My preschooler daughter complains that she does not have blond hair. She wants to be “white,” although she hates the color. (At least that’s how she explains why she won’t drink milk.) She wants her parents to speak in English. She hates Tamil and Hindi because her friends don’t understand the language. And, above all, she wants to take her best friend’s last name.
DD is trying to create her identity. She is still in the highly impressionable phase of life, but she is trying to understand why she is so different. She knows she is special, but she’s also been told that “everyone is special.” She wants to blend in with her environment, only she constantly sees and feels that she’s not like her friends.
A lot of expat families face this issue — of their kids not wanting to learn their mother tongue, just because their friends don’t speak the same language. They want to eat pizzas and mac & cheese, not dosas or idlis.
DD understands both the Indian languages we use at home, she just refuses to speak in her native tongue. We understand what she communicates — maybe because of proximity and because our ears are tuned to catch that important message she is so desperately trying to share, or maybe because she is such a persistent person that she will not let you be until you listen and respond to her.
But it’s a whole other issue when she talks to our parents (who by the way do understand English). It’s a really big struggle for our progeny to speak to our progenitors — not because of the language, but because of the accent. The mixed-up and confusing accent. She’s between the Indian and American, and this ultimate Indo-American style just sounds like cute little childish jabber over long-distance communication devices.
So our parents, in addition to admonishing us for not being strong enough in teaching the native language, blame us for increasing communication barriers between them and their grandchild. We are to be blamed. At this rate, the young and the old would soon run out of common points of discussion.
It was a call for action.
We’ve started addressing a couple of things to begin with. The topic of cultural differences is too huge to overload the little one’s mind with so soon. So we discuss the basics and the obvious: Why is she different?
We share pictures of people from across the globe. When we see people of different ethnicity, she gets very excited and wants to know where they are from. Thanks to one of her classmates, she was very interested in learning about Ethiopia. We read her books on different cultures and show her some ‘cool’ Hindi movies to give her a sense of her homeland and help her understand her roots better.
We discuss how not all Seattleites are white, and how not all white people are Seattleites. (To her, Seattle is America.)
And we discuss all the people she’s read about. She really loves the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday is a holiday for all of Seattle. She’s happy that many know of Gandhi. And when we sat down to list all the great people who are “brown,” she listed chocolate. Now who can beat that? And that sure sealed the deal for us. She is as sweet and as lovely as chocolate. In fact, she even went on to add that chocolate copied her skin color. Good for the chocolate!
Explaining why black hair is great was easy. She was anxious that she would never grow up to be Rapunzel. So we showed her that Jasmine and Snow White are brunettes. From her collection of princesses, she can see that most have different hair colors. Some are blondes, yes, but there are also brunettes, redheads and brown-haired girls.
All this, yet we still have to work with the problem of why Rapunzel’s tresses — which remain the kid’s epitome of beautiful hair — is blond. As you can see, we’re dealing with a case of the never-ending “why.”
And language? Well, that’s a little tricky. DH and I only talk to her in our native tongue. We’re tempted to communicate in English because that would save a lot of time and energy. But we make the best effort to speak to her only in our language, even if she responds in English. We also talk to each other in Hindi.
If she wants to understand what we’re saying, she has to listen up.
It is frustrating sometimes — for her because it’s not very easy to comprehend, given that she’s in the company of her friends most of the day; for us because we sometimes do get tired of explaining and translating everything we say into English and helping her translate everything she wants to say into Hindi.
I don’t know how long we’ll be able to do it or who’s going to give up sooner. But as of now, we’re all very enthusiastic about helping DD learn at least one of the native languages we speak.
Thankfully, she still wants to be our child and so is OK with Singh as her last name.
Just as I began to think we’re getting a grip over this big subject, she recently walked in very upset and asked, “Mamma, why don’t I get to have two mothers like my friend?”
Padmaja Ganeshan-Singh is a new expat from India and a rookie Superwoman. This is her first time managing her family without any help and boy, does she have newfound respect for the American woman. She is the mother of a high-energy preschooler who presents her with the challenges of preserving the culture of her homeland while embracing the culture of her new home in Seattle. From driving on the 'right' side of the road to understanding the craze behind Halloween candy, Padmaja's trying to make meaning out of the madness around her. For a peep into her expat life, check her blog .