Adopting Holidays

1 Dec

Last week, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, nominally a holiday commemorating the partnership between newly arrived Europeans in North America and their Native American neighbours. In practice, Thanksgiving is an exercise in community, rich foods like turkey and pie, and American football.

We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK or Bangladesh, for obvious reasons. Despite my having lived in the US my entire adult life, 16 years now, Thanksgiving still feels like an artificial holiday to me. Perhaps it’s because so many wonderful friends have hosted me over the years that I haven’t absorbed any one set of traditions as my own.

Even though I was part of my ex-husband’s family for 9 years, I didn’t quite internalize his family’s traditions, mostly because between his job as a soldier and his father’s as a firefighter, we rarely celebrated holidays together. Instead, we used the cold weather season as an excuse to visit Washington and Oregon and made the most of visiting as many relatives as we could fit into a trip.

Last year, my daughters spent Thanksgiving with their father and I was alone. I elected to volunteer at Operation Turkey, an Austin opportunity to share the food of the season with the less fortunate. There was little point in roasting a turkey for one, so I made turkey cutlets, took a long bath and folded laundry after I was done volunteering.

This year was be different. Not only do I have the children, but this is my first Thanksgiving since I became a US citizen. We volunteered together to feed the homeless, cooked together and ate together. I’m trying to create traditions for my daughters, foreign though they may feel to me. When they are grown, I want J and M to have warm feelings of safety and comfort when they smell turkey and taste pumpkin pie. I want them to know viscerally how much they are loved and have the language, in words, deeds and foods, to pass that love on to the people they love.

My mother prided herself on being an iconoclast, and one of the ways in which she did this was to avoid all traditional modes of celebration. When my extended family gathered to celebrate the Muslim holidays of Eid, my nuclear family rented movies and stayed home. She wasn’t a total Grinch. Instead of family members getting new clothes on Eid, we gave clothing to the poor. We donated the money to purchase a cow for sacrifice to my aunt, and she’d arrange for the meat to be distributed among the hungry. Having no Eid traditions I could realistically exercise–we donate year-round–I confess that I’m rarely aware of Eid until I see greetings pop up on Facebook. I want my kids to have traditions.

Part of me expected this Thanksgiving to feel different, for my certificate of citizenship to have bestowed upon me a feeling of belonging in this all-American holiday. That’s not how it works, though.

My job as a parent, immigrant or otherwise, is to give my children a sense of place within their family, regardless of where we live. I do it by celebrating the holidays of my host country, as did my parents before me. My other immigrant cousins do it by celebrating the traditions of the old country of Bangladesh. Our goals are the same, though, to anchor our children in a sense of family and belonging.

My First Racist Comment?

15 Oct

Yesterday was a comedy of errors. The kids’ (Texas public) school was closed for Columbus Day, so I figured they’d attend the full-day program they usually go to for school closures. We showed up at the school that hosted this program last year, and there was no one there. We went to the main YMCA office, and they said they knew nothing. I was on my way out the door when the woman I’d spoken to called me back, saying that they had a $5-an-hour program after all, but on-site at the main location, not out at a school. I enrolled the kids and paid. When I walked them over to the childcare location, the person there told me that the full-day program was only available on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I just handed her my receipt and asked her to arrange for reimbursement. I’d rather conserve my energy for my kids than spend it on bureaucracy. I called into work and let them know I wouldn’t be coming in.

The girls and I had a nice morning. It was a rare rainy day in Texas, and we were happy for our yard and the relief from our ongoing drought. The kids helped me cook oatmeal with raisins, apples and brown sugar for morning snack. We went to the local optician to have the broken nose piece on my glasses fixed. I managed to talk my 7-year-old twin girls, M and J, into trying an Indian restaurant for lunch. Misses Picky and Pickier (J and M, respectively) enjoyed their meals, which was a pleasant surprise after all the years of their rejecting all efforts on my part to introduce them to Bangladeshi cuisine.

While I was paying for our meal, I noticed a couple of women at a nearby table eating with a brood of kids. Included among the children were two infants who looked around the same age. I smiled at them and asked if the kids were twins, quickly adding that mine were, so I have a tendency to think I see twins everywhere. They said they weren’t, and I smiled and waved.

whaI quickly lost my smile when their friend, who had just emerged from the bathroom, grinned at me and said, “I guess all we white people look the same to you.”

I recognize that people unfamiliar with twins often have an unexamined assumptions that all twins are identical, so perhaps she thought I thought the babies looked alike. Really, though, I just noticed the babies’ ages. I’ve been known to ask if kids who look to be of different races are twins; after all, I have multi-racial children and know that the same two parents can have very different-looking kids.

MSJI’ve never encountered racism in the US. Never. I’ve been known to joke that people assume that I’m good at math because I’m “Indian” (actually, Bangladeshi), and that I am, in fact, good at math. In all seriousness, though, I really haven’t encountered racism beyond people mistaking me for my kids’ nanny since we don’t look to be the same race.

I was a South Asian in an Indian restaurant. Maybe I’ve avoided racially-tinged comments by avoiding being in “Indian” contexts. Perhaps this wasn’t a racist comment, as the woman insisted was true after I called her on it. Maybe she was “just jokey.” Perhaps I overreacted.

I went out to the car, buckled the girls in, and waited for them to get engrossed in their books because I allowed myself to cry. I guess there’s one good thing about the complete oblivion that overcomes J and M when they’re reading.

So, did I overreact? Is there a non-racist interpretation of this woman’s comment that I’m missing?

This post was originally published on the mothers of multiples blog How Do You Do It?

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.)

Smiling Baby

21 Jun

I am Chinese and my husband is Lebanese-French. We live in Chengdu, China with our 7-month-old daughter Mina.

When she was born I chose to stop working and be a SAHM (Stay At Home Mom), because I have a few SAHM friends around me, they take great care in raising their children and they turned out wonderful.

I don’t want to miss any part of Mina’s childhood. There are not many full-time housewives in China though. The liberation of women was so thorough during Chairman Mao’s era that it was such a glory for women to work that no educated women would dare stay at home.

“We didn’t send you to university knowing you’d end up a housewife!” My parents will never understand my decision.

I decided not to ask my parents to live with us as everybody in China does after the birth of a baby, so I could have private time with my husband. Here, we believe baby is the most important thing in a family, which means after a baby is born, the entire family gathers around the new parents and baby to help. It is common to have the grandparents, usually from the mother’s side, staying with the couple for 1 year or even longer.

I also decided to breastfeed Mina after reading some English pregnancy books. The breastfeeding rate in China is low, partly because the advertising and promotion of formula is strong, and most women return to work 4 months after giving birth. Luckily, I have 2 friends who are breastfeeding their babies. They encourage me and have armed me from head to toe with breastfeeding equipment, books, and they have shared their experiences with me.

I even tried to minimize the help I needed. It is not expensive to have domestic help in China. Hiring an ayi (nanny in Chinese) to help with the baby and housework is easy and normal. But I thought that it would be uncomfortable to have another person walking around the house all the time and I was sure I’d be able to handle a baby myself.

And then…..I was exhausted to death the 1st  two months after Mina was born! I struggled with breastfeeding, there was no milk, there was too much milk; Mina had strong reflux, we had to hold her upright for 20 minutes after each feed; I didn’t know how to make her sleep: I rocked her, I fed her, I strolled her. She cried and cried.

Liu Yan and Mina

Luckily my mom insisted to help me with the cooking, so when my husband went to work, I didn’t have to starve.

And forget about the quality time I thought I’d have with my husband. If I don’t yell at him, it’s “quality time”. We were exhausted to a point (with me panicking all the time) that I was considering a 24-hour nanny.

Well, things got easier as time went by. The annoying reflux was gone after 2-months, Mina gradually developed her routine and started to interact with us. My milk supply regulated and I am enjoying being a mom more and more.

Today, I am thankful to my daughter for coming to my life. She has allowed me the privilege to love devotedly and unconditionally. And what a wonderful feeling that is!

Without her, these 7 months would have been like any other 7 months, quickly forgotten in the currency of time. She takes me back to the starting status of life, getting up at sunrise, sleeping at sunset, observing and learning about “new” objects. I am so happy that I took the time to stay with her, quietly watching her grow up.

Mina is turning out to be a very happy baby, active and playful. She smiles all the time. She is the center of attention when we walk around the neighborhood, as all passers-by marvel at the Smiling Baby.

I don’t know whether it’s just her nature or from my mothering, perhaps partly both. But that doesn’t matter. This mother is very proud. And all the struggles seem a distant dream, well, until she wakes up at 3 o’clock in the morning.

——————–

Liu Yan, contributing author at Multicultural Mothering, is 30 years old, born in Leshan, China. She used to Work as an English teacher, newspaper editor and translator. Now she is learning to be the mother to her daughter of Chinese / Lebanese blood with French Culture in the crazy fog of Chinese modernization.

Colour-Agnostic

21 Jun

My 7-year-old children aren’t colour-blind. They are, however, race-blind.

The other day, my daughters asked to watch the video of Madonna’s performance of the song Vogue from the 1990 MTV awards. I’m all about making sure my kids are well-versed in the pop music of 1980s. I mentioned to them that the video was from my childhood, which prompted M to ask whether Madonna was a mommy. I looked up the answer and informed my daughters that the superstar has two daughters and two sons. Two of her children were adopted (from Malawi) and two were biological. We looked at photos, and I noticed that the younger son and daughter had dark skin while the older kids were fair skinned. J offered up that she thought that the daughters had come from Madonna’s belly and that the sons were adopted. Clearly, skin colour played no role whatever in J’s concept of how to differentiate a biological child from an adopted one.

M and J’s drawings of our family and friends reflect our differences in pigmentation. They describe their own skin colour as peach and call mine brown. They refer to their paternal grandmother as being pink. Their friend Olivia is dark brown. If they’re trying to distinguish two friends with the same first name and don’t know their last names, they’ll resort to skin colour as often as hair colour or gender or height to describe them.

J's art indicates that she and I share the trait of having antennae instead of hair. She also correctly perceives my skin as being darker than hers.

J’s art indicates that she and I share the trait of having antennae instead of hair. She also correctly perceives my skin as being darker than hers.

J and M are themselves multi-racial, with two Bangladeshi British grandparents, one White (pink) American grandmother and one Mexican American grandfather. We live in a very diverse area of Central Texas, and at least two of their closest friends have Black fathers and White mothers.

J and M with their multi-coloured grandmothers, grandfather and parents.

J and M with their multi-coloured grandmothers, grandfather and parents.

Perhaps this post doesn’t even belong here. This blog is a discussion of multiculturalism. My point is that my girls don’t look at people through the same prism that I do, or that the world has for time immemorial. This post is about the erasure of the cultural assumptions that accompany race and ethnicity. My children have devised for themselves a singular colour-agnostic culture, rather than the complex of multiple cultures I perceive myself to be part of.

I think, though, it’s a huge stride towards truly being able to embrace multiple cultures in their full richness. Our children can judge cultural differences on their merits. Unlike the generations that came before, my daughters and their peers explore each others’ cultures without biases inherent in a pigmentation-based categorization of people.

Jet-lag with Twins

5 Jun

We are back in Samui, un-doing our 11 hour time adjustment to two weeks in NYC. Of course, it was only in the last 3 days there, that we made it out to a 10 am museum opening, and didn’t have angry hotel guests complaining about the, “two bratty kids screaming in the hallways in the middle of the night.” Central Park at 6 am became our hang-out as well as The Disney Store at Times Square. And not a person looked at me twice for pushing a double stroller down 7th Avenue at 1 am. In fact, there were lots of other little kids at the store dressing up as Rapunzel and Ariel waving their wands at the magic mirrors.

The first few days adjusting to a 180 degree shift in time means that at least one of the four of us is asleep during all 24 hours of the day. What might be naps are a little longer than usual. “Sleeps” are a bit shorter than a typical full night. While one twin is having a nap, the other is playing then falls asleep for the “night”. And then the napping twin wakes up, is ready to snack, play, have dinner, then sleep for the “night.”  Soon after, the other wakes up for the “day.” One of us adjusts to Paris time. The other stays at New York time. Phew, we’re finally all back in Samui!

Here’s a post I wrote a year-and-a-half ago about some jet-lag experiences of our family trip from China to Canada.

Jet-lagged in Montreal

It’s early September, 3 am, in downtown Montreal. The night-streets abound with young people, bar-hopping, club-hopping, bunny-hopping; many strange things happen during Frosh, the first week at university. Teenagers go out in teams to discover the city, and each other.

This year we are part of the drunken masses, 10 years, OK, well over 10 years after we were freshmen here. But this time with a twist. We’re with our almost 2-year-old twins. The thing is, 3pm in Chengdu, is 3am in Montreal, and like most toddlers, Leila and Rahul need to exhaust their post afternoon-nap energy surplus.

I clearly remember three o’clocks decision time: coffee, pizza, or shawarma? Home or an afterhour’s club? The children could do with an afternoon snack. We head to my favorite 24 hour café on Park and Milton, bang in the student Ghetto.

We stroll past the smokers on the terrace, and push through the café’s narrow, double doors. You’ve got to get through one, and then another door. It’s when you have a double stroller that you notice these things. We sit next to a man with dreadlocks, cup of coffee in his hands; working on his laptop, and studying through massive text books. He smiles.

I ask for 2 hot-chocolates and an opinion of the café’s least-sweet chocolate cake. A man with the Second Cup logo embroidered in gold on his black t-shirt grins. “It’s chocolate. It’s all sweet,” he replies in his tall, blond, Russian accent. I get a bagel and cream cheese. Leila and Rahul can’t sit still. No surprise. We are fresh off a 30 – hour trip, and a full day at home. They pull on the leaves of a large plant, run around leaving a trail of crumbs. I clean up behind them.

Three young guys in smart, blue jeans, and preppy t-shirts, gelled hair and all, peer into the café windows. One is holding a red rose; he’s serenading a couple of young women who’ve just walked into the café. The two girls in high heels and tight, short skirts are not amused. Leila and Rahul watch intently.

It’s now or never. We collect our stuff. I go to the washroom with Leila. A homeless man leans against a graffiti’ed wall, waiting his turn. We are back in the real Montreal sharing common spaces with all. A female student walks out of the Ladies; her look of disbelief says it all:

Are you out of your mind? I should call Social Services on you.

I smile, walk into the booth with Leila. Change her diaper. Repeat the process with Rahul, pee myself, and we head out. If only she knew.

Rahul and Leila insist on walking back. Of course that means they explore every stone, leaf, and empty beer bottle along the way. Despite our pace, we pass the 3 guys from outside the café, there’s a waft of alcohol in the air, rose still in hand. They’re arguing about something.

“Shouldn’t they be in bed by now?” one of them slurs.

My thought: Shouldn’t you?

With Leila on my shoulders, Rahul on Maher’s, we enter McGill University through the Milton gates, all very familiar to us. The crickets are doing their thing; the stars theirs. At first sight of the football field, the children throw themselves head-first off our shoulders. They pick up some wet maple leaves and run around the field like crazy kids. Moments later, we’re all running.

Amidst our excitement, we almost miss a couple walking by: a man tightly holding a woman in an elegant green dress with matching heels. She’s wearing her partner’s black jacket. There are uncomfortable glances. The woman leans even closer into her man, and whispers something. Well, it is 4:30 am, and we’re on campus playing with our toddlers. Maher suggests that we paint a “Jet-lagged,”sign on the stroller. We both laugh.

While Maher and Leila are still running around, I introduce Rahul to James McGill. Rahul manages a quick wave and a forced hi. The statue of Mr. McGill, small as it is, can be scary at this time of night. While I pick Rahul up, I notice a security guard watching the 4 of us intently. He’s standing upright, muscles flexed under his all-black outfit. He fidgets with his flashlight as he waves it around. We all meet at the stroller and decide to head home.

image

Just outside the gates, Leila asks for milk. I prepare it quickly. Then Rahul says “num num.” Think fast. It’s lively at Amir, the Lebanese sandwich joint on Maissoneuve and Cresecnt. I wait outside with Leila who is fast asleep by now. Maher and Rahul order some food.

A skinny woman, with dark circles around her protruding eyes sticks her palm out. She asks for change in a hoarse voice. The wind blows through her stringy, brown hair.

She looks defeated; she’s one of the city’s many junkies.

A young man who must have spent his night clubbing on Crescent Street, motions her through the large open windows, to wait. He puts what’s left of his fries, pita bread, and chicken into a brown paper bag, and hands it to her. She wolfs it down.

A moment later, Rahul has his first taste of a chicken shawarma sandwich, and of potato squares sautéed in garlic and coriander. The hummus makes him scrunch up his face.

“Too much garlic?” I ask.

“Garlic,” Rahul repeats.

Over the next few days, many things taste like garlic.

As we climb the hill, close to home, Rahul falls asleep.

It’s 6:15, I can still catch the Mysore class at the Ashtanga Yoga studio a few blocks away.

My body is warm and flexible from the night out; my mind tired and ready for sleep. The yogis around me are fresh, ready for the day to begin.

—————-

Natasha: I am mum of 3-year-old twins Leila and Rahul, recently moved to Koh Samui, Thailand after 7 years in China. Just started teaching yoga part-time again.  My first class back last week, after NYC, was 4 hours after I got off the plane. I didn’t believe I’d make it through my heavy eyes!

Catch more of our stories at Our Little Yogis 

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.

Papa Talks Francais

8 May
Early one morning a couple of weeks ago.
Leila: Where’s papa?
Me: He’s on a plane, going to Houston, in America.
Rahul: Like the pilgrims?
Me: Yah, to America like the pilgrims. But he’s on a plane, not a boat, so he’ll be there by tomorrow.
Leila: Can you be papa?
Me: What do you mean can I be papa?
Leila: Papa talks French. You talk French.
Me:  Oh. Tu veux que je parle en Francais avec vous?
They both look up at me, eyes gleaming. And smile.
Rahul: Papa talks Francais.
Me: D’accord, on peut parler en Francais.
Leila: Papa. Papa, I want to go to Etats Unis.
Me: On va aller aux Etats Unis bientot cherie. T’en fait pas…..
(Ten minutes of French later)
Me: Ok guys, come on, let’s go downstairs for breakfast.
Leila: Nooooo, you are papaaaa…you talk French.
Me: Ah, oui. J’ai oublie.
Rahul: No talk Francais mama. Talk Anglais. Waaaa. You are mama now.
——–
Natasha is mum of 3 year old twins Leila and Rahul, recently moved to Koh Samui, Thailand after 7 years in China. Her husband travels between China and Thailand regularly. Catch her at Our Little Yogis – http://natashadevalia.com

The Religion Talk

15 Apr

After dinner, one of my 6-year-old twins, J, asked what she probably expected was a straightforward question: “Are we Christians?” I assume that it was prompted by the morning’s Sunday school lesson, today’s topic having been the denial of Peter.

My answer was anything but straightforward.

It’s not the “Christian” part that’s complicated. It’s the “we” part. I’m atheist. My ex-husband, the girls’ father, is Catholic. We agreed to raise the girls Catholic until they were old enough to make their own decisions about what they believe. Getting divorced didn’t affect my commitment to honour his faith. Our daughters and I continued to read Bible stories, attend church, pray nightly, and talk about how to apply Biblical allegories and principals to our daily lives. The girls weren’t particularly keen on attending church until their babysitter took them to hers. The girls begged to switch from Catholic church to our babysitter‘s nondenominational Christian church, which we’ve attended since.

I have been readying myself to answer J’s question for 20 years. I actually expected it to come from my sister, 10 years my junior and, like me, raised Muslim. She never asked. I was 7 when I decided that I was an atheist, so I’d been anticipated that my girls would start examining their own beliefs any day now. They’ll be 7 next month.

“Being Christian is something that each person needs to choose for themselves,” I told J. “You have to decide whether ‘Christian’ describes you. If you believe that God made the universe, that Jesus is His son, and that he sacrificed himself so that humans could be forgiven for their sins, that you’re a Christian.”

“I’m a Christian,” J responded, without missing a beat.”

“Me, too,” M added.

“What about you, Mommy?”

This was it.

“No, sweetie, I’m not. I think that Jesus was a great man, and I try to live the important lessons that his life taught us, but I don’t believe that he’s the son of God.”

“WHAT?” Both my daughters were shocked.

“If you’re not Christian,” M followed up, “Are you Jewish?”

“Nope. Not Jewish. But do you know that Jesus was Jewish?”

“What!?”

“Yep. If you have to accept Jesus’ sacrifice to be a Christian, then there couldn’t be any Christians until after Jesus died, right? So he couldn’t be Christian.”

M nodded, then focused back on the real topic of our conversation. “Why don’t you believe in Jesus, Mommy?”

“It’s God that I don’t believe in.”

“So you don’t say, ‘Father, Son, Holy Spirit?’ You just say, ‘Son, Holy Spirit?'”

“No, sweetie. I don’t believe that there is a God at all. I pray with you guys so that you can choose to be Christian, but what you believe is a decision that each person has to make for him- or herself. Papa and I wanted to give you all the information you needed to make your own decision about what you believe.”

“If you have no daughters, you wouldn’t pray?” J clarified.

“That’s correct.”

“So you’re not Jewish?” M persisted.

“It’s not just a choice between Christian and Jewish, sweetie. There are lots of different ways to pray and ideas to believe. My family is Muslim. Remember how our family in Missouri prays, kneeling and in Arabic? That’s how you pray in the religion called Islam. When do we pray?”

“At bedtime and when we want to,” J answered.

“When you’re Muslim, you pray 5 times a day, no matter what.”

“I only saw 3 times!”

“That’s because my cousins woke up super-early to pray and prayed after your bedtime too. There are strict rules on how to pray in Islam. You use the same words and gestures each time. You have to wash in a special way called wudu before prayer.”

“Even your feet?” M asked, appalled.

“Yes, washing your feet is part of it,” I told her.

“I don’t want to wash my feet a bunch of times.”

“Okay, baby. My point is that in different kinds of belief in God, called religions, people pray and think about God in different ways.”

I went into a high level comparison of the major monotheistic religions, and then threw in a few polytheist beliefs for good measure.

This simple chart compares the religious texts, prayer approaches, etc. of Christianity, Islam and Judeism. A child's handwriting has labelled the term 'atheist' with the name 'Mom.'

J wanted to know what I called myself. When I taught her the word “atheist,” she rolled in around on her tongue a few times, trying it out.

The girls didn’t make it to bed at our targeted 8:30 pm time. At 9:00, J still had me listing all our relatives who are Christian: pretty much everyone on her Dad’s side of the family. She and M both included themselves in the list. M wasn’t quite comfortable with leaving me off the list, but J said that she thought it was important that I should be free to believe what I want.

This parenting thing is complicated, and I certainly don’t make it any simpler on myself with my atheist pro-religion philosophies.

Sadia is the mother of identical twins, M and J, and coordinator of the mothers of multiples blog How Do You Do It? She lives in Texas, having been in the US for the past 15 years. Her childhood was about evenly split between Bangladesh and the United Kingdom. Her ex-husband is an all-American US soldier of Mexican, Scots-Irish, and French descent. While he attended American public schools and regularly attended Catholic church in childhood, Sadia attended Catholic and secular private schools and visited mosques a handful of times.

Are you the Puppet Master or the Puppet?

23 Feb

Sitting here in my self-initiated, self led parental psychoanalytic session I frequently find myself pondering about a very fundamental yet tough question; “why do we have children?”

Relax! I am not looking for answers and come on let’s face it, is there one? To me it begins with one very selfish act of wanting to create that perfect reflection of you and your partner and of course wanting to keep that fabulous cycle of genetics going. Why not? My genes are great, some of them I secretly wish were a little dominant have turned out to be recessive but I know they exist. Maybe they’ll be dominant in my offspring, no harm in hoping. Reasons differ, generations differ, cultures differ but we all do it anyway for whatever reasons. Artistically speaking (I sense criticism, but I bravely pursue) it feels like I have been presented with a marvelous piece of raw material to work with. It comes pre-colored, pre-textured, has a few unique traits that I have seen in nothing else before and it is all ready and willing to be molded into whatever I want it to become. Really? That might be what I am getting at.

I am beginning to get a strong sense that parenting (call it mine) is beginning to feel like running a puppet show. We are all well aware that every child is unique but we still try to mold these little ones to who they should become and training starts very early in life.  I am so bound by how they act/behave at home which translates to how they do it outside home. My feeling only validates itself when I hear praises on how well my son adapts and adjusts at school or other environments where he meets people. And do I stop there? No, I push harder. Sounds merciless I know but we all do it consciously or sub consciously. My pride and joy is at stake here; I am bearing my soul here so please bear with me. You do realize it all boils down to you as the parent, good or bad you are responsible for all of it.

I think everyone one of us has run into the soccer coach/dad/almost made it to the NFL guy who might be pushing his 4 year old just a little too much on the field, or a mother who might be working two jobs a day just to pay for the private cheerleading lessons that she believes her daughter so badly needs. Sound familiar?

It is called ambition, problem here is that it has a snowball effect to it, give or take a few personal unfulfilled aspirations and before you know your child is being shuttled between guitar lessons, ice skating, the swim team routine and of course let’s not forget he does excel at school as well (my son doesn’t know it yet but he is going to be juggling around as a full time doctor let’s make that a neurosurgeon, who is also a pro ice hockey player when he is not competing for a swimming gold medal for the US) . Why shoot for mediocrity when you have a perfectly willing candidate who is pretty open negotiations about his future with an occasional bribe. Does it begin to feel like that puppet show as yet? But wait who is the puppet here you or your child?

I think the root of my analysis began with watching a show called “Toddlers & Tiaras”. My initial reaction was disgust, come on which mother would put her 2 year old in three inch heels, make-up and pretend that the pageant was a deal breaker for her child’s future. Like I said the reaction was temporary, as a mother I came to the very harsh but true realization that I do it too; I live vicariously through my children as well. Now now, it can’t be that bad right? It starts off pretty innocent; you want to dress your infant up like the Gap commercial kid, you try pushing academics early on in life thinking your son or daughter might be that genius mind and all he or she needs is that extra nudge. At our house we make subtle references to Doogie Houser and secretly harbor the hope that one of them might pick up on it.  Lots of us do it (please back me up on this one). The intensity differs of course, some of us live and breathe vicariously through our children and it begins to take a life of its own.  I secretly want my four-year son to swim like Michael Phelps, I did not learn to swim as a child so I over exaggerate my lack of the skill to make my son a gold medalist at it, aim high why not? My daughter has temporarily been spared because she is too young right now and we tend to focus harder and better when there is one target on hand.

Let’s not forget the peer/parental pressure on how many after school classes a child can handle in any given week day. Whatever happened to just finishing school, coming back with a pile of homework that gets done on time to spare those few extra hours to actually run and play outside? Or just picking out an activity that both kids and parents enjoy once a week and do it together. I am not against keeping a child busy after school, but why decide what he might like when he is perfectly capable of telling you what he might like to do. As a child I badly wanted to learn to play the guitar but my parents thought Indian classical music was the way to go, so guess what even though I might have actually enjoyed learning it I detested going to lessons every week because I had no choice in the matter. Ok excuse the cynicism. But I am sure you are witnessing what I might be leaning towards. I pin a lot of my hopes and dreams that might have gone unfulfilled for me on my children but I am beginning to draw a line on what they might have the potential for and more importantly what they might be interested in doing. There is a vast difference between brainwashing and presenting opportunities so that children can explore their options.  Choices might be a key word here, preparing us for possible change of minds and preventing those disappointments that they are entwined with. All of us want success for our kids and we might just support them even if they do not choose the career path we have in mind for them. I have several arguments about the issue with my husband I strongly believe in children finding their own niche’. He believes in the “grooming early theory”. Which basically means if kids are told what is expected of them every so often over a period of time they get so tuned to it and the choices I was mentioning about earlier seize to exist.

I know parenting comes with the responsibility of leading and directing. That might be the trick to it as well, trust yourself as parents to give your kids the responsibility to make those important choices in life. My key to parenting lies in my role to channelize and be that chauffer who they so badly need to take them places. But let them pick the places and the adventures they are willing to take. I am always there to steer the wheel.

 

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