Monday, January 2, 2012

The Less Glamorous Side of Our So-called International Life (a 2-part series)

So you know from the tag line at the top of my blog that I’m mom to three smallish kids (ages 7, 4, and 1>) and stepmom to one big one, and I’m living a bilingual, bi-cultural life with my immigrant husband in small-town mid-America. This blog post is about what it's like to try to live a multicultural, international life somewhere in the middle. There’s a lot that’s fun and interesting about this life we lead, and then there’s some stuff that kind of stinks. Here is some of the smelly stuff(and thanks for humoring the rant. I promise I won't do it often)...

The Stares
No, we don’t look like you, and no, we don’t look entirely like each other. Yes, we are speaking a different language. Yes, sometimes we are even speaking more than one language at a time. Get. Over. It. Frankly, when you stare, it confuses me. Are my kids being too loud? Did one of them just pick his/her nose? It is not out of the realm of possibility that my kids are being inappropriate, so please reserve your stares for those times. Or better yet, mind your own freaking business.

The Questions
When people see a mixed-race, multilingual family, suddenly they feel at liberty to ask all sorts of ridiculous questions. They want to know what we eat, what language we speak at home, which country we prefer to live in, and on, and on, and on. This seems to be the case no matter where we are.

At a local festival in the Midwestern United States, a well-meaning (I guess, though I’m not really sure what kind of woman would ask this question) came up to 10-month old Sky and me and asked,

“Where did you get him?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Where did you get your baby?”

My first reaction (which I suppressed) was to tell her that no, the dingo did not take her baby and give it to me. Next, I had to resist the urge to say: Well…you see…when a man loves a woman, sometimes they will touch each other in certain ways, and sometimes that will lead to a baby... I’m pretty sure this isn’t what she meant, either. I also toyed with giving her directions to the baby section at Wal-mart. In the end, I couldn’t figure out what to say, so I just pointed at my stomach and walked away.

A question we get with even more frequency than the one about where our children originated is whether we think they look more like me or like Ren. What people really want to know (but can't think of how to ask tactfully--this, by the way, should be your first hint that it's an inappropriate question) is whether we think our kids look more Japanese or American. How the heck am I supposed to know? They just look like Sky, Pink P, and Stow to me. I can tell you with absolute certainty that to every Japanese person we meet in Japan, they look American and to just about every American we encounter in the States, they look Japanese. So there you have it. A definitive answer.

The Language
While this isn’t the case for all international families, ours uses more than one language. This can be immensely beneficial when we want to say something that we don’t want complete strangers to overhear. In fact, speaking a foreign language generally scares people into minding their own business (which is exactly what we want them to do). I can tell my son to straighten up or he’s going to get grounded without anyone thinking I’m being a you-know-what. And strangers rarely feel the need to offer their perspectives on my parenting technique if they can’t understand what I am saying. It’s kind of like having a secret code.

It’s pretty awesome how the kids seem to know which language to use when. But this takes time and leads to some unfortunate misunderstandings along the way. When I first dropped Sky off at Parents Day Out, the teachers were amazed by how much he missed me. “He kept saying, ‘Mama! Mama! The whole time you were gone,” they told me. While I wanted to take credit for all the warm fuzzies they thought he was sending my way, I couldn’t. Instead, I explained, “He calls me Mommy. Mama is food.” He wasn’t missing me. He just wanted a snack.

By far the most annoying part of being a bilingual family is that some folks insist we don’t use certain languages in front of them. Despite what I said about the secret code, we are not actually international undercover agents or scheming to take over the world in any way (though I can see how you might make that mistake). We are also probably not talking about you. Chances are we are talking about whether we remembered to shut the garage door or whether Stow needs a new diaper. Riveting stuff, I assure you.

Don't be so paranoid, and whatever you do, please don't let your paranoia convince you you should tell us what language to speak to our kids! I don't ask you to speak a foreign language to your kid, so it'd be great if you could return the favor! Because, to tell you the truth, if you insist that I speak only Japanese to the kids or that their dad speak only English, it will freak them out. Why in the world would you want to do that?

To be continued...

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