Tag Archives: multicultural

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.

National Education: UK vs USA

18 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Education: China vs. Japan

14 Sep

Recently there have been demonstrations, assemblies, and a hunger strike to fight against Moral & National Education (so-called ‘brain-washing education’) which was to be introduced into all primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong within the next 3 years.

120,000 people assembled outside government headquarters on 8 Sep against the introduction of Moral and National Education

Fortunately the HK Chief Executive said the government would leave the decision to include the subject, as well as the subject content, to the schools. That has stopped the hunger strike and the week-long assembly outside the government building.

I think that since the handover, HK people should have anticipated a gradual ‘nationalization’ by the Chinese government. Most countries mainly teach their school kids the positive history of their country – be it a victory or a defeat in a war – the home country is mainly right. At least that’s what I thought until I talked about this with my husband.

Me: I just don’t understand why the HK people are so radical. Come on, all countries are doing the same at school.

My husband: No, Japan is not like that.

Me: (suspiciously) Oh really? Did they teach you about the Nanking Massacre in school?

My husband: We are not sure if it really happened. Why would it be in the textbook?

Me: Uhhh…

So there are no exceptions. My husband was brought up in the Japanese education system.  To me, history is history. We always say, “we must learn from history in order not to make the same mistakes”. But if dwelling on history could ruin the current friendship between two countries, I’d rather have everyone forget the past.

If you were me, would you tell your child that his dad’s people were part of a crazy killing machine yet they say they are not sure if the massacre really happened? Or maybe we should let the kids find the truth out by themselves? In this world of propaganda, what is the truth anyway?


Contributing author Sharon Takao is originally from HK. She lives in Tokyo with her Japanese husband and 3 year-old son. She works at a local advertising, event planning company. She enjoys reading, writing, singing, dancing and playing basketball. She is a member of the online writing community Fanstory.com

Family Stories

18 Jun

We’re both new parents in our 40’s. There aren’t major differences between new parents in their 20’s and new parents in their forties – both are learning as they go on the wonderful journey of parenthood. Perhaps there are subtle differences: finances may be in order, careers more established, and older couples are more settled. Most people are a bit more tempered and practical at 40 than they were at 20.

But one thing I do think is different is we seem to have an increased sense of urgency about researching family history. Maybe it’s because our daughter is “new”; maybe it’s because we are older and subsequently our parents are older. We think more about the possibility of caring for aging relatives than we once did. And I know our sense of urgency is amplified by the fact that we are from two different cultures. I was born and raised in the US; my husband was born and raised in Japan. We both live far from our families and there is the strong possibility that there are relatives she will never know. I sit here and I think, what will be our family story?

I used to wish for the day when I could discover some secret hidden diary that would reveal all of my families’ secrets. It is the writer in me that has a tendency for the theatrical. I have reluctantly come to terms with the fact that such a thing is not likely to happen. I will not receive a stash of hidden wartime love letters or stumble across the name of a grandparent in declassified government files. A mysterious stranger will not show up on my doorstep claiming to be a long lost sibling nor will the discovery of keys to a safety deposit box lead me on an intercontinental chase.

If my husband and I are lucky in our family research we will track down some birth certificates. Perhaps, we’ll find a yellowed piece of paper where someone had attempted to write a family tree or an old Bible with everyone’s names spelled correctly. We currently have two cardboard boxes of photographs with names scrawled on the back. We spend long afternoons trying to put names to faces that we barely recognize. I received several photos at a family reunion. They were left over from my grandmother’s things when she passed away. When I don’t know who is in the picture – which I am ashamed to admit is often – I make up little stories about them to whisper in my daughter’s ear.

My husband has photos stuffed in envelopes. Many of the people he cannot identify beyond “aunt” and “uncle”. Though, like most people, he does much better with cousins from his own generation. Japan has a complex system of record-keeping, so a few years ago, he decided to go through city office records and gather any information that he could.

There is a part of me that envies the ability to have such ample paper records. For most of my family’s African American history, those sorts of things are not possible. Slaves were not considered people. Even when slavery ended, most poor, ‘colored’ people were simply not considered important enough to register or have their lives recorded. If it were not for the work of dedicated scholars – like the late John Hope Franklin – the importance of keeping African American history would be lost.

I am fortunate my maternal grandparents’ hometown was one of the first freed “colored towns” – in the nomenclature of the time. Their town was the subject of a research project and though my family was not directly mentioned I was able to get something other African Americans do not often get – a peek into the lives of my forebears and the town they helped to build.

I end with this anecdote. I once attended a seminar on memoir writing. One woman was a particularly gifted storyteller. She delivered a grand tale about some long gone uncles and aunts. It was filled with picturesque descriptions, elaborate gestures, and lots of jokes. At the end of her performance, she confessed that she wasn’t sure if the uncle and aunt in the story were actual blood relatives. Nor was she certain that she had the correct year or the proper names of all the characters.

But did any of us care? Not at all, because it was a great story.

 

Winnie Shiraishi is a contributing author at Multicultural Mothering. She’s an expat American writer living in Japan. Her work has appeared in Tokyo Art Beat blog, Kyoto Journal, and other publications. She can be reached at wsinjapan [at]gmail [dot] com.

Parenting The Enemy

2 Apr

by Janice Lindegard of Snide Reply

I wanted a girl. No question. Oh, sure, I told people I just wanted a healthy baby, but really, I wanted a girl. So, when my son was born, it was more than drugs and exhaustion that had me on emotional overload.

I was a feminist. I was prepared to rear a strong, self-possessed woman. In my feminist readings, I ran across a piece on women in heterosexual relationships that likened being married to a man to sleeping with the enemy.  How the hell was I supposed to parent the enemy?

The first week of parenthood featured little sleep, lots of poop and a humiliating tendency for my body to do really revolting things completely out of my control. I remember one day, though, sitting on my back porch. The Little Enemy was asleep, finally. I had a lovely rose garden, but I wasn’t admiring it. I was completely absorbed in an epic wallow of self-pity. I had a boy. Boy, boy, boy. No little soul sister, I had a miniature man.

I started to cry. I stared out at my rose garden and wept. I got maudlin. I wept for the sassy girl I wouldn’t have and the beautiful woman I wouldn’t know. I wept because my child would never wear my wedding dress. And then I thought of Dennis Rodman and I laughed out loud. At that time, Mr. Rodman was wildly infamous for his outrageous behavior, which included going clubbing in a wedding dress. Immediately after lamenting that my child wouldn’t wear my gown, I pictured the beastly ugly Rodman in his and thought, “God, I hope not!”

I’ve said that nothing made me more of a feminist than raising a son. When I do, more than a few women look at me like I’ve either lost my mind or made a very unfunny joke. But it’s no joke. If our society beats down girls, it beats down boys just as cruelly. The problem is that while we’re eager to help girls with their self-esteem, their body image, their academic standings and their professional opportunities, most people don’t even want to recognize that boys are bound and gagged by our society, too. After all, helping boys would be the societal equivalent of aiding and abetting enemy combatants.

At this point, you may be wondering what the heck I’m talking about. Boys don’t need help; boys aren’t discriminated against. Boys never had to fight to get into anything. From Little League to Harvard to the White House, boys—especially white ones—have been living the high life.

I am not delusional, though. From the time my son was born, he was treated differently than a daughter would have been. Even in infancy, we expect boys to be tough. Baby boys are picked up less frequently than baby girls. Just because of a roll of the biological dice, one child is cuddled when she cries and the other is left to seek comfort in his little blue blankie. Being born male even reduces your chances of being adopted. Globally, more girls are adopted than boys, not because more girls are available but because people feel safer adopting a girl. In fact, you can probably cut your wait time to adopt merely by stating a preference for a boy.

School is supposed to be where the rubber begins to hit the road in discrimination against girls. But, seen through the eyes of boys and their mothers, school is set up for the male to fail. Standing in lines, communicating verbally, sitting still, pleasing the teacher are all behaviors that, for whatever reason, girls seem to master more quickly and easily than boys. Let’s not get sidetracked discussing why girls are able to do it. Let’s think about what it means to boys that their genetically codified behavior is more likely to get them a pass to the principal than a gentle reminder or exasperated sigh.

I don’t have enough space left to discuss how my son’s middle school career might have differed if he were a girl. I have a hard time imagining he would have been called lazy and unmotivated if he were a girl failing in the gifted program, though. One day he forgot to bring pencil and paper to the library. His teacher gave him a detention for defiance. If his name were Emily, I wonder if she’d just roll her eyes and hand her some paper.

As my son gets older, I’m less and less concerned about how his school treats him and more concerned with how his society treats him. Recently, a friend posted a screed on her Facebook wall. The gist of the post is this: if the parents of boys raised sons who kept their hands to themselves unless invited, then the parents of girls wouldn’t have to worry how their daughters are dressed.

At the same time, I’m dealing with my son’s sexual maturity. Overwhelmingly, his society paints him as barely able to contain his desires. If he has unprotected sex with a girl and she gets pregnant, it will be his fault. Don’t think so? When was the last time you heard someone refer to the boy involved in a teen pregnancy as “a nice young man”? Nope. He’ll be “that jackass who got Susie pregnant.”

The idea that boys have to be controlled for the world to be safe is insulting at best and hypocritical at worst. At the same time we are telling little boys to keep their hands to themselves, we think it’s cute when little girls chase them to steal a kiss. The boys don’t think it’s cute. The boys think it’s harassment and they get mad when we don’t stop the girls.

We ridicule boys who dance, want to be nurses and love to play with dolls. If you think we don’t, then you haven’t raised a boy. When a girl wants to box, play hockey or quarterback a football team, we say “Why not?” We may even get angry if she’s not allowed to. Imagine the reaction to a boy who wants to dance Giselle. Not really seeing the outrage, are you?

Let’s call a truce. Let’s teach boys and girls to keep their hands to themselves. Let’s admit that girls want to have sex as much as boys do. Let’s teach all of our children that they can be whatever they want to be . . .and mean it.

Janice Lindegard is a writer, blogger and columnist living in Naperville, Illinois. She is mom to two children: a bio son with ADHD and a daughter adopted from China. She tries, often unsuccessfully, to follow the teaching of Buddha, is married to a Jewish man and was raised by Roman Catholics. She writes a parenting column for Naperville Patch and blogs about her life at Snide Reply.

Values Made Easy

5 Feb

Multicultural or Multiconfused? Speaking for myself of course, I’ve never had to pause so long or think this hard about a simple question. “So where are you from?”

My response, “Ummm well, I’m Indian but have lived in the United States for most of my adult life, and I’m here now in China”.

My confusion does trickle down to my children A & A who are three and a half, and nine months old, respectively.  I find myself at crossroads several times a day about simplest of mothering issues. I was raised a certain way, I believe, think, and act differently from that, and my style of parenting is still being defined as the needs of my kids change.

I used to be a strong propagator of creative parenting, which spurred from the techniques I would use as a teacher for children with special needs. I would cater my teaching style to individual children and their ways of learning, which involved tons of creativity from me as their teacher. Before I became a mother I often wondered about how fabulous it would be if I had kids of my own. I imagined spontaneously taking my kids to the zoo,  or to museums to teach them about animals, or taking long walks during the fall and collecting leaves of different colors, then going home to make a scrapbook out of them, and a billion other ideas.

But reality sinks in and those ideas remained just ideas. Lunch at 12 every day, and three-hour afternoon naps become the biggest priority of my role as their mother and those spontaneous visits to the zoo and walks become short little trips that were pre-planned and orchestrated for months before they actually took shape.

I have to confess that I am grateful to my state of confusion now because it is that which has introduced them to 3 cultures. And I have to thank my husband’s constant curiosity for change and his power to convince us that this global diversity is very essential in defining and molding our kids’ lives. I love mothering the multicultural way. It has opened a window for me to bring back the creativity I thought was lost.

My children will be different everywhere they go. They’ll have experiences to share that very few kids their age would have had. They will learn languages, see and experience life in a new light.

China and its proximity to India, both physically and culturally has helped me teach values such as sharing and curbing the need for over indulgence in my 3 year old son. We now take those walks more out of necessity than for leisure, and they give me the time and patience to talk to my kids like I have wanted to. I am learning from mothers from all over the world here in Chengdu and it has opened my mind to a large extent.

My recent trip to India allowed me to teach my son the need to give and share.  He, like a typical American born child didn’t grasp the concept of what it feels to not have or to go without.  The concept of sharing was a very abstract one for my son.  I seized the opportunity to help him understand this concept during one of our many cab, auto, and train rides in Mumbai.

For those of you who might be wondering what I am talking about, little kids are often used as tools to bring money to impoverished homes. It is a common sight at almost every traffic light or crowded train compartment across Mumbai. A little child not more than 2 or 3 years old stretches her arms out for money or food or anything that you are willing to share.

When my son saw this for the first time, he looked at me questioningly – a hard situation for me as a parent to explain poverty to him. I told him these kids didn’t have a toy or candy, and they were wondering if he would share his with them.

So at his request we decided that we’d carry a little something with us the next time we traveled. I was taken aback at his gesture of kindness; he picked out his favorite candy and put it in my purse.  He was enthusiastic to pass it out and see how it lit up the little boy’s face at our first traffic light. He was willing to bring his favorite dinosaur toy as we were stepping out to run an errand.

This was the beginning of a big learning experience for him, and me.  He would leave a little bit of his pasta or a few slices of his pizza when we went out to eat at a restaurant just so that he could share it with some little boy or girl he might run into.

Surprisingly, he was more willing to share his favorite toys with his little sister. That was unimaginable just a few weeks prior. I had to step back and watch my son grow up right in front of my own eyes; it was a heart wrenching moment for me.

Different cultures bring diversity to us in amazing ways. My trip to India was life altering. I didn’t anticipate a big life lesson that he’d be learning during this trip. I was hoping for him to get some exposure to his mother tongue and meet family that he’d never met. We won’t forget the looks on the little children’s faces when he handed out those treats to them.

There was no difference between him and those kids; in his mind he was just sharing his stuff with them. He didn’t have a clue about the social or economic differences that existed between them.

I cherish my life here in Chengdu everyday; I am no longer scared about how my kids will adjust to the new place, new environment, and everything else around them that is new. I know they will be just fine and because they will be fine, so will I.

By Renuka Venkataraman – contributing author here at MM.

“I was born and raised in Mumbai, India. I lived in Dallas, Texas for almost 15 years and worked as teacher for special needs kids for 10 of those years. I moved to Chengdu in September 2011 with my husband, two kids and our miniature Daschund Zen. I’m looking at motherhood under a very different light here in Chengdu. It has brought a sense of positivity and purpose to my life in many ways I can’t wait to experience and share with all you other Multicultural Moms.”

On “The Art of Choosing”: A Talk by Sheena Iyengar

25 Jan

Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School, has studied choice for the last 2 decades. She is of bicultural background- her parents Sikhs from Delhi, her education American – both with very different views on individual choice.

In her TEDtalk on “The Art of Choosing,” she discusses 3 assumptions that are deeply embedded in the American framework of decision-making (they almost seem innate), and compares them with how people of different cultures / backgrounds react to them.

1st assumption: Make your own choices

One of her studies compares how Anglo-American and Asian-American children react to choice. Anglo-American children fared far better when they chose their own puzzles as opposed to when they were told which ones to do. The Asian- American kids did best when it was their mothers who chose the puzzles!

I rejected The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, until Desi recommended and wrote about it here and here. The book received massive publicity among parenting groups because of the tough methods the Tiger Mother used. She decided that her daughters would play instruments, that her older daughter would play the piano; and that her second daughter would play the violin. And succeed they both did.

According to Sheena Iyengar, first generation children are strongly influenced by their immigrant parents approach to choice. “Success was just as much about pleasing key figures as it was about satisfying one’s own preferences.” Choices are made based on how they might benefit not only the individual self, but more likely a group of people who were infinitely tied together.

2nd assumption: More options –> Better choices

Iyengar ran studies with people in the former Soviet Union after their markets had opened up. In a gesture of hospitality, she offered her participants a drink: 7 types of soda. They perceived those 7 drinks as one choice. Then she tried something else. She offered the 7 types of soda as well as juice and water. They now perceived that as 3 choices – soda, juice, and water.

Some of her participants associated the following words and phrases with choice:

Fear,

It is too much. We don’t need everything that is there,

Many of these choices are quite artificial,

We don’t all see choices in the same places or to the same extent as others. If one is not sufficiently prepared to deal with as much choice as is around in many places today, it can all become overwhelming, and create fear – the exact opposite of what choice is supposed to do.

I remember when I moved to Montreal, buying a simple t-shirt would become a nightmare. I always waited until the last minute. All my t-shirts had holes in them, were faded, shrunken, or out of shape by the time I dragged myself over to the Eaton Centre on St. Catherine Street. One shop after another showed-off similar merchandise at only slightly different prices. So how does one choose the best t-shirt? I couldn’t be bothered to do the market research that my parents and brother were experts at. In any case, no matter what I did, I would feel ripped-off. So I’d pick one, get it, and that’s it. Done. Walk out feeling good. If I checked out any more shops – either the price would be fairer for a similar t-shirt, or the fit and colour would suit me better than the one I had bought.

3rd assumption: Never say NO to choice

Sheena Iyengar discusses how doctors at NICU’s (Neonatal Intensive Care Units) in the US gave certain choices about the fate of their babies to the parents. There came a point where a choice had to be made about some babies of life support: either to remove the life-support, or to leave it in which case the baby would either die in a few days, or stay in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. In France, it was the doctors who decided when and whether the life support would be removed, where in the US the final decision was with the parents.

Ms. Iyengar and her co-researchers studied how this decision-making process affected the parents. They found that the parents in US had coped with their loss differently from their French counterparts.

French parents were more likely to say things like: “Noah was here for so little time but he taught us so much. He gave us a new perspective on life.”

American parents said things like: “What if?”

and,

“I feel as if I’ve played a role in an execution.”

When asked if they would give up that choice, the American parents all said NO.

When Leila and Rahul were at the Queen Mary Hospital’s NICU in Hong Kong, we weren’t told exactly what was going on with them all the time, and our opinion was seldom asked. We felt confident in our doctors and nurses though, sure that they were capable and doing their very best for our children. If we had been faced with removing life-support, that’s another question. Not an easy one to hypothesize about. I don’t know what the policy at the Queen Mary Hospital is when it comes to that.

Please take the time to watch this talk. It’s about 20 minutes long, one of the longer TEDtalks that I have come across; and one of the best. Don’t stop the show until after Ms. Iyengar responds to how she herself, being blind, deals with choice since it is such a visual thing for most of us. She completes her answer poetically:

“As far as I can tell, a rose by any other name probably does look different and maybe even smells different.”

 

How do you handle choice? Do you thrive when you have more options, or does it create fear? How much choice do you give your children? What happens to the parenting if you and your partner perceive choice differently because of your different backgrounds?

I’m on the lookout for Sheena Iyengar’s book: The Art of Choosing

————————-

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)

White Ghosts

12 Jan

One day about twelve years ago I was walking across an overpass in downtown Chengdu, when a small child saw me and shouted out “lao wai!” (old foreigner) His father looked at me and I expected him to correct the child, as parents often do, and tell him to call me “ayi” (aunty). Instead he leaned down, pointed at me, and said, “yes, that’s right, look at the lao wai’s big nose!”

I haven’t been called a big nose for a long time and I am no longer surrounded by crowds of curious onlookers as I used to be when I first travelled in China in the 1980s, but I still hear the word “foreigner” at least once a day, especially from children. And when I am out with my own children, people of all ages call out “xiao lao wai!” (little old foreigner) or “yang wawa!” (foreign baby). They all agree that the yang wawa are extremely cute. One woman stood next to us in the wet market and puzzled aloud how it is that foreign babies can be so cute, but all grow up to be so ugly.

I often wonder if I feel more foreign here than a Chinese person feels in a western country. I wonder if Chinese visitors to London feel unwelcome when no-one asks them friendly questions about how they like the food or tells them how well they speak English. London and New York, the western cities I am most familiar with, are thronged with people from every part of the world, and no-one comments on your race or even your language ability. People might ask where you come from, but no-one would ever call you a foreigner. The US and Canada, Australia, the UK and many European countries have such diverse populations that being British or American or whatever nationality is not generally associated with the colour of your skin, at least not in urban centres.

But in China you cannot be Chinese unless you are 100 percent Chinese. Recently I had a conversation with a taxi driver on this subject. He said he had noticed there are a lot more mixed marriages between Chinese and foreigners these days, and he asked me whether the children of these marriages are Chinese or not. I said it depends on many factors, such as where they grow up, where they go to school, what language they speak. He shook his head,

“No that’s not it. Are they Chinese or do they have the nationality of their other parent?”

I said that depends on what passport their parents get for them. Because the Chinese government won’t allow duel nationality, their parents have to choose whether they have a Chinese passport, or the other one. He shook his head again.

“No, I don’t mean language or passport or any of that. I mean, are they Chinese or are they not?”

Finally I got it. It was a rhetorical question, with only one possible answer.

“They are not Chinese,” I said.

He nodded. “Right. They are not. They are hun-xuer (mixed blood). They cannot be Chinese.”

This is a concept I struggle with. Sometimes it feels like the elephant in the room of our peaceful, happy-go-lucky life here; an elephant that could potentially turn nasty. I know there are some fascinating anthropological studies about the construction of race and nationhood in China, but as I haven’t read them I am left puzzling over the tiny patches of the elephant that I can see. What I do know is that a random global event, such as the bombing of a Chinese embassy or the reaction of a London crowd to China’s Olympic torch, can ignite powerful nationalistic emotions across China, emotions that see me and my family as part of the problem because we are foreigners.

Once at Chengdu airport a man behind us in the queue touched my son’s hair. When my son turned around and saw it was a stranger touching him, he backed away and pulled a face. The man made a comment in Sichuan dialect that I didn’t understand, so the friend who was with me translated.

“He said, you westerners have humiliated us for hundreds of years and now your children are still humiliating us.” I must have looked shocked because my friend rushed to reassure me.

“Oh don’t worry, we don’t hate you. It’s the Japanese we really hate.”

It could take hundreds of pages to unpack that particular exchange.

No matter how long I live here, how well I learn to speak Chinese or eat with chopsticks or enjoy spicy food, no matter how many good friends I make, no matter if I marry a Chinese man and have hun-xuer children (too late for me to do this now, but I know many people who have), I will always be a lao-wai, a white ghost, a foreigner. A Chinese person living in the UK or the US must feel foreign too, must struggle with homesickness and cultural displacement and must often wonder if it’s worth it and why not just go home. But at least they know that if they choose to stay, their child will grow up to belong in their new country. My children won’t, not even my son who has never lived anywhere else and speaks Chinese with perfect tones. They’re not even hun-xuer, they’re just plain lao-wai. I worry about the impact it has on them, to be living in a world where they are outsiders. My older son is already clear in his mind that he would prefer to live in England or the USA where everyone speaks English and no-one stares at him on the street, or runs up to take his photo and tell him how cute he is. He has heard so many times what an advantage it will be for him later in life to speak Chinese, that he just ignores it now, and it does nothing to motivate him to study the language.

But perhaps being called foreign doesn’t have to be negative. After all it is a fact of life, akin to how Chinese people call a fat person a fat person, in an upfront way that western cultures avoid. We call someone fat behind their back but not to their faces. Similarly we don’t call people foreign to their faces but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the same feelings about outsiders. London and New York, Sydney and Paris welcome people of all races. Anyone can walk the streets of those cities without being noticed or commented on, as I suppose they can these days in Beijing and Shanghai. But once they move out into the smaller towns and the countryside, there people will start to notice and comment on their being foreign. Not to their face of course, but behind their back. Jackie Kay writes movingly about growing up 100% Scottish of Nigerian extraction in her memoir Red Dust Road. A Chinese friend told me that he loved New York because no-one paid any attention to him there, whereas in the Ohio town where he studied, shop-keepers struggled to understand him and he felt like a foreigner.

In multi-cultural western societies, ethnicity, nationality and cultural identity are of course also vast and complex issues, but we deal with them differently. In the west we are shy of calling people foreign to their faces, even as we struggle openly day by day with issues thrown up by the cultural melting-pot, in the press, in schools and in communities. Whereas in China, foreigners are openly labeled as such, with a prevailing attitude of friendly welcome, but with clear boundaries attached: no messy questions of integration and multi-culturalism. In both cases, when questions of national pride emerge, sinister undercurrents rise to the surface and play out in ways that are hard to fathom. For me, they are harder to fathom here than they are at home.

I wrestle with the choice I have made, to live in a country where I will always be a foreigner, but after all it is my choice. Some days I’m OK with it and others I’m not, but surprisingly I don’t mind being called a big nose. It reminds me of the time I went rafting with a group of my students in Taiwan shortly after a typhoon, and our raft capsized in the rapids and catapulted us all into the churning water. I heard the lifeguards shouting in Taiwanese, “get the big nose!” and I was the first to be hauled out of the water and dumped back on the boat. My students teased me that I was the easiest to find because my nose stuck so far out of the water. They also told me that I spoke in perfect Chinese for at least an hour afterwards. Apparently the cold and shock activated some dormant neurons in my brain and, huddling on the plastic raft with my friends, I experienced a brief period of total fluency, the closest I will ever come to being Chinese.

About me: originally from the UK, I first came to China as a student in the 1980s and my life has intersected with China one way and another ever since. For the past 7 years I have been based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province China with my American husband and our two sons aged 6 and 11. I work freelance for non-profit organisations and on my own writing, editing and translation projects.

Winter Wonderland with a bit of Salsa

21 Dec

Paty: I was born in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mom and Peruvian dad. I left DR when I was six years old and grew up in many countries around the world, mainly in Latin America but also in Africa and Europe. I guess you can describe me as a ‘Citizen of the world’, ‘Third culture kid’ etc. I speak Spanish and English.

I met Øivind at university in the UK, where we now live. He is Norwegian and grew up in Oslo, speaks English and Norwegian, and can defend himself pretty well in Spanish!

We have a little girl called Mia; she is the apple of our eyes, born in August 2010. I don’t speak Norwegian, but I better get my act together soon otherwise Mia and her dad will have a secret language.
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Winter Wonderland with a bit of Salsa

As we gear up for the festive season I’ve been thinking about the contrast between Ø’s traditions and mine; and about our cultural references surrounding Christmas. How will Mia take in these differences? Mia’s dad is from a Nordic country and I am from an island in the Caribbean, even though I left when I was very young. Most couples take turns on whose family they spend the holidays with; this means adapting to each others’ traditions; but in multicultural couples it is also about adapting to another’s culture.

This year we will spend Christmas in Norway with Ø’s family. It will be Mia’s first Winter Wonderland Christmas experience. Christmas in Norway is very different to Christmas in the Dominican Republic, or in my family’s home.

Ø’s Norwegian Christmas experience = cold and short days, a tranquil environment, a burning fireplace, carol singing, food, presents and a beautiful snow-white outdoor.

My Christmas experience = food, presents, a big family gathering and lots of dancing; and the setting was wherever we found ourselves!

My experience in Norway has always been very nice, though very calm compared to what I am used to. Despite that, it involves a packed schedule: Christmas Eve at my in-laws, Christmas day at Ø’s aunt’s house, and Boxing Day with some close family friends. In between, there are beautiful walks in the forest and by the stunning, frozen Oslo fjord.

At my family home, we celebrate Christmas Eve with a big dinner and the next couple of days are relaxed, meeting other families (if we are in the Dominican Republic) and friends, informally. In the background there is always music.

What traditions will Mia absorb? I realize that of course I cannot choose what things Mia will enjoy the most; we can only expose her to the things that make us happy in the holiday season. Having the Christmas tree up on December 1st marks the start of the festive season for me. For Ø the tree goes up a couple of days before Christmas. I could go down a list of all the things that we grew up with, from celebrating advent, the spiritual meaning of Christmas, Santa or no Santa, to the Three Kings day.

The truth is that I would love for Mia to just take in the best of both worlds – enjoy the traditional picture perfect white Norwegian Christmas with the warmth, and lively togetherness of my family celebrations. White Christmas with a bit of salsa!

Being far away from our families means that during the festive season we travel back to see them, but I guess that as time goes by there comes a point when we will start to create our own traditions in the place we call home, even if this place keeps changing!

How do you combine your family celebrations? And how do you do it if you and your partner grew up celebrating different holidays?

Best wishes wherever you all are during this festive season and Happy New Year!!

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.