19 September, 2009

Cultural Identity in Children

I’ve always wondered how or if things would have been different for the kids, had we been living in India and not abroad. I don’t quite mean this in the academic sense actually. I’m looking at this more from the cultural point of view.

I personally feel that growing up abroad, in a lot of ways, insulates the children from being exposed to the Indian culture in all its abundant glory. Music, Fine Arts, Festivals and much much more. What they see abroad is a mini version of the culture that one steeps in back home.

My cousins back home don’t necessarily agree with this point of view. “Many of the children out here are so overburdened with school work that they don’t have time to imbibe any of the culture that you speak of. Arrey - end of the day your kids know more about the Indian culture than ours” is what they say.

The last time we’d been to India, people back home were amazed by the fact that Macademia and Pecan have a daily prayer routine and that they chant prayers that some of the adults in India have not mastered as yet. They were amazed by the fact that Macademia and Pecan were more than familiar with ancient mythological tales and epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

See, that’s precisely my point. Such things should not actually fall into the category of “amazing”. They are something that is expected of children growing up back home in India. So then, why should children growing abroad be given any concession ?

Macademia and Pecan don’t even speak our own mother tongue. Macademia does understand and tries to speak in bits and pieces but with Pecan, we’ve managed to make absolutely no headway at all. Truth be told, it is not a fact I’m proud of. But fact, it is. I do believe that children should know how to converse in their mother tongue and also the national language. My own kids don't.

But out here, this is a general trend that I’ve noticed. Hardly any kids speak their mother tongue and the language they automatically opt for in a conversation is English. They have to speak fluent English by the time they’re 3 ½ if they have to get admission in an English kindergarten and from then on it just goes on and on. English automatically takes precedence and in the case of Macademia and Pecan, somewhere along the way, speaking their mother tongue has been totally run off the road.

As parents, the onus is on us now to impart atleast some working knowledge of Hindi and our mother tongue, to both Macademia and Pecan. And this, we’re beginning to realize, is easier said than done.

Ever heard of the term “Third Culture Kids” ?

Third Culture Kids are those who have spent their growing years in a foreign land and experience a sense of “not belonging” to their passport country when they return to it. In living abroad, they have also missed learning ways of their homeland and feel most at home in the “third culture” that has been created.

This is so true – so true that it is worrying to a certain extent.

Macademia and Pecan, when we go over to Bombay, have not experienced the “real” Bombay – in any sense of the term. They are insulated there too. For them, as of today, Bombay or Kerala are holiday destinations and not their roots. The last time we had been to Bombay and were heading back to HK, I did hear Pecan mentioning to Macademia “Hey Aparna – today we’re going back home to HK”.

Exactly how much does being a “Third Culture Kid” affect their cultural identity ? Which culture do they identify with later on in life ?

With Macademia and Pecan, I’ve seen that they are conversant with Indian customs and traditions, the festivals, what the significance of each festival is, how it is celebrated and why, what are the traditions etc … but when it comes to speech, I’d even go to the extent of saying that they’re more comfortable with Mandarin or Putonghua than they are with Hindi or their own mother tongue.

We do realize now that as parents with our children growing up abroad, we need to go that extra mile (or make that a few multiple miles) in developing awareness and an appreciation for the “culture” they belong to alongwith the “culture” they’ve adopted.

The project on hand – which, needless to say, is going to be a long process – is to try and get Macademia and Pecan back on line with speaking their mother tongue and Hindi. What I’ve realized over a period of time is that it is indeed the parents’ responsibility to try and keep the languages alive at home and teach the kids to converse in their mother tongue. This would enable them to keep relationships alive with those members of the family who do not speak English. It will help maintain that vital link in both Macademia and Pecan’s life - a link that is so essential. Simply put, language is that vital link that connects different generations of the family.

Probably, they’d be able to relate better and understand the Indian culture better and to see themselves as a part of their roots.

Who knows ? A speaking knowledge of their mother tongue and their national language might well prove to be that crucial fundamental factor which would help them to make sense of which their dominant culture is, as they grow.

There are many of you who are in the same situation as we are today. What are your thoughts on these ? How do you opine ?

A penny for your thoughts ??

post signature

16 voice(s) said so:

mummyjaan said...

Thought-provoking post, Gauri.

I believe knowing your mother tongue and *also being able to converse in it without a firangi accent* is important.

There was a time when I was about 9 or 10 when I had begun speaking in English almost exclusively at home. My parents put their foot down and absolutely refused to converse with me unless I addressed them in Urdu. It helped. I speak authentic Urdu/Hindi.

However, I am finding it very difficult to enforce the Urdu/Hindi only rule in my own house. I keep trying, but slip.

Apya used to speak beautifully in our mother tongue before she started preschool and before her sibling arrived on the scene.

Now, with the two of them in school and in daycare for upto 9 hours a day, I'm fighting a losing battle to keep them acquainted with their mother tongue. I'm also losing worse with the Bubsie.

(sigh, sorry. long rambling comment with no actual point made!)

MahaVishnu said...

I live in the US and have been raising my son here. My son, who is 10 now told me a few years ago that while he likes Indian culture, for him US is his nation. So, he needs to know English and not necessarily Hindi.
He managed to communicate with our relatives in my mother tongue, he does not make any effort to learnt it. And I can't bring myself to care. In my opinion, Language is a medium to converse, primarily. If you and your kids can speak the same language, then that's peachy. I do feel sad about him not being able to 'enjoy' the intricacies of my mother tongue, there is beauty in every language and one lifetime is not enough to enjoy all the languages of the Universe.
I used to enjoy a certain 1950s movie in my mother tongue based on the mythology. I was super excited when we watched it together. He did not get it. The language was arcane and the graphics were, well, non existent. For somebody who loves Fantasy as much as he does, I was quite taken aback by his 'callous' attitude to the movie that has been my all time favorite. And that's when I had my epiphany - we can like the same genre, but this is my favorite and his is Harry Potter.

Kodi's Mom said...

i do believe it is necessary to have some grasp of your tongue, if for nothing else to converse with your extended family, who even if they know english, may not necessarily understand the accent/expressions..
but language is just that - a tool, so Gauri, I'd say teach them so they're equipped. I mean if they can pick up mandarin then they'll pick up hindi in a breeze...maybe you can try an immersion for a few minutes a day...talk only in that lang at dinner time or something. also a lot of hindi can be picked up from songs and movies! anything that doesnt feel like they're being forced into it is good game.
if it feels like a chore though, don't push it. when they're all grown up and if they're eager to learn, they'll find a way.

dipali said...

I lived through this as a child. Gauri. We were living in England from when I was two till almost eight, my sis was two years older. Our mother would speak to us only on Hindi, which we could follow, but were very inhibited about speaking. On our return we all stayed at my aunt's place for some months, where we spoke to her only in Hindi. We gradually lost our shyness. Hindi is the language of emotion for me, in which I speak to babies and my dearest ones. Thoughts are mostly in English. And it took years to lose the accent.
I think Kodi's mom's advice is sound.

Itchingtowrite said...

thot provoking. actually not just in a foreign country but also with couples who speak different languages- they tend to gravitate towards the single common language- english and thereby kids learn neither the mother's tongue nor the father's. therefore at home- i strictly converse with them in hindi, hubby in english & their grandmother in tamil. i am hoping they pick up the other south indian languages from friends. strat with simple translation exercises or hindi hour or movies/ songs... it will come!!

Anonymous said...

First time comment, I think....
It is very important to us that our children speak Tamil fluently, as the extended family is close-knit and several members do not speak English, let alone American-English. We have a Tamil-only rule at home, which is followed more-or-less, depending on which parent is around to enforce it!

But it is natural for my children to feel that the US is their home- it is. We haven't tried to teach them any other Indian languages though they've picked up a smattering of Hindi from cousins in India and the B4U channel on TV!

My husband feels strongly enough about Tamil that he's trying to teach them to read/write Tamil, but I grew up outside TN, and my Tamil reading is at about 3rd grade level :-) I can manage to read recipes, and jokes in Tamil magazines, but that's it - I do feel the lack of that knowledge sometimes, when I want to read something in the original, but in daily life, being a fluent speaker has been more than enough.

BTW, the kids realised the utility of Tamil in public settings, when they needed a language that was not understood by all around them!


DDmom said...

Gauri, I was fretting over the same thought when we decided to move back. D was just 3.5 years, could not speak one word of Hindi, though she would understand everything we spoke. We were at our in-laws place for good 2 months, where no one spoke English. She had a tough time to communicate, but kids adapt when in need much sooner than we think. 2 weeks into it, she was running like a train.

Also, living here is India(metros) is no different w.r.t language. Not a single kid speaks in their native language. They might at home, but in the park and any other public gathering, the universal language seems to be English. Only advantage(or disadvantage, I don't know) here is that second language is not optional, even third language is mandatory in higher classes. So they are forced to read and write one other language.

Culture pov, it sure does seem to make a difference. I had not been very consistent in celebrating our traditional festivals back in the US. But, here there is so much dhamaka, schools have a day dedicated to this, apartment complexes(at least in the one where we are put up), celebrate them with a lot of enthusiasm with cultural activity and food pertaining to that festival. That the kids do end up knowing a lot. Just couple of days back D said that V aunty has invited us for golu. I asked her what that meant and she said - display your favorite dolls in steps. Her teacher told it seems. The other day apartment celebrated onam by organising a kerela lunch and D had questions about banana leaf. Why there was no roti and why everyone was eating with their hands..

Sorry for the mini post..

Random Thoughts said...

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Nagesh.MVS said...

Hey nice post.

Work From Home

choxbox said...

was going to leave a comment as long as a post. posted on my blog instead.

SG said...

Nice post. Very thought provoking. Our two kids are in USA. They can read, write, and speak Tamil, our mother tongue. But very shy to speak because of the American accented Tamil. They go to temple quite often.

Aruna H. said...

The learning of culture and language should be made fun for the kids. The overwhelming consensus among scientists is that kids learn languages best before the age of 2 or 3. If you look at other biligual communities in the US (Spanish, French, etc.) there are many ways for babies and toddlers to learn - fun books, programs, etc. It has to be presented to kids in a way that they can relate to and appreciate. My son in 3 and he already knows the Telugu (and English) alphabet - since he learned early, if I show him an akshara months after I present it to him, he still remembers.
It is really important to start early in fun ways.

Mama - Mia said...


i get are you teaching Cubby Marathi all the time. he speaks only hindi which is common language M and me use. so its not just abroad that you face such things!

and because Cub is conversant and more comfy in Hindi sometimes he feels all lost between all english speaking kids. and most of them speak only english all the time.

my logic is english he will learn at school in any case. i am glad that his one Indian language is strong. he also speaks fairly fluent Kannada (as per amma who takes care of him during the day) and we have a translator on our hands in few years! hehe!

as for culture, considering my family and hence me have never been into rituals i defi cannot teach Cubby "culture" in that sense of the term. but i am hoping he will pick up stuff as he grows older inspite of us perhaps! :)



scarlettwrites said...

Very good post, Gauri.You write so well.

I have similar quandries with Miss A all the time. She understands perfect Marathi but she doesnt always to choose to communicate in that language. She loves Indian food and Indian clothes and of late, her comfort food has changed from pasta to dal and rice. She loves the Ramayana and I have learnt not to raise an eyebrow at "The nice man Rama" - because at the end of the day, in her words "The nice man Rama is quite awesome". That will have to do.

Culture is such a dynamic thing. And everytime we travel to a newer land, literally or metaphorically, culture goes through a filter. What remains at the end of our travels,untarnished and unsullied, bereft of any traditions or rituals is culture in its truest form. As long as our children have a semblance of this reality, we will all be fine.


Sue said...

I'm not sure if you'll get me, but as an ex probashi Bangali (who grew up outside, it means), my struggle with my son is a very quiet, unspoken fight to not let him grow up as insular as the average kid who stays in one place all his life. I don't want him thinking Calcutta is the centre of the world, when it's not even the centre of his world. His favourite grandparents and aunts and uncles all stay elsewhere. So I keep travelling with him so that Madras to him is a place that is as accessible (almost) as, say, Golf Green.

It's not the same conundrum as the one you're contemplating but it's related. I was one of those third culture kids and yes, being from the north and living in the south made me feel like I was straddling two continents, not mere states!

BTW, the word verification says "Wings". Message there? :)

the mad momma said...

late here Gauri but as a kid from a mixed background, i grew up speaking a mishmash of languages and not having one community to call my own. I dont think of it as either an advantage or a disadvantage. i take it for granted. this is just me.

similarly - for your kids or my kids, the rules change. change to a place where there are no rules.

as someone wisely said up there, language is a communication tool. all you need is to communicate. it would be nice for our kids to communicate with extended family etc but to me its more important that they communicate with ME. not in terms of a language but that they're close to me, communication channels are open and they feel free to come and tell me anything. much more important than speaking to me in tamil or bengali.

also, much more important that being kids brought up in delhi, they understand the languages spoken here, like hindi and punjabi. this is about THEIR comfort. not about what my dreams for them are.

i hope i made sense. other than that... i just wanted to send a hug for the four of you. chumma... jlt :)