirit?’ You just say, ‘Son, Holy Spirit?'”

“No, sweetie. I don’t believe that there is a God at all. I pray with you guys so that you can choose to be Christian, but what you believe is a decision that each person has to make for him- or herself. Papa and I wanted to give you all the information you needed to make your own decision about what you believe.”

“If you have no daughters, you wouldn’t pray?” J clarified.

“That’s correct.”

“So you’re not Jewish?” M persisted.

“It’s not just a choice between Christian and Jewish, sweetie. There are lots of different ways to pray and ideas to believe. My family is Muslim. Remember how our family in Missouri prays, kneeling and in Arabic? That’s how you pray in the religion called Islam. When do we pray?”

“At bedtime and when we want to,” J answered.

“When you’re Muslim, you pray 5 times a day, no matter what.”

“I only saw 3 times!”

“That’s because my cousins woke up super-early to pray and prayed after your bedtime too. There are strict rules on how to pray in Islam. You use the same words and gestures each time. You have to wash in a special way called wudu before prayer.”

“Even your feet?” M asked, appalled.

“Yes, washing your feet is part of it,” I told her.

“I don’t want to wash my feet a bunch of times.”

“Okay, baby. My point is that in different kinds of belief in God, called religions, people pray and think about God in different ways.”

I went into a high level comparison of the major monotheistic religions, and then threw in a few polytheist beliefs for good measure.

This simple chart compares the religious texts, prayer approaches, etc. of Christianity, Islam and Judeism. A child's handwriting has labelled the term 'atheist' with the name 'Mom.'

J wanted to know what I called myself. When I taught her the word “atheist,” she rolled in around on her tongue a few times, trying it out.

The girls didn’t make it to bed at our targeted 8:30 pm time. At 9:00, J still had me listing all our relatives who are Christian: pretty much everyone on her Dad’s side of the family. She and M both included themselves in the list. M wasn’t quite comfortable with leaving me off the list, but J said that she thought it was important that I should be free to believe what I want.

This parenting thing is complicated, and I certainly don’t make it any simpler on myself with my atheist pro-religion philosophies.

Sadia is the mother of identical twins, M and J, and coordinator of the mothers of multiples blog How Do You Do It? She lives in Texas, having been in the US for the past 15 years. Her childhood was about evenly split between Bangladesh and the United Kingdom. Her ex-husband is an all-American US soldier of Mexican, Scots-Irish, and French descent. While he attended American public schools and regularly attended Catholic church in childhood, Sadia attended Catholic and secular private schools and visited mosques a handful of times.

This is where babies come from

20 Nov

Nicole Kidman, Edie Falco and Sharon Stone did it. Sandra Bullock, Charlize Theron and Katherine Heigl did it. Barbara Walters and Diane Keaton did it. I know someone who was with Meg Ryan when she did it.

It isn’t only women who do it. Tony Shaloub and even Ozzy Osbourne did it.

And I did it, too.

Nine years ago, on September 15, I, with my husband, adopted a baby girl from China. I’ve written about adoption before on my own blog, Snide Reply; it was an angry—some might say “snide”—response to the idiocy many people express about adoption and to those on all sides of the adoption triangle.

But adoption hasn’t only exposed me to idiocy. It has brought me an overabundance of joy. My daughter is beautiful, smart, funny, loving, generous, and kind. We adoptive parents like to joke that it’s ok for us to brag about our children ‘cause it’s not like we’re patting our own genetic code on the back. But I will gladly tell you that my son, who came from my womb, is handsome, smart, funny, loving (in a teenage boy kind of way), generous and kind.

Adoption has changed my vocabulary. My daughter isn’t adopted, she was adopted. As soon as the papers were signed, she became my daughter. I don’t usually say my son come from my womb, as I did above, though I prefer that description. I refer to him as my “biological son” if anyone asks and people frequently ask when they see him and his sister together. He has some smart-ass comments he keeps for people who ask if she was adopted, but he has a smart-ass comment for just about everything. Calling my son “biological” seems to imply, to me at least, that my daughter is somehow not made of the same stuff. Calling him my “natural” child is equally strange for me. Is my daughter then “unnatural?”

Adoption has changed the way many people see me. Because I’ve adopted, many people think I’m brave. They consider the things I’ve done—traveling to China, adopting “someone else’s child”—to be scary things.

Becoming a parent was scary. Deciding to try to get pregnant was scary, in a jumping off a cliff and hoping for a soft landing sort of way.

With adoption, there was no fear. We took one red-tape filled step at a time, confident that there was a child for us at the end of the journey. Traveling to China? With an eight-year old boy? Immediately following lifting of the SARS travel ban? Didn’t faze me. Trying to get pregnant is a tentative sort of venture. Who knows how it will end? Adoption is a deliberate process. Every form filled out, every interview, every trip to a consulate, state or county official says, “We will have a child.”

Adoption has brought me close to people I might never have bothered to know. I don’t usually go out of my way to befriend people whose politics and principles are so different from my own. My adoption community includes people with dramatically different politics and principles.

When I was pregnant with my son, a good friend was as well. We had a bump bonding moment in the ladies’ room at a restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana. She showed me her distended belly button and I showed her mine. I can’t imagine showing my belly button to my adoption community friends. Most of them have never met me in person.

But though our world is mainly virtual, our friendship is very real. We’ve been through the typical things long time friends weather like divorces, illnesses, teenagers. But only my adoption friends can provide comfort when I’ve just held my daughter while she sobs for her real mother.  Only they can assure me that I’ve handled it well, that I’ve done what a real mother does.

People tell me they couldn’t do what I’ve done; that they could never love a child that wasn’t their own. There’s a witty reply: I love her as my own because she is my own, just as her brother is my own.

When my son was born, he was placed in my arms and I had no idea what to do with him. I fell in love with him but it wasn’t an overnight thing.

On September 14, a Chinese woman placed Lin Chun Mei in my arms. On September 15, she became my daughter, Abigail Mei. The next day, pushing her stroller toward the elevator at the White Swan Hotel in Guangdong Province, I knew she was my own, that my love for her was no different than my love for my son.

Before I went to China, I learned a single phrase in Mandarin. When I met my daughter, I told her, “Wo shi ni de mama. Wo shi yung yuan ni de mama.”

I am your mama. I will always be your mama.

The Princess of Snide

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.

National Education: UK vs USA

18 Sep

Sharon Takao’s recent post on National Education: China vs Japan struck an unexpected chord with me. My thoughts on multi-culturalism and how to balance different national perspectives tend to focus on our life in Asia and the experience of being Westerners immersed, to varying degrees, in Chinese culture and society. But Sharon’s post reminded me of the subtler multi-culturalism within my own family. I am British and my husband Ethan is American and although we share a language and broad cultural background, the phrase “divided by a common language” can sometimes seem uncomfortably accurate.

Sharon’s story reminded me of one day earlier this summer, when I was making dinner and listening to my husband talking to our two sons about family history.  Ethan is a direct descendent of Paul Revere, hero of the American War of Independence, famous for his midnight ride to Lexington and Concord to warn patriots that “the British are coming.” You can probably guess where this is heading. Paul Revere is our son’s 7 times great-grandfather so it’s right that they should know his story and feel proud of his accomplishments. But as I listened to Ethan’s stories about the brave, clever American patriots outsmarting stupid, bullying “lobsterbacks” so they could gain freedom from the injustice of British rule, I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable. I understood that he was telling them simplified stories they could relate to, but I also didn’t want them growing up believing only one side of a complex story.  So I spoke up and pointed out that the country was divided at the time, with many Americans still considering themselves to be British subjects, that many had in fact been born in Britain, and that the story was not a simple one of good guys and bad guys. It was not as if the Americans were fighting for independence from a colonial power who had come in and occupied their country. They themselves had been part of the occupying force who had taken the country from its native inhabitants, then as they settled down decided they no longer wanted to pay taxes to the home country.

Maybe that’s another gross over-simplification, but it comes down to what Sharon pointed out, that each country teaches its own version of history, casting its own actions in the most positive light. And if you are married to someone who grew up with a different version of history than your own, you need to find some accommodation between the two. In fact the American War of Independence does not play a major role in history as taught in British schools. It is one in a series of narratives of countries colonised and lost, of Empire created and dissolved. In seven years of secondary school history courses, the only time I can remember it mentioned is as a contributory factor to the French revolution! By contract, in America it is of course a compulsory part of every child’s education and an important source of beliefs and discourses about what the nation stands for and represents.

The first time the subjectivity of history really came home to me I was already 20 (which means I had lived that long more or less accepting what I had learned in school), when the Battle of Agincourt came up in conversation with a French friend and we realised he had never heard of it. What is taught in British schools as a glorious victory is quietly ignored in France. Fortunately passing centuries take the sting out of defeat and the further away these events are, the more they become of purely academic interest. On the day in question I realised that 200 plus years aren’t quite enough to erase national loyalties within my family. Hearing my concerned tone as I tried to bring another perspective to his history lesson, Ethan did modify his story, somewhat, and acknowledge the uncertainties and divided loyalties of that period of history. We laughed about it later and I said it was a good thing I wasn’t German or Japanese, from a country that America has fought a war with in living memory, or Iraqi for that matter!

Chinese-Japanese marriages must contain similar tensions, not to mention Anglo-French ones, with centuries of conflict to draw on. Sometimes the tensions are greatest closest to home: Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Irish marriages must have plenty of fodder for diverging perspectives. I would be interested to hear other’s thoughts and experiences on this subject, it may be that I am over-sensitive. Maybe some people are good at rising above their own versions of history, allowing their children to absorb one side of the story only, but I have realised that within my family we need to find room for both sides, or at least the acknowledgement that history is complex and multi-faceted.

About me: originally from the UK, I first came to China as a student in the 1980s and my life has intersected with China one way and another ever since. For the past 8 years I have been based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province China with my American husband and our two sons aged 6 and 11. I work freelance for non-profit organisations and on my own writing, editing and translation projects.