“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.
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