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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Bi-cultural Families: The Culture Wars

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.


Blaze said...

Victoria, you have given your daughters a phenomenal gift.

I always wished I had learned more about my Swedish, German and Irish heritage from my grandparents and great-grandparents. They did what most immigrants did. They adapted to the American melting pot lifestyle.

A former colleague and her husband are from Chile. They spoke Spanish at home, sent their children to French immersion schools and the kids spoke English in the community and with their friends.

When their son and daughter were teens, they rebelled and refused to speak Spanish at home. The parents accepted that, but spoke to them sometimes in Spanish and sometimes in English.

Now that the son and daughter are fluently trilingual (much more or a rarity in Canada than in Europe) young adults and see how many doors it opens to them, they appreciate their parents' determination.

HelenBoston said...

Hi Victoria!
I don't know if you will remember me, I sent you an email once about taxes for Americans living abroad. Anyway, I can totally relate to what you are talking about, as I find it very difficult sometimes to impose one's culture in a country that does not share the same (I'm French, my husband is Haitian, and we live in the US with two kids, 5 and 1). WHen my son asks me to buy him fruit roll-ups (horrible) because his friends eat that at school, I want to kill myself. But I buy it, and give it very very rarely. Oh well... Very interesting post, as usual :-). Hélène

Ellen Lebelle said...

Couldn't be more true. We ended up being a French-speaking household. Then, my folks supplied us with a US tv and vcr (cheaper than buying a tri-standard vcr, here) and my dad taped lots of PBS (Sesame St. Reading Rainbow, Mr. Roger's) and sent us the tapes. We took as many vacations as we could in the States, and three of the kids got to attend summer camp.
And in the end, they are happy being Americans and even want to pass it on to their children.
But you know how I've come to consider that citizenship a burden more than a gift.

Christophe said...

Hi Victoria,

I am amazed how you turned my comment in a great post. You are talented!
The term culture war is interesting... and strong. I don't know if I'd call it a war. Yes, I feel outclassed and outnumbered :-)
AS you said, it's a battle to pass on culture and language. The language part being the most difficult. I always talk to my kids in French. They understand everything, but struggle to answer back in French. The younger one is especially funny... and smart. When I tell him "dis le en Francais". He answers back "En Francais!" (he's 3)
It would be easier if the teaching environment was in French. We considered the international school, but it's really out of reach: $12,000 per kid per year! Who can afford that, except maybe expats working for big companies, where that might be part of their benefits.
Where I see a difference in culture is the way they raise children here, compared to what I was used to in France. It seems that American parents are not as strict, and that's where we sometimes disagree with my wife. She let them do stuff that would be off limits in a French household. She encourages independence which is not necessary bad, but I think there should be some limits. But by letting them try things they're too young to try, they mess up a lot of things!
My parents call it "la culture de L'Enfant roi". I wouldn't go that far, but I can certainly see the difference between how my kids are raised and how my sister raises hers.

I guess, living in the US, we really haven't felt discrimination of derogatory remarks from the teachers or anyone else regarding my speaking French to them, even in public. It seems there is still more acceptance about that in the US than in Europe. I like that. There are so many people speaking other languages in my area (Spanish and Mandarin), that it's not a problem, and my kids are not at the age yet where they make comments on my accent or grammar mistakes :-) unlike my intern at work. I was actually a little embarrassed the other day, when he sometimes mixes up words I say, when people tell me I don't have a strong accent :-)
I can't wait till my kids grow up and can enjoy more the trips to France and see that as opportunities and feel fortunate they have the chance to do that.
I hope my parents will still be in shape to host them when they'll be in age of travelling by themselves!

Great post. Thanks again for turning my comment in such a piece.

Take care!

Anonymous said...

I think in the end for many families, it all works out. Our kids when they were young and in their early teens were worried about being different; as young adults, they enjoy their Persian heritage from their Mother, to the extent of sometimes speaking to her in Persian in front of their friends. Better not to force it but make it present in their lives, and likely it will be part of their identity (but understandably less strong than their main identity).

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Blaze, Took them awhile to appreciate it. :-) When they were little I was the meanest mom in the world because I wouldn't let them read Harry Potter in French. I wish the same. If my great-grandmother had taught French to my grandmother and my mom and if they had encouraged it, it would have been REALLY useful given where I ended up.

@Helene, I do remember you. I hope you're well. When we are in the US, it's animal crackers and Reese's peanut butter cups. I wouldn't mind so much if these things came in small packages but everything in the States seems to be supersized.

@Ellen, Very interesting. We almost went that route too. The Frenchlings were starting to answer my English with French and I needed better language skills for work.

It may still be a gift, Ellen. It ain't over 'til it's over, right?

@Christophe, Sorry it took me so long to post your comment. We had glorious weather at the end of last week and I was in the garden.

I hear you about the price of international school. Imagine out delight when the younger Frenchling found a French public high school with an international curriculum.

Oh yes, the child-rearing differences. Have you ever read Evidences Invisibles by Raymonde Carroll? I wrote a post about it here She has an entire chapter on "Parents-Enfants". Really interesting.

@Andrew, Yes, it usually works out. But taking the long view, I'm not sure we can guarantee that "main" identity. I think of identity as fluid - a bi-cultural child may be more French than German but that can flip and in later years the adult may become more German than French. See what I mean?

Christophe said...


"Have you ever read Evidences Invisibles by Raymonde Carroll?"

No. It looks interesting. Putting it on my list.