The Broad is Back!

April 28, 2007

Multicultural Children

Filed under: Old Broads — by maggiec @ 4:04 pm

Originally published Oct 11, 2002

When I was living in America, especially when I was teaching in New York City, I heard a lot, and talked a lot, about multiculturalism. It’s very important to pay attention to in a country like America. I believe that. When planning my syllabi, I made sure that I had works in English from all over the world, not just a collection of standards by Dead White Anglo Men. I felt it was important to have as many diverse voices represented as possible in order to give my classroom of mostly immigrants a feeling of belonging. A feeling that they, too, were represented in this land.

Then I moved to Taiwan, and for the first time ever I started teaching a homogenous group, none of whom were white, much less Anglo, but all of whom wanted to learn about American culture. In some classes, I did slip in Chinese-American authors, but for my students, these writers were just as foreign as Poe or Wharton. Just because they were named Huang or Lee didn’t make them Chinese, at least not to the Chinese in my classroom. And I had to ask “why?”

Then, after three years in Taiwan, I went home for a summer, and sitting on the beach with my then seven-year-old son, I realized he wasn’t American, either. Sure, he was born in New York City, and he lived in the States till he was four, but watching him interact with the other kids, I realized that he was Other, and because he looked American (and yes, even if we come in every color of the rainbow, there is an “American look) and he sounded American, his Otherness was throwing off the other kids.

What made me first realize the difference was his sense of personal space. Chinese kids touch constantly. They lean into one another while playing and touch each other’s arms and legs. So did my son, but for American kids this was a violation of their personal space. They couldn’t articulate this, but I saw it in their body language. This boy, they were projecting, is too close.

In conversation, he didn’t get pop culture references, either. He didn’t know the baseball teams, the cool TV catch phrases, the “in” junk food. He knew his Taiwanese junk food, and the TV shows and commericials there, but that wasn’t helping him on the Jersey shore. He even had a different name for McDonald’s!

Looking at him now, years and a couple of countries later, I see that his Otherness is also apparent in his lack of cultural touchstones. It’s my fault, I know, but he doesn’t understand Thanksgiving, as we don’t celebrate. It’s a hard holiday to keep when Thursdays are a school day and a work day. And let me tell you, finding a turkey in Taiwan wasn’t easy. And if I’d found one, I couldn’t have cooked it since I didn’t have an oven. People don’t use them. Living in a sub-tropical country does that to the local cuisine. The first year overseas we tried to celebrate with a take-away Peking Duck with mashed potatoes, but it just wasn’t the same. No pie, no cranberry sauce, and biggest of all, no family. By the time we moved to Switzerland, where turkey is available, we were out of the habit. So that holiday fell by the wayside.

Labor Day is celebrated in May in most of Europe, so his touchstones for back to school are different. And he doesn’t know the Pledge of Allegiance, since he doesn’t have to say it every morning at school, nor does he know “America the Beautiful” or the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Luckily, he’s picked up the tune from watching “le J.O,” which is what he calls the Olympic Games. He started really watching them as a francophone. All in all, he’s woefully lacking in American history, because at school, he’s busy learning the history of whatever country we’re living in. Other than the religious holidays we keep, Christmas and Easter, which are also colored by the countries in which we live, he celebrates different holidays that have to do with totally different cultures and traditions.

In his heart and in his head, he’s a proud American. He identifies as an American, tells people he’s an American, and never wants to be anything but an American. But he isn’t one. I’m not quite sure what he is, though. He’s not Swiss or Swedish or Chinese. If I had to hazard a guess I’d say European, whatever that means. And it really doesn’t mean much, as Europeans from Greece are radically different from those from Norway, who are in turn different from those in France. But there is a more “Old World” way of looking at things when compared to a “New World” way. I’m hoping that if we stay here in Sweden for the rest of his schooling he’ll end up predominantly Swedish, but for all intents and purposes, he is the epitome of multicultural. He has so many cultures swirling around in him that he is nothing.

And there’s the rub. He doesn’t fit in anywhere, either. Wherever he goes, he is Other. And you know what? He hates it. When he was young and we lived in Taiwan, he wanted his hair cut very short to get rid of his curls. He thought that with straight hair, he looked Chinese. He didn’t see the physical differences between Caucasian and Asian faces. When we moved to Switzerland, he soon learned French well enough to fit in, and physically he could “pass” as a native. He started to hate being out with me and having me speak French. I’m so bad at it that it let everyone know that I was Other, and that by extension, so was he. Here in Sweden he is still at the sticking out stage, but at least with a Swedish step-parent, he feels more truly a part of here. In fact, he tells people that he’s half Irish-American, half Arabic and half Swedish. And he means it. He also thinks he has a little Chinese and a little Swiss in him, but not as much as the other three. We laugh at his naivete, and his trouble with fractions, but perhaps he’s more right that the adults who find his self-definition “cute.”

So all this gets me thinking about American culture. Many Europeans wags have said that there is no such thing, that it’s an oxymoron like military intelligence and plastic glasses. Or at the very most, it’s nothing but a conglomeration of pop culture – Barbie, Campbell’s Soup and the Brady Bunch. That always burns my biscuits, since America has a great cultural heritage. Yes, much of it was brought over from the Old World, but it melded with the New. The Constitution of the United States is a prime example. It blends the ideals of John Locke, the great British philosopher with the ideals and format of the Constitution of the Iroquois Nation, something that was in place and working even in pre-colonial times.

For an interesting look at the documents important to the culture of our government, and indeed, our culture, I recommend the page maintained by the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law at http://www.law.ou.edu/hist/ There you’ll find links to important documents from the Magna Carta to the 2002 State of the Union Address. And you’ll also find the documents that have blended in to create American culture. There’s the rousing speech Patrick Henry gave in 1775, ending with the famous words, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” There’s the Declaration of Independence that I quoted last week, the writings of Ben Franklin and the Federalist Papers. Perhaps you haven’t read them, but I can assure you, American cultural ideals are well rooted in these writings.

Moving on in history, the page includes links to the short but extremely moving Gettysburg Address. I included the end of it last week, but what American can’t recite its opening lines, “”Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And there are more documents – the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther’s stirring I Have a Dream speech, even things as seemingly mundane as the lyrics to Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

One of the most moving documents I found there was President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. I highly recommend reading it, for it is as powerful and as timely today as it was on that January morning in 1961. I’m sure you know it by its famous ending: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

“My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

“Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Heady stuff, all of this. It’s wonderful, stirring rhetoric, and I recommend it. Perhaps it’s not always easy to read, but nothing worthwhile is easy, right? Maybe I’m luckier than most because I get to read it for “work”. I’ve been known to teach Western Civ on occasion and one question I constantly ask myself and ask my students to ask themselves is: “Why am I who I am?” They hate this question, and so do I, really, since it usually gives me a headache, but I find that as a broad abroad, with a kid abroad, it’s something I ask more and more. What makes me the person I am? What cultural references inform the way I see the world?

Most Americans never read all this material, but it’s there in our subconscious. We got highlights in history class and can quote King, Kennedy, Jefferson and Franklin without even stopping to think about it. I didn’t read Ralph Waldo Emerson until I was in graduate school, but as soon as I read his essays on education I understood exactly why American schools are in the mess they are in! (You might guess here that I don’t agree with old Ralph, but nor do I agree with his influence, Jean Jacques Rousseau.)

This brings me back to those Chinese students who saw the Chinese-American authors I stuck in the syllabus as Americans. Those writers were born in America, educated in America. Their identities were formed more by Jefferson and Lincoln than by Confucius and Sun Yat-Sen. Sure, there were some customs that were familiar – a whiff of Confucius – but how these writers saw the world was as Americans. And maybe part of being American is always having some other influence color one’s experience of American culture, but all of us who grew up in the States have more in common each other than we have with people from other countries. Believe me, I know this is true because I see that my own son is not “American”.

I haven’t changed my mind that multiculturalism is good. But my experiences have changed how I look at things. Getting to know the basics of what informs us is important. And the basics are Dead White Men. I also believe that we need to read as much as we can, experience as much as we can to get as full a picture as we can of the past and how it informs the present, but we don’t all have the time or inclination to be scholars. That’s my son’s problem. After a full day of school, how much more history can I slip in there? Oh I do, through classic American novels that we share at bedtime, through little asides slipped into conversation. The “You know, that reminds me of something that happened in American history.”

He may move back to the US someday, and he’ll eventually pick up on pop culture references, and he’ll “pass” as he has done in other countries. But deep down he’ll always be multicultural to the core.

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