A Flophouse reader left an interesting comment the other day. He is a Frenchman with a family living in the U.S. and what he said touched a very deep chord within me. His children, he said jokingly, are more American than French.
Yes, that happens when you are the "foreign" half of a couple and the children are being brought up in a country other than your own. You are outclassed and outnumbered because culture is to man what the sea is to a fish. Between the native spouse, the in-laws, the childcare workers, your children's friends and the public schools, it's a battle to pass on even a small sliver of your home culture and language. (Oh, if the English (or French) Only crowd had any idea how hard it is to transmit a language and a culture in these situations, they might relax a bit.) Those little dual national minnows are often not terribly receptive or interested in the other country. What child wants to be different in elementary or middle school? This is their world and when they are young, it's the whole world. They are smart enough to figure out what their friends, family and teachers think is important and to act accordingly.
Some are even embarrassed by their immigrant parent. When Mom (or Dad) speaks with an accent or makes the occasional grammatical error in the local language, they wince. They don't fail to notice that the society around them has negative attitudes toward "foreigners" or dislikes hearing other language spoken in public spaces. I once sat through a meeting at school next to a woman from Brazil who had to listen (with her daughter right there) to other parents talking about how "useless" it was for anyone to learn Portuguese. My own children came home several times distressed and angry because their teachers decided to talk about "fat Americans" or the evil nature of the United States and her people.
I've met foreign parents who gave up and went for radical assimilation. OK, we'll speak French at home from now on - they can learn English (or German or Spanish) later at school. Plane tickets are expensive and the kids would much rather go to grand-mère's house in the country, so we'll stay here this year. Maybe we'll plan a trip next year....
I respect that decision. It takes a lot of time and energy to bring children up more or less bi-cultural. Money is also a problem for some. Long ago I knew an American woman here in France who was a secretary married to a housepainter. With three kids, plane tickets to the U.S. were a luxury they simply couldn't afford. In the end, it's hard enough as it is to be an immigrant, why make things worse by taking on the dominant culture?
Some of us are insane enough to try. It's not that we don't want our children to be French or American or German - it's that we want to pass on something of where we came from to the next generation. What is actually transmitted varies - every parent has to take a good hard look at his own culture and determine what he or she thinks is important. In my case I said "yes" to English and American history and "no" to Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. I had a lot of help from the American family in the U.S. who sent books and videos and hosted the Frenchlings when we sent them for a visit.
Whatever the foreign parent decides after negotiation with the native spouse, is really up to him or her. There is no one right way to do this just as there is no perfect way to be a parent. And isn't there always someone out there ready to tell us that we're doing a very poor job of it?
I personally think that passing along one's culture is a battle worth fighting. And if I may offer some solace to those who may still be struggling with this?
Children grow up. What they care about at five will not be what they care about at fifteen (or fifty). Just because you lose a few battles (and you will) it doesn't mean you've lost the war. If you can take a stand for those few things that you really care about and are willing to fight for, then you will have planted seeds that will bloom one day into real interest in the other country - its people, culture and language.