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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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

What Does Bilingual Mean?

18 Mar

“What does ‘bi-lingal’ mean?” my daughter M asked me as I dried her post-bath hair last night.

I gave her the first definition that came to mind. Someone is bilingual if they speak two languages equally well. I pointed out that the teachers at her school were all equally proficient in Spanish and English.

“Like Mrs. G always talks to Mrs. M in Spanish, and she talks to us in English!” M exclaimed.

“Yep. And Mrs. K speaks to some parents in Spanish and some parents in English. Do you speak some Spanish?”

“Yes,” M agreed. “But not much.”

“I don’t speak much Spanish yet,” I confessed, “but I do speak English, Bangla, French and Italian. That’s called ‘quadrilingual’ for 4 languages.”

Yes, pero...We live in El Paso, TX,  less than 20 miles from the US-Mexico border. There are two main communities that I’ve observed living side by side: the local Mexican-American population, and the army community, made up of soldiers between deployments and their families. The latter group is fluid, moving every year or two. Many army spouses are from countries other than the US, met during soldiers’ international travels. Spanish and English are the languages most often spoken on the street, but I hear plenty of German when I go to the girls’ school to pick them up or onto Ft Bliss, the local base. I used to hear a lot of Korean at our last base, but I haven’t noticed a ton here.

I expected that the richness of the language landscape here would lend itself to an appreciation of the benefits of bilingualism. I was shocked, therefore, to learn the there was no Spanish used in the bilingual classrooms at our daughters’ public school. In this school district, “bilingual” is simply code for “English as a Second Language” or even “Spanish monolingual.” The only Spanish-English dual immersion school programs are “on the other side of the mountain” in the more affluent Caucasian neighbourhoods to the west.

I once toyed with the idea of getting a PhD in code-switching, the interweaving of two or more languages by people equally comfortable with all the languages in use. After having lived in El Paso for 6 months, I think a more fascinating topic is the relationship between people’s language usage and attitudes in multi-lingual communities.

Although my husband and I are members of the army community, our dark skin makes us blend into the long-term El Paso community. The language use I’ve observed in local places of business has been an eye-opener. At shops that are part of national chains, the initial welcome from the staff is in English, but the next utterance is in Spanish. If the customer responds in English, the conversation switches to English. If the customer responds in Spanish, the remainder of the conversation continues in either Spanish only, or Spanish with some English words. If the customer is fair-skinned, however, Spanish doesn’t make an appearance. The contrast was noticeable when my very fair mother-in-law visited. When we go to local mom-and-pop establishments, though, conversation is in Spanish exclusively until my husband forces the issue by holding to his English, or my mangled Spanish causes the store employee to take pity on me.

I hope that my daughters learn the utility and beauty of bilingualism from their classmates before the narrow-minded perspective of the local school system imposes itself on them. I want them to know that being bilingual is a strength, and something to be admired. It doesn’t equate to not speaking English.

You’ve heard the joke, right?

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language?
American.

Not if I can help it.

Sadia was born in the United Kingdom to parents who were born in Bangladesh back when it was still East Pakistan. At the age of 8, she moved “back” to Bangladesh with her parents, where she lived with one foot in her local extended family culture and the other in the expatriate world. She found her way back to the life in the West pursuing degrees in California and Texas. Since that was far too simple an identity for one person, she mixed things up by marrying an American soldier of Mexican-American and Scots/Irish/French-American descent. Their identical twin daughters, M and J, are now 5 years old, and would probably identify themselves as Twin-American above all else.

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