One recent Sunday morning, my son, husband and I were gathered around the breakfast table enjoying pancakes. The television was on across the room, and a new show came on called “Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe.” Wolfe, as I learned later, is an internationally acclaimed photographer, and of course the series host. The episode captured us immediately with its imagery of a country familiar to our family—India.
My husband’s father is originally from southwest India, a state called Kerala which is known for it’s lush greenery, tropical weather, beautiful backwaters, and—as locals love to boast—almost 100 percent literacy. My father-in-law Tom came to the U.S. in the mid-1960’s for his medical residency, where he met his future wife Linda, a Chicago native with German and Norwegian roots. Tom and Linda eventually settled in Texas, where they had four children. Their family traveled to India many times when the kids were young. Having made the trip once already with my husband (before we had our son), I have great respect for my in-laws trekking across the world with four young children!
As we watched the show from our table, my husband and I tried to make conversation with our son about the connection he had to the people on the screen. Some were bathing or washing their clothes in the Ganges river, others were riding bikes or driving rickshaws, and still others were engaged in deep prayer in honor of an annual Hindu pilgrimage. We said things like, “Grandpa is from that country; it’s called India.” My husband also told a story about how when he would visit as a child, his family had “helpers” who would wash their clothes just like we were seeing on the show—beating the clothes against the rocks, a rhythmic but effortful job. I was reminded of my trip there, where I felt so fortunate to meet my husband’s grandfather shortly before he died. He had been instrumental in India’s push for independence, a contemporary of Gandhi, and later a Congressman and vocal advocate for education in his home state.
And then something small but meaningful happened. While to me, these people on the screen were fabulously interesting, they looked nothing like me or the family I had grown up with, and so I felt content to know that my son might feel a connection even if I didn’t. But it occurred to me that my husband might feel very differently; so I turned to him and asked, “Do you feel connected to them?” His face grew quiet, serious and almost sad, and he said simply, “Yes.”
I don’t expect that my son will feel the same subtle sadness or internal conflict that my husband and his father feel – a sense of having a toe or a foot in one culture while the rest of his body is in another. However, sensing how important it is to expose our son to his history, his family, and the many inputs that combined to make him who is he is, I see now that raising him with regular reminders about his ancestors is more than just a fun or different exercise. It will be vitally important to the quiet places in our hearts that we don’t always know are there and a deserving tribute to the people who came before us.
I don’t go around thinking of ways to make sure my kids appreciate cultural differences while avoiding judgments and prejudice. I don’t have to – my daily conversations with them, or more importantly, what I overhear them saying to each other, reminds me that teaching my children to respect our differences is a daily process, something achieved in small steps during every aspect of our lives.
Parker asks: “Mommy, why am I pink and you’re brown?”
Owen observes: “That lady talks weird. Is she speaking Spanish?”
After Martin Luther King Day celebrations at school, they both want to know: “What does it mean to be black?”
The first one is the easiest. “Our family has people of all shades in it, and we love each other even though we don’t look the same. Families are about love, not skin color.” I list all the pink and brown aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who love them. I tell them they’re lucky to have all different kinds of people in their family.
The second one would be easier if Owen wasn’t using his “outside” voice and the woman wasn’t standing next to us. I swallow down the embarrassment. “She’s just speaking differently than we do, but we shouldn’t call people ‘weird’ just because they’re different.” Now, I have to admit my ignorance, which I figure is better than getting it wrong. “I’m not sure what language she’s speaking, but people from different countries speak different languages. That’s why it’s important to learn more than one language,” I tell him, “so you can talk to all kinds of people.”
I have to think quickly on the third, and toughest, question. The problem is, I’m not even sure what it means to be black. I don’t think the kids, at 6 and 4, are ready for my discussion on race as a social construction that has little real-world value – even my college students peer at me in confusion when I bring this up. In fact, when I’m talking to the kids I try to avoid terms like “black” and “white” to describe people because kids take things so literally, I know they won’t understand that pink people are called white and brown people are called black. And what about medium brown people like Owen, or people like Parker who are pink in the winter, light brown in the summer, and always blonde?
I decide on the simplest version of the truth. “Being a black person just means that some of your family members have brown skin. But what’s most important is the kind of person you are, whether you’re nice to other people, whether you try to learn new things, whether you play and have fun and are happy.”
“Are you black, Mommy?” Yes.
“Is Daddy?” No.
“Are we?” Yes. (Kind of, I think but don’t say it – we’ll get into the complexities later. Also, I’ve learned that I should never answer a question that wasn’t asked, and they didn’t ask whether they were half-black. I knew all those episodes of Law & Order would come in handy).
They look at me in silence, and I’m worried that more questions are coming, that, like when we discussed God and death, one answer would only lead to three or four more unanswerable questions to which I don’t have answers.
After a long moment, Owen says, “Okay, mommy.” Parker echoes his big brother, and they move on to more pressing matters.
“Can we have mac-and-cheese for dinner?”
I have fond memories of cooking along-side my father. Perhaps I was the sous-chef, but I felt like I was a part of something significant. I can distinctly recall the smell of fresh tomatoes simmering in basil, olive oil, garlic and red wine. My father always told me to add just a touch of salt to bring out the garlic and just a bit of sugar to counter the acidity of the tomatoes. There is nothing quite like the taste of marinara sauce that has simmered away all day. There is such love in the dish. It is that kind of love for Italian cuisine that my father has taught me to pass on to my family as well. It is not just the Italian love for food; it is a love of all that is good in life. It is about savoring the moment whether that moment is a soft breeze that passes swiftly along your cheek, the smell of a newly blooming gardenia, the genuine smile of a child, or the pure taste of fresh pasta sauce.
My father did not simply bring Italy into our kitchen; he actually sent all of his children to experience Italy itself as well. My sisters and I studied abroad in Sienna during our years at Villanova, while my brother, mother and father are currently visiting Tuscany as I type. During my stay there I immersed myself in Italian culture. I read the renowned works of Dante. I studied Italian works of art from the Etruscans to the Renaissance Period. I walked along the picturesque streets of Rome, Florence and Venice. I painted watercolors of Sienna’s hillside, nearby valleys, as well as the quaint homes and side streets. And I learned enough of Italian to shop, dine, and of course, buy my favorite flavor of gelato. It was a time that I will always cherish.
Today, my two-year old daughter, Hope, is my little sous-chef. Although she is certainly limited by her age in the kitchen, that does not stop her curiosity. She does not know many words, but one of her favorites besides ‘mommy,’ ‘daddy,’ and ‘more,’ is ‘pasta.’ As I blanche the tomatoes one by one she screams, “Pasta!” When the tomatoes cook down and I begin to add the other ingredients she shouts, “See!” I then place her on a tiny stepping stool so she can view the luscious red mixture. Near dinner, when I begin to boil the spaghetti, she knows that a delicious meal will soon be hers. But before the pasta is nearly done, she walks toward me, gives me a hug and whispers, “Taste?” The image of her mouth covered in velvety red sauce is one of my favorite mental pictures. Someday I imagine her walking along the simple streets of Sienna, perhaps on her way to purchase a gelato or to paint a lovely picture of a quiet side-street, or maybe, just maybe, she simply wants to take in the scenery.
We are confirmed travel addicts.
As a couple, my husband and I traveled as much as possible and now that we have a daughter, we are pleased to announce she is one of us. Although we are troubled by the fact that she will not eat salsa, she indeed loves to travel and so we will, in turn, allow Olivia to remain in the family. Traveling is deeply seeded in her DNA. Okay, that was dramatic. The truth of it is that she thinks everyone does it and it is normal everyday life. We have had only one mild passive-aggressive objection from her and it was on her 1st birthday celebrated on the big island of Hawaii. She took her first steps there, which we thought was especially magical as her namesake is Hawaiian. However, during that week of her birthday (we celebrate “birthday weeks” at our house) we continued traveling and she continued walking in Hawaii, then California and then Chicago. This is when she went on strike and didn’t walk again for 2 weeks. We got the message, three states in one week is too much to ask of a one year old.
There are so many travel tricks that we have used over the years to make the air portion of our travel smooth. As she gets another year older we have to come up with new solutions for cohesive travel. We started her traveling as an infant using the obvious trick of breast-feeding on take-off and landing. Bottle, boob or pacifier is essential to make sure you do not have the screaming baby in row 4 that rows 5, 6 and 7 wished was not there. Seems obvious but I have witnessed many-a-parent traveling with their child screaming in pain upon the landing. The baby has to swallow to break the building pressure in the ear canal upon take-off and decent thereby keeping baby free from pain and allowing the parents to smile an elitist smile when all members of row 5 state “that is the best baby I have ever seen.” We flew today from San Francisco to San Diego and a box of soy milk with a straw and carrots were on the no-ear-pain menu now that she is 5. Although Olivia’s Berkeley/hippie pediatrician states I can breast feed until she is 6, I opt for carrots at this point.
There have been a multitude of travel secrets between her infancy and 5 years old. Some I am afraid to mention or should I say that I am too embarrassed to mention. Two of such involve the airplane bathroom. Our current all-important travel secret is… podcasts. Olivia has a Nano iPod filled with podcasts. While she prefers the podcasts I download which contain video, I have also loaded it up with stories sans video. Everything from French lessons to Sesame Street. We used to travel with the portable DVD player, which was both heavy and bulky. It was always running out of battery life but worse yet, her movie would be mid-point and she would hear the instructions to turn it of by the invisible pilot. Very frustrating for her. Podcasts are great for short flights with short humans with short attention spans. Great for driving around Saudi Arabia too but that is an entirely different story.
When my daughter was born, we hadn’t picked a name or had a monogram done, but I secretly knew that my daughter would have an Italian name somewhere even if I had to slip it in on the birth certificate when my husband wasn’t looking. Growing up, my very Italian family mimicked My Big Fat Greek Wedding. My grandmother would get up at the crack of dawn to make breakfast for everyone which consisted of hand-rolled sausages, pancakes, eggs five different ways and thick bacon. Once breakfast was over, she began lunch. And so it went for the rest of my life. Food, family, lots of cheap Chianti and loud voices. Sunday night was spaghetti supper night and everyone ate at the dinner table. Sunday dinners lasted hours as we all talked and reminisced about our most embarrassing moments and relished in each others’ humor.
Friends would come to visit and my mother would insist they have something to eat – not a snack, but a full-on meal. My grandfather had a full on Italian accent and for some reason in my memories of him, he sounds just like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather”. His mixed language of Italian and English still seep out of my mouth on the rare occasion. I catch myself saying “capish” and “andiamo” to my daughter from time to time. All of these vibrant memories of my childhood rich with culture, tradition and pride are exactly what I want my daughter to experience.
My husband, on the other hand, is from an old-south family whose traditions and family dynamics are, for the lack of a better word, less vibrant than mine. So how do I strike the balance between the two? I don’t want to dominate my daughters’ identity, but I don’t want to deny her knowing who she is. I had to strike a balance and give her the tools to discover her own identity and cultivate a sense of pride about who she is and where she came from.
From the very beginning, I asked my mother-in-law to teach me special things she did for my husband and his siblings, songs they would sing, stories they would read and I weaved those into mine. Some nights I would sing my daughter an Italian lullaby my grandmother would sing me and some mornings I would wake her with a song my mother-in-law would sing to my husband. We do a family dinner every Sunday night, sometimes spaghetti with my family and sometimes take out with my husband’s family. My dad brought back from Italy two children’s books in Italian which I read to her every once in awhile and my mother-in-law gave me two story books that my husband loved as a child.
Finding the balance between our two very different cultures has been easier than I anticipated. I specifically looked for a Montessori program for our daughter that teaches foreign languages as well as has a diverse student body. Surprisingly, my husband really likes the fact that she is learning languages he doesn’t even know and even more impressed that she is starting to speak them.
For our family, our roots are an important part of who we are, but not the determinants of who we become. Our daughter will hopefully grow up with a strong appreciation for differences among others and be proud of being Italian and Texan. And if that turns out not to be the case, I still got my Italian name in there!
Around the holidays last year, I thought it might be fun to try out a foreign language class with my then 2 and a half-year-old son. I briefly wrestled with which language, with my top choices being Spanish, French and Mandarin. Not surprisingly, those were the options that I found with the greatest frequency when I poked around for classes online.
I finally settled on Mandarin for a variety of reasons, which included: choosing a useful language for where we live in Northern California, wanting to learn something new along with my son, and giving him some early exposure to something he might not get later in school (i.e., we are hopeful that Spanish and French will be available options when the time comes for him to start elementary school, but Mandarin might not be offered). So, partly driven by curiosity, partly by the sheer foreignness of the language and alphabet, and partly by the bandwagon mentality of China-mania (booming economy, Olympic fever), I chose Mandarin.
I found a class that sounded perfect through Language at Play, which offered different courses for babies and early talkers in the three languages I had considered at a few locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. The closest one for us was held weekly at the Beresford Recreation Center in San Mateo.
The class exceeded my expectations, and I was really impressed with the quality of the teachers, the variety of instruction and activities to hold the children’s interest, and the usability of the lessons taught. Every class had a logical flow that made the hour long sessions predictable even though they flew by! We started and ended each class by sitting in a circle and singing a simple Mandarin greeting song to all of the children (about 8-10 in all): “ni hao” (hello) and “zai jian” (good-bye). The teachers wove in book reading, puppets, dancing, singing, snack, and other activities. It was really fun. Now, four months later, my son can still say a few key phrases, including “pai pai sho” (clap your hands) and “xie xie” (thank you). I am strongly considering enrolling us in another class, time permitting.
My husband of 13 years and I are living in a tiny cottage on a strawberry farm in South Africa. We don’t have a phone, TV, AC, or microwave, and until March we didn’t even have a stove, but we are loving life. My husband is getting his PhD in ancient languages and I am writing, writing, writing. We have children on the way. Two little citizens of the world are coming to us from strange and unexpected places. Raising them in a foreign culture (for a time) with hardly two hands to rub together will be an exciting challenge. It will also be the experience of a life-time for all of us (including our adopted dogs, should they prove to have longterm memories).
After never having been outside the United States before, my husband and I decided to pack our dogs and move to South Africa. It was a terrifying and spectacular journey. We sold all we owned and headed towards an unknown world. My husband is now getting his PhD in ancient languages and I am sitting in a tiny shack on a strawberry farm, loving on the dogs and working on a new novel.
But this is the story of our kids and it really begins in the airport in DC. There was a family waiting to board the plane with us. A white middle-aged couple (the man clad in his safari best) stood with their six kids, all dressed in soft, pastel cottons. The oldest three were African girls with stunning skin, hair and smiles. They were wide-eyed with the wonder of traveling across the world, perhaps for the first time in memory. There were two six year old boys, one black and one white. They held hands throughout the airport, looking sharp in their matching plaid shirts and flip-flops. The youngest was a white girl, perhaps four years old. They were all so well behaved, despite their excitement. One of the girls leaned on her father’s elbow. He put his arm around her shoulder and kissed the top of her head.
I wanted to look away but I couldn’t. What a brilliant family this was! By the time we got on the plane, I was in love. I told my husband, “I want a polka-dotted family just like that one.” After 13 years of marriage and no success in the offspring-creating department, we didn’t know how we would get the white polka-dot, but we had long since decided to pursue the black one. The need for adoptive parents in South Africa is frightening. But like any official process in Africa, adoption is slow to happen.
Now, as we wait for our baby Xhosa son, I find myself pregnant for the first time at 34. More than ever before, I am excited about the opportunity/challenge of raising an African child. We are blessed to live in this country, to experience such an intense culture, and to be able to share it with both of our kids, no matter their color. What a gift for both of them to be born with the promise of a wider world view. In the months to come my husband and I will feel the full weight of this responsibility. How will the locals accept a white couple with a black child? How can we nurture a permanent sense of ethnic identity in both our children? Will they share a cultural affinity even though they are different colors? We know we cannot be ready for many things, including the obstacles we will face, but we enter this time with a sense of duty and gratitude and joy.