Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cultural identity journeys

There are many reasons why I'm thrilled Barack Obama was elected the next president of the United States. One of them that's low on the list in terms of the country's priorities ranks rather high when it comes to my own personal life: Obama comes from a multicultural background.

This is especially relevant to me right now, as it seems that Nico, my multicultural six-year-old son, is undergoing a cultural identity crisis. There are some days when he isn't sure what he is, and other days when he wishes he were something else. Recently, he told me, "I hate my skin color. I don't want to be tan. I want to be black." Other days, he says he wants to be white, like his brother. Actually, Nolan is not white - he's more like Baby Pink. More disturbing to me is when Nico says, "Nolan looks like a Chinese boy!" Well, that's because he is Chinese (Taiwanese, to be specific), I tell Nico. And so are you, I remind him. The boys are half Taiwanese, a quarter Italian, and the rest a mix of English and American Indian.

For a while, Nico was irritated by all of this. Whenever Vic and I tried to explain his cultural roots to him, he'd dismiss us: "I just want to be an American flag guy." You can, we told him, but you should still understand all the cultures that shape you. This past summer, between kindergarten and first grade, Nico was teased by someone at day camp. He was ridiculed for being Chinese. So I decided it was time to send Nico to Chinese School.

In a few weeks, I'll be giving a social studies presentation to Nico's first grade class about Taiwan. I was happy when his teacher called to ask me if I'd be willing to consider the idea. Nico said he'd like to help me. I hope this will help him feel more connected to his Asian heritage. I do understand his desire to fit in - it reminds me of my own longing to assimilate when I was his age - but understanding it doesn't make it sting any less.

When I was Nico's age, I used to be terribly embarrassed when my mother would speak Taiwanese to me in public places or when she would take off her shoes at people's homes. My parents were immigrants, so we learned about Canadian and American culture together. Halloween, for instance, was something that took us a little while to figure out. My mom took me, dressed as a princess, trick or treating for the first time when I was in preschool. That year, my dad prepared elaborate little paper bags filled with goodies for trick-or-treaters. Even though we lived in a high-rise apartment building, he wanted to make sure we were ready. To this day, he considers Halloween an important social occasion. I do too.

For Nico and Nolan, I admit I feel a bit unprepared for the cultural identity issues they will encounter growing up. Since they are half Asian, I don't know if they will be confronted with a different set of issues than I faced.

It's going to be a journey for all of us.


Ken Kesegich said...

Lisa: You have such an interesting story to tell, and the talent to tell it, so I hope you're thinking about writing a book someday that captures your experiences -- a memoir, a novel, or some other form that expands on the themes covered so sensitively in your posting (and in other writing of yours that I've read).

Anonymous said...

I hate to sound like a broken record, but you should come to the RACE exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Jacey said...

Hi Lisa,

Remember me from the ARM May Conference in NY? Great cultural identity post. I also struggle with raising supposedly non-racialized kids, given that their ethnicity (Dutch, Icelandic, German, Irish and Ukranian) is invisible. Any ideas on this? - particularly as it relates to so-called Caucasian children's ethnic identities.
I think as women and as mothers we tend not to be direct and upfront, so I will try to be both. Would you consider posting a link to my blog? (you have it from your ARM paper, I believe) I haven't done links yet, but when I do rants, ravings and ruminations will be there.

Brenna said...

First, while I agree it may not have been #1 priority of most American voters, I think Obama's multi-ethnic heritage is a big deal worldwide. Sort of the entire world thinking, "Holy cow, maybe Americans are not as totally full of crap as we've feared."

With respect to Nico, I admit I've sat with this for a while. Thalia's not herself multi-racial (in fact, I was remarking to Chris the other day that ethnically she's probably the least mutt-like person in our family), she clearly lives in a multi-racial family. Nobody as far as I know has teased her yet about looking different from the other kids. Maybe it's because she's little yet, and also there's a kid from Thailand in her class. But it may be coming.

Maybe some day, when the time comes, you can give the same presentation to Thalia's class! Or give me pointers on how to do it...