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
In-laws-How about you learn Gujarati and we buy you go-bots?
In-laws-How about you learn Gujarati and we give you money?
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)
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.