10.06.2009

Designer 'Labels'

Last night while sitting around the dinner table, where all of our 'colorful' discussions take place, Riley told me that she had a conversation with a child in her class about being an American. There's a lot of talk about nationalities these days as the school gears up for their United Nations Day at the end of the month. In fact, I'm sure it's no surprise that I'm on the committee to help decorate and cook for the American booth, though that has no bearing on this conversation.

So I asked her what her what her exchange was about... what did she discuss about being an American? Her answer: "Well, since I'm Jewish and don't celebrate Christmas, I can't be an American."

Wow. Deep breath. Wow.

I don't know what I expected her to say. While she was born in the U.S., lived there for her first five months of life, and visits for several weeks each summer, she's never really been there long enough to understand what the 'label' of being an American really is.

Living overseas has forced us into always being labeled. In Oman, we were the 'white folks' living in a Muslim country, never openly discussing our Judaism (and even going as far as declaring 'no religion' on Sheridan's birth certificate registered there). In Israel, while obviously comfortably open about being 'members of the tribe', we were still labeled 'American' or as noticed by our license plates, 'diplomats'. Here in India, where our white skin appears even whiter next to the dark southern Indians, not only are we labeled 'American', but 'rich'... which is funny enough to think of government employees as making enough money to be rich, though to those who live on less than $1 a day, we sure are.

Until we moved overseas, I never gave any thought about being an American. I just am. My children are. I can't remember spending so much time in the States identifying my nationality (except when filling out applications or paperwork). Though, I also don't remember feeling as patriotic as I do now either. I have a much better appreciation for the freedoms as Americans we possess, especially after living in several countries where the women are seen as 'less than' and I can choose to wear / do / say whatever I want, without having to ask permission from my husband. And for those of you who know us ... can you imagine me asking for permission for anything?

The part though that really bothers me about her answer is her misconception about her own religion. Our religion. She knows we're Jewish, and even at six, is painfully aware that she's in the minority... with no relatives in town to share in the holidays, very few other Jewish families in Chennai, and certainly not enough to even have a minyan. I thought that one of the great benefits of not having American television would be the absence of commercials. No worrying about the girls seeing advertisements for every conceivable toy and trinket on the market... geared to ensure the kids ask, beg, borrow, and whine for them to be purchased now, or better yet, for Christmas. For a holiday she knows nothing about, except it must be exciting and important ... because to her, everybody celebrates Christmas. However, it doesn't matter whether or not she sees ads, for she talks with her friends about religion, and to a six year old with deductive reasoning, if you don't celebrate Christmas, you must not be American. I mean honestly, are you seeing the mass advertisements for Hanukkah? What about for Lag B'Omer?

I grew up in a not-so religious family, though was very proud to be Jewish. I went to Hebrew School, Sunday School, Midrasha. I had a Bat Mitzvah, started a B'nai B'rith Youth Group in my city, and even began my college courses as a Jewish Studies major. I get it. I identify with it. I am Jewish. Matt on the other hand has a more spiritual connection to Judaism. Sure he technically is Jewish. He was snipped. He had a Bar Mitzvah. He can mumble a B'racha or two, and appreciates a good shofar blowing at Rosh Hashanah. He just isn't lining up to go to synagogue on a Friday night (even if there WAS a synagogue here in Chennai). And over time we've met somewhere in the middle... and began classifying ourselves as 'Jews with a little j'. It's worked well for us. Until now.

So I sit here in my small office, pondering what I need to do to change my daughter's mindset about religion and nationality. I don't know what the answer is, or even where to begin our journey. With no Sunday School around to send them to (as we would if we were stateside), no watered down American history class in school (here they have an Indian studies class), no kids their same age or situation in which to go through this together, I'm at a loss.

Until I figure our next steps, I'll be sitting here ... daydreaming the ways of helping them understand and appreciate their 'labels', which while growing up as a third culture kid, are, and will always be, the minority.

21 comments:

Mom24 said...

Wow. Just wow. That really does take your breath away, doesn't it?

Well, I guess the good news is that she definitely identifies herself as Jewish. I think the best thing you can do is have conversations...not one big conversation, but many, little conversations about how they are American and Jewish too. It is difficult to imagine how to truly help them understand that though.

OHmommy said...

Wow this one will be hard to tackle. I still have issues with where I belong after immigrating to the USA at about her age.

Im sure that there must be some books out there about what it means to be American. If not, YOU should totally sit down with her and write a children's book for every expat family out there. That would be super cool Jill.

Natalie said...

Identity is such a hard thing for a six year old. I'll tell you what I told my daughter. Some kid at school called her a name that upset her. We talked about how names can hurt but that she knew the name wasn't true. The she asked me "But what am I, Mom?" BIG question. I told her that because she's little she can decide who and what she wants to be, that she's so lucky to be aware that she has choices, and to be an American so she has more choices than so many people, especially women. We talked about how the names for her are the names she decides to accept for herself and try to become. Of course it's not that easy, is it? However, I tried to at least plant the idea. If being Jewish is important to her then it's great you'll help her figure out what that means to her to be.

G in Berlin said...

I'm in the same situation, of course, with my husband having far less deep rooted connection. We send our kids to a very frum school, far more frum than we are, in hopes of inculcating the feeling. That was a hard decision, because Americans here all go to the (free) American-German school and it had a negative impact on my (and our) social life. But we thought it important. Also, I know I mentioned this before, but the new AG doll was extremely helpful: a Jewish immigrant family on the Lwer East side. That's helped a lot with explaining religion versus nationality and minority versus majority and my girls love the books.

Robin said...

If it helps, my Israeli-American 8 year old doesn't really get it either. All he knows, I mean really knows, from living rather than from occasional month-long trips back to the US, is that Israelis are Jewish and Americans are not. He had (okay, still has) a lot of trouble understanding that our own family is Jewish, not Israeli, and American. He sees "Jewish" as a synonym for Israeli, a nationality rather than a religion.

It's a tough concept for a kid, especially one whose experience is out of the mainstream.

Michelle said...

When we were in Israel, John thought we were Jewish and since we still celebrate holidays with Eric and Erin, John is still a little at odds with religion. One morning after church, Chris and I were talking about the service and John yelled from the back seat, "Can we all stop talking about God now!". John also thought for a long time that he was Israeli and he still tells people, "Yesterday, in Israel..." I just asked John what country he was from and he told me, "Virginia." It has gotten better since we've moved back, but it's not perfect. You are an awesome mom and a great Jewish mom at that! Just experiencing your love of religion has rubbed off on her enough that she knows that she IS Jewish. Now the challenge is to get her to understand how American's can be any religion. The experiences you and Matt have given the kids are priceless. You'll find a way to share that with her and impart your cultural heritage at the same time ;o) xoxoxoxxo

Kat said...

Many adults have a hard time with identity - I can't imagine trying to help your 6 year old come to some sort of conclusion about her own :-)

As for American history - have you looked at The History of US by Joy Hakim? It is rather readable - and maybe just slightly above your daughter's level. But maybe you all could do it as a family.

Christy said...

Wow....I wish you the best of luck figuring this one out. I'm sure you've thought of it, but perhaps you could homeschool the Sunday School? And you said there are a few other Jewish families around...maybe you could all go in on that together? As if you need YET another responsibility though...

I do hope you find a solution. AND I hope we hear about what you make for the American booth for the UN day at school. That sounds like fun!

Naomi said...

Wow is right. I like P's idea of writing a book.

Honestly - no matter if there already IS one out there, write it anyway.

That might be the very best way to solve the issue ... write it for her (and the rest of the kiddos struggling with that).

My 14 year old has an American Studies class in 9th grade here in Delhi and their FIRST assignment (in a classroom full of ALL nationalities) was to describe "What it means to be an American."

Big wow there too ... the discussions that took place amongst these "wanna be adults" was insane!

I should ask if I can use his essay as a blog post ... hmmm.

Hope you give considerable thought to writing that children's book!

Trysha said...

Wow! I was linked here from OHMommy's twitter stream. Those are great suggestions in the comments! Is there a family member or friend who she could pen pal with about this? Someone who could write to her about their day at Hebrew school or how they celebrated a holiday? That's all I've got as far as ideas go. Good luck!

Crystal said...

I agree, Jill, you should write a book! I think it is such a broad definition that it cannot be summed up quickly.
Being an American is not one ethnicity, one religion, one set of political views, or even living in one geographic location. I believe it is a people who are truly the 'melting pot' blending together for the greater good. Our freedoms are truly what define us, people may define as this or that. But what are we?
We are a free mass of humanity who have arrived here from various locations by different means of transportation at different times. Some of us arrived free, some endentured, some slaves, some barely clinging to life, others with every benefit and still others with nothing at all. We are a people like no other, commonly we respect others differences even though the world may say otherwise. I believe we should always be proud of our ability to disagree and still be brothers and sisters. We can worship who we want, live where we want, be friends and neighbors with all. I guess I would define us as a people who value freedom and liberty for all. I will get off my soapbox now. Please Jill, write a book. I would really enjoy it!!!
I also wonder if you can order things and supplement your kids religious education I think that would help also. I know it is not the same as having a group of people who share your faith meeting together. I also know that you are so busy, but I bet you would really enjoy it! Thanks for making me think on this Wednesday. I like to be challenged : )

Crystal said...

I agree, Jill, you should write a book! I think it is such a broad definition that it cannot be summed up quickly.
Being an American is not one ethnicity, one religion, one set of political views, or even living in one geographic location. I believe it is a people who are truly the 'melting pot' blending together for the greater good. Our freedoms are truly what define us, people may define as this or that. But what are we?
We are a free mass of humanity who have arrived here from various locations by different means of transportation at different times. Some of us arrived free, some endentured, some slaves, some barely clinging to life, others with every benefit and still others with nothing at all. We are a people like no other, commonly we respect others differences even though the world may say otherwise. I believe we should always be proud of our ability to disagree and still be brothers and sisters. We can worship who we want, live where we want, be friends and neighbors with all. I guess I would define us as a people who value freedom and liberty for all. I will get off my soapbox now. Please Jill, write a book. I would really enjoy it!!!
I also wonder if you can order things and supplement your kids religious education I think that would help also. I know it is not the same as having a group of people who share your faith meeting together. I also know that you are so busy, but I bet you would really enjoy it! Thanks for making me think on this Wednesday. I like to be challenged : )

Kirsten said...

You should definitely write a book.

I struggle with similar issues with my kids. We are a mixed race family and my kids don't really have any religion in their lives. I was raised Lutheran and even went to a Lutheran college. Some time after college I lost my religious fervor. Then I met my Indian husband and never really found my way back to church. Now I wonder where this leaves my children? I also worry about how they feel about themselves as biracial kids in a very waspy town.

I've gone off on a tangent here, but your post has really made me think. I also like Christy's idea of teaching a Sunday school type class for your kids. Just don't let it interfere with your blogging time.

Duster said...

What about having an American History course for kids? The Japanese have their own school after school and so do the French and Koreans....

The American School in Chennai is really an international school. It is not for Americans; so that is why the American History is not strong.

Sunday school would be great. Maybe even open to people of other cultures. I mean "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat" is in the Torah but spoke to millions of all nationalities...just a thought in hot Chennai--they don't come too often.

American in Norway said...

Good luck... Wish I had some advice... I haven't gotten to the American thing with Eva yet... Although she thinks I am Norwegian because I speak the language... Dane on the other hand says hes American FIRST... but that has to do with the fact that he spent the first 6 years of his life living in the states...

Teresa said...

Sounds like she is at the stage where she is just beginning to define her identity; it's not set in stone yet. All kids go through it though. We face it head-on because Levi is Kazak-American, and of course when Esther was living with us, we were a tri-racial family. We really strive to teach our kids that whatever they consider themselves, we are proud of them, and they should feel special to be of such a unique heritage.
I think it is a tribute to your parenting that she identifies herself as Jewish. She's just not fully figured out the differences between religion, ethnicity, patriotic identity, etc.
As a child I moved all over the US (military), but found my strength and identity in my parent's hometown, which we visited every summer. This is why I keep tons of ancestral photos on the walls, talk about our family's history, and take my children back to that ancestral hometown (which unbelievably, hasn't changed!) as often as I can. My roots were there, despite the fact that I only lived there for a few months. Moving abroad as a young adult further defined my sense of identity, as I discovered that you learn much more about yourself when you are out of your cultural comfort zone.
You might find it helpful (and easy) to approach the subject of "american" through your family's roots - your ancestor's stories can be powerful teaching tools of what it means to be American.
The literature on international adoption also has a lot to say about a child's concept of identity. It has definite stages, like when they first realize that they are a boy or a girl, progressing on to realizing that they are a different race, etc. It's definitely an evolutionary process, so you've got lots of time. :)

Teresa said...

PS I really, really hate the "rich" part of the label here. :) Because I'm NOT rich in my mind....and no one believes it!

Susie said...

I will always believe that the benefits of global living are huge for our kids. But we'd be remiss not to always hold it in our minds that it creates a host of issues for our babies. Sure, they'd have issues if they were raised around people just like them (I was and I do), but our kids have different issues, and sometimes they're a little harder to tackle.
Kudos to you for attempting to figure it out! Good luck and fill us in on all the answers :) Mine are young, and I'll need help.

Lisa said...

Oh man....that's tough. You are a great mom to be thinking through this & wanting to do what is right instead of what is easy. Keep us updated.
PS - Sorry I haven't checked in in a while. As you know, life is busy w/ 3!!!

Brooke Stoneman said...

Jill - I read this post out loud to my husband. It was so thoughtful and thought provoking. Helping to create an "American" identity in our children while living abroad is something I think a lot about.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts develop on this.

Duster said...

Can we put on the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" here in Chennai with the kids?

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