Monday, 2 January 2012

All Mixed Up

A few years back, our oldest daughter came home from school one day and, after dumping her backpack on the floor, slumped into a chair and muttered, "I'm nothing."  Before I could open my mouth to protest, she went on. "I mean, I'm not English, I'm not Japanese or... American or Scottish. I'm nothing."

I made her a cup of tea and mulled over all the things I could say. Such as Nonsense -- you've had a good sampling of lots of cultures!  But she was actually right. She was born in Wales, to an English father and an American mother, and she was taken to Japan as an infant. Her first words were in Japanese, the language of her nursery school peers. She has read the first two Harry Potter books in Japanese and can still pass for a native -- but only over the telephone. She can pass for an American too, or a Scot, if she feels like it. Is it any wonder she feels alienated now?

When she was two years old, I took my daughter to America for the first time. When we got off the plane, she shrank back from all the non-Asians around us. "Gaijin!" she whispered at one point, meeting her little blonde cousins. "Gaijin means foreigner," I explained to my sister, blushing. I had to interpret for my daughter for the first three days we were in the States; to this day, my relatives all know the Japanese for Pick me up! and I don't want to, not to mention Can I have a snack? I didn't realize how thoroughly out of her realm she felt until we visited Chinatown in San Francisco. My daughter, who had remained guarded, shy and a little suspicious, suddenly burst out laughing, clapped her hands, and began talking non-stop. I had my work cut out for me, explaining why the people around us could not understand her Japanese.

When she was five, our daughter came home from her first school field trip uncharacteristically quiet and thoughtful. "She got picked on," her teachers told us, clearly embarrassed. "Her friends here accept her -- they've known her since before she could walk -- but the other kids took one look at her and all they saw was  a foreigner."  She'd gotten called gaijin a lot, on this trip. "She's not a gaijin!" her nursery school pals had fired back at the hecklers, "she's our friend!"  To this day, my eyes fill with tears when I remember their words.

"People always want to know what I am," my daughter sighed, sipping her tea. "Then they don't believe me when I tell them."

"You're third culture kids," I tell her. "And don't you think it's pretty interesting having had all your experiences? I'd have given my eyeteeth to learn a foreign language when I was your age!"  Which is absolutely true: I used to pore over books in Spanish and German. When I was nine, somebody gave us a stack of Japanese magazines and I'd never been so intrigued or fascinated in all my life. I'd have done a lot for the chance to learn Japanese back then.

"At least you fit in!" my daughter protested. "At least you were the same thing as everybody else!" I never know what to say to this. I was socially inept and awkward; I didn't fit in, and I never felt like the same thing as everybody else. But I wonder how much worse it might have been if my nationality had been different from that of my peers. 

"It's a unique experience, but not always enjoyable," our youngest daughter said when I asked her to describe how she felt about being a third culture kid. When we first came to Scotland, she used to follow me around. "What are they saying?" she'd whisper urgently in Japanese. "Can you understand?" Now she interprets for me. When we traveled around Turkey, we'd have been lost without her.

"It's weird," my oldest daughter told us last week. "All my friends are all mixed up, like me."

"Even Mena?" Mena is Pakistani and as far as I can tell, thoroughly uncomplicated.

"She's Christian, Mom. That kind of changes her perspective."

She went on to describe half a dozen of her friends, all of them of mixed cultures and/or bilingual. It was fascinating hearing about them: Scottish-sounding kids who can speak Cantonese, Czech nationals raised in Spain, Belgian kids with Turkish roots. My youngest daughter's friends are the same. Here in Scotland, she's pals with a Thai/Chinese girl who swears like a Scot. In Cyprus, she had a Pilipina friend who could write Hebrew and speak Tagalog and Spanish. My daughters' favorite musicians are all mixed up too: a Nigerian/German, a Rwandan/Belgian, and any number of Japanese-born-and-raised Koreans. And the food they like is right off the charts: hummous, sushi, haggis, mabo-dofu, sukiyaki, kabobs, paella, dim sum, pizza, kimchi chige. For Christmas, we had pot stickers, red-cooked Chinese cabbage, sushi, and stuffed grape leaves with filled pitta bread. Dessert was sweet potato pie and tiramisu.

"So," I said to my daughter, "you don't feel like you're one of a kind anymore. Or do you?"

She shrugged and smiled. "I'm used to it now."

The other day, I happened to overhear a conversation between two bilingual women. "You must keep the languages and cultures separate," one of them sniffed. "No mixing up or everything gets very confused, and that is no good for anybody."

She's probably right. But I couldn't disagree more.


Lisa Shafer said...

I'm sure all that is harder when you're a young teen -- because everything is dramatic then.
And actually, the whole melting pot thing is very American as well -- as you know. Remind your daughter that she'll fit right in in NYC, Chicago, or LA-- although probably not small towns in the Midwest (or, heaven forbid, Utah!). Please also assure her that LaVerkin, Utah, which outlawed the United Nations within its boundaries, is probably not a good place for her. (As if she'd ever have occasion to visit such a place....)

Your story about the Japanese-speaking toddler makes me think of a friend of mine. We grew up together, and our parents still live across the street from each other. This fellow has a very German surname, but he became enamored with Japanese and the culture. He did his PhD at a uni in Hawaii, fell in love with a Japanese girl there, and they married. He teaches at a university in Japan now. His son is pre-teen age these days and is bilingual, but Japanese is is first language, so the family had similar problems to yours when the son was about 3 and they spent the summer in SLC. The boy has a very common American first name, a German surname -- and he looks completely Japanese (except he's rather tall for a Japanese boy). At the time, he spoke almost no English. But they put him in a pre-school in Salt Lake for 2 months to give him the experience. Can you imagine what the teachers went through? Hilarious. One just does not expect a kid with a name similar to "John Schmidt" to speak only Japanese!

Anonymous said...

Humans are so very tribal, aren't we? I had an experience marginally similar to your oldest daughter's twenty years ago when we moved to our leafy suburb after our old urban neighborhood fell apart. The first time I went to vote in our new precinct, I looked around and thought, "Good grief. Everybody else here is white!" And then I realized that, duh, so was I.

Anonymous said...
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Carole said...

What a wonderful gift your girls have. Very cool

Charles Gramlich said...

She is undoubtedly the future, but I guess it's sometimes hard being ahead of the curve.

Kim Ayres said...

I spent a large part of my childhood in Wales where I was alienated and picked on for being English. I don't have any roots anywhere - no hometown I can go to where there are people I'm related to. So I've always had the sense of being the outsider, even though I've rarely lived outwith the UK and can only speak one language. But I've always felt much more comfortable with other outsiders (however that is defined) than the mainstream.

I think once you've been rejected by the "norm", you cease to take it seriously and find far more enjoyment in diversity

Vijaya said...

Well, I've never fitted in anywhere, and wanted to desperately as a child and teen. After a while I got used to it and enjoy the fact that I draw upon more than one or two cultures. Looks like your daughter is doing just fine all mixed up.

Anonymous said...

"I relate to both but don't belong to any" is how I describe it. I suffered a lot when I was younger. I was hated just because I was different. In time I've learned to live with it, started enjoying it. Do I need to mention all my beloved friends are of my own kind? I hope the world gets more and more mixed up in the future, I mean, culturally. Pelin

teenager said...

Its all really all mixed up .
But on the optimistic side, its really good that your daughter gain this experience .

I wish you and your family a Happy New Year :)

COme to my blog too :)

Do follow it if it please you :)

Murr Brewster said...

When I was living in London, I mentioned to someone that I was half Norwegian, and she assumed I had Norwegian citizenship. That's the first time I realized how unusual it is that Americans routinely refer to themselves as a collage of presumed bloodlines. And we do. We're real thrilled about it. But we still want everyone to speak English, and think they're a little slow in the head if they have an accent. What a country.

Mary Witzl said...

Lisa -- Your friend's kid would be able to trade some good stories with mine! I can imagine what a tough time he had in that nursery school, though, let alone the teachers.

My (American) boss in Japan had a number of non-Asian kids, both black and white, who spoke Japanese as natives. They were great sources of Japanese idioms and slang, and it was always loads of fun to watch the first reactions of other people to them. When I first went to Japan decades ago, the only non-Asian speakers of Japanese were a handful of missionaries, the odd diplomat, or (rarer still) very committed military families. Things have really changed.

Anne -- My first year in Japan, every time I caught sight of myself in a mirror at the station I freaked out. Was that really ME? To this day, when I am among Asians, I become Asian -- until I encounter a mirror.

Carole -- They don't always see it as a gift, which is sad. At their age, I'd have given a lot to experience a variety of cultures. Or so I tell myself -- and them.

Charles -- That is exactly my kids' take on it, though lately they are beginning to see the advantages too.

Kim -- You know what this feels like too. It never ceases to amaze me how even cultures which appear similar perceive each other as vastly different. A sense of otherness can come from anything, really, not just nationality. When I was growing up, I was terribly shy and had no idea how to fit into groups. The fact that I shared a nationality with the people around me didn't help at all. My kids are less socially awkward than I was, but they have had such a different experience to mine.

Vijaya -- I could have used more kids like you around when I was growing up. I yearned to fit in and conform, but never acquired the knack. Only now do I see that in many ways, this stood me in good stead against adulthood.

I love my mixed-up daughters -- and I'm relieved that they are coming to terms with (and even beginning to appreciate) their citizen-of-the-world status.

Pelin -- You've definitely been through this many times over, haven't you? Geography, nationality, and religion should not create such barriers. (But no wonder we became friends!)

Teenager -- I'll tell my daughters that you think this is a good experience. Sometimes they agree with you, sometimes they don't. Happy New Year to you too!

Murr -- I've found that people in Europe are confused when Americans list the various ethnic groups they spring from. In Denmark, I had a tough time explaining to a woman that I had Danish ancestry, but not one speck of Danish language, so I now tell people I'm of mixed stock and only take it further if they express interest. (Which, sadly, they almost never do.)

Aledys Ver said...

How wonderful that your daughter can speak Japanese and probably, behave and think Japanese as well - it's a fantastic gift to be able to say and do that. From the perspective of a teenager though, I can see how being different can be also tough.
Happy New Year!!

Bish Denham said...

I grew up in a similar situation, white in a black majority, had to learn to speak the heavily accented English dialect to be understood. Even my family is multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural. My sister and I call ourselves Euro-West Indians! I love the diversity. But I tell you what, the first time I ever traveled to the States as a teen I felt totally out of place. Being around all the white people made me feel very uncomfortable. So I can totally understand how your daughter must of have felt.

Angela Ackerman said...

Interesting to get a window into what it is like to grow up in so many cultures. It's sad tho that kids looked past the fact that she grew up in a country and only see her ethnicity, and pronounce her foreigner. I think it's great that as you move from place to place, you bring your different cultural experiences with you. :) Holidays would be one-of-a-kind at your house! :)


Marcia said...

It's so eye-opening to me to read this. And then I think, Of course there must be many people the world over with these experiences. Of course. I think both the melting pot and "we must keep cultures separate" perspectives are operating in our society, which I actually used in my just-completed novel. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Aledys -- I think it's wonderful, but then I'm comparing it to my own experiences and the dreams I had growing up, when I would have done just about anything to live in a different country (I suspect you feel like this too, as an expatriate? It's what I have in common with many other bloggers -- a shared culture of loving different cultures). But I am happy that my daughters are now coming to terms with it better.

Bish -- You had such an incredible, magical childhood. I read your stories about growing up in the Virgin Islands and feel like crying. When I was about 11, I read a Reader's Digest condensed book -- 'Our Virgin Island' -- about a couple who moved to a tiny island in the Virgin Island chain where they lived for several years and had many incredible adventures. I was utterly entranced and would have happily moved there myself. I can sympathize with you about how funny white people must have looked after living among only black people. After living among Asians, I used to freak out just looking at my own face in the mirror when I was washing it. You begin to identify more with the people you see around you, and unless you spend all your time surrounded by mirrors, you lose touch with your own ethnic group.

Angela -- My daughters' friends truly forgot she was a foreigner. On several occasions, I had to remind them that we came from a different country and would one day leave Japan. Up until the kids were around six, they all just assumed that we were Japanese people with lighter-colored hair who could talk funny if they chose to. But when we ventured out of our own neighborhood, we were an unknown quantity, and foreigners. That was tough -- and tiresome.

You are right: holidays are weird here! I'm not sure we could do traditional anything anymore.

Marcia -- Sometimes I consider the hodge-podge of cultures around me and wonder if I should have been more careful to keep things separate. But many of the elements work together in such an eclectic, off-beat way, that I think oh what the heck -- mix 'em up!

Hooray for you, using mixed cultures in your novel, which I really look forward to reading. I know from reading your thoughtful blog and all your astute book reviews how good it will be. (And thanks to YOUR helpful critique of my work, it will -- just maybe -- be up to scratch.)

Pat said...

It seems to me that anyone with any originality is liable to get picked on at school. It can be the making of one.

Kim said...

My husband was another third culture kid, who struggled into adult-hood with the feeling of being "neither fish nor fowl". Reading "Third Culture Kids" helped tremendously, even though he was in his late 30s by that time.

I think it's great that your kids have other friends who are in the same boat, though. That has to help some!

Mary Witzl said...

Pat -- That was absolutely my experience. But there were other kids who were every bit as original as I was who knew how NOT to get bullied. I've developed a better knack for this as an adult, but as a child I was totally at sea.

Kim -- My daughters have met people like your husband who, although older, had the same experiences growing up in a third culture, using a 'foreign' (but not to them) language. Whenever they do, it's amazing how much they have in common. I'll point them to 'Third Culture Kids' -- thank you.