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Where are you from?

There is a story about my husband that gets trotted out on a fairly regular basis.

My husband was born in the US to Indian parents holding green cards.  As a first generation American, I know that there were discussions about which language they should first teach to Ravi; English or Gujarati.  They elected to teach him English first for a variety of reasons including not wanting him to be behind in school.  Gujarati, they decided, could wait.

Fast forward about 5 years.

I’m paraphrasing here, but the conversation went something like this, over the course of several years…

In-laws-It’s time to learn Gujarati

Ravi-No.

In-laws-How about you learn Gujarati and we buy you go-bots?

Ravi-No

In-laws-How about you learn Gujarati and we give you money?

Ravi-No

In-laws-How about you learn Gujarati and we buy you a brand new bike? (This was supposed to be the big guns)

Ravi-You’ll buy me a new bike eventually (those are his words, verbatim)

Ravi does not speak Gujarati. (Yes, he did get the new bike eventually)

Young, adorable, obstinate Ravi

This is a story that usually brings big laughs.  Ravi and I both find it hilarious.

Or, rather, I found it hilarious until I started thinking about it from the parent’s perspective.  What if I wanted to impart something American to Elanor and she flat out refuses (it’s hard to think of a comparable substitution for a mother tongue language, but go with me here)?  Would I find it a testament to her parentage (and our own pigheadedness), or a painful rejection of my culture, and what I perceive as HER home culture?

I have never asked my in-laws that question (although I plan to…or they’re welcome to respond in comments since I know they read the blog)-what it felt like to have their son refuse to learn their native language.  Did it feel like a rejection?  Was it just another example of his stubborn personality?  What were the challenges of raising their son in a culture that was not their home culture (although they’d lived in the US for about 7 years before having Ravi)?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions because Elanor has now spent more than half her life in Singapore.  Certainly the entire span of her life that she remembers.  For whatever reason, that realization has shaken me.

Obviously they are two different scenarios.  Neither of the girls holds Singaporean citizenship.  We have no plans to become Permanent Residents (PR’s).  We don’t plan on living abroad forever.  Elanor will even tell you that she’s from Boston.

However, it does raise some big questions about identity, and where “home” is. In reading a book about Third Culture Kids (a term applied to children growing up outside their passport country; Ravi is more accurately termed a cross-culture kid, even though he did some time as a TCK in India) there seem to be two potential outcomes for children’s personalities.  The first (and most desirable) is that they are highly adaptable people and often high achievers–one need not look further than President Obama, who did some time as a TCK in Malaysia, for an example.  The second (and scary) outcome is a child who feels at home in neither their home culture nor the culture they live in.  Every sign points to the former outcome for Elanor–she is a very social child who makes friends easily and who seems equally happy in Singapore and on visits home to the US.

However, I am a mother, and I overthink everything, so I worry about what our eventual repatriation will be like for her (and for Rhiannon, who is Singapore-born).

When I think about the story of Ravi and the refusal to learn Gujarati, I’m not sure I’m laughing so hard anymore.

15 Responses

  1. Cultural identity is such a tricky thing, and language is a big part of it. It’s fairly typical for immigrant kids to reject their parents’ mother tongue, but I can’t help thinking what a waste it is not to take advantage of the gift of natural language acquisition. I’ve always been incredibly jealous of those who grow up in a home where another language is spoken. When I think of all the hours (and dollars) I’ve spent trying to learn other languages, it makes me cry to think there are people out there who had the opportunity to absorb a language without slaving over textbooks or searching for a conversation partner, and didn’t take it. I wonder if they regret it later in life — does Ravi?

    • I asked Ravi and he looked baffled at the question. “No,” he replied.

      “Why not?” I pushed.

      “Because if I were the kind of person who would learn Gujarati, I wouldn’t have grown up into the guy who married you.” he said.

      If I could unpack this on his behalf….

      Ravi has always felt like the odd duck in his family. There has been (in his opinion) a lot of pressure and condemnation from extended family because he is not “more Indian.” This all came to a head when he lived in Bangalore for a few years as a young teen. Although his parents also didn’t speak the regional language (India has many), he was “trapped” in a country where, at the time, you couldn’t even buy so much as a can of Coke. He loathes Pepsi, but speaks of its arrival in India with reverence. He had to leave his friends, his home, his comfort zone for a posting where not only was he unhappy, but he was expected to be able to fit in…and he didn’t.

      Further, when he was growing up, he and his cousins were the only Indian kids in the school, so it wasn’t like there was a mini-community. Assimilation or complete alienation were his choices, although I doubt he ever saw it as a conscious choice. Kids want to fit in and fitting in meant eating McDonalds, playing with transformers, and being obsessed with Star Wars (although he does legitimately love all three).

      He says that when he visited family in India as he grew, he also felt pressure (real or imagined, it doesn’t matter–perception IS reality) from extended family to be “more Indian.” His reaction to that pressure was to push the Indian identity away with both hands.

      I saw some of this dynamic play out when we visited India after we got married. We were at a wedding event for a relative (?) and I joined in the dancing because I wanted to. Then several people started pushing him to dance, even though he didn’t want to.

      So, I think, for him, someone who would have bowed to parental pressure to learn Gujarati even though he didn’t want to is the type of person who would have accepted the offer of an arranged marriage (yes, there were offers to arrange him by his grandmother, which his dad deflected on his behalf).

      Having said all that…I found it kind of frustrating that when I presented my in-laws with Elanor, *I* was the person pushing them to speak Gujarati to her. My Father in Law taught her a few words, but they did not (when given the chance on a silver platter) embrace the opportunity to immerse Elanor in Gujarati. Again, there are a lot of factors at play–both my in-laws will freely admit that after 40+ years in the US, their Gujarati is a bit rusty (I’m told that it takes a few days of being in Mumbai for it to fully come back) because they don’t use it terribly often, and their default language is English.

      Like you, as the person who did not have those opportunities, I am quite possibly the person who is MOST invested in giving them to E and Rhi.

  2. My dad came to Singapore in the late 80s from China. Because it’s a Chinese majority here, and also because there are so many other people from China where he works, he has never really felt the urge to master English. He understands and speaks a lot more than he lets on, but if given the chance he’d much rather let my mother and I translate and do stuff for him (this drives us absolutely crazy, but that’s a separate issue).

    So what’s happened now is that sometimes I think he feels like that is a cultural disconnect between the family (especially my brother and I) and himself.

    Although we are effectively bilingual (at least in terms of spoken language, not so much in writing), my brother and I went through a school system where English is the first language, and it’s very obvious that we perceive it and use it as such.

    If anyone asks me I actually prefer to tell them that while Mandarin is officially my “mother tongue”, I am a native English speaker. And because I am more comfortable with this language I find that I gravitate towards English-language TV, films, books and music.

    I know it frustrates my dad – when I was in high school he used to come into my room and turn the TV on to the cable channels we get from China, and make me watch them. I hated it so much ‘cos I was usually doing my own thing; when you’re 15 and on MSN with your friends the last thing you want is for your dad to force you to watch some overly-talky Chinese program about traditional Chinese values or Confucius or Chinese policy or whatever (and we’re not talking about ethnic-Chinese, we’re talking about CHINA-Chinese, so there was the element of me not understanding or appreciating China’s politics either).

    He’s stopped doing that now, though, since he’s figured it doesn’t work.

    On good days we don’t really mention it, but on bad days he gets angry and accuses us all of despising our own culture and ethnicity. Which then gets ME frustrated, because I find it to be a really unfair accusation to make. I have never denied/been ashamed of/turned my back on my Chinese-ness. I just happen to see my Chinese identity in a different way from his; as far as I’m concerned, I’m more Singaporean than I’m Chinese, if you get what I mean.

    (This also probably goes some way to explain some of the conflict between Singaporean Chinese and new PRC immigrants. Sure, we’re all ethnically Chinese, but we’re not the same and therefore we aren’t always able to relate to each other.)

    It’s actually quite interesting that this is happening in my family, since I’m technically neither a TCK nor a cross-culture kid. And it’s certainly a little unusual for there to be even a sort of language barrier between parent and child. I speak Mandarin fluently in most everyday situations but find it difficult to express the same sort of nuances that I am able to express in English, which makes it difficult for me to explain the complexities of the things I do/think/feel to my dad. That makes things tougher as well, since it becomes that much harder for him to understand where I’m coming from whenever we argue over anything more complicated than what to eat for dinner. (Well, when it comes to food we pretty much generally agree, so we don’t argue about that so much hehe.)

    I think a sense of not knowing where you belong is going to become more pervasive as globalisation progresses, and it just becomes about being comfortable in your own skin. I used to feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere – I found it difficult to assimiliate when I was in China, yet when I visited Western countries it was obvious that I was different too. Then I discovered that this middle of nowhere-ness was a pretty Singaporean thing to be, and that there are also ways you can make it work for you.

    • Wow, thank you for sharing that. I’m going to ask you a million questions…I know you’re about to travel so you can either let me bother you with them in person once you’re back, or answer in order to procrastinate when it comes to packing and such :)

      It’s interesting that you point out that you are technically neither a TCK or a CCK…but you are still dealing with issues of identity and relating to your parent’s identity. I really like what you had to say recently on your blog/facebook about your identity as a SEA as well. Globalisation can be tough at times.

      I guess in some respects, I can relate, although my situation is very different. My mom identifies Maine, and more rural living as her home culture, and I’ve always longed for urban life…and it is a source of disconnect between us. I wonder if we’re all doomed to have some source of major “difference” between us and our parents?

      Does your mom speak Mandarin to your dad, or does she generally speak English at him and he replies in Mandarin? Where did your mom fall on the English/Chinese thing when it came to you and your brother, and do you think that living with your grandparents affected your language preferences?

      How do you think that the “nowhereness” of being Singaporean works for you as an individual?

      • My mum speaks Mandarin to my dad, but English to my brother and I. It’s really strange because she’s got so used to translating for my dad that when we’re all in the car or at a meal together she’ll translate between us! Sometimes I have to cut her off and remind her that I did understand what my dad just said WITHOUT her having to translate.

        But other times it’s helpful when she translates what I’ve said into Mandarin, because she’s much better than I am at Mandarin (part of her schooling was before Singapore decided to switch to using English as the main language of instruction, so she actually did primary school and part of high school in Mandarin).

        My family has always been weird because even within my mother’s side of the family we have been bilingual; my maternal grandmother was brought up in a traditional Chinese family and so she isn’t really that good at English, whereas my maternal grandfather is Peranakan Chinese, which means he was actually very much influenced by Malay culture growing up, and was educated under the British. So even while I was growing up in my grandparents’ home I was used to speaking in Mandarin to my grandma, then turning ’round and speaking in English to my granddad!

        Needless to say, code-switching between languages is a very regular occurrence in my day-to-day life in Singapore. Family gatherings are always in two languages, often at the same time (my family has no problem kicking off a totally new subject of conversation while another one is still going).

        I think this is something that would crop up in countries like Singapore where the population is very much made up of immigrant cultures. And since Singapore is still such a relatively young country the links from the “old countries” are a lot closer than they would be in older nations.

        But it’s definitely changing with each passing generation. One of the reasons for Chinese kids struggling with Mandarin classes in school is because Mandarin is less and less the language used at home. Most Singaporeans my mum’s age and younger would have been educated quite a bit in English, which is way Singaporean Chinese families are now adopting English as the household language, which means even less practise for the kids.

        I know if I got married and had kids in Singapore, English would definitely be the language used, although I would want my children to be able to speak Mandarin as well. (But I probably wouldn’t be able to demand a very high standard from them, seeing I’m not great at it myself!)

        There’s also this: http://seayouthsayso.com/the-language-woes-of-a-young-singaporean

        The government decided to try to weed out the use of dialects, and were so successful that most young Singaporeans my age don’t really speak dialects at all. This effectively means that there are a lot of Singaporean kids out there who are unable to really communicate with grandparents who probably never really adopted Mandarin as their mother tongue.

        As for your last question, I think it was also mentioned in your post: I think my “nowhereness” has brought me a degree of adaptability that might not come easy to others.

        I may not be able to COMPLETELY identify with Chinese, Westerners or other Southeast Asians, but instead of seeing it as being “a little bit different” I tend to choose to see it as “a little bit the same”. Sure, we may not be able to relate all the time, but it’s all about finding the little elements of similarity where you CAN relate, and going from there. People often get more excited to find points of similarity with people they otherwise see as foreign, and from those points it becomes really fun to learn about what is new.

        ‘SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT’ is actually a phrase you will see and hear a lot in SEA, and I love it!

  3. In our case there’s two sides to the story – E. is starting to talk and it seems as if she picks up more English even though we speak Dutch to her exclusively. I do not like this at all. It feels wrong, as you so eloquently put. She is Dutch. She should speak Dutch. (She should also love snow and ice, even though she can’t remember them.)

    Then there’s the other side, which my visiting mum reminded me of today: I never said a word until I was two years old, but I spoke English before I was three years old (as we moved to Hong Kong soon after I was born). They thought it was adorable. We moved back to the Netherlands after I turned five, and I really don’t think of myself as a TCK, but as Dutch, having lived there the majority of my life, and having two Dutch parents. My first language, without a doubt, is Dutch, as is the culture I am most comfortable with (I tried Bolivia and Ireland, but they do things differently there.)

    There are a few things Asia ingrained in me: a love for red bean paste and spring rolls, the smell of Chinese restaurants which transports me back to my childhood, the ability to eat with chopsticks, my body adores the climate and the humidity, the clamour of the crickets soothes me, I have a lifelong love affair with waterplay and I have a knack for picking up accents in English (currently I sound slightly Irish).

    Supposedly I spoke a bit of Mandarin at one point (badly, according to my report card), so I’m very curious what will happen if I try to pick that up again, since I have no conscious knowledge left (and do not recognize anything when hearing it spoken).

    E. goes to a Singaporean school at the moment, but as soon as the proper education starts (to my mind this would be four years old) we’ll switch her to the Dutch school. Because both of us are Dutch and we plan to head home at some stage. And because I like the Dutch system, warts and all.

    I have not read anything on TCK’s – but I tend to think that doesn’t really start until later, since I would definitely classify neither myself nor my brother and sister (both born here – we moved to Singapore from Hong Kong when I was about 2.5 years old) as a TCK. My youngest brother had never been to Asia until last year when he visited India, and really, it’s quite obvious we’re all from the same family and the same background.

    So, basically, even though I’m clearly not listening to this advice myself (see the first paragraph), don’t worry. :-D

    • Katrjin-You have such a fascinating story…I really look forward to meeting you.

      I hear you on the “listen to the advice I’m choosing not to heed myself” thing–I do that, too :)

      You make some really interesting points…about how your age can be a real factor in identity. If we were to move back when the girls were still small, they are unlikely to identify as Singaporean (as you did not identify either). I wonder which years are the most formative? Ravi spent some time in India as a teen, but if anything, that made him MORE American, not less (although, unlike many Americans, he has a much better grip on issues of globalization and how events in other countries affect the US and the world).

      I love that you remember living in Asia and that it had a positive effect. I want Ellie and Rhiannon to have those sorts of memories of their early childhood too.

  4. I feel like we’re raising a ‘Fourth Culture Kid.’ While we are American (very much so), I come from a distinct minority subculture, too. Sigh. Complicated. Great post.

    • Yikes…I never thought of it that way! It’s funny because Ravi also doesn’t identify as particularly Asian American (He never joined an API organization in school, or any of that)…and as the white parent, I’m the one reading blogs like 8Asians and trying to gain a better understanding of Asian/Indian/Gujarati culture because I want my girls to have that door open to them, much as I want them to have a door open to their Irish/British heritage (although there is a distinct lack of Irish Step Dancing Schools in Singapore-it might be the one class you can’t find here).

      In some ways, the girl’s identities are easier here–they are American. In the US, they are bi-racial, and what I’ve noticed in general is that they are light-skinned enough that people tend to assume they are the race of the parent they are with-that they are white when they’re with me and Indian (or Latino, in some people’s guesses) when with Ravi (we know this because people will start speaking Spanish to Ravi–Ravi, because he’s a nice guy will try to answer with his fairly pathetic high school Spanish). I do occasionally get people who ask about the girls heritage (and once “where did you get her?” assuming I had adopted Ellie–I responded “my uterus”), but I wonder if being able to “pass” will make things easier or more complex for the girls.

      • Hi, I just started reading your blog. I am an Indian (from India), came to singapore few years back and love being here. Not sure whether to call myself expat . Maid agencies keep reminding me am not expat, have not figured out their definition of expat. Have been rejected by lot of helpers as not the “expat” they had in mind :) Anyway I just wanted to tell you the I liek your blogs. Thanks for sharing you experience. United World College has Irish step dancing classes. You can enquire if its open to non students.

      • Hi Sony. I’m so sorry to hear that you’re getting discrimination. Ravi is often mistaken for a local until he opens his mouth. What part of India are you from? My in-laws are originally from Bombay (and both are Gujarati).

        Thanks for the tip–will have to check into the classes when we get back into town!

  5. [...] touched on the issue of identity for my girls before.  Having never been an expat before, I don’t think I fully understood how much you are [...]

  6. [...] Where are you from–I share a story about Ravi and wonder aloud how my 3rd culture kids are going to react to their home culture…or if they’ll even consider it their home culture [...]

  7. [...] Hindi (me because I haven’t picked up more than a few words here and there, Ravi because he refused to learn).  We are not practicing Hindus or Jains (although my mother in law is Jain), nor was Ravi raised [...]

  8. [...] of the bride, and was meant to be long and loud as possible.  I don’t speak Gujarati, and neither does Ravi, so I can’t translate what the song is [...]

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