Thursday, January 5, 2012

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

This blog post is part two in my description of some of the headaches that come when you try to live a multicultural, international life somewhere in the middle. Like I said in the last post, 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 more of the smelly stuff...

The Customs
As the parent of bi-cultural kids, I am always worried that my parenting will cause them to favor one culture over the other. Maintaining a balance of culturally distinct customs is challenging. Making sure the kids understand and respect these customs takes a lot of intentional effort and usually requires us to educate people beyond our immediate family. You wouldn’t believe, for example, how hard it is to get our American friends and family to take their shoes off (at least not without a considerable amount of grumbling). It seems like we are always defending these cultural practices to friends, family, and strangers alike. Enough already! For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that there’s a great big world out there with all sorts of awesome diversity in it. And, while we’re at it, let’s pretend that embracing this diversity is a good thing. Believe me, even without your skepticism, my job is hard enough. As soon as my kids start school, they want to chuck whatever makes them different than their peers--aka, all that cultural coolness we are trying to instill in them. Why learn to write in Japanese if none of your friends can? And who wants a rad Japanese bento for lunch if all your friends are eating PB&J and potato chips?

The Holidays
For us, it’s not just about deciding whose Thanksgiving traditions we will follow or where we will spend Christmas. Most of the holidays we celebrate in the US are not celebrated in Japan, and vice versa. So the issue becomes which holidays to celebrate (celebrating them all can be exhausting), and how to pull them off. It’s not so easy to buy a turkey in Tokyo and pretty much impossible to simulate a Fourth of July parade. It’s equally impossible to convince the US post office to hold all our end-of-the-year greeting cards and to deliver them early in the morning on New Year’s Day (like they do in Japan).

(Japanese-style New Year's food -- you should be impressed! Ren made all of this.)

The question of which holidays to celebrate comes down to a complicated equation that calculates how important the holiday is, how difficult it would be to buy whatever is necessary to celebrate the holiday, and whether the parent from the country of origin remembers enough about the traditions associated with the holiday to be able to pass them on. Elucidating the nuances of any given holiday can be difficult. Try explaining to a foreigner why we boil eggs, decorate them, and then hide them for an imaginary bunny. Go ahead. Try it.

In an international family where the parents come from two vastly different cultures, the onus of properly celebrating any given holiday falls squarely on the shoulder of a single parent. The other ends up being a crappy wingman at best.

The Trip
Being an international family necessitates a lot of super-long airplane rides. Super-long airplane rides with small children. Often.

Actually, the kids are getting better and better at flying, but this does not make the flight any shorter. And it doesn’t keep snarky childless people from glaring at us since they know we will ruin their flight.

To all the folks who think we shouldn’t fly with children since we will most likely disrupt your flight: can it!

If there was a better way to get from point A to point B, believe me, I would do it. I’m not a fan of holding one or more of my kids on my lap for 14 hours straight. In fact, I try really hard not even to be in the same room as all of them for that long. Unfortunately, it’s illegal to mail them, so until you can figure out a way to teleport my family to and from Japan, keep. your. trap. shut.

The Trip consists of three pretty persistent minor antagonists: The Cost, The Baggage Restrictions, and The Customs Official.

The Cost
Flying back and forth to Japan with a family of five costs roughly the same as it would to modestly furnish a small house. For the price of two or three trips, we could buy a really nice new car. But what do we get for all that money? Bad service and multiple lost bags. Sometimes we get unexpected nights in airport hotels due to airplane malfunction. Sure The Trip takes us to see our loved ones, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that all we’ve really gotten for the tens of thousands of dollars we’ve spent to go back and forth is extensive time strapped in uncomfortable seats.

The Baggage Restrictions
Okay, so the good thing is that on international flights, you’re allowed two “free” checked bags (They’re free, that is, unless you count the 1000+ dollars you spent on the ticket). The bad news is that they are stricter than ever about the ever-shrinking weight limits. I can pack a seventy-pound suitcase with my eyes closed. Unfortunately, these days, bags have to be 50 pounds or less.

Our trips back and forth are first: family visits, and second: extended shopping trips. There are just things you can’t buy in one place or another. These things –books, clothes, shoes (you try buying a pair of women’s shoes in an 8 ½ in Japan…), underwear, rice flakes, seaweed, dried tofu--must be evenly distributed and then crammed into our suitcases.

I’ve been known to saddle each family member with a 35 pound carry-on just to outsmart The Baggage Restrictions.

The Customs Official
Why yes, Mr. Customs Inspector, as a matter of fact, I do mind if you search our luggage... .Surely you see the small children traveling with me…. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they are stir crazy after such a long flight. This is, after all, International Arrivals...What? You want to know if I am bringing anything into the country illegally? Seriously, how could I possibly find the time to be an international smuggler? And, where in the world would I find space in our suitcases for it? I am, after all, Traveling.With.Small.Children. I have been cooped up in an airplane for 14 hours with these three balls of energy, one of whom was on my lap the entire time. It took me get all of our stuff to fit in the suitcases with just the right distribution of weight. If you open that suitcase, everything will fly out of it, and while I am gathering it all up again, my children will make a break for the door. But, you know, do what you gotta do…

The Middle Ground

There is no middle ground. You can’t live in both places at the same time. Ever. This means you’d better get get over it or used to the two unwanted guests in any international family: Sacrifice and Guilt.


Sara said...

You're much braver than I am. I would just pick a country and commit. That being said, I am super selfish and would not leave the US. But that's just me and I know you're trying to keep the hub's traditions going :) Props!

Mom on the Edge said...

It's impossible to choose one country over the other. It can be challenging at times for sure, but I love the fact that our day-to-day experiences are usually challenging and filled with the unexpected.

Kuri said...

Just found your blog via a mutual friend (Erin) and have been enjoying your posts!

Mom on the Edge said...

Thanks, Kuri!

Adriana said...

I just found your blog and loved these posts. We are a one culture (venezuelans), bilinual family living in Germany. I can relate a lot with your experience: trying the almost impossible task of balancing two cultures for the sake of our little one. Thanks a lot for a comforting and funny read!

Mary said...

I can relate too...I am Canadian, married to a German, living in Germany. We have 2 girls. And what makes me really husband and I met in Japan and got married there. Japan feels like my home...but I'm in Germany.