Monday, January 6, 2014

Adventures in Bilingual Parenting

When we moved to Japan when Sky was three, he called me "Mommy." By his second week of preschool, he was calling me "Mama." Soon enough, I became "Okaasan." Because we'd always spoken Japanese to him, we assumed he understood it and could speak it. We may have been wrong about that.

His first week at Japanese preschool, when he still called me "Mommy," Sky managed to lock everyone out of  his school. It's still not entirely clear to me how he did that, but at just three years old, he was stealth enough to sneak back into the school building, close the sliding door, and apply the lock while everyone else (including all of the teachers and the head nun) was outside enjoying recess. It must have been interesting for a sensory-motivated kid to see so many animated faces mouthing Japanese words to him through the window. Fortunately, he unlocked the door before they had to break the glass.

That's when we realized he might not understand as much Japanese as we thought. During summer break of that year, we spent a lot of time practicing simple greetings: ohayoo gozaimasu, konnichiwa, arigatoo gozaimasu. His teacher thought this was the key to his becoming conversant in Japanese. I'm not sure it was, but Sky did become much more fluent with his friends at school, and soon enough, he was calling me Okaasan.

Gratuitous "awwww" shot of Sky using his Japanese to woo his preschool "girlfriend."
I've never felt like an Okaasan. When Big Sissy was still in junior high, before we all moved to America the first time, Ren would refer to me as Okaasan, but Big Sissy didn't call me anything. Somehow that word didn't work for her foreign stepmom, at least not then. Once we moved to the US, she slipped comfortably into calling me Mom. Okaasan has always seemed unnatural to me.

On this grey, snowy morning in the Midwestern United States, as we all sit by the fire to warm ourselves in this bitter cold, I listen to Ren building train tracks with the kids, speaking to them patiently in a Japanese that seems foreign to them. And I am reminded of these moments past when I was Okaasan and not Mom. I think of the year or so we lived in Japan and how strange it felt to have my own son speak so fluently in a tongue that wasn't my own. And I am thankful for Ren's persistence as the kids vacillate between resistance and acceptance, incompetence and fluency. Most of all, I'm grateful for his patience as they slowly but gradually figure out how to go from calling him Dad to Otoosan.

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