Tag Archives: USA

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.

Faith, and the Lack Thereof

5 Apr

My husband and I are raising our daughters M and J to be practicing Catholics, but I don’t believe in God. While I see no conflict in those two facts, I know that many people do.

My husband and I agree that Christianity and science need not be at odds. He sees the Bible as an attempt by fallible humans’ to explain and share the plan and actions of an infallible God. Truths are within the pages of Bible, but it is up to the individual to understand what it teaches, sometimes literally, but frequently allegorically. This is a pathetically simplified way to look at it, but he and I simply differ at where we draw the line between the literal and allegory in the Bible. I see the Bible as a historical document that captures an ancient understanding of the world, but also demonstrates the inherent imperfection of translating language, context, and cultural assumptions to a different place and time.

While our differences in theology may not cause conflict, it’s certainly not easy.

A year ago, M, then aged 4, had a bombshell question. “Who took care of the very very very first person on earth when they were a baby?”

This is such a huge question. At the crux is the matter of how humans came to be. It’s one of those topics you do not bring up unless you’re either aching for a fight, or are certain that everyone in the room sees eye to eye on.

There were two answers to the question, I told the girls. It would be hard to understand how they could both be right, but I would try to explain. First I told them about God creating Adam from the earth. I explained that, as far as I understand, God made Adam as a grown-up, and Eve too. They had babies, I told the girls, and they raised them.

“So they got married?” asked J. She was clearly delighted at the prospect of a wedding featuring front and centre in the creation of everything.

I reminded my daughters that there was another story and provided a very simplified explanation of evolution. I pointed out that, while they share basic traits like five fingers per hand, hair colour, and dimples or a lack thereof with me and my husband, M and J aren’t just a mixture of the two of us. They’re not exactly like each other, either, identical twinhood notwithstanding. Offspring, I explained, are always a teeny bit different from their parents. I told the girls that the differences add up over the generations. I used our cat Penelope, tigers, and their shared ancestors as an illustration. I didn’t get into survival of the fittest; I figured that they had plenty to think about as it was. I gave them a second example using a wolves-and-dogs scenario, and then finally got around to primates. It was refreshing to have this discussion without encountering the common misconception that “we used to be monkeys.” As M pointed out, “So Penelope’s great great, lots of greats, grandma was tigers’ great great great grandma.”

It was tempting to stop here, but that would have been chickening out.

I pulled out a children’s Bible, as well as our copy of Evolution Revolution. I read the relevant passages of both books to the girls, and Melody began to get angry. She wanted an answer, and fast.

I explained to her that, long long ago, when the Bible was written, its authors did their best to explain God’s actions. Now that we understand that animals evolve over time, we can understand that God made humanity through evolution, and that there was a first man and a first woman, but that their mommies (“and daddies,” J reminded me) were monkeys. Their monkey mommies and daddies raised them, but (and this is where I just had to make it up on the fly) it wasn’t until they were grown up that they realized that they were different from their parents, that they were humans and not monkeys.

J was satisfied with the explanation, but M had a zillion more questions. Unfortunately, it was time for bath. She burst into tears. “I just want the answer!” she sobbed.

I didn’t reach that point of frustration until I was seven, and that’s when I became an atheist. There was no one who could resolve religion and science for me, so I chose science. I didn’t want M to start down that admittedly lonely road at the tender age of four. I just held her, and told her that I understood her desire to understand everything right now, but that we were going to have to take our time, refining our understanding and answering questions over days, and maybe years.

I told her something I only really came to understand in my mid-twenties, mostly thanks to my husband: For many many things, there simply isn’t a single right answer. The understanding of the subjectivity of perspective is a gift, I think, that multicultural families of all stripes, of necessity, share.

Sadia’s parents are nominally Muslim. She is a higher education business analyst, and has spent large chunks of her life in each of the UK, the US, and Bangladesh. She is married to an American soldier of Caucasian and Mexican descent who likes to add “American” as an option to standardized forms requesting self-identification of ethnicity. With their 5-year-old identical twins daughters and all-American foundling of a cat, they live just north of the Mexico-US border in El Paso, Texas. This post is derived from posts previously published on Sadia’ personal blog, Double the Fun.

Between Worlds

20 Nov

I was born in Crete, Greece and raised in Maryland, USA, on a beautiful, 86-acre, off-the-grid homestead. My parents, products of the hippie era, were inspired by the simple, self-sufficient lives of the Cretan villagers, and we had no electricity or indoor plumbing in the hand-hewn house where I grew up. Instead of a TV, we had a trapeze in the living room. It was a paradise for kids, and I grew up with an innate love of nature and a keen sense of responsibility for the health of our Mother Earth. My parents strove to awaken in us an awareness of the effects of our actions and to provide us with an alternative to the modern lifestyle of rampant consumptive greed. They supplemented our public school education with frequent journeys overseas, and by the time I was 18, our family of four had toured nearly 25 countries, mostly on tandem bicycle.

As an adult, I continued to travel widely and for longer periods, eventually spending nearly seven years in India and Nepal studying the Tibetan language and practicing Buddhism. Before long, as hormones would have it, I fell in love and married into another culture, another race, another language, another dimension. Tsultrim and I come from wildly different worlds—he a monk from a tiny village in Tibet, I the product of an American subculture of left-winged eco-hippies. We were married in 2003, first on the black market in Nepal and later in our flower garden in Maryland. During eight tumultuous years of marriage, we have made nearly that many moves across the planet, from my country to his and back again, one of us always suffering from culture shock and social isolation. The learning curve has been, and continues to be, incredibly steep. Yet for some reason—no doubt our stubborn Taurean personalities and a fat load of karma—we’re still together, still laughing.

Along the way, we have been blessed with two gorgeous kids—our daughter Clara, aged 4 ½, and our son Tashi, aged 17 months. Admittedly, part of the reason I wanted to have a second child was to give our first-born a companion, someone who would truly appreciate the complexity of her multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual situation. I worried that she would be friendless and alone in her ever-shifting world, with no one to share the long airplane rides, discuss her weird parents, or understand who she really was.

We traveled in Asia during both of my pregnancies, but I drew the line when it came to their births—those were occasions when I truly needed my own family, culture, and language, everything that I equate with the safety and comfort of home. Both our children were born in my parents’ new home in Oregon, USA, gently lifted onto my chest by the loving hands of homebirth midwives. I love to think that Tsultrim’s graceful presence at the births of his children purified generations of Tibetan tradition, in which men have avoided (and been excluded from) the ‘filthy’ scene of childbirth.

Shortly after both births, we returned to Tibet bearing the new baby, washing our cloth diapers in the freezing winter water and soaking up the salt-of-the-earth goodness of Tsultrim’s beautiful family. These journeys were terrifying and traumatic for me, the fretting new mother of an infant, and with each passing year I have yearned more and more intensely for a stable home, for roots in nurturing soil, for a solid community of like-minded mothers and the support of my family. The carefree wanderlust of my youth has long since faded away, leaving in its place an anxious, fearful woman rapidly approaching her 40th birthday, still without a place to call home and no prospects for one on the horizon. The Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment and impermanence do little to ease the ache in my heart, the pull to plunge my fingers into warm brown earth. We are settled in the Chengdu mega-metropolis for the (un)foreseeable future, not living the lavish life of the typical expat but camped out in my brother-in-law’s apartment, while Tsultrim tries his luck at selling construction supplies in the booming Chinese economy. We all sleep in a row on the floor of our single bedroom, our clothes and medicines and children’s books stuffed into a few small shelves. Clouds of fog and smog hang heavy in the Chengdu sky, and miles of constipated highway snake around us in every direction.

Even as I celebrate our children’s immersion into diverse cultures and languages and watch them grow and thrive in each, I wonder how I will share with them the lessons of my childhood, the deep reverence for the natural world that comes with being of and near the earth, season after season, year after year, in a place called home. Can a family of nomads engender a sense of place and belonging in its children? More importantly, will there ever be a place where we all feel at home, such that we can live a gentle, carbon-neutral existence on this fragile planet?

Thoughts on Learning 3 Languages at Home by Catherine Walter

19 Nov

Catherine: I’m a mom of twins living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I grew up in NYC and spent most of my formative years there although I was born in Warsaw, Poland. My husband is German. And my identical twin girls, Zoe and Luna, were born in Bangkok, Thailand, live in Vietnam and hold dual citizenship (US & German). Growing up I thought I had it tough being torn between two different worlds, but look at them!

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Growing up as a global citizen may come with its particular set of challenges, such as not knowing a sense of belonging or losing touch with your heritage. But it’s the way of the future. Our economy is more globalized and interdependent than ever before. Just look at how the West is relying on Asia to be the engine of growth during the recession. The West doesn’t polarize the world as in the past. Rising stars in the East such as China, are contributing more than ever to the global economy and our lives. And thanks to technological advances and accessibility, we are linked as never before in human history – through online media. The world is getting smaller. In view of these developments, I believe that our children’s future success will depend on how well they relate to those different from them.

As a parent, I feel that one of the best advantages I can give my girls in life is the ability to communicate fluently in several languages. In our home, we each speak our native language to the girls. My husband speaks German to them in the early mornings, after work and on weekends or holidays. Our Vietnamese nanny and maid speak to them in Vietnamese each day except for Sunday; and I speak to them in my American English, which is the language they are most exposed to.

English is not technically my native language, but it’s the one I speak most fluently and have spoken for most of my life. However, this presents me with a dilemma as I essentially do speak Polish: Shouldn’t I pass that language on to my girls as well? But as I moved to NYC when I was 4 years old, I speak Polish with an American accent at the level of a fifth grader. I don’t speak it like a native anymore.

I keep finding in the research that you should choose one language to speak to your child and stick with it. But I have taken creative license with that, and I read the girls Polish poetry at bedtime. They probably won’t learn to speak it this way, but at least they’ll be exposed to rolling r’s, and the diversity of -sh, -zh and -ch sounds, which are so plentiful in Polish. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the experiment will work.

So now that my girls are 15 months old, are we seeing results yet? Nope. I just got back from the pediatrician. Language was a bit weak on the Denver II test behavior chart. It’s used to track their social, fine motor, language, and gross motor skills development in relation to their age. Compared to the rest of the indicators, they seem to be about 3 months behind on language. They are only really using 3 words consistently so far (2 in English and 1 in German). But I’m not worried.

According to our pediatrician, children brought up in several languages do not learn to speak any later then their peers. I also found this in my research. There is apparently no solid, scientific evidence to suggest a delay in speech. However, I did come across anecdotal evidence among parents who sense that multilingual children begin talking a few months later than monolingual children. In the end, I don’t mind if it takes them a bit longer to begin asking “why?” a million times a day.

And I’m not too bothered about them actually speaking all 3 languages all the time. German is the minority language you could say, as they only hear it from Dad (although research shows that a child needs to be exposed to a language 30% of their waking hours to actively speak it, so it just might be enough!). But as long as they have the capacity to understand German, it will be that much easier to learn later in life.

Even if they don’t end up speaking Vietnamese once we’ve moved to another country, at least they have the capacity for tonal languages. It’s the connectivity of the neurons in the brain that will be stimulated and developed. That is what I’m primarily concerned with; overall brain development. Who knows, it may make them better thinkers and communicators than they would have been otherwise.

I leave you with some food for thought: by some accounts, 80% of communication is non-verbal, what are the implications to multilingual/multicultural children?

Far From Home

19 Nov

By Kalley: I grew up on a cattle ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I couldn’t wait to leave my small home town after graduating from high school and attended university outside of Los Angeles. That transition was perhaps the biggest change I have experienced to date, and I loved every minute of it. After university I served in the US Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, meeting my husband in Kyrgyzstan where he was also a volunteer. We both lived in New Mexico on the Navajo nation, and then moved to China. We are currently living in Zurich, Switzerland. While neither of us is fluent in a language other than English, we have both studied a number of languages and hope our daughters will surpass our abilities.

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I have a strong sense of home and it pervades my personality. My father recently moved out of the home he had lived in since he was 2. My mother had lived there her entire married life. My older sister has moved into that same home with her three young children and they will likely live there for the next 20 years. My childhood home was a 45 minute drive from any gas station, grocery store or friend’s house so my sisters and I learned well to find entertainment at home and would stay there for days on end. Thankfully, this home is a beautiful Colorado ranch with all the fresh air and open space a kid could want, but our dedication to this one place has built in me a strong desire for place based traditions and experiences – perhaps to a fault.

My husband and I have chosen to raise our family overseas – moving from place to place as wanted and needed – as international teachers, and this decision invades my thoughts on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

At least once I month I am angry. I am angry because I can’t find a suitable place for my perception of a birthday party. I am angry because our small apartment has a cramped concrete balcony where my 3-year old rides her new bike around in circles. I am angry because my daughters will not experience Friday night high school football games – growing from the young kids who play tag in the dark to the preteens who practice flirting to the teenagers who actually watch the game and cheer for their classmates.

About once every other month I feel guilty. The guilt comes from not being able to support my mom as she goes through a medical crisis (and from hoping that my older sister is strong enough to help our mom on her own). It comes from not seeing my niece grow from an 8-month old who can barely sit up to a walking, talking toddler, and from not meeting my nephew until he is 10 months old.

More often than angry or guilty, I feel sad. I am sad because my dad doesn’t have the chance to wiggle my infant’s kneecaps and fold her ears while marveling at the flexibility of little ones. I am sad because my daughter doesn’t always recognize pictures of her aunts. And I am sad because it feels more appropriate than angry or guilty.

And more frequently than any other negative emotion I am scared. I am scared that without the consistency of place I experienced growing up that my daughters will feel lost, and that, more realistically, they will wander the globe leaving me far from my grandchildren when that day comes.

Fortunately, for as many times as I have negative reactions to being far from home, I also have positive thoughts about the experiences we have. My daughters will know the absolute deliciousness of bitter lemon soda. My oldest calls churches “temples”, and knows to be quiet and respectful inside both. She can count to 10 in three languages. We make the most out of every new friendship and every old visitor. And our home is our family unit, able to feel joy whenever and wherever we are together.

Do others have fears similar to mine? Do you also find they are balanced with positive experiences? Where and what do you seek on the days when the scales tip toward negative?