Tag Archives: family

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.)

Cool Doctor

1 Jul

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

I called our doctor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liu Yan asked around for the doctor on duty.

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

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

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

Liu Yan translated.

He refused.

I walked out coolly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

My Daughter’s Faces

29 Jan

Ethnicity is a nebulous topic, for me.  I grew up black in a very white community.  My mother is second generation Canadian caucasian (half German; plus a bit of Irish, a bit of Scottish, and some other pieces of the great UK).  My father was a Nigerian here on a student permit when they met, loved, and made me.  Looking through the photos, I can see that there were black people in my life, as an infant.  But my father must’ve taken them with him when he left during my toddlerhood, as I don’t remember them.

I do remember being different.

I remember being the only person of colour in my family, in my neighbourhood, and one of only a handful of people with brown skin in all of my years of grade school.  But I don’t remember being particularly upset by it.  I mean, we were poor, for sure, and recognizing that was hurtful for me.  The long list of things I couldn’t have loomed large in my life.  The way that people looked at us when I wasn’t clean, or when I didn’t have my lunch, or when our always aging always rusting always breaking car broke down again….  I learned all the ways those events impacted the community’s perception of my family, of our single-parent household, and I got better at hiding them.  And from them.  But racial discrimination?  That wasn’t a part of my life, as far as I could see.  Holding the torturous position of “Smart Kid” in a tiny rural school?  THAT was a part of my life.

So, I was sort of blind, at the time, to the racism my mother saw.  But looking back, I remember her rage very clearly.  When we left parties abruptly, because someone had made a n*gger joke and Mum’s face glowed a furious blazing fuschia while that room full of acquaintances laughed and laughed.  Or when strangers told me how cute I was, and then asked my Mum how long she had been looking after me.  At that time, for me, these things were sort of inconsequential, you know?  At the time, she kept these bits of darkness carefully and intentionally away from the light of her life.

I am so grateful.

Danica, my baby girl, was born into an established suburban community.  We have fences and mature trees and neighbours who look after their yards.  Everyone we know has a newish and well-maintained car.  Or two.  When she wants something, she asks for it, and the “can’t” is only limited to how many things I think she should have.  Not how many things I can’t afford to give her.  My kids have no relationship to the cracked asphalt and gravelly pavers of the Low Rentals.  They’ve never had to move away because of bad luck and worse money.  They’ve never been hungry.  They have a pack of friends whose parents watch them carefully, and they don’t know what it’s like to be out of eyesight with the neighbourhood kids until way past bedtime on a summer night.  They were born into a different lifestyle and a different time.

I’m not entirely sure that’s good for them.

My skin is coffee brown, the amount of cream added strongly dependent on the season and time spent playing outside.  My husband, the son of a light-skinned Jamaican and a caucasian Canadian, could pass as white.  And so my children’s complexions are much lighter than mine.  They have medium-beige skin, chocolate brown eyes, and reddish-brown nappy hair.  My daughter can pass.  My son looks enough like me that people wonder, but don’t ask – and perhaps that is one of the blessings we bought with this comfortable home and this comfortable life.

When Danica was not quite two, she and I would bus home from work and daycare, together.  Buses in Edmonton, Alberta, are usually multi-ethnic, even while many communities here are not.  Black people, white people, Asian people, Indian people, Russian people, Fijian people, Aboriginal people, Filipino people, and more, all sitting shoulder to shoulder with their iPods or novels or newspapers or raucous conversations in a musical cacophony of language….  It was not an intentional thing, at the time, to take my daughter on the bus with me.  It was not a careful or self-conscious decision, to expose my almost-white child to the texture of the world.

One afternoon, a black woman hefted her daughter, about the same age, onto the bus beside us, labouriously planted her stroller brakes, and arranged her mess of bags.  We were waiting at the Jasper Place terminal in a very multi-ethnic neighbourhood.  And, yes, incomes are low there, as too often is the case.  Her daughter’s stroller cost maybe thirty bucks and looked very well used, possibly second or third hand.  Mine cost over a hundred.

Both were equally well-smeared with fruit-snack bits and teething-biscuit paste.

She looked at me, at my daughter, then smiled that angry smile.  She said to her baby, slowly and carefully:  “Look, honey.  A yellow baby!”  That woman – who might have called me “sister” in another context, in another place – she called my daughter high yellow and then grinned at me to make sure I understood.

I would like to think I’m above that kind of bullshit, but I’m not.  I’d like to think that I’m educated enough, experienced enough, well-read enough, to view racists as the hurting, ignorant, broken human beings that I know them to be.  And, if anyone had asked me before that moment what I would have done if someone called my baby girl yellow – with that look, with that voice – I probably would have replied with something compassionate and healing.  A teaching moment, if you will.

Right.

But what I did?  What I did was glare at that woman with her flat, angry, eyes.  And then I smiled at her daughter who was just as beautiful as my own.  Heartbreaking and happy in layers of pink and dirty ribbons.  I said, “Yes, honey, she does have a yellow hat on, today.  And just look at your pretty dress!  You’re like a little flower there, sweet girl.”

I didn’t say it to educate.  I didn’t say it to make it better.  I said it to make that tired, angry, struggling black mother feel like total shit.  I said it to protect my daughter.

Danica is almost six, now.  She has dayhome friends who are Ukrainian, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese.  All of them Canadian.  She has cousins who are every different colour of brown, every variation of beige, and who celebrate traditions from Germany, Belgium, Ireland, Jamaica, Fiji, India and China.  She speaks English, is learning French, and has been begging to learn Cantonese.  She has no concept of race.  She has no understanding of ethnic features, beyond the way that her Jamaican grandfather has blue eyes, her dad has hazel eyes, her brother’s eyes are nearly black, and so are her beige grandmother’s and brown mum’s.  There is no geographic attachment to facial features, for her.

I celebrate that.

My daughter loves to draw.  LOVES it.  She has been drawing and writing since she was two, and has sketchbooks and notebooks and bits of paper, and vats of markers and crayons and pencils, all around her all the time.  She loves to draw.

Here is one of her first family portraits:

And here are the two of us, together.  I’m wearing a black shirt and jeans, and she’s wearing a yellow hat (her description) and some optimistically dangly “pierced-ear earings”.  I guess a girl can dream, if she wants to 🙂

“Danica, what’s this picture about?”

She looked at me drily (though, to her credit, she did not say ‘Duh‘).  “We’re celebrating.  See?  There’s CAKE!”

“Why, though?  What do we have to celebrate?”

World-weary sigh.  “Well, everything, Mum.  We have SO MUCH to celebrate.”

Oh, honey.  Yes.  We really, really do.

———

I’m a corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider.  I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, and life looking after other people’s kids, over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day.

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.