moushumi chooses… everything!

It was Moushumi’s 7th month birthday and she was going to choose her destiny! For such an important event, it was of course necessary to get dolled up. I wore a beautiful silk sari, and Moushumi wore an adorable red sari that mimics the one worn by a bride in our Bengali culture. Even my husband, who is American, wore Indian clothes. The occasion was Moushumi’s Annaprashan, a traditional Bengali-Hindu rite-of-passage ritual that marks the occasion of an infant’s first taste of solid food, typically rice. It also involves a fun pick-your-destiny game for the child.

My parents, who live close by, had the event at their house with delicious catered as well as home-made Indian food. My parents invited all of their close friends because in our culture, it is customary for everyone to come and bless the child. Many people came long distances to share in this special day with us, including some of my oldest friends. Several of my husband’s family members were also able to come for the whole weekend, which was wonderful. My husband’s father had an important role to play, helping my stepfather feed Moushumi the rice pudding that is the centerpiece of the ceremony. He wore Indian clothes, and handled his slippery-soled Indian shoes very well. It was truly a multicultural event, with two grandfathers from different cultures trying to feed an agreeable but confused baby.

It’s worth describing Moushumi’s outfit in detail, to convey the cuteness. She wore a red silk sari, and jewelry, including anklets, a garland and a special head-dress. She looked adorable! When we came into the room where the guests were waiting for us, she gave everyone a big smile. She was the star and I think she knew it!

Both my stepfather and my father-in-law took turns feeding Moushumi her “payesh” or rice pudding. The payesh was blessed by a priest during a “puja” or worship at our house earlier that morning. She basically spit it out, but that was good enough for us. We then played the destiny game, which involves presenting the child with a tray holding different objects. Everyone watched intently to see what she would pick. Minutes before, my mother had run out to the yard and grabbed a clump of soil with grass still attached. That was the first thing Moushumi picked up – and then she promptly threw it down on the floor! People joked that this meant she was rejecting a life as a landowner. She briefly touched the book and then picked up the pen. My family was very happy about that because we have many professors, doctors, and writers in our family and the pen signifies learning and intellect. She finally picked up the gold bangle and everyone cheered – you can’t go wrong with gold, it signifies wealth. As her mother, I conclude that this game showed us a future where she is curious about everything and will make many messes. After the ceremony, Moushumi had a quick wardrobe change into a red dress and was passed around to everyone at the party! We then ate and drank and chatted while the star took a well-deserved nap.

It was a great, if somewhat exhausting, day. Although she may not remember a thing, Moushumi was very aware at the time that something interesting was happening – eating something new, having people fawn all over her, wearing lots of funny stuff, and being able to grab and throw things. She got meet lots of new people as well as see some family members that she doesn’t see often. I believe she felt the love – and really, that is the point of events like these, isn’t it – whatever culture it may be? Despite differences in culture, everyone who took part understood that it was an occasion to come together and celebrate the miraculous beauty of a new child.

Tea’s Norway Inspiration: part II

Norway is renowned as the “cradle of skiing” and it is possible to ski there, even in the summer time.

Emily and I wanted to see these snow capped mountains first, so we headed toward Jotenheimen National Park, home to Norway’s highest peaks.

We needed to rest up before we embarked on our journey through the mountains, and found ourselves in the perfect spot. The quaint and eclectic Elevester Hotel sits in the shadows of Norway’s tallest mountain.

Inside, the hotel is decorated with motifs and crafts from Norwegian history.

The upholstery fabric and hand painted designs on the antique furniture inspired some of our winter textiles, as used in our Elevester Floral Dress (shown above).

We were ready to make our way up to the peaks. As we climbed higher, the snow walls began to tower at least 3 feet above our car. I was starting to regret not bringing along some cozy mittens and warmer layers…

…but along our decent, snow gave way to waterfalls and lush green pastures.

We decided to stop in Skjolden, a small town on the other side of the mountains. We were delighted to find that the town was having a local craft fair. Here we met Olga, a sweet woman selling her hand knitted mittens and slippers.

The history of hand knitting in Norway dates back to Viking times and most snowflake motifs and lice patterning that we see on ski sweaters today, originated there. A Norwegian collection would not be complete without a nod to these designs.

Our Skjolden Ski Cardigan and Viking Intarsia Vest (shown above).

At a rest stop we noticed an unusual steeple silhouetted against the setting sun. These dragon head gables are distinct to Norway’s Stav churches.

We went to Borgund to find the only Stav church that has been unaltered since the middle ages.

The intricate framework and gabled roof inspired the architecture of our twirling Stav Dress (shown above).

We ended our trip in the harbor city of Bergen, where even the radiating colors of the 11pm sunset left it’s impression on us.

Our interpretation of a midnight sunset is conveyed through our Ombre Tunic Sweater (shown below).

don’t like ike

When the weathermen said we would be getting a storm we didn’t expect it to be of the magnitude it was. Ike rolled in and just as Mayor White said, we hunkered down. The winds started around 5pm Friday and then the rains, lightning, tornadoes and I’m sure some “unclassified” natural phenomenons began. It was the longest night of my life.

I continued to pace the house with a flashlight every 30 minutes to make sure the loud booms I was hearing weren’t broken window or a hole in the roof from a tree falling. My husband and daughter slept through the entire thing – even the loud popping and crashing of power lines and transformers every 2 minutes.

When the morning broke, it was vividly clear the destruction Ike left us. My street was completely flooded, huge 100 year old pines were literally picked up from their roots and thrown across yards, huge tree limbs and debris floated down our street like it was a river. Everywhere around us, our neighbors were in their fishing waders or rain boots, mid-thigh to waist deep in the water trying frantically to check on each other.

Meanwhile, my daughter’s allergy triggered asthma was acting up and not a single person in our neighborhood had power. In the rain and wind, I wrapped her up, grabbed her nebulizer and medicine and walked half a mile to the police station in hopes they had power. They did. The police couldn’t even give us a ride back to our house because the water was too high for their squad cars. And so, every four hours, we made the trek to the police station and accumulated an impressive collection of junior police officer stickers.

Saturday afternoon, we began the clean up. It took us six hours to get our front yard passable. I didn’t even want to look at our backyard. So without power, water and basically no contact with the greater Houston world, we did the best we could to keep a positive outlook and entertain our daughter who, at two and a half, had no clue what had happened.

Once the water receded, we ventured out into our neighborhood and to be honest, it looked like a war zone. Fences and trees were ripped apart and thrown everywhere. Power lines were snapped in half and dangling across streets. The park down the street was shredded to bits. It was so depressing, I didn’t want to go any further.

Saturday night, the rains came again. Winds were hitting about 30-40 miles per hour and of course, at 4:30 in the morning, my daughter needed another breathing treatment. Again, I wrapped her up, went out in the pouring rain and took her up to the police station.

Sunday morning when we woke, it was still pouring rain, high winds and we were flooded again. No one would know we had spent six hours cleaning the day before. Still without power and water and not a power service vehicle in sight, we waited for the water to receed and then we just headed out of town.

Now it is Wednesday, and I am writing this from my computer on a ranch in Llano, Texas. We can’t go home because we still do not have power on my block. My entire neighborhood has power, but of course, my block does not. Probably because the transformer is sitting in my neighbors’ backyard.

We’re grateful to be where we are as we have plenty of food, water, electricity (especially air conditioning!), but we are ready to go home. Ike has truly been a lesson for us. It’s amazing the things we all take for granted like power, clean water, being able to cook food and more. For a major city, such as Houston, to be completely destroyed is a really tough pill to swallow.

We don’t know when or if my daughter’s school will re-open, we don’t know when gas, food, water etc. will be available and most of all, we don’t know if we even have jobs when we return. I guess the main thing we learned from this is that even though we are very possessive of our material things, it’s not what is important. I’m not going to lie. If we go home and looters took all that we have, I will be upset; no devastated. But, once that emotion passes, I will realize that my family is safe and well and that’s what matters most.

If my daughter was older, I would take her with me to Galveston to help with the clean up efforts, but it isn’t safe. But I will have her help me deliver water and food to people near us that aren’t as fortunate as we are. A lesson in humanity and community has humbled us all in Southeast Texas.

If any of you who read or contribute to this blog have family affected by Ike, please know you and they are in our prayers and thoughts.

what if there were no christmas?

This is #5 of an ongoing dialog of our travel which included 4 countries and a 4 year old. Please check the prior archives for the previous sagas.

We live in San Francisco where tolerance and acceptance survives and thrives in a 7 x 7 mile area. Last December we traveled to a country in which we, Americans, are led to believe there is no tolerance and no acceptance. We found it to be different than we are conditioned to know.

We spent December in Saudi Arabia, which means there was no Christmas whatsoever. They used to sell trees and there was evidence of Christmas but in this current day, there is no sign of it. Saudi Arabia is a sacred country, birthplace of Muhammad, dedicated to their religion. We felt the non-existence of Christmas was appropriate and took advantage of the time to become more knowledgeable about the religion, Islam. Moreover, to expose our 4 year old daughter Olivia to a different culture and a way of life. We were amazed to find she did not mind missing “the presents” at all but she was a tad disappointed when it occurred to her in January that she missed the San Francisco Nutcracker Ballet.

One day around the 25th of December, a 65-year-old Saudi friend of ours bent down to Olivia and said “Merry Christmas!” We had been in Jeddah for 20 days by then and it felt the same as if someone said Merry Christmas in April. Very odd. We panicked. What would Olivia do now that someone brought up Christmas?

Neither of us said a word and we got into the car hoping the whole thing would be forgotten. 5 minutes down the road Olivia said “Hey, maybe we should have the taxi driver stop for us to get a tree for our hotel!” Actually, it was a chauffer and home we were staying in so we got a chuckle. I took the opportunity to explain this was the month of Hajj and it is different from Christmas. When she look confused, I reminded her how she celebrates yet another religion with her best friend and how he doesn’t have a tree either. This cleared it up for her and off we went, tree-less.

Our friends took us to dinner on December 25th. Though we’d beent to dinner with them many times while we were in Jeddah, this night was special. Two sisters, a brother and their adult children took us to an amazing Persian restaurant. We spent the evening talking about everything from politics, the lack of recycling in Saudi, stories from the qura’an and to our earliest childhood memories.

Our favorite part of the evening occurred when we were leaving the house to go to dinner. Half way down the beautiful marble steps our 4 year old turned around to the butler who was standing at the door and yelled to him “Goodnight, Merry Christmas, Merry Eid, Happy Hajj.” Mission accomplished! Cultural diversity was within her.

investigating international schools

After a trip to the local ice cream parlor one evening recently, our neighbors stopped by our house to share some ice cream sandwiches with us. Their oldest daughter Lila is in first grade, and their youngest Janie is in our son’s preschool class. The children immediately started playing together, and the adults got to talking. As it is the fall, the conversation turned to the new school year.

Lila is enrolled at a nearby international school, where she is studying French and seems to enjoy it. I asked the girls’ mother if she plans to enroll Janie at the same school as her sister when she is ready for kindergarten. She said yes, and that’s when she explained that the school has two immersion programs: French and Mandarin. “How did you choose French over Mandarin?” I asked her. Her answer was as interesting as it was thought-provoking.

“Well, we were initially most intrigued by Mandarin,” she said. “But when we visited the school, we experienced this very strict, regimented approach even with the little ones. There was a lot of pointing and direction, ‘you sit there! You sit over there! Ok, now we are going to count to ten!’ The French program, while academic, wasn’t nearly so structured. Also, both of us [pointing to her husband] speak French, so we felt we could help Lila if she ran into anything she didn’t understand. But with Mandarin, we’d be as lost as her. We felt that it was enough of a culture shock to enroll her in an immersion program, but then to offer no safety net at home seemed too much to ask of a 5 year old.”

All of that made sense to me, and frankly I could relate, since both my husband and I studied French too. My elementary school also introduced a foreign language in kindergarten (French), but it was a 30-minute class, certainly nothing close to an immersion program. That same school is now on our short list for when our son is ready for school. But, as their family said good-night and we thanked them for the ice cream, I was feeling ambivalent. How did I really feel about language immersion for our son?

On the one hand, I am definitely in favor of having him study a foreign language starting at an early age. My husband and I would certainly prefer a school that offered a class as part of the curriculum to one that didn’t. But somehow immersion feels a little bit “hard core.” How would we have felt about it when we were kids?

Currently, our son attends a play-based preschool that we love, but some might call it a little bit “crunchy.” Kids can’t run around naked…but almost. There is an organic garden growing in the play yard, which the children water and maintain. The philosophy of the school is one of enabling children, who are viewed as capable, competent, self-motivated learners. When my friend and neighbor mentioned culture shock, I wondered how our son would manage a transition from “crunchy” to “foreign.”

One reasonable answer is that starting a new school can be challenging for any child, and if we choose immersion or not, our son won’t know anything different. Choosing immersion, however, is not without its drawbacks. There is research (academic and anecdotal) to suggest that immersion programs often slow down children’s English language advancement. My friend and neighbor said herself that Lila’s rate of mastery of English vocabulary slowed measurably in her first year at the international school. After that initial year or so, though, I found very little to suggest that there are any long-term drawbacks to being bilingual. Quite the contrary, which of course largely explains the draw and why the waiting lists for public and private immersion programs in the Bay Area are as long as they are.

However, my husband and I do have a secret, nagging fear that if our son was so focused on learning a new language that he might not be able to devote equal attention to reading, math, science, etc. Will the immersion program be so all-consuming that other disciplines will get short-shrift?

So, really it comes down to our motivations as parents for considering such a track for our son. Is it to give him an advantage that other children might not have? Maybe, a little, sure. Is it to expose him and his brain to another way of thinking, speaking, conjugating, communicating and expressing himself? Absolutely. But, assuming the immersion program doesn’t shine in all subjects, is it worth it? And if we decide that it is, are we as parents prepared to pick up the slack at home? I’m glad our son still has a little time, because I haven’t made up my mind just yet.

think globally, travel locally

At a baby shower last year, the hostess had all of the guests write down two pieces of important parenting advice to put in a beautiful, handmade book for the mother-to-be. I write down what I always do when asked to do these things:

  • If it is a boy, always make sure the penis is pointing down before fastening the diaper.
  • Show your child as much of the world as you are able.

The hostess chuckled when she read what passes as wisdom in my eyes and then said, “Oh, Kayt. If only it were that easy!”

I do understand that travel is a luxury and that, in these times, air fare to exotic locales may not be a priority. But I do believe that showing your child the world is easier than one might think. You just need to think outside the airport.

Here are some of the ways that when you can’t go out to meet the world, you can bring the world back home to you.

  1. Try a new tongue. Check out a Mommy and Me language class. Or see if a local school offers language instruction.
  2. Reach out. Contact a local International organization and see if there is a Mom of that nationality who would like to get together to share language and play dates. Lots of times, they are anxious to make American friends and improve their English. It’s a great way to learn about a country and culture firsthand.
  3. Go to a International Festival. There is a great calendar of festivals and events across the U.S. on the International Festivals and Events Association Web site.
  4. Check out a book. Pick out some Children’s books that explore other cultures. Some of our favorites are “The Musicians of Bremen” by Jane Yolen and “Three Samurai Cats” by Eric A. Kimmel.
  5. Play the postcard game. When I was young, my father sent me a postcard from everywhere he traveled. I still have every single one. Those two sentence blurbs describing the picture can inspire a lot of curiosity. Ask friends and family that are traveling to send your child his very own card.
  6. Do a project. When I was young, I called it “Whirl-a-World.” I would spin our family globe and let my finger stop on a country. I’d then do research in the encyclopedia or at the library to learn more about the culture and people there.
  7. Crack that cookbook. Is there a better way to learn about a culture than trying its food? Try a new international recipe and let your child help cook it.

That’s my basic list but I’m sure I missed other great ways to show your child the world. What are some other ways that have worked for you?