Tag Archives: Canada

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.)

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.

Winter, with a baby

19 Jan

It’s January, in Montreal. Cold. Icy. Snowy.
My daughter was born at the end of last March, so we got to enjoy a warm and beautiful spring, summer and fall together before facing the challenge of winter. I’ve lived through many a Canadian winter, but having a baby adds a whole new dimension.

Things that make me wish I lived in a different, warmer part of the world:

The Snowsuit
M hates getting her snowsuit put on. She screams and struggles, every time. Then, invariably, as soon as we get out the door she is happy and excited to be outside. I’m waiting for her to connect the two in her little head… “hey, every time Mama puts this stupid suit on me, we get to go outside! Maybe it’s not so terrible after all.”

The Stairs
We live on the third floor. To get to our apartment, we need to go up one outdoor staircase and another indoor staircase. After 9 months of doing this with a stroller and baby on an almost daily basis, I have become a pro (and have the biceps to prove it). However, a coating of ice on the outside steps definitely adds a whole new challenge. I now go up and down pushing or pulling the stroller with only one arm while I hold onto the railing with the other hand, concentrating on not slipping and/or releasing the stroller from my grasp.

The Cold
Gone are the beautiful summer days when we could go for long walks and stop in the park for a few hours. Now we go for a walk to get out or to get somewhere, but we don’t linger. I can’t let M out of the stroller to tickle her feet in the grass or to look at the ducks. I do miss the sun. I dream of beaches, and warm places where babies don’t need to wear snowsuits and hats and scarves. Places where my little one could crawl around barefoot. Places where it doesn’t take 15 minutes to get dressed every time you want to go outside.

Things that keep me from boarding the next plane headed south:

Naps
M doesn’t like to take naps anymore. The world is just way too exciting to miss out on even a minute of the day. Now that she is crawling and climbing up on things, she is busy exploring and doesn’t want to waste any time sleeping. But when it is cold outside, taking her for a walk in her stroller magically and immediately puts her to sleep. I guess her way of dealing with the cold air is just to shut it out. She looks so cozy bundled in blankets in her stroller that I’m almost jealous.

Cross-country skiing
Our stroller is a hardcore outdoorsy stroller that you can jog with or attach to the back of a bike. You can even replace the wheels with skis to take baby cross-country skiing. We decided to purchase it mainly because it would allow us to continue cross-country skiing in the winter, even with a baby. The only way to beat the cold is to get out and active in it, and it’s easy to do so right in the city. Skiing has been my method of getting fresh air, exercise and vitamin D through the winter for as long as I can remember, and I am an addict. Skiing is what makes me look forward to winter. Without it, the short days and frigid air would get me depressed by January.

The only problem is that this winter has been far warmer than typical Montreal winters are. For the fifth year in a row, we spent a few days over New Years with friends at a cottage in the country, and for the first time in five years we weren’t able to go skiing even once because there wasn’t enough snow. `

We finally got our first real snowstorm during the second week of January… almost two months later than usual. I haven’t even gone skiing yet, but E took M last weekend to test the conditions. While they went for a father-daughter ski, I went to my favourite yoga studio to attend a class for the first time since I got pregnant. It was worth missing out on the first ski of the year. But I am looking forward to taking M for a ski someday soon.

Keeping busy
Despite the cold weather, M and I are definitely not sitting around at home getting depressed. My daughter gets cabin fever as easily as I do. We both need to get out and about every day, or we get grumpy. Fortunately the problem is that there are too many fun activities to choose from to fill our schedule. Since all mothers in Quebec get one year of maternity leave and want to make the most of it, there are a multitude of activities offered for mums and babies. There are mama-baby dance classes, yoga classes, swimming classes, music classes, playgroups, etc, etc. I meet up with friends who are also on maternity leave at one of our homes on a regular basis. We visit M’s grandparents. M is also always eager to “help” me with grocery shopping, laundry, cleaning and cooking. We are certainly never bored. I think we’ll make it through the winter.

Maro Adjemian lives in Montreal, Canada with her Italian/Quebeçois husband and 9 month old daughter.

Three Cheers for Family by Maro Adjemian

7 Dec

Maro: I speak English, French, Spanish (although it’s getting rusty), and not as much Italian as I should. I grew up in small towns not far from Ottawa, first on the Quebec side and then on the Ontario side, but my background and extended family reach from Armenia to Hawaii. My husband, Eric, was born in Montreal to Italian parents. He speaks English, French, Italian (although he denies it, since he doesn’t think his grandparents’ dialect counts), and a bit of Spanish.

We have a baby girl, Myriam, who was born in March 2011. She’s working on her consonants these days- baba, dada, ida, lida, nana… but I’m not sure which language, exactly. I’m not sure she knows, either.

Three Cheers for Family

Yesterday, Myriam and I went to visit her Nonno (grandfather in Italian).  He came to the door to let us in, and immediately bent down to see M in her stroller.

“Myriam! Come stai?”

She beamed and waved her arms in excitement.

He plucked her out of her stroller and peeled her snowsuit off of her, tossed her up in the air a few times while she shrieked with joy, and then handed her an orange to play with. She was delighted.  As an afterthought, he said, “Hi, Maro, how are you?”  M didn’t even look at me. She was engrossed in her orange.

My father-in-law retired this year, just in time to become an eager and available babysitter.  He took fine arts in University once upon a time, and used to do ceramics. He still has his potter’s wheel and equipment, and a couple of years ago he gave me pottery lessons at my request. Now, we go and visit once a week. M hangs out with her Nonno, and I work on my pottery. It’s a win-win-win arrangement. I’m not sure who enjoys their time together more: M or Nonno. And I treasure the couple of hours a week I have to spin a wheel and get lost in my thoughts without worrying about my baby. It’s nice to have an opportunity to zone out and completely lose track of time in the way artistic creation allows you to do.

I grew up 5000 kilometers away from all four of my grandparents, so I never had the sort of relationship with them that my daughter has with hers. We wrote letters to them, and spoke on the phone, and once a year they came and visited us or we went and visited them. I always felt close to my extended family. I never really thought about what a difference it would make if we lived close by.

I never really expected my kids to live close to their grandparents, either. As a child, I used to proudly tell people that on my father’s side of the family there had been one immigration per generation for the past four generations. People would ask me, “And will you continue the trend and be the fifth generation to emigrate somewhere?” and I would reply, “probably”.  I used to flip through my parents’ National Geographic collection and dream about all the places I could go.  When we were little, my brother and I played a game with our globe. We took turns spinning it as fast as we could, and then letting one finger drag on its surface as it turned. Wherever that finger landed when the globe stopped spinning is where we would live.  Often, of course, we ended up living in the Pacific Ocean. But many other possibilities also presented themselves.

A decade or so later I went to University and studied International Development, and then Geography. I assumed I would end up living somewhere in Africa or Latin America, at least for a few years. It’s funny how life happens to you. You take one step after another as they present themselves, and you often end up somewhere very different from where you expected to find yourself. I read somewhere once that life is like “stepping stones in the fog”. You only see one at a time, and you step forward not knowing where the trail of stepping stones will lead you in the end.

And so here I am, living in a Canadian city where I have spent most of the past twelve years, surrounded by extended family. Almost all of E’s family lives in Montreal, and in the past couple of years my parents and two sisters moved here. Myriam sees her entire extended family on a very regular basis and she’s only 8 months old. And I think it’s great. It’s convenient and wonderful to have excited and available family members around who can babysit when I need to do something or go somewhere baby-less. After Myriam was born they filled up our fridge with good food and helped clean our apartment. When we visit them, they play with her and give E and I a chance to eat dinner uninterrupted. The traditional family support system makes a lot of sense.

When I thought about being the fifth generation of immigration in my family, I thought mostly about the benefits of living in another part of the world. The richness of leaning different languages and getting to know other people and cultures, as many of you on this site have talked about.  I didn’t think about the richness of living surrounded by family in a familiar place and culture. Right now I’m happy to be here, both for the extra help and support it gives us, and because of the relationship my little one can have with her doting extended family.

Canadian by Bea of The Little Grovers

28 Nov

Bea: Lives in Canada with her husband T and their twin toddler boys. Catch up with them at http://www.littlegrovers.blogspot.com.

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When I discussed the subject of raising children in a multicultural family with my husband, we came to the same conclusion. Though my heritage is Italian-Irish, and T.’s is Korean we both feel Canadian. My parents immigrated to Canada when they were children and I was raised, for better or worse, in a single language speaking home.

My husband came to Canada as a small child with his grandparents and speaks Korean with his family. Because he has no formal education in Korean, and I’ve been told he speaks like an old country woman due to his dialect, he is not that comfortable conversing in his native language.

This is all a long winded way of saying that we only speak English with our kids at home. There will be the obligatory French language classes in school, but we have no plans to teach our kids Korean or Italian outside of a few phrases.

Both of T.’s grandparents have passed away, and he has a few aunts and uncles here in Canada. I’m sure they would love it if our boys learned Korean, but we do not see them often enough for them to have much influence over the boys language development. And three out of four adult relatives do not speak English though they have lived in English speaking Canada for decades so I do not have a well developed relationship with them.

I took some Italian language classes as a child, and again as an adult but I never really put it into practice and would be incapable of holding a conversation now.

Am I doing a disservice to my children by not teaching them more than one language in these early toddler years? If we as parents are not able to speak more than one language with our kids, should we invest in language classes for our kids?

Competitive Advantage by Desi Valentine

19 Nov

Desi: I’m a corporate refugee, quiet activist and child care provider. I write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, and life looking after other people’s kids, over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day http://thevalentine4.com/
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I’ve written about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, before. http://thevalentine4.com/2011/08/21/on-tigers-and-happiness/

I found the book fascinating, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was Chau’s first chapter assertion that her parenting methods were “Chinese” by title, and “immigrant” by definition. I don’t get that. I mean, I am a (sort of) first generation Canadian. My mum was born here, but my father is from Nigeria. On some archetypal level, I think I might understand the immigrant drive for their children to achieve.

Maybe. I’m not clear on how that drive is significantly different from every parent’s desire for their kids to succeed.

I did do very well in school. And I also have an intimate understanding of what it was to be a visible minority in a predominantly white community. People look at you. People pay attention to what you are doing. They talk about it. And, though I took my share of racist insults, the vast majority of my classmates and administrators were by no means cruel. Just sort of separate. In the friends but not best friends, seeing each other but not dating, helpful but not involved, sort of way.

Or maybe it was just me.

Chau’s kids were academic achievers. Homework always completed, they did the bonus questions for extra marks, and studied hard all the rest of the time. And that’s my point, I guess. She approached parenting with the expectation that her children would do well. She put them through more grueling hours of practice and revision than I would. She committed more means and time to finding good private tutors than I would. She punished them more severely for low effort than I would. But our expectations of our children’s successes are not dissimilar. Like basketball players in the inner cities, like hockey players in rural towns, they practiced a lot as an extension of community. And excelled.

My kids will do well in school. I believe that firmly. I expect that of them. We are an afterschooling home with learning resources everywhere, and education in all its forms are integral enough to be family values, around here. I have no beef with rote learning, standardized testing, or memorization. I think we need to know the information in order to interpret it, and while these methods do not give us “knowledge”, they do imbed the data from which meaningful interpretations can be made. I think that kids’ work should be graded, that poor effort should be investigated and remedied, and that competition is only harmful when tied to self-worth.

I am aware that these are not necessarily popular views. If the backlash on Chau’s book is any indicator, these are very unpopular views.

But then I think of articles I’ve read about adults in their twenties and thirties who don’t know how to be happy, and all of the books and films devoted to defining and improving “happiness”. I think of parents calling into universities to argue on behalf of their adult children, data on the dangers of “over-praising”, reports about the growth of experiential learning, pioneering research into inquiry based learning, the Waldorf and Montessori approaches to teaching young children…. And a woman overheard on a call-in radio show who believes very firmly that all children in elementary school should be protected from standardized testing, grading, competitive sports, and measurable academic achievement. I think about the free-range kids movement, and the exponential growth of Kumon and Sylvan learning centres. About a dear friend’s conclusion that “the smart kids will do well in any school”. I think about the open concept approach of our most recent “student-led teacher conference”, and the parents who had no choice but to hear how my daughter is thriving in school. (Seriously. How is that helpful to anyone?)

On some level, it feels like we’re rushing madly off in all directions. And for some of us, that means bringing at least part of our children’s formal education back home.

One final admission: My family is using Rosetta Stone to study French, while our daughter attends a French Immersion school. She loves going through the program on my computer, and is always thoroughly annoyed with me when I tell her she has to stop. We’re doing this, in large part, because we like to learn new things together. But the other part? The minor part? The less socially acceptable, teensy bit embarrassing part?

We’re doing this because there are francophone children in her classroom, and I expect her to keep up with them.

I’m skeptical that this has anything to do with my ethnic background or “immigrant status”. I haven’t yet met a parent, regardless of parenting style or doctrine, who did not want more for their children than they themselves have. Though the individual definition of “more” does vary.

What do you think? This post is scattered like my thoughts are, I know. How would you piece it all together?

© Desi Valentine 2011. All rights reserved. Text and images are not to be reproduced or replicated without my written consent. Contact me at desivalentine4 at gmail dot com

How to Raise a Multilingual Child

19 Nov

By Maro: I speak English, French, Spanish (although it’s getting rusty), and not as much Italian as I should. I grew up in small towns not far from Ottawa, first on the Quebec side and then on the Ontario side, but my background and extended family reach from Armenia to Hawaii. My husband, Eric, was born in Montreal to Italian parents. He speaks English, French, Italian (although he denies it, since he doesn’t think his grandparents’ dialect counts), and a bit of Spanish. We have a baby girl, Myriam, who was born in March 2011. She’s working on her consonants these days- baba, dada, ida, lida, nana… but I’m not sure which language, exactly. I’m not sure she knows, either.

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My name is completely Armenian, but I’m a mishmash of places and cultures: only one quarter Armenian, another quarter Italian, and the other half Anglo-Saxon American. My father, half Armenian and half Italian, was born and raised in France, so I have French roots (and a French passport), too. My parents met in the U.S. but immigrated to Canada before I was born.

When I was 18 I moved to Montreal to go to McGill University. During my twenties I spent a lot of time studying, working, volunteering and traveling in various places including Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, Madagascar, Zambia, Italy and France. I also spent some time working as a Naturalist in northern Quebec, and planting trees in British Colombia. I was, as some friends affectionately called me, a globetrotter.

Now my husband and I are back in Montreal, fairly settled and stable. We have family here, we have wonderful friends, and we both love our jobs. We’re even talking about buying a house, which seems a very adult and stable thing to do. Although wanderlust still strikes and we talk about living and working abroad at some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future, for now we are very happy in this vibrant and bilingual city. Montreal has become home.

One of my sister’s friends, who studied bilingualism, told me that although the traditional method of raising bilingual children is to have each parent speak one language, it is not necessarily the best strategy. Apparently children actually become more fluently bilingual when each parent speaks both languages, as long as they stick to one language at a time and don’t mix them up. Otherwise the child tends to be stronger in the language of the parent he or she spends the most time with.

I have never heard anyone else state this theory, but I’m really hoping that it’s true. I’m hoping that Myriam will grow up multilingual and not just confused.

The plan was that Eric would speak to Myriam in French and I would speak to her in English. However, living in this bilingual city has made us so used to flipping back and forth between languages that we’re finding it hard to stick to this plan. It doesn’t help that both of us are fluently bilingual but more comfortable in English than in French.

Eric usually speaks to her in French, but we speak to each other in English in her hearing. I speak to her in English, except that often I find myself speaking to her in French. Myriam and I spend a lot of time with other mama-baby friends, most of whom are francophone. So during our social activities I’m usually speaking French, to my little one as well as to my friends and their children.

It doesn’t end there. Myriam’s Nonno speaks to her in Italian, except that sometimes he forgets and switches to English. Her Italian great-grandparents speak to her in Italian dialects that probably no longer exist except in North American immigrant communities. Once in a while I spend time with Spanish speaking friends and catch myself speaking Spanish to Myriam.

Every night as I put my baby to sleep I sing her lullabies in English, French and Spanish. I should probably learn and include an Italian lullaby, just to be fair. Sometimes I wonder how long it will take before she realizes that lullabies have words and meaning. She probably just thinks that I sing a variety of songs because they sound nice. Maybe we should be more scientific about our method of raising a multilingual child.

Myriam is, in general, a happy and good-natured little person. But she studies things seriously. When she meets someone new, or happens to spot someone interesting while we’re out and about (in the subway, in the market, in the park…) she stares at them unabashedly and unflinchingly. I don’t think there are many people who could beat her in a staring contest. The people she stares at usually either coo and smile and gush about how adorable she is, or else look away uncomfortably and pretend they haven’t noticed her unblinking focus. I’m not sure if she’s trying to figure out the Meaning of Life, or if she just likes making people squirm. But I feel confident that if she has this level of focus and concentration at 6 months of age, someday soon she’ll be able to understand what we’re saying to her, whether it’s “go to sleep”, “fait dodo”, “duermate”, or “vai a dormire”.

Seiyan Says “NO!” by Alisha Nicole Apale

19 Nov

Alisha: Started out in a small town. Grew up with people who have the opportunity to matter. Bought a plane ticket. Traveled far. Saw another side to the narrative of privilege I’d been grazing on for nearly two decades. Discarded old stereotypes. Got less comfortable with easy answers. Accepted doubt as a sign of authenticity. Still questioning the validity of the actions. Still forging ahead.

Alisha lives in Ottawa, Canada with her partner and one-and-a-half-year old daughter – we’re a Kenyan-Canadian-Dutch family. She grew up near Toronto and at 19, moved to Montreal for her undergrad at McGill University. She spent most of her young(er) adult life studying, living and working in various countries, including Thailand, India, Canada, Kenya and several European Union countries. She is also co-author of Generation NGO, a collection of short stories written by young Canadians working overseas in the development industry. (Catch more of Alisha’s stories at mamaseyian.)
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“NO!”. She’s one and a half and she already speaks her mind. (Well done, mama, you reached one of your parenting goals!) The word surfaced about 3 weeks ago. I was caught off guard. Humoured. A bit miffed too.

“NO??” I thought to myself. “What do you mean NO?”

And then I remembered being 5, and 10, and even 17 years old. I remember the reactions I’ve had when saying no to my parents, teachers and others. NO was met with resistance, rejection and punishment. A good girl should do as she is told.

Looking at my daughter, I shrugged off the past, quickly realizing that this is just a word she’s picked up at daycare. She’s experimenting with it, much like any other word she learns. She’s searching my face, looking for my reaction. Will I scurry to bring her the object she has just named, praising her and reinforcing her new word – like when she said umbrella, or pumpkin, or hat? Will I start to laugh, or clap, or give her a big hug?

I’ve hesitated for too long. She wanders off. Delayed reactions never impress her. The moment is lost.

There I was, left to ponder the fact that Seyian has said no. It’s a word I have trouble with. I hate it when my partner says “No, I can’t do to the dishes tonight. I’m tired”. Or when my boss says “No, you can’t leave early. I’ll need that report right away”. Or, when a friend says “Sorry.. no, but I can’t meet you for coffee tonight”. Probably, like most people, at times I even avoid making a request altogether, just to avoid hearing no. But in doing so, I’ve started to think about all the opportunity that is lost when I set myself up for nothing but yes in life. Without no, I wouldn’t have learned how to negotiate, or how to defend my position or values, or how to be true to myself and respect my own and others’ needs or interests.

Seyians’s Koko (my mum-in-law) arrived last week. It’s the first time she has met Seyian – she lives in Nairobi and we live in Ottawa. It was a sweet reunion after far too much time apart. The day after her arrival, Koko offered Seyian a piece of fruit and Seyian let out a firm “NO!”. Flustered, I explained it away, saying she probably wasn’t hungry. I felt a bit embarrassed, worried Koko would think that I spoil my daughter, or let her ‘talk back’ to me.

Instead, Koko laughed proudly. I was confused. She looked at me and said, “This girl. She’s empowered. Already! And she’s not even two. She already knows what she wants. This is good”. With six kids of her own and a life-long career teaching elementary school, and advocating access to school for young girls in remote areas of Kenya, Koko knows a thing or two about the importance of negotiation and defending one’s values. For her, no isn’t a bad word, it’s a necessary word.

I’ll be honest. I’m not sure I’ll also be happy when Seyian says, “NO”. Let’s face it, no isn’t always such a convenient answer for mammas like me who are on-the-move, squeezing far too many activities into each 24 hour cycle: wake up, eat, bring baby to daycare, cycle to work, rush to meet a thousand deadlines, cycle back to daycare, pick up the baby, go home, prepare dinner, go to the park, return home, bathe the baby, put the baby to bed, clean the kitchen, shower, stretch, pay bills or catch up on email, head to bed… It’s just easier if everyone is compliant. But that’s not really how I want my daughter to be. So perhaps it’s better if I start to laugh proudly like Koko and welcome the word no into the repertoire of words my daughter will surely need in order to make her place in this world.