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.
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.
My husband’s job takes him away for long stretches and we have tried to work it out to join him when we can. As a result, we’ve traveled with our kids from the time they were born. Even though I’m thrilled to show them the world, it’s not always been easy or graceful. Lugging a sleeping 40 lb kid on the rush hour Tokyo subway is is not exactly my idea of a good time, but it is an experience to remember. Nonetheless, it’s been really important for us to expose our kids to different cultures, foods, and ways people live. (And quite frankly to wean them off mac-n-cheese and TV!)
One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that the best times are usually the ones that are very impromptu. As I prepared for our first big trip, a summer in France with the kids, I started to mentally make a list of the incredible towns, museums and places I had seen in college. The ones that I thought would be meaningful and important for my kids to see. My husband sat me down and gave me some wise advice, “Listen,” he said, “if you get a lemonade and sit in the park all day together, that’s a good day. Let them soak it in. Be slow.” I have to say, like in our everyday life as parents, I’ve come to realize that the most important and memorable moments are the quiet ones, the unplanned ones. So the picture you see is of my daughter, Ava and I. We were walking, exploring really, on the road outside the house we had rented in the south of France and came upon this incredible field of poppies. It was poppy season and they were all in bloom, in another few days they would be cut and sold in the market and the field would be almost barren. She’s older now, but we both vividly remember how it felt, smelled, the feeling of the wind and how relaxed and joyful we were. In that moment, we were so deeply connected and the world seemed really small…just her and I.
I believe that raising citizens of the world begins at home. I am a black American woman and my husband is a white American man, and we both bring a myriad of cultural traditions to our children. Both my husband Jeff and I are wary of racial labels, since race is a social construction rather than a biological reality, but we also realize that our society places great importance on race and ethnicity. So, we do not shy away from discussions of race and color; instead, we deal with our sons’ questions in a straightforward way. All families are different, we tell them. All people are different. Sometimes we can see the differences and sometimes we can’t, but being different is a good thing – it’s what makes life interesting.
We also encourage our children to appreciate and value differences – in skin color (we have light pink, pink, light brown, medium brown and dark brown people in our family), in family makeup (one of my older son’s best friends has two moms) in interests (some people like sports while others prefer art or music), in abilities (we are all good at some things and not so good at others) and in traditions, to name a few. If our sons grow up to believe that differences are normal and, in fact, desirable, we believe they will be more compassionate and successful people, no matter what path they choose in life.
In our family, we celebrate different faiths (including Judaism, various denominations of Christianity, Islam, agnosticism), and we make a point to discuss traditions of different parts of America as well as those of other countries. Maps and globes have inspired our sons’ curiosity about that which is “foreign,” and they are lucky enough to have grandparents from the Midwest and Northeast who have traveled to many distant locations. Receiving a t-shirt from Guatemala, a toy train from Italy, a coloring book from Thailand or a postcard from South Africa helps our sons understand that the world is a vast and diverse place. When my husband and I traveled to Belize on a recent vacation, the boys peppered us with questions about the country for weeks afterward.
This interest in unfamiliar cultures will serve them well as they grow – they have already been to Barbados, where they watched monkeys play in our front yard, and they already recognize the Eiffel tower on sight – and some day, they’ll stop calling it the “France Tower,” maybe when they see it in person someday.
Even after two years of parenting this crazy set of children, I still feel surprised when someone remarks how alike they are. It is true, mind you – my two boys resemble each other greatly and my oldest son and my daughter have a lot of the same mannerisms. They actually match up rather well. Like kid versions of Garanimals. The “tiger” shirt and the “bear” pants are not too matchy-matchy, but they “go” all the same. My kids “go”.
And this is odd. Because, my children have biologically NOTHING that is truly “the same” about them, except that they all have this odd, coffee loving, loud, crazy mom and a rather sane, albeit exhausted father.
You see, two years ago, this little family of three consisted of myself, my husband, and a very precocious five-year-old boy named Eli. Eli is a fantastic mixture of everything my husband and I love and hate about ourselves. He was a boring addition to our family, to hear him tell it. Plain ol’ pregnancy. Plain ol’ delivery. (As the mother who WENT through this plain ol’ delivery, I beg to differ. Twelve hours of labor, an emergency c-section, and the immediate shock that the 75 lbs gained was ACTUALLY FAT and not baby…nothing plain about that!)
But two years ago, we decided to rock this little boat a bit. We decided to adopt a little girl and a little boy from Russia. They were actually from two different regions in Russia, so it took four trips to complete this.
For my daughter, we went to Siberia for Thanksgiving. Now, before you start thinking that this was a culinary move, let me save you from booking the Turkey Trip 2009. We went there on a mission – to meet this little girl that was bald and really very angry. I mean, angry in a way that only a girl can muster. Dismissively angry. However, I am getting ahead of myself.
Siberia in November is exactly as you think it is. It made Michigan look tropical. Folks from North Dakota can kiss my southern hiney with their snowfall amounts. Don’t even get me STARTED on the wimps who inhabit Wisconsin. Siberia is cold. Bone chilling cold. Sun never goes down and it is still cold COLD. And yet, the “locals” (locos?) wear stiletto heels, and walk very fast – on ice, no less. Color me impressed.
The flight into Moscow was long, but uneventful. I spent much of it trying to decide what we would name this surly child I had only seen a picture of. After 11 hours of discussing it with me, my husband basically didn’t care if I named her Delta Airlines, so I was left to hammer it out alone. The two days in Moscow was a blur of exhaustion and site seeing. The impression I left Moscow with was a sense of pride for them – simply because of THEIR pride. Did that make sense? They were so proud of what they had, whether it was something truly great or something that I thought paled in comparison to “what we have at home” – that I was proud for them. America could learn from this pride, I think. And I am from the South – where Pride is tattooed/etched/flown on a flag in most places. For me to say this…that is SOMETHING.
Another plane ride (the time change is so extreme from Moscow to Siberia that you actually end up losing almost an entire day for a four hour plane ride)…and you are in Siberia. I actually thought I would see Mikhail Barishnikov and Isabella Rosselini hovered in the corner of the dilapidated airport, huddled in conversation. At least Gregory Hines tap dancing in the alleyway? No?
The airport was…empty, aside from the passengers from our plane. The plane pulled away, as if it were a bus station, and the passengers started walking across the tarmac – towards what, I have no idea. It was a vast land of…vastness. Is this even a word? Even today, I still remember the unbelievable sense of melancholy and loneliness of that airport. To think that people used to be banished to live there…if that airport was what they had to greet them – banishment was surely the worst punishment ever. One big, hairy, cold, empty Time Out. But again, I am getting off track.
I would love to have remembered more details about the region in Siberia we were visiting. I am sure it is a lovely land, with lovely people, especially for the four whole days it thaws out. However, if you are an adoptive parent, you know that most of your mind, heart and memories center around what your new child was like at that time. And how they change into a member of your family that you cannot remember the time before them. Except that you had missed them.
I remember the big cement building, painted seaside-ish colors of pink, yellow and blue. This was a stark contrast to the surrounding buildings painted…um…concrete color. But I appreciated the effort to make it look fun, as if it were a big, 24 hour preschool. I remember that my daughter had a big bonnet on her head that she hated. I remember that she hurled it across the room. I remember that she was bald, but had a slew of polka dots on her head. I later found out this was chicken pox, but it made for a fun first memory. Do not think for a second that her prom date is NOT going to see those pictures. I remember that she was very irked with us. I suspect that we interrupted her daily watching of her soap opera, or her manicure. Or she might have needed coffee. Even at almost two, she used to steal my coffee back then and take a big drink and set the mug down HARD – as if to let us know that she was plum WORN OUT by us and could USE A LATTE.
The following March, my husband and I traveled back to Siberia to bring our daughter, Finley home. That was two years ago. She still hates dresses and combing her hair. She recently has started playing with a doll, who she insists is a boy. She spends most of her time trying to convince The Boy Doll how to play baseball. And for Heaven’s sake, to make a good latte.
She is loud. She is very messy. She has a laugh that will make you want to hear it again and again. She has perpetually dirty feet. She STILL steals my coffee.
She is not from me, but she is…me.
She just “goes.”
Our youngest son Neal was a best man at tea founder Leigh Rawdon’s wedding. We became close friends with Leigh and her husband and helped perform the initial fundraising for tea as well as being an early investor. After Tea got going we asked her about the tagline – “little citizens of the world”. She surprised us by saying that she’d got it from us – we’d described our goal in raising our two sons as “citizens of the world.” To help inaugurate the blog, Leigh asked us to elaborate on how that happened.
Mark and Neal were born 22 months apart in Westminster Hospital, London, steps from the Houses of Parliament. But within 8 months of the appearance of the youngest we were on a plane to a 2-year assignment in California courtesy of Roger’s US multinational employer. We made the most of the stay, traveling with the boys in the Western USA and exchanging our annual free “compassion visits” home for tickets to Hawai’i. The boys got a very early look at a different culture to which they were born!
Returning back to the UK, Roger to a European marketing job and Cilla to teaching, we took the boys on as many overseas trips as we could and vacationed extensively in France. However, it was clear to us that opportunities for career development for ourselves and better futures for the boys lay in returning to the USA, and we arranged to move back in January 1982 to Silicon Valley.
We had long held a belief that the boys should be given the fullest exposure to other cultures, customs and environments. Cilla had been raised in Zambia and Kenya and Roger had lived in France and traveled extensively in Europe, South America and Asia. We wanted them to be comfortable in any geographical environment, both as a way of developing their persona and to enable them to fulfill their work aspirations.
Over our first eight years back in California Roger ran international sales & marketing for three computer industry companies. Our house was frequently full of visitors from Sweden to Indonesia, Japan to Brazil, and Cilla and the boys joined Roger on international trips whenever school and work permitted. Coupled with annual visits to family in the UK, from 6 years old through high school the international world was very much part of their lives, and air travel not a surprise. After high school both Mark and Neal traveled for a summer through Europe on Eurorail. Subsequent to university Mark spent time in Peru and Ecuador on ecology field trips, while after law school Neal spent two years in Holland working at the International War Crimes Tribunal. Today we have two sons completely unfazed at visiting different cultures, one working as a lawyer in the US Senate, the other completing a tropical biology PhD at Duke University while living with his fiancée in Finland and spending months each year in the Amazonian rain forest in Peru.
When we attempted to give our sons a “global” familiarity the communications infrastructure of 24-hour network news and the internet was not in place and it was hard for people to understand and see lives in other parts of the world. Today, even though in the USA we see other cultures and lives nightly on television there remains a lack of understanding of these cultures and arguably an insularity of approach. The only way for people to experience other cultures is to get in there and meet them. The younger you can make your children comfortable with other cultures the better!