Around the holidays last year, I thought it might be fun to try out a foreign language class with my then 2 and a half-year-old son. I briefly wrestled with which language, with my top choices being Spanish, French and Mandarin. Not surprisingly, those were the options that I found with the greatest frequency when I poked around for classes online.
I finally settled on Mandarin for a variety of reasons, which included: choosing a useful language for where we live in Northern California, wanting to learn something new along with my son, and giving him some early exposure to something he might not get later in school (i.e., we are hopeful that Spanish and French will be available options when the time comes for him to start elementary school, but Mandarin might not be offered). So, partly driven by curiosity, partly by the sheer foreignness of the language and alphabet, and partly by the bandwagon mentality of China-mania (booming economy, Olympic fever), I chose Mandarin.
I found a class that sounded perfect through Language at Play, which offered different courses for babies and early talkers in the three languages I had considered at a few locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. The closest one for us was held weekly at the Beresford Recreation Center in San Mateo.
The class exceeded my expectations, and I was really impressed with the quality of the teachers, the variety of instruction and activities to hold the children’s interest, and the usability of the lessons taught. Every class had a logical flow that made the hour long sessions predictable even though they flew by! We started and ended each class by sitting in a circle and singing a simple Mandarin greeting song to all of the children (about 8-10 in all): “ni hao” (hello) and “zai jian” (good-bye). The teachers wove in book reading, puppets, dancing, singing, snack, and other activities. It was really fun. Now, four months later, my son can still say a few key phrases, including “pai pai sho” (clap your hands) and “xie xie” (thank you). I am strongly considering enrolling us in another class, time permitting.
My husband of 13 years and I are living in a tiny cottage on a strawberry farm in South Africa. We don’t have a phone, TV, AC, or microwave, and until March we didn’t even have a stove, but we are loving life. My husband is getting his PhD in ancient languages and I am writing, writing, writing. We have children on the way. Two little citizens of the world are coming to us from strange and unexpected places. Raising them in a foreign culture (for a time) with hardly two hands to rub together will be an exciting challenge. It will also be the experience of a life-time for all of us (including our adopted dogs, should they prove to have longterm memories).
After never having been outside the United States before, my husband and I decided to pack our dogs and move to South Africa. It was a terrifying and spectacular journey. We sold all we owned and headed towards an unknown world. My husband is now getting his PhD in ancient languages and I am sitting in a tiny shack on a strawberry farm, loving on the dogs and working on a new novel.
But this is the story of our kids and it really begins in the airport in DC. There was a family waiting to board the plane with us. A white middle-aged couple (the man clad in his safari best) stood with their six kids, all dressed in soft, pastel cottons. The oldest three were African girls with stunning skin, hair and smiles. They were wide-eyed with the wonder of traveling across the world, perhaps for the first time in memory. There were two six year old boys, one black and one white. They held hands throughout the airport, looking sharp in their matching plaid shirts and flip-flops. The youngest was a white girl, perhaps four years old. They were all so well behaved, despite their excitement. One of the girls leaned on her father’s elbow. He put his arm around her shoulder and kissed the top of her head.
I wanted to look away but I couldn’t. What a brilliant family this was! By the time we got on the plane, I was in love. I told my husband, “I want a polka-dotted family just like that one.” After 13 years of marriage and no success in the offspring-creating department, we didn’t know how we would get the white polka-dot, but we had long since decided to pursue the black one. The need for adoptive parents in South Africa is frightening. But like any official process in Africa, adoption is slow to happen.
Now, as we wait for our baby Xhosa son, I find myself pregnant for the first time at 34. More than ever before, I am excited about the opportunity/challenge of raising an African child. We are blessed to live in this country, to experience such an intense culture, and to be able to share it with both of our kids, no matter their color. What a gift for both of them to be born with the promise of a wider world view. In the months to come my husband and I will feel the full weight of this responsibility. How will the locals accept a white couple with a black child? How can we nurture a permanent sense of ethnic identity in both our children? Will they share a cultural affinity even though they are different colors? We know we cannot be ready for many things, including the obstacles we will face, but we enter this time with a sense of duty and gratitude and joy.
My husband’s job takes him away for long stretches and we have tried to work it out to join him when we can. As a result, we’ve traveled with our kids from the time they were born. Even though I’m thrilled to show them the world, it’s not always been easy or graceful. Lugging a sleeping 40 lb kid on the rush hour Tokyo subway is is not exactly my idea of a good time, but it is an experience to remember. Nonetheless, it’s been really important for us to expose our kids to different cultures, foods, and ways people live. (And quite frankly to wean them off mac-n-cheese and TV!)
One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that the best times are usually the ones that are very impromptu. As I prepared for our first big trip, a summer in France with the kids, I started to mentally make a list of the incredible towns, museums and places I had seen in college. The ones that I thought would be meaningful and important for my kids to see. My husband sat me down and gave me some wise advice, “Listen,” he said, “if you get a lemonade and sit in the park all day together, that’s a good day. Let them soak it in. Be slow.” I have to say, like in our everyday life as parents, I’ve come to realize that the most important and memorable moments are the quiet ones, the unplanned ones. So the picture you see is of my daughter, Ava and I. We were walking, exploring really, on the road outside the house we had rented in the south of France and came upon this incredible field of poppies. It was poppy season and they were all in bloom, in another few days they would be cut and sold in the market and the field would be almost barren. She’s older now, but we both vividly remember how it felt, smelled, the feeling of the wind and how relaxed and joyful we were. In that moment, we were so deeply connected and the world seemed really small…just her and I.
I believe that raising citizens of the world begins at home. I am a black American woman and my husband is a white American man, and we both bring a myriad of cultural traditions to our children. Both my husband Jeff and I are wary of racial labels, since race is a social construction rather than a biological reality, but we also realize that our society places great importance on race and ethnicity. So, we do not shy away from discussions of race and color; instead, we deal with our sons’ questions in a straightforward way. All families are different, we tell them. All people are different. Sometimes we can see the differences and sometimes we can’t, but being different is a good thing – it’s what makes life interesting.
We also encourage our children to appreciate and value differences – in skin color (we have light pink, pink, light brown, medium brown and dark brown people in our family), in family makeup (one of my older son’s best friends has two moms) in interests (some people like sports while others prefer art or music), in abilities (we are all good at some things and not so good at others) and in traditions, to name a few. If our sons grow up to believe that differences are normal and, in fact, desirable, we believe they will be more compassionate and successful people, no matter what path they choose in life.
In our family, we celebrate different faiths (including Judaism, various denominations of Christianity, Islam, agnosticism), and we make a point to discuss traditions of different parts of America as well as those of other countries. Maps and globes have inspired our sons’ curiosity about that which is “foreign,” and they are lucky enough to have grandparents from the Midwest and Northeast who have traveled to many distant locations. Receiving a t-shirt from Guatemala, a toy train from Italy, a coloring book from Thailand or a postcard from South Africa helps our sons understand that the world is a vast and diverse place. When my husband and I traveled to Belize on a recent vacation, the boys peppered us with questions about the country for weeks afterward.
This interest in unfamiliar cultures will serve them well as they grow – they have already been to Barbados, where they watched monkeys play in our front yard, and they already recognize the Eiffel tower on sight – and some day, they’ll stop calling it the “France Tower,” maybe when they see it in person someday.
Even after two years of parenting this crazy set of children, I still feel surprised when someone remarks how alike they are. It is true, mind you – my two boys resemble each other greatly and my oldest son and my daughter have a lot of the same mannerisms. They actually match up rather well. Like kid versions of Garanimals. The “tiger” shirt and the “bear” pants are not too matchy-matchy, but they “go” all the same. My kids “go”.
And this is odd. Because, my children have biologically NOTHING that is truly “the same” about them, except that they all have this odd, coffee loving, loud, crazy mom and a rather sane, albeit exhausted father.
You see, two years ago, this little family of three consisted of myself, my husband, and a very precocious five-year-old boy named Eli. Eli is a fantastic mixture of everything my husband and I love and hate about ourselves. He was a boring addition to our family, to hear him tell it. Plain ol’ pregnancy. Plain ol’ delivery. (As the mother who WENT through this plain ol’ delivery, I beg to differ. Twelve hours of labor, an emergency c-section, and the immediate shock that the 75 lbs gained was ACTUALLY FAT and not baby…nothing plain about that!)
But two years ago, we decided to rock this little boat a bit. We decided to adopt a little girl and a little boy from Russia. They were actually from two different regions in Russia, so it took four trips to complete this.
For my daughter, we went to Siberia for Thanksgiving. Now, before you start thinking that this was a culinary move, let me save you from booking the Turkey Trip 2009. We went there on a mission – to meet this little girl that was bald and really very angry. I mean, angry in a way that only a girl can muster. Dismissively angry. However, I am getting ahead of myself.
Siberia in November is exactly as you think it is. It made Michigan look tropical. Folks from North Dakota can kiss my southern hiney with their snowfall amounts. Don’t even get me STARTED on the wimps who inhabit Wisconsin. Siberia is cold. Bone chilling cold. Sun never goes down and it is still cold COLD. And yet, the “locals” (locos?) wear stiletto heels, and walk very fast – on ice, no less. Color me impressed.
The flight into Moscow was long, but uneventful. I spent much of it trying to decide what we would name this surly child I had only seen a picture of. After 11 hours of discussing it with me, my husband basically didn’t care if I named her Delta Airlines, so I was left to hammer it out alone. The two days in Moscow was a blur of exhaustion and site seeing. The impression I left Moscow with was a sense of pride for them – simply because of THEIR pride. Did that make sense? They were so proud of what they had, whether it was something truly great or something that I thought paled in comparison to “what we have at home” – that I was proud for them. America could learn from this pride, I think. And I am from the South – where Pride is tattooed/etched/flown on a flag in most places. For me to say this…that is SOMETHING.
Another plane ride (the time change is so extreme from Moscow to Siberia that you actually end up losing almost an entire day for a four hour plane ride)…and you are in Siberia. I actually thought I would see Mikhail Barishnikov and Isabella Rosselini hovered in the corner of the dilapidated airport, huddled in conversation. At least Gregory Hines tap dancing in the alleyway? No?
The airport was…empty, aside from the passengers from our plane. The plane pulled away, as if it were a bus station, and the passengers started walking across the tarmac – towards what, I have no idea. It was a vast land of…vastness. Is this even a word? Even today, I still remember the unbelievable sense of melancholy and loneliness of that airport. To think that people used to be banished to live there…if that airport was what they had to greet them – banishment was surely the worst punishment ever. One big, hairy, cold, empty Time Out. But again, I am getting off track.
I would love to have remembered more details about the region in Siberia we were visiting. I am sure it is a lovely land, with lovely people, especially for the four whole days it thaws out. However, if you are an adoptive parent, you know that most of your mind, heart and memories center around what your new child was like at that time. And how they change into a member of your family that you cannot remember the time before them. Except that you had missed them.
I remember the big cement building, painted seaside-ish colors of pink, yellow and blue. This was a stark contrast to the surrounding buildings painted…um…concrete color. But I appreciated the effort to make it look fun, as if it were a big, 24 hour preschool. I remember that my daughter had a big bonnet on her head that she hated. I remember that she hurled it across the room. I remember that she was bald, but had a slew of polka dots on her head. I later found out this was chicken pox, but it made for a fun first memory. Do not think for a second that her prom date is NOT going to see those pictures. I remember that she was very irked with us. I suspect that we interrupted her daily watching of her soap opera, or her manicure. Or she might have needed coffee. Even at almost two, she used to steal my coffee back then and take a big drink and set the mug down HARD – as if to let us know that she was plum WORN OUT by us and could USE A LATTE.
The following March, my husband and I traveled back to Siberia to bring our daughter, Finley home. That was two years ago. She still hates dresses and combing her hair. She recently has started playing with a doll, who she insists is a boy. She spends most of her time trying to convince The Boy Doll how to play baseball. And for Heaven’s sake, to make a good latte.
She is loud. She is very messy. She has a laugh that will make you want to hear it again and again. She has perpetually dirty feet. She STILL steals my coffee.
Our youngest son Neal was a best man at tea founder Leigh Rawdon’s wedding. We became close friends with Leigh and her husband and helped perform the initial fundraising for tea as well as being an early investor. After Tea got going we asked her about the tagline – “little citizens of the world”. She surprised us by saying that she’d got it from us – we’d described our goal in raising our two sons as “citizens of the world.” To help inaugurate the blog, Leigh asked us to elaborate on how that happened.
Mark and Neal were born 22 months apart in Westminster Hospital, London, steps from the Houses of Parliament. But within 8 months of the appearance of the youngest we were on a plane to a 2-year assignment in California courtesy of Roger’s US multinational employer. We made the most of the stay, traveling with the boys in the Western USA and exchanging our annual free “compassion visits” home for tickets to Hawai’i. The boys got a very early look at a different culture to which they were born!
Returning back to the UK, Roger to a European marketing job and Cilla to teaching, we took the boys on as many overseas trips as we could and vacationed extensively in France. However, it was clear to us that opportunities for career development for ourselves and better futures for the boys lay in returning to the USA, and we arranged to move back in January 1982 to Silicon Valley.
We had long held a belief that the boys should be given the fullest exposure to other cultures, customs and environments. Cilla had been raised in Zambia and Kenya and Roger had lived in France and traveled extensively in Europe, South America and Asia. We wanted them to be comfortable in any geographical environment, both as a way of developing their persona and to enable them to fulfill their work aspirations.
Over our first eight years back in California Roger ran international sales & marketing for three computer industry companies. Our house was frequently full of visitors from Sweden to Indonesia, Japan to Brazil, and Cilla and the boys joined Roger on international trips whenever school and work permitted. Coupled with annual visits to family in the UK, from 6 years old through high school the international world was very much part of their lives, and air travel not a surprise. After high school both Mark and Neal traveled for a summer through Europe on Eurorail. Subsequent to university Mark spent time in Peru and Ecuador on ecology field trips, while after law school Neal spent two years in Holland working at the International War Crimes Tribunal. Today we have two sons completely unfazed at visiting different cultures, one working as a lawyer in the US Senate, the other completing a tropical biology PhD at Duke University while living with his fiancée in Finland and spending months each year in the Amazonian rain forest in Peru.
When we attempted to give our sons a “global” familiarity the communications infrastructure of 24-hour network news and the internet was not in place and it was hard for people to understand and see lives in other parts of the world. Today, even though in the USA we see other cultures and lives nightly on television there remains a lack of understanding of these cultures and arguably an insularity of approach. The only way for people to experience other cultures is to get in there and meet them. The younger you can make your children comfortable with other cultures the better!
When I was in high school in Lexington, Kentucky, my mom would look for competitions for me. Anything that had to do with science, essay writing, or speech making. She believed I could win anything the way only a mom could believe. It turned out I could win a lot of the time. I had pretty good smarts. My parents gave me more encouragement, financial support, and guidance than any other parents I knew of. While most kids from my school worked behind grocery store counters after class, I was at a table with a calculus tutor or pipetting DNA samples into a PCR machine at a laboratory or reading Tolstoy. The other reason I won so much was that sometimes only one or two other students showed up to the competition. You start to recognize the five other kids in the state with parents like yours. If you show up enough, you’re going to win something. A certificate, a plaque, a trophy, two hundred dollars, a trip to Pittsburgh.
With this one extemporaneous speech competition, it seemed like there was nothing to lose but a couple of hours of our time. No preparation needed, it’s off the top of your head. My mom and I drove to the location – an American Legion Post not far from our house. I hadn’t really thought much about it beforehand. I spent my whole life in the South. I was almost always the only Indian in the room. Almost always the only person of color wherever I went. So even when I walked into the hall and saw that it was full of old white men, I didn’t blink. Only one other student – a white male – showed up to the competition. Like I said, if you go to enough of these things, your odds are pretty good. I was ready. Ready to extemporize.
The hall really filled up with veterans. We’re talking World War II GIs. The greatest generation. Children of the Great Depression, victors over the Nazis. A man gave me and the other student a piece of paper with the topic spelled out. It said – the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. My first reaction was relief that I knew all the amendments to the constitution. And the thirteenth amendment – that’s a really important one, the first of the three post-Civil War amendments to free American slaves. I was thinking, at least I have a grasp of what the topic is. But after that second of relief, I really felt my brown skin sticking to my skinny body. What was I to say about slavery to old white men in Lexington, Kentucky, a city that sided with the Confederates, a city that was Jim Crow when these men were kids?
There was a coin toss. Or maybe it was by alphabetical order. The other student had to speak first. I was sent off to a back room so I would not be able to hear and have an advantage by being able to respond. Even so, I could hear little bits of what the other student said. He clearly did not know what the thirteenth amendment was. He never mentioned slavery. Never mentioned the Civil War. He was just ranting about Bill Clinton. He said Clinton was a Nazi.
When they called me out, I stood silently for a few seconds and looked at the audience. The stony-faced aged warriors staring back at me! Then I gave the speech of my life. I will never be that good again. I said, the United States has a stain on its history. I said, slavery was a travesty of justice. I said, inequality and oppression were enshrined in the founding document of our nation. That we should feel shame that the founding fathers, who spoke out against tyranny and created the great institutions of democracy that we still benefit from, failed to stop slavery. That they agreed to count slaves as three-fifths of a human being. That the injustices slaves faced were of the very worst kind. So bad that we might ask if it is possible to rise above that past.
With a few minutes left in the allotted time, I shifted tack and said that the thirteenth amendment was perhaps the most important of all the amendments. The greatness of our constitution, I said, and the greatness of our country is the capacity to change. Even though that amendment alone was not the end of discrimination and inequality, I said we should celebrate the incredible sacrifice that went into changing the law of the land and abolishing slavery. The very ability of this country to rise out of its slave-holding past, I said, was proof that we could rise above any challenge. That was what I said. I didn’t realize how much hope I had until I spoke about it to those old white men.
The MC who had run the competition said we should wait for the results. There were three judges at a table and they needed to confer. Well, we waited. And waited. More than thirty minutes passed. Finally, the MC announced that the other student won. My face got hot. I wanted to go home, but my mom – I think it was her not me – wanted to find out what happened. So she kept asking the MC questions until he gave us the actual results from the three judges. It turned out the competition was designed for a multitude of contestants, not just two. Each judge gave a score out of 100 for each speech. Two of the judges gave me the higher score. The third judge gave me a zero and the other student a 100. When they added the scores up, the other student came out on top.
I went home thinking about the irony of the whole damn thing. I was asked to speak about the end of slavery and what I got in return was mathematical proof for the continued existence of hate and discrimination. My mom and I talked about appealing. We could write letters to the national headquarters of the American Legion, but we gave that idea up.
This whole memory was buried away for years. A blip in my comfortable life. With the Obama campaign, it started to resurface. I heard that belief in hope expressed with stunning eloquence in his Iowa victory speech. And again when he conceded the New Hampshire defeat. MaGreen and I saw Obama with 20,000 other people in an arena when he came to Houston. And I thought, the country has changed. It is ready for the Hope Speech. Ready for a consensus about the grave injustices of our past and ready for the possibilities that come of reconciliation. But when the Wright videos surfaced and the TV people heaped scorn on Obama, I remembered the American Legion experience the way it happened. That judge, the one judge.
The consolation I speak to myself is that if the winner of that extemporaneous speech competition had been chosen by an up-or-down vote, I would have won. Won, you hear. As in the bigots would have gone home crying. I say to myself, the not-so-great of the greatest generation are almost all dead along with the great ones. I hear Will.I.Am singing in my head, singing yes we can.
MaGreen and GreenDaddy are Houston writers who have chronicled their attempts at becoming “greener” since 2005, on their blog, Green Parenting.