The Fantasy of Multiculturalism, Opium of the Expat Masses – As Seen Through the Eyes of Babes
Last year in the aftermath of the International School of Tanganyika’s International Day festival I wrote about celebrating the virtues of multiculturalism while also lamenting Jaden’s and Rowan’s lack of strong identities as Americans. Me, personally, I love the concept of multiculturalism, but I am also weary of the adverse effect (on kids) of not feeling connected to a place they can call home.
So this has left me with a serious conundrum. How can I raise both multicultural and strongly American and Jewish identified kids while living overseas (and reaping all the benefits and rewards, as such)?
Interestingly, this year as International Day came and went, I realized that Jaden and Rowan are now more strongly identified as Americans (and as Jews) than ever before. This is after a careful mommy-designed program which included two full months in NY over the summer (one of which was spent in camp at the Jewish Community Center), winter break spent in Israel (Really mommy almost EVERYONE here is Jewish? I’ve never seen so many Jews!), the ordering of USA by State puzzles, going overboard at Amazon.com buying books about various things American and Jewish, and long discussions about Captain America, and George Washington, the cherry tree, and his wooden teeth.
(They have a particular obsession with George Washington’s wooden teeth at the moment. Were they brown? Did they hurt? Did he get splinters? Did they look like teeth or trees in his mouth?)
One of the most interesting developments of these last few months is the new life plan they have developed for themselves, which they talk about incessantly when we are in the car. (I don’t know why, but our car talks are always the deepest conversations of the week. It is where (unprompted) they ponder God, economic injustice, racism, and more.)
They are surprisingly clear, on their future paths.
They will go to university in America and live in an apartment, in a big city, together. I can still live not in America, if I want, but I will have to go visit them, they won’t be coming to visit me. And they would prefer if I would move to an apartment nearby so that we don’t have to worry about the time difference when we Skype.
After university they plan to stay in America. And while Jaden will travel to see all the countries of the world in his work as an underwater paleontologist and Olympic athlete (sport yet to be determined), Rowan, the Broadway star, veterinarian, and Olympic athlete (sport also undetermined) says she won’t. She’ll stay in America and eat Good Humor ice cream and shop at Toys R Us every day. The only exception for Rowan is that she WILL go to India every year to buy beautiful salwar chemises – which she can wear as often as she likes when mommy no longer has final say over her wardrobe choices.
And finally, Rowan says she will find a nice Jewish man to have a baby with. (Her words, certainly not mine. But I suspect there is a whole bunch of grandma influence in that statement.) However, after the baby is born she is moving back into the apartment with Jaden so that they can raise the baby together. She has told Jaden that he can also find a nice Jewish girl to have a baby with, too, but the girl will have to leave as soon as Rowan’s baby is born. Jaden seems to be onboard with the plan.
It is times like this that I remember… oh yeah, they are twins. I started them in tennis lessons together with the “mommy-dream” of having tennis be something they can always have together when they are adults (e.g. get together every Saturday morning for a match and some breakfast). I didn’t quite intend for them to be so bonded that they will be discarding their Jewish-American partners after the children are born, but alas, they have time yet to change their minds.
But back on the topic of multiculturalism, there is one more issue I want to address here.
Lots of people have asked me if Jaden and Rowan are colorblind, having grown up in such a multicultural environment. They aren’t. In fact, if anything they have a heightened sense of awareness about the rainbow skin hues of their friends. They are keenly aware of where each child comes from (often two or three different countries or ethnic backgrounds) and talk about so-and-so being darker or lighter than so-and-so. For example, Rowan has four girls she considers to be her “best friends” at the moment. One is of Ethiopian heritage, another is half Ethiopian/half Tanzanian, the next was born in India, and the last one is half Finnish/half Belgian. She is keenly interested in their backgrounds. In the school and our social context there seems to be no particular judgment associated with these observations. They are just facts.
But when we are outside on the road, the kids ask me why all Black people are poor. And they want to know why all Tanzanians are Black. This is despite MANY conversations where I’ve pointed out that Tanzania is a country that is generally poor, and it is a country where most of the people who live here are Black, but not all. And I go to great pains to name all the people they know who are Tanzanians of European or Asian descent. And I explain that just because most Tanzanians are poor it doesn’t mean that all Black people are poor. And I point out their friends at school who are Black and not poor. I tell them that in America there are lots of people who are White and poor, and others who are Black and rich. But they refuse to believe me – and have even told me that they don’t remember seeing any Black people in America.
Which essentially tells me that when we are outside our four walls – be it home or school – they are seeing and taking in a completely different lessons from what they are experiencing and learning in the home or school setting. They see the poverty – but not really the color of people’s skin. They are trying to make sense of the group of grease-smudged 8 year-old boys who jumped on the car trying to wash the windows for change as we were leaving the fancy movie theatre last weekend, and the children their age playing in the dirt at the side of the road with a broken bottle when we take the short-cut through a local neighborhood on our way to the well-stocked supermarket.
Their real-life lessons in economic inequities are trumping the message of multiculturalism. It is skewing my planned experiment of celebrating diversity in favor of the extremely harsh realities of the world outside our windows.
So it seems that in order for me to tackle the next stage in their social-intellectual development our family lessons need to progress beyond multiculturalism and American identity to macro economics.
I wonder if Amazon.com sells books on Marxism for kids?