Tag Archives: culture

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.

Boys Can Wear Dresses Too

31 Aug

“Look, the woman is free now,” Leila describes an American Indian man in the animated film.

“That’s a man, Leila,” I say, knowing full well where this would go.

“But, but he has long hair, and…”

“Men can have long hair,” I was a little too stern with her about this, fed-up with all the stereotyping.

“But look at the hair bands in her hair.”

“Leila, men can wear hair bands.”

I would get nowhere with my attitude, and of course my two-year-old’s are only trying to make sense of the world and figure out how they fit in it. Their gender differences are a part of that. I relax, try something different. “OK, you remember our friend in Koh Samui? He has very long hair. Sometimes he used hair bands to tie it up. Remember?”

She laughed and agreed.

My daughter is going through a phase where she needs to define herself as a girl. Quite normal I suppose.  It was after she repeatedly heard an older girl telling Rahul, “but that’s for girls,” as the doll and hair clips that he was playing with were snatched out of his hands, that it became as issue.

Since then, L often says similar things to her brother. I have a feeling that other than it being a gender identity thing, the issue is magnified because they are boy / girl twins who are almost always together. I am not yet sure how or if I even need to do something to help Leila with this question.

On a walk around the mall one day, Leila saw a shop full of pink things, she half stated, half asked if it’s only for girls. I disagreed. Rahul has often asked me the same question, “This is only for girls, mum?” He used to like pink. I doubt that it was a natural instinct; it was probably because his sister liked it. And then I’m not so sure that her obsession tendency for pink is natural either. More recently Rahul has constructed that “yellow” and “green” are his favorites. I see him consciously choosing those colors because he is a “boy”, and then also maybe a bit because it sets him apart from his twin sister.

“But I only want yellow nail polish,” he begged in their fight discussion this afternoon. He looks at me, almost in tears.
“NO, it’s only for girls,” she barks at him. A moment later she turns to me, “It’s only for girls mum?”
“Boys can also use nail polish guys, but neither of you can until you are older.”

A few days ago it was about toy make-up. “I want to play with this,” Rahul said as they were tugging and pulling on the toy eye-shadow. A man in the room, probably just trying to ease the tension, said, “Make-up is for girls Rahul.”

“Hey come on guys,” I couldn’t help myself, “some men use make-up.” I got some questioning looks from the men in that room. “Men who dance, act on stage or in movies use make-up.” I didn’t even touch those who might use it just because they enjoy it. Our home is a rather gender neutral space, the children have a range of toys, but we are immersed in a host of cultures all of which segregate gender roles and behaviour in the obvious, traditional sense.

An openly gay friend of mine in Lebanon, oriental-dance performing artist and teacher posted this little story on Facebook about a man who wears dresses in solidarity with his little boy. It reminded me of a conversation I overheard between my children and a couple of close Swedish friend. “Boys can wear dresses too,” my friend’s husband explained to them.

My children will have many influences in their lives and they’ll make their own choices. I still try to play my bit in keeping them open. I’ve always been grateful to the exposure I had growing up, to people of different cultures and way of thinking. My own parenting decisions and choices come from imitating those I respect and trust, as well as trying to realise my own mistakes.

A few weeks ago I saw a couple of sticker books that I thought my children would love. One was of an Indian girl, the other was an African girl. The idea is that the child plays designer. She can stick bags, and necklaces on the girl, colour in the clothes the way she wants. I bought both. For Leila. How was I to choose between an Indian and an African princess? And I had an inkling that Rahul might want to play with one at the same time. To be fair though, I bought Rahul a couple of finger puppets.

Rahul enjoyed his puppets, but luckily Leila agreed to share one of her princess design books with him. They both enjoyed sticking the bangles, bindhis, and chitenge prints on their models. In the sense of learning alone, he was doing well with focusing, sticking the handbags on the girl’s arm, and the flowers in her hair. So just because it’s a girl in the picture why can’t he play with the book? Maybe he’ll become a clothes designer one day. Why didn’t I just buy one princess book for each one of my children?

Over the weekend we went to a toy shop. Rahul chose a baby doll. He likes to change dolls’ clothes, rock and kiss them goodnight. Of course, he was shown the transformer cars and the Lego, but he was adamant about the baby doll. Only at the very last minute did a laser sword change his mind. Regardless of the outcome, I was glad that I would have proudly walked out of that shop having bought both my children dolls.

Related links:
From TV to toys: What shapes boys into boys and girls into girls             
Parenting the Enemy
– blog post by Janice Lindegard of Snide Reply
Boys Will Be Boys? – blog post by reanbean

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

“Where are you from, mum?”

26 Aug

My children started preschool on Thursday.

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

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

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

“My teacher.”

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

“Zambia,” Rahul replies.

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

“Lebalon,” Leila says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Benefits of Being Bilingual

8 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s No Such Thing as Half Italian

10 Mar

The other night, while guiltily attempting to enjoy the silence of a first-ever empty house, I settled into my sloppy, toy-covered living room with the remote and a fleece blanket. I was thrilled about the opportunity to watch adult television, at a normal volume, without the worry of tripping noisily over a toy, or sneezing, or breathing. The silence, though a blessing in the face of recent stresses, was ill-placed. I’ve never been without my children in the evening, and it was downright disquieting.

I sought to distract myself with some enthralling entertainment, something into which I could dive headfirst, something that would help me forget I was alone.

Redemption came in the form of PBS pledge programming. I’m a sucker for PBS pledge programming. PBS is responsible for my love (turned lust, and then safely back to love) of Harry Connick, Jr., Cirque du Soleil, and musical theater, to name just a few. Needless to say, I was more than ecstatic when I noticed an Il Volo concert has just begun.

Who are Il Volo, you ask? Well, they’re a motley crew of young adult tenors brought together, in 2009, by an Italian talent competition. And they’re wonderful. As soon as you get past the, ahem, motleyness.

I sat, legitimately absorbed by the concert (to the point where I spent two hours arguing with myself over the practicality of buying tickets to an upcoming show), their shaky but charming English, and their beautiful, yet very distinct, voices.

During one of their songs, a song about mothers, black-and-white family video reels played on a screen above the stage. Grandmothers and grandfathers, whom I imagine are no longer with us, smiled, laughed, drank, and ate at large, food-covered family tables. At the end of the song, each young man presented a single rose to his teary-eyed mother before kissing her gently on the cheek. I have to admit, I got a little misty.

And that’s when it hit me.

This is me.

I am half Italian. But as anyone who is half (or more) Italian, knows, there is no such thing as half Italian. This culture, much like an allergic reaction, has a way of spreading over your body, your spirit, your life.

Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (...

I have had a love-hate relationship with my Italian heritage for as long as I can remember. I love (and hate) the importance of family, I love (and hate) the emphasis on food, I love (and hate) the stereotypes, and I love, no, well, just hate, the portrayals in the media. The Godfather, though I could sit, mesmerized, for the nine hours it takes to run on network television, rather disgusts me. Just about everything filmed in New Jersey raises my blood pressure. And Mario and Luigi? Well, they’re okay. I don’t mind them.

Anyone who reads me regularly, or maybe even sporadically, knows I have a chip on my shoulder about Jersey Shore. Do you want to know why? Really why? Because they’re whom I’ve been running so recklessly to avoid, to avoid being, my entire life. And there’s also that kid from Rhode Island, whom my cousin, and several other acquaintances, know. Personally. What can I say? Small state. The proximity, coupled with their, uh, antics, create a perfect storm of emotional turmoil for me. That and the tanning.

I’ve tried to deny my maker on several occasions, tried to walk away from the gold chains, the accents, saying things like “fuhgeddaboutit” and “sangwich”, and the unnecessarily large holiday spreads, but I’ve only been marginally successful.

Now that I have children, who are now a quarter Italian, a smidge Armenian, a pinch Polish, and half Egyptian, I can’t help but sit here and wonder what we’ll make of that soup, which veggies will float to the top, what direction we’ll take, and how they will ultimately identify themselves. Because though there’s a lot I’d like to forsake about my own culture, I can’t (and won’t) let it go.

I secretly love it when my soon-to-be 81-year-old grandmother hauls off and starts shouting the names of saints when she’s angry, or sits me down to impart some generations-old wisdom. Each time, the conversation begins with her trying to accurately translate some epigram, awkwardly explaining it, then ending with, “That’s what my mother used to say, Steph, but it sounded better when she said it. It sounds better in Italian.”

I know, Gram. I know. It does sound better in Italian.

Fuhgeddaboutit.

Stephanie is a former behavioral health professional who gave up the glitz and glamour of human services for stay-at-home motherhood. She is the proud, but exhausted mother of a feisty two-year-old boy, one-year-old fraternal twins, a husband with a rotating work schedule, and three cats. She can be found sharing her tales of woe at Momma Be Thy Name, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Because Misery Loves Company

Teaching My Son to Write

29 Feb

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

Forgive me if this post is somewhat less than concise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———

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.

Afu ge ge, Leila mei mei

19 Nov

“Which twin is older?” The question is absurd. In China, I get it all the time. And it works me up.
“They are twins. They are the same age.” I reply, irritated.
“Yes, but they didn’t both come out at the same time, did they? One had to have been born first.”
They insist, “Is she the older sister or is he the older brother?”
“But they were born minutes apart. What’s the big deal?!”

In Chinese there are no words for sister or brother; only for older brother “ge ge”, younger brother “di di”, older sister “jie jie”, and younger sister “mei mei.”

I don’t want to impose birth-order stereotypes on L and R; they are born 7 minutes apart. When L joined us at home, 3 weeks after R, Maher and I both unintentionally spoke to Rahul referring to Leila as his little sister. It was more in the sense of endearment and physical size than of age. But we quickly realized that it was untrue, and imagined implications of such labeling. We stopped.

When we returned to Chengdu from Hong Kong 5 months after the birth, our ayi (nanny) would tell R, “Look, Leila mei mei is sleeping. Why don’t you sleep as well?” I was upset. Drop the comparison, that issue is for another post. I firmly asked the people close to us – ayi’s (nannies), Chinese friends – not to use ge ge and mei mei; but to refer to Rahul and Leila as Rahul and Leila. Initially, they considered my request strange. I was interfering with cultural norms and habits. I insisted. They complied, at first with an uncomfortable smile, and probably a thought of how the lao wai (foreigners) always do things strangely. Now, they don’t hesitate. I’ve heard our ayi herself telling people in the street – “How can one be older? They are twins.” And if pushed she says, “I don’t know who was born first,” and then she looks at me to save her from the situation!

From what I remember of my Social Psychology 101 class, and various family talks, the oldest child is more responsible, self-motivated, and more dutiful, the middle child struggles for attention, and the youngest child is light-hearted, sometimes babied. It’s not as “straightforward” as that in reality, and certainly not in our household. I hope R doesn’t turn around one day and say a silly thing like, “That’s the way it goes because I am your older brother,” or someone guilt trips him with, “but she’s your little sister.”

When we go downstairs to play with the other kids in the complex, mums often tell their children, “You are her older brother. Let her play with your toy.” In China today, it’s rare that a child has a brother or a sister; so mum is usually referring to her child’s playmate. L and R may not know any of their friend’s names, but they know who is older and who is younger than them.

About half a year ago, R surprised me when he pointed at himself and said, “Afu, ge ge”. (R calls himself Afu. It’s his Sichuanese name.) In another incident, a mum of a two-year old girl asked me if L is a jie jie or a mei mei. Before I could say anything, L pointed at herself and replied proudly, “Leila, mei mei.”

L and R were obviously beginning to understand what people say. I realized that unless they use the words describing their relationships, they won’t be able to refer to their friends or themselves in an understandable, and respectable manner.

I am impressed that they know the words, and maybe the meaning. I don’t think they understand what the words imply in relation to each other, but they know that’s who they are.

A few weeks ago, a pair of 22-year-old identical Chinese twin girls automatically introduced themselves to me as older sister and younger sister. When I dug deeper, probed them on whether they really feel like one is older and if they live by that, “not really,” older sister replied, “At home we call each other by name. It is for others that we use mei mei and jie jie.”

Other than it being a naming issue, it is a cultural one. We live in China, L and R were born in HK, and speak Chinese, so it only makes sense that they follow the social and cultural norms when engaging in society here. Now, when people in the street ask me the question, I answer straight up, R ge ge and L mei mei. Still some days, when I am in a feisty mood, I refuse to answer.

At home, with ayi’s and friends, we stick to L and R.

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Natasha lives in Chengdu, China with her husband Maher, and two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. She was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until her little yogis became the teachers. You can read more of her stories at Our Little Yogis. (http://natashadevalia.com)