Tag Archives: identity

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.)

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.

Oh Boy!

20 Nov

“Rahul is a sweetheart! He let Leila have the train,” I declare proudly as he hands back her toy upon request.

“Thanks Rahul.” I continue.

“Afu BOY,” he quickly corrects me, worried. (He calls himself Afu; the Sichuanese version of his Chinese name.)

“Yes. Afu boy.” I confirm, without going into how he can also be a sweetheart!

“Leila girl,” he double-checks.

“Yes. Leila girl.”

He looks up, eyes shining, up to something. “Afu GIRL!”

“Afu girl? Nnnnnno, Afu boy!” I reply with a chuckle.

He bursts out laughing.

The 4 of us are downstairs, L on her train, R on his duck-car, ayi (meaning aunt, what he calls their nanny) and me.

He continues with some powerful declarations of identity: “Afu zizi.” (A cute way for children to say penis in French.)

“Leila kiki.” (A cute way for children to say vagina in French.)

“Yes honey, you’re right. You have a zizi, and Leila has a kiki.”

Then he goes wild: “Papa zizi. Mama kiki. Ayi kiki. Shu shu zizi.” (Shu shu is uncle in Mandarin, what the children call any young man they need to address.)

Our uncontrollable, loud laughter attracts some attention.

“It’s a good thing the Chinese people don’t understand him,” ayi says between squeals of laughter; her face red as a tomato.

———————–

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)