International Families

“You are still young, free. Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late.”
―Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

How international is your family? Do you have personal knowledge about whether the United States is better described as a Melting Pot or a Tossed Salad?

The small Midwestern town I grew up in seemed quite homogeneous and “vanilla.” Only later did I realize my home town had an unusual concentration of Slavic, Welsh, and Scottish names. Since no one knew the word ethnic in the 50’s and 60’s, we just knew that people ate different things for the holidays, and some families had many more letters in their names than others.

But perhaps your parents came here from another culture and you were among the first in your family to grow up in the States. That might have put you in a peculiar position as a little adult translating words or expectations you knew about from your peers for your less attuned parents. (Jhumpa Lahiri, now of Cambridge, is eloquent on the problems of juggling Bengali heritage with US adolescence in The Namesake.)

Or perhaps you are half of an international couple. Two adults meet and bond across unknown divides of expectations; surprising differences can continue to arise from the suitcases of your pasts without warning. Expand your horizons to include parents from different worlds and children forging a new unified world as they go, and it is hard to describe the world you all inhabit.

Perhaps you are part of a family which has moved internationally several times. Or one member of your family is away (on active military duty, for example) for extended periods of time. Both of these experiences provide intense opportunities or requirements for families to cope with international variations and realities. These can become crucibles for learning and bonding because of (or in spite of) the challenges faced.

Adding new foods to household menus builds bridges between cultures.Photo by Kornwa

Adding new foods to household menus builds bridges between cultures.
Photo by Kornwa

Or perhaps you became an international family through adoption. That is our story. On some levels the question of whether you have an international relationship between adoptive parents and children can be moot. Parents are not required to accommodate an infant’s cultural expectations; there are none. But in my experience most parents try to incorporate some part of the child’s culture into their family life. The story of the application, the travel, first meeting, and the special things purchased during travel all become part of the child’s Story and should be treasured as much as any child’s arrival accounts. Food is another aspect of culture which is easy to introduce. Consistently the child learns that his or her country of origin is a safe and easy topic for discussion.

One question for all these constellations of people is what about travel to the cultures of origin? Who plans the trips? Who sets the priorities? When is the best time?

You will not be surprised to hear that I think travel to experience other cultures is a Good Thing. There are better and worse ways and times for making the first trip, though. Especially with international adoptions, the trip should happen at a favorable time for the young people involved. Individual preferences and needs should rule the plan.

While checking the spelling of the author’s name, I came across her very apt observation about the peculiar condition of living in a culture not your own:

“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy — a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.”
        ― Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

There is a great deal to discuss in the situations I describe. I would love to hear your comments about “lifelong pregnancies” you have known!

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

4 April 2013

About Travel Unites

A travel agent since 1994, I want people to get together for greater understanding across boundaries.
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135 Responses to International Families

  1. Pingback: International Families | serenaabenteuer

  2. Terie Kay says:

    Reblogged this on Resort & Luxury Real Estate, Co. and commented:
    An interesting perspective.

  3. Wonderful Read. Appreciating and sharing culture is at the core of my beliefs, and what better way to embrace one’s culture than with food.
    How true is your statement that “adding new foods to household menus builds bridges between cultures.”

  4. Pingback: International Families | Treasure From Afar

  5. Always glad to read a blog promoting cross-cultural understanding!

  6. I loved the Namesake…both the book and the movie Jane. I’m an Indian who moved to Copenhagen, Denmark a year ago. I love Copenhagen all that it offers. Yet, having come from a melting pot of cultures and contradictions, sometimes there’s a certain uneasiness living in a homogeneous state.

    I hope to share with my 3-year old a love for her own culture while being open to experiencing others.

  7. deedefacto says:

    I’m a foreigner where i live at this moment and the description of a lifelong pregnancy fits perfectly, although a pregnancy is something that people in some cases would actually look forward to. In my personal opinion it’s like falling down the rabbit hole and as we all know, Wonderland isn’t all it’s cut out to be.

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  9. inidna says:

    I was one of those kids who grew up internationally and have never lived in my own birth country (not long enough for me to remember anything as an infant anyway). Growing up as such, surrounded by countless nationalities and always experiencing new things, I am a big believer in the importance of being receptive to and respecting of other cultures. Great post to have stumbled across 🙂

  10. Interesting reading, I like what you wrote! good job 😉

  11. schjerlund12 says:

    I’m one of them, who have grown up with hollydays, where we travel in foreign countries. Therefore it’s very distant for me, when some of my friends say, that they never have left our residency. But is it then selfish of me to think, that to travel to Europa is not enough? Because I want to see the rest of the world, and right I have something with the Asian culture, so why not go there? Well, cause it too expensive- but I guess, that we all have a dream to go somewhere else, because it’s a good thing!

  12. Enjoyable read! Our family came together as my husband traveled from South Africa to study in the US… We now have 3 beautifully and wonderfully made children …proudly an international family… Thanks so much for sharing

  13. I can’t imagine not living in an international world. My international friends outnumber my British friends maybe 4-1! My boyfriend is Mexican, whose ancestry comes from Aztec and mainland Spain, mine – we’ll I’m blonde but we have trouble locating that in the family. We know so many mixed-nationality couples, French-Mexican, Mexican-German, Spanish-French, British-Colombian, British-Portuguese… I did grow up on holidays to France and Belgium, and we never ventured further. I hesitate to ask my Mom about this for fear of her feeling like I am accusing her. But now I have friends all over the world, and when we talk about raising children here, Daniel and I, we agree on a Spanish-speaking household, open to everything!
    I love it now and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

  14. Our family is somewhat international. I was born in Azerbaijan, to a Russian dad and Armenian mom, and am now married to an American of Scottish and English descent. I’ve had a lot of fun watching my husband try out all the different Russian and Armenian recipes that he’s never before tried until we got married. I think he has become much more open-minded about a lot of things in life, as he never imagined as a born-and-raised Midwestern boy that someday he’d marry a Russian and be eating herring salads!!

  15. Also, that epilogue/quote is making me panic that I am wasting too much time not traveling…

  16. Mona says:

    Interesting write-up there. I personally love Jhumpa Lahiri’s works. You should try reading her short stories collection “Interpreter of Maladies”.

    • I have read “Unaccustomed Earth” and really enjoyed it. It’s funny how the life stories of her characters sort of meld together after the first few stories. Similar background and issues in the strange new culture. Thanks for writing.

  17. louvellemarie says:

    This post hits home for me–especially the comment about sharing food as a way to bridge cultures. I am half-Filipina, half-Bengali, born in Canada, have lived in 4 other countries around the world and now married to an American of German descent. Am struggling with him accepting the cultural traditions I grew up with and those I accumulated overseas–introducing new foods included! His reasoning being that “you are in America now and should live like an American”. He is slowly coming around but this attitude is shocking and sad when there is so much to be experienced and enjoyed from other cultures. I hope that I experience the same open-mindedness as russianmartini has with her husband.

    • What does your husband consider “American food”? I hope he allows for more than MacDonalds!? Even “American” food is a huge mixture of foods which did not originate here — pizza, spaghetti, tacos, sausages of so many types, and so on. He will come around — especially if the food is tasty!Thank you for writing 🙂

  18. Pingback: International Families | Una White Girl

  19. swaldchen says:

    Hi, I loved your article. Your subject is very dear to me and important. I have always lived outside of my own country and always mixed with the international crowd in each of the countries I’ve lived in. To me the experience has mostly been enriching and I am happy and proud to be able to adopt customs from cultures I like and reject the ones that I don’t like. It is not being a foreigner that makes me uncomfortable, but being in my so called ‘native country’ and not feeling at home, even though everyone speaks my language. I do feel more foreign there then I do in countries where I actually am a foreigner. The reason for this is that somehow one expects to feel ‘at home’ in their native country, but it takes so much more than just the language to feel at home somewhere. There are certain things there that make me feel that I could actually fit in pretty easily, but then I have built a life somewhere else and being a foreigner is ‘natural’ to me.
    I married an equally ‘mixed guy’, who grew up in various countries as well. Not only do we have a different nationality and background, but also a different religion (I’m christian, he’s Jewish). As we both are non-practicing this is not a problem and we have moved together to Spain, a country we both like. We now have a little boy, who is growing up with three languages and has started to express himself in all of them already. I wonder what he will say one day, when he is asked where he is from! In my opinion this kind of mix is the future! It instills tolerance and acceptance of differences. I have just started my own blog on translation, but it really is more about culture and language. Thank you. I’m sure your child will one day appreciate your efforts to incorporate his/her culture into your lives!

  20. Very interesting piece!

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