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.