Duality

When I was nineteen years-old, I flew to the U. S. as a freshman in college. I had only seen my university in brochures and through the photos on its website. I had only conversed with the people in the international admissions office via email (except for the recruiter who persuaded me to go to Grand Valley State University). I had no idea of how empty my room in the shared apartment was going to be nor did I anticipated the need for kitchenware and food and anything else other than the provided bed and mattress.

Nonetheless, I was excited and happy to be there. The campus was beautiful, green and filled with summertime flowers and sounds of nature. I met the rest of the international students who had come the same year as I did, the day after as we started our orientation. Standing in line with people from every continent, I felt so different and at the same time so connected to them. I did not know it fifteen years ago, but my new life began then.

Having the opportunity to attend college in a foreign country was a challenge that in so many ways, I was not ready to confront. At the same time, learning how to navigate the syllabuses, schedules, pressure and new culture, gave me a kind of internal strength, that I doubt anything else would have ever given me. I became confident as I was able to find answers to the many hows and how comes; as I overcame obstacles on my own, without my parents’ help.

Living in a different culture helped me reaffirm the things that I liked about my own, but it also helped me question so many traditions and parts of myself that had been a part of me more out of routine than because I believed in them. Surrounding myself with my fellow international students helped me learn about so many different views about one issue all at once.

The adventure of attending college in the U.S. was an enriching one; however, it wasn’t always gratifying nor easy to maneuver. I experienced reject, racism and prejudice for the first time in my life. Not all classmates were thrilled of having someone with an accent as a partner in projects. Barely anyone talked to me in the classrooms. Arriving to class filled with freshmen was the equivalent to staying in your room by yourself. I found it baffling that not a single person would say hello or good morning as they sat by you. There were no invitations to coffee or lunch after class (as it would happen in my native Mexico). I found that very hard and started to feel isolated. I found solace in my group of international student friends. Many of whom were as shocked as me by the lack of interaction between students in the classrooms.

As the semesters passed by, I developed friendships with some students with whom I had more than a class with, with the professors who took an especial interest in me and with my co-workers. More and more, I felt like I had carved myself a place in college and in my new surroundings. Yet, I longed for getting my degree and going back to Mexico, to my life there.

Along the way, I was charmed by a wonderful international student from Lebanon. Our love for each other was so deep that early on in the relationship, we both knew that we were going to get married. When we decided to get together, I knew that I was saying goodbye to Mexico for good. But when I was with him, nothing else mattered.

And so we embarked in the little-known world of getting a sponsor to give you a work visa. Then, after years of uncertainty and hefty lawyer fees, we jumped from the work visa to a green card. We bought a house, we had children and when we realized it, we had been living in the U.S. for longer than a decade.

Our personalities have morphed so many times that we were unrecognizable in our home countries, our believes had been shaped by our experiences in our host country and the many cultures that we had come in contact with. We had found a duality in our being that only people who live abroad can understand.

It is a bit odd to find that you are a dual being. I love where I come from and have deep roots in Mexico. I’m proud of its colors, music, flavors, history and the ease in which friendship flows from one person to the next. At the same time, the more time that I have spent in Michigan, the more that I have learned to love its nature, cities, freedom and easy-going way of life. I have made such great friends here that I now feel just at home.

It is easier to explain this sense of duality with the analogy of a tree with deep and strong roots. Without them, the tree would not stand tall. The roots represent my upbringing in Mexico. But this tree needs the right kind of soil to grow stronger and feel grounded and enriched. This soil is my husband and the sense of belonging that him and I have forged for each other and our children. The tree would not be much without its ever-reaching branches and leaves. That is what my host country had been for me. Every teaching moment a new branch. Every life-changing experience a set of leaves. I could not be the woman that I am today without my both nations vibrating underneath my skin. I am roots and branches. I am this duality. 

A month ago I found myself standing tall in a new line of people from 31 different countries. All with our different believes and religions, all with roots from different places, but all of us with our hearts beaming with excitement as we prepared to become U.S. citizens. Nearly fifteen years had passed but I took the oath of citizenship with the same pride that I had come to the U.S. as an international student to break stereotypes, to challenge and be challenged. Tears of joy streamed down my face as I sung God Bless America while holding my eldest daughter’s hand. I finally had a voice. I finally would be able to make decisions for my children and my family in the way of a vote. I finally felt that I had a right to defend our believes. I finally had become a dual citizen.

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Back from my Sabathical

Wow! It’s seems like an eternity has passed since the last time I wrote anything on this blog. Life does get crazy as you add more little peeps to the family.

The last months of my pregnancy with number 3; the fast, happy an emotional first months with a new baby; and then the start of the school year have gotten the best of me.

I have no idea how the “I have to write a post about that this week” has come to a “I should finally write anything at some point this month”.

But alas, here I am with a laundry list of ideas to write about, my phone and internet connection at the hair salon. Right now is as good of a time as any to make a comeback đŸ˜‰

Out of all the things that are circling my mind right now, the one that keeps coming back is the great feeling of fellowship and belonging that I have experienced A LOT recently.

If you just moved to the US -or far away from home anywhere for that matter- please take this piece of advice to heart: if you find someone that you have more than a couple things in common with and who makes you feel important, and loved, and happy, and that you are not the only odd ball, do whatever it takes to foster that friendship!

Throughout my now 12 years living in Michigan, I have met wonderful people who have changed my world and who have made me appreciate friendship as the best gift that a person can offer you. Among the amazing people who have and are currently accompanying me through life, are the Latin American women that over time have become more than a playgroup, my family abroad.

Today I want to write about them. About the special friendship that happens when you meet someone from your home country or from the region of the world where you understand the cultural nuances, language and traditions.

I have written about this friendship before but never before than through pregnancy and the welcoming of new babies to the group, I felt so happy to have this safety net, this support group that makes me feel that at least when we are together, when we are at each other’s homes, we have a little piece of our Mexico, Chile, Paraguay, and Spain, right here in person and through hugs and uninhibited love.

When I am surrounded by my “Latinas” I’m not afraid to mispronounce things in English, to laugh loudly and love hard, to parent my children without second guessing if certain reactions are socially acceptable. I’m not afraid to be 100% me with my biculturalism and Spanglish.

We simply understand each other’s experiences and fights with the darn voice command functions of cars and phones, which can never seem to get our accents when we speak. We know what it feels to be homesick for a tradition or a food we can’t have and try to keep as much as our culture alive for our children. We know the expectations; the “rules of etiquette” pertaining to each celebration (because boy! It’s hard to know how to act in so many situations at our current home); we kiss and hug and argue and make up; we sigh together thinking about the next time we will be able to see our extended families; and we keep each other company during festivities and the important moments in our lives.

Simply put, they bring out the part of me that goes into hibernation when I’m observing and learning how things work around here.

So the bottom line is: if you live abroad you have to find two kinds of friend; the local ones who teach you to navigate and love the foreign country you are at; and the ones from your country or culture who are also expats and go through the same kinds of socially awkward “adventures” as you learn how to behave in your new habitat.

Closing The Year With Friends Who Are Like Family

It’s been a long time since my last post so before beginning to write for the year 2014, I wanted to do a recap of the most important things that happened as we closed the year 2013.

Earlier in Fall, I wrote a post about how hard it is for children to spend some fabulous time with friends of the family who don’t live close by, and then have to say good-bye. However, I wanted to talk about how wonderful it is for them to finally meet in person some of the people who are constantly checking on them since I was pregnant with them and who are far from us physically.

This Thanksgiving we were thrilled to have my friend from Boston (the one that I often write about having a very special connection with even when we see each other in person every 3-5 years) as well as her family and another good friend of the both of us and her family. The three of us met in Costa Rica when we moved from Mexico and Colombia respectively, and though we only finished high school together, we have remained friends despite the distance and time.

It was very special to have them over the house that has seen my marriage evolve and where we brought both of our children as babies. But even more special, was for me to introduce my children to some of the most important friends in my life and to their children. Having them over was like having extended family around. Seeing the children interact happily with each other made me feel as if they had cousins here for the holidays. Though, my children were a little sad when we said good-bye, my 3.5-year-old showed me that she’s learning to have loved ones in the distance when she told them: “come back soon.”

By living in a different country than that of both of our extended families, my husband and I have to make the extra effort of making video-conference dates with them and constantly show them photos of our families and pointing out the presents that they receive from each of them. We want them to be global citizens but we also want them to have a connection with the people who care about them the most. So far, the familiarity with which they interact with our close friends and family when they are with them in person, has proven that our efforts pay off.

Another thing that we have to take into account when raising our family in a foreign country, is that our nostalgia and longing for our home countries and their traditions -especially around the holidays- should not be transmitted to the children in a sad or negative fashion. After all, they are just beginning to understand and follow our very own family traditions and by being sad on Christmas Eve when we call our families, we only make their holiday a sad one. That is why, this year, we decided to have a party with another 2 families that found themselves in the same situation than ours. It was the best gift that we could have given each other! Celebrating the holidays with friends who are almost like family made all of us very happy, including the children who again, had some friends playing the role of cousins, next to them.

We closed the year feeling very happy and proving once more that not because we are not with family in this country, we have to spend the special times in our lives alone. There are always friends around us who will always be like family.

 

Festivities and Traditions as the Perfect Ways to Teach Multiculturalism

One of the things that my husband and I totally agree on is the fact that we want our children to be raised in a multicultural environment. This means that we purposefully include bits and pieces of the Lebanese and Mexican culture that we each were raised in but also of the US one that we have adapted to live in (and the one our children were born into).

Aside from food, music and books from these three main cultures, we also include things from other cultures that for some reason have a meaning in our lives. So we read to them about the world and the different traditions; we eat at many different ethnic restaurants; whenever possible we point out a traditional dress or language. We try to make them aware as much as possible that there are different ways to live and act and that they can chose the parts that they like to include in their little worlds.

Being a spectator isn’t enough, however. For multiculturalism to flourish inside of our children’s hearts, it is indispensable for them to connect with each of the different cultures we have at home so that later is them who are using more than one language in their speech, or ask for a specific dish to eat, or for a certain song to be played (we can only influence them so much, right?).

I think that one of the best ways to offer that connectivity with a culture that isn’t the mainstream one, is to celebrate the different festivities around traditions. The food, music and actions involved into celebrating a tradition are easy visual things in which children can participate and enjoy, giving them an opportunity to be a part of something that they will remember.

The last three months of the year bring the perfect activities to start mixing cultures as we celebrate festivities like Halloween and Day of the Dead, Thanksgiving and Christmas with the traditional foods of different places. Going to pick apples and decorating pumpkins while eating Bread of the Dead and drinking Mexican hot chocolate or having a Lebanese meal after decorating sugar skulls for Day of the Dead. Thanksgiving dinner is filled with nontraditional dishes around the important turkey. And during Christmas we take turns baking and cooking traditional dishes from Lebanon and Mexico but listening to songs in English and including some classic movies that both my husband and I have adopted into our traditions.

It sounds like a lot of planning, but it really isn’t because once you have become a multicultural couple, adding and including parts of different cultures is just as natural as being together.

The Music of Languages

This week my husband and I joined a group of friends at a Pink Martini concert. If you don’t know who am I talking about, you should add them to your Pandora and have a relaxing, up-beat time next time you are making dinner. I really enjoy their music, but what I like the most is the fact that they sing in many different languages.

At Monday’s concert we heard them sing in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Italian and Croatian (how cool is that?)! And something that gets me pretty excited is to be able to follow their songs in my mind as the switches of the different languages I know turn on and off in my brain following the tempo of the music.

This little dance of words that happened inside me transported me to an afternoon this spring when we were hanging out with some friends in France. They were the couple with children of whom I talked about in my previous post. Both are French but they also speak German, Spanish and English fluently. For us it was most natural to speak to them in English through the day but then they took us to the house of one of their relatives where the mom of one of them along with her cousin and the husband of the cousin welcomed us for a little drink.

As we came in we were greeted in Spanish but with kisses in both cheeks (in the European fashion). I soon discovered that our hosts had been to Mexico and we talked a little bit about my country mixing French and Spanish in the sentences like audacious DJ’s; but then, as to include my friend’s mother into the conversation, we switched to Franglais (a mix of French and English). The seven of us ended up playing the musical notes of an international composition in which language barriers didn’t matter. Somehow, we all understood each other and enjoyed a little time of laughter crossing the borders of space and grammar.

It is joyful moments such as this that lead me to place so much energy and effort into making sure my children are citizens of the world -able to have the music of many languages and cultures intertwined in their little heads.

The Shock of Cultural Transformation

My heart has been boiling the whole week with the desire of touching the keyboard and get all what has been trapped inside me since the last time I wrote. I had been very loyal to this blog up until this past month when my reintegration to the American culture brought mixed emotions into my life once again.

I was dying to pour a fountain of words into the cyberspace but the busyness of reestablishing oneself at home and relearning the habit of the children’s activities kept me away from my computer, forcing me to seat back and let things brew inside my head. I guess it wasn’t all that bad that I had to wait to finally get the time to write this, because this time around, I had the chance to live the situation in its different stages before reflecting on it.

Back in April I was worried about how my 2-year-old was going to react when seeing herself back at her home and without all the loving people that she had learned to need while we were in Mexico. I didn’t know if the language or cultural differences were going to be shocking for her and though, she went through a little readjustment the first week, she did astonishingly well. Her cultural metamorphosis was almost painless and the language differences did not bother her at all.

To my surprise, I was the one going through culture shock, having feelings of inadequacy. I did not feel like I fit in. I missed the way of life in my country. The old friends and their proximity. The kisses on the cheek when greeting each other. The touch of the warm Latin American culture on my skin.

I know there are people out there who feel or have felt exactly the way that I do so I hope that this reaches them so they can write back with their experiences, some advice or, at the very least, the comfort of knowing that I’m not the only one. What I’m talking about is that achiness brought by the transformation that one has to endure when crossing international borders and going to our “other world.”

I’m sure that everyone has seen at least a Sci-Fi movie where there is a time portal or something of the like where the character has to cross a sticky mass that looks like jello, which seems to adhere to your skin, to get to a different time or place. That is exactly how I feel when “crossing” between my two worlds -the one in my suburban corner of the US and the one in my busy metropolitan area of Mexico. It is as if when going from one country to the other, a part of me was trapped in that sticky mass leaving the social codes of the other country on its side of the portal.

I remember in college hearing about reverse culture shock. Something that happens when you have been at a host country (in my case the US) for a long period of time embracing it’s culture, and then returning to the home country. The home country is now the one that feels foreign to you. Every time I travel from my home to my birth place, culture shock and reverse culture shock are present. I just don’t know which kind of shock I feel where.

It is confusing and at times painful but simply something that us who live away from our home land have to go through. I am glad that the feelings of inadequacy and not belonging do not linger for long. They are just part of the cultural metamorphosis one must go through to adapt to the new (or not so new) living conditions. As days go by and our local friends show us their care and understanding, the transformation gets easier and we find our place back at our home.

Hopefully next time we jump borders, I am better equipped to build a strong cocoon to protect me from the mental ailments of culture shock.

No Longer An Alien!

I thought I was never going to be able to write this post but today I can finally say that both my husband and I are legal residents of the United States of America.

I know, for many, that statement has no much value but for us it means FREEDOM. The freedom to travel outside of the US; the freedom to work anywhere we want; the freedom to reject job offers because we no longer depend on a work visa; the freedom to go to school paying in-state tuition and taking as many or as few classes as we want; the freedom to stop worrying about what tomorrow may bring in terms of our livelihood.

Finally being Green Card holders means that my husband finally gets to go home and see his mom (and the rest of his family) after 10 years; that I finally get to meet the important people in his life in person, and see where he grew up. It means that I don’t have to miss any more weddings and special events of my family and friends back in Mexico because I no longer need to go the the US consulate and apply for a visa every time I leave the country. It means that we can finally start planning vacations in places that we have always dreamed of and saved for.

If you just met me, you don’t know the many years we waited for this; the different immigration lawyers that we needed to use, the ridiculous amount of money spent on this and all what I personally had to give up in order to fulfill my husband’s number one goal when coming to this country. But those who know all what was put into this know how overwhelmingly happy we are!

These news are so absolutely great that we don’t even know how to react to them. I just know that today I get to start planning all what I had patiently waited for. Today is going to be a great day.

When The New Friend Leaves

Through this first year of motherhood I have talked in numerous occasions of how hard it is to make friends as an adult and of course, as a stay-at-home-mom. Luckily, there are always programs in the community, like Baby Time at the local library, where you can find fine candidates to become friends with.

I met three ladies with babies more or less the same age than mine, all who seemed to be going through the same things than I was, who were actively looking for friendships, and two of them are pregnant with their second child just like me. We had many things in common so very naturally, we formed a little playgroup and we started getting together even outside of the library activities.

I got especially close with one of them. It has been great having another first-time-mom from out of town to call and who’s available at any time. Her baby and mine love playing together (or at least they only fight for toys occasionally) and she’s just the type of person who you can talk to about everything and anything and the conversation never dries out. It’s been great meeting her but now that her husband found another job in another city and they are moving away, I can’t help it but to feel very sad.

Over the last eight years -the time that I’ve spent in this city- I have made many close friends but it seems that the closer that I get with someone, the sooner that person ends up moving away. It feels like a great loss, especially when I was used to seeing them on a weekly basis. But such is life and nobody knows where she’ll end up at. Who knows, I may be the one moving away at some point.

Good bye new friend, I will miss you.

International Frienships That Last Through The Years

Everybody should have at least one special friend who they can share EVERYTHING with and who can understand them completely. I am very lucky to have a few of such friends but I think the one who gets me the most is my friend currently living in Toronto. Her life and mine are so similar, yet so different that she can always understand my perspective and offer me new views for every situation.

We met in Costa Rica, though we both grew up in Mexico. Not only did we share many things that related us from our lives in our home country but we also lived many experiences in our new school that brought us very close together. It is funny but at the end of our only year together, we both ended up moving to an English-speaking country to start our college education. Since then, we have never been at the same place other that to visit each other.

It’s been more than nine years since we met and we definitely had our rough patches, but her friendship is one of the most valuable I have ever had in my life. To this day, whenever I have something important to tell someone, if she isn’t the first one I call, she’s definitely among the first.

I don’t care we don’t see each other often, or that it has been 2 years since we last had a cup of coffee in the same room, her and I have a very special connection that makes sharing anything with her as easy as with myself. It is perhaps because our paths draw so many parallels like falling in love with a foreigner while studying abroad later to marry him. Or like having to be content with a job that wasn’t our dream job just because it provided a work visa or something to do for ourselves while our husbands built their careers. Or, perhaps the fact that we are both the nerdy, intellectual type combined with an eternal romanticism that makes us hard for others to understand but perfect for each other to connect.

Maybe it is the fact that we were born only one day apart. I don’t know, but the truth is that even though she decided to get a masters degree while I chose the path of motherhood, we still have the rare ability to relate to each other like we can with no one else.

It’s just that when I tell her I’m homesick, she not only knows the word, she knows the burning feeling inside one’s soul because she also feels it at times. When I tell her that not earning an income makes me feel like I’m betraying all the feminists before my time who made education and careers possible for women, she gets me because she’s had days like that too. And when I share with her my fears of not being able to find myself as an individual after being a housewife and stay-at-home-mom, she understands because even though she hasn’t been through it, she has the almost magical ability of walking on my shoes through every situation.

It would be great if all the special people in my life could live close to me, in the same city, but choosing the path of global citizenship is one that inevitably brings us closer to someone only to draws apart (at least physically speaking) from someone else. It’s hard not to share in person life’s special moments with the people who care for you the most, but at least we can count ourselves lucky of living in the era of free Skype and international social networks that allow us to keep in touch, with whom we can’t always hug.

For Money or For Love

Recently, I decided to continue my research on raising bilingual (or multilingual) children and it got me thinking about what exactly it is that I want to get out of that. The book Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson made me think about this deeply because of its segment called for Money or for Love. Here, the author explains how some parents see that being fluent in more than one language has financial benefits like being able to land a job that is not available to monolinguals. I thought that had not happened to me yet, but then I began thinking that if I was not bilingual I would not had been able to attend college in the US and later worked in this country, so I guess, Zurer Pearson is right about that practical advantage.

Zurer Pearson goes on explaining how for other parents, the importance of raising bilingual children is not related to a career at all but rather to the necessity of having a connection with their extended families who still live in their home countries and to have a special bond with their children at home.

After thinking about these two possibilities, I have come to the conclusion that I want my children to be multilingual both for money and for love. I want them to be able to have the careers they want and not to be limited by the amount of languages they speak but I also want them to be able to relate to their families abroad without being outsiders or tourist in their own countries.

I got very excited about the possibility of raising multilingual children for both money and love after watching the movie Tortilla Soup (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0255653/). A film of a family that could very well be like mine. The father is a first generation immigrant from Mexico who has made the effort to teach his children both cultures and languages. The three grown women represent what I want for my children: they are fluent in two cultures and languages having a good mix of the values of both their Mexican heritage and their American influence.

I was even more motivated to do all what I can to teach my children about their heritage especially after watching the character of one of the daughters who is a successful business woman working with people from all over the world and who even gets an offer to work in Spain. I really want my children to have no boundaries when it comes to choosing what part of the world to pursue a career at.

But I also want them to have a connection and share what their dad and I are. To understand the jokes of each culture, to be able to sound native, in summary, to be a citizen of not only the US but of Lebanon and Mexico too. I again thought about a movie, The Namesake (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0433416/). The film tells the story of the typical immigrant family from India: the man was here working, he had an arranged marriage back in India, and later brought his bride to live here in the US and start a family here.

The movie is sad because the loneliness that the woman experiences at the beginning of their life together reminds me of a neighbor we had when we were living in an apartment complex. She had left everything she knew to be with a man who she did not know at all and to top that, in a country completely different than the one she grew up at. The man would go to work, and she would find herself home alone and so nostalgic that is hard not to relate to her.

Later on in the film, the couple has children and moves into a neighborhood where many Indian families reside so things get better for them as they find some connection to home. But then, one of the things that frightens me the most happens. As the children grow up, they do not want to speak their parents’ native tongue and they want to run away from their traditional values as far away as they can. When they go visit India, they are more foreign to everything their parents love than other tourists. It is a very sad realization for their parents in the film and for me. How does one prevent this from happening?

I guess being successful in raising multicultural children is not something that one can find a formula for and apply it. Rather, is something that one must tweak and adjust as one’s children grow up and start having different needs. One thing is certain though, I am determined to do whatever it takes for my children to be more like in Tortilla Soup than in The Namesake.