ForeignMom's Blog

Bicultural mom adjusting to motherhood in a foreign country

Duality June 22, 2017

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.

 

The Richness of Positive Cultural Exchanges April 28, 2017

Sometimes the shortest trips, the ones taken within your own region of the country, are the ones that turn out to be the most contrasting with our quotidian lives. As it was the case of our most recent visit to Chicago.

Not even four hours away from us, right on the other side of Lake Michigan. This big city is one of our children’s most favorite places to visit. They like the cars, and the noise, and the endless lines of people walking up and down the main streets. They enjoy the view of the tall buildings and the sky lighted with tiny windows in the horizon at night.

It is a place of wonder for them. Frankly, for us as well. We like the variety of restaurants, the racially mixed families that mirror our own, and the  endless cultural opportunities.

Although we go to Chicago often, this last time was very unique as we visited my cousin and his family in their diverse home. My cousin is also Mexican but he’s married to a French girl and together they have a son who was born in Mexico and a daughter born in the States. (You did not think I was the only one in the family who started a multi-racial clan, right?).

As soon as their son opened the door, we were immerse in a weekend-long cultural exchange. A mix of English, French and Spanish set the tone for our adventure. My kids were exposed to quiche and brioche with salted butter, which I now have had to make available for them at our own home, per their request. Their children tried pretzels filled with peanut butter and were on-the-go more hours than what they are used to, keeping up with my gang.

We talked about my latest post about the challenges of keeping a bilingual house and they pointed out how in their case, French is the main language because is spoken both at home and at school all the time. They gave me more ideas to keep Spanish more present in our lives, and I even caught myself speaking it less and less in this multi-lingual weekend adventure. (Mental note to correct that).

Along with our families’ cultural exchanges, came the concept of how to navigate around in bigger cities. After we said hello and unloaded our car, we headed to the neighborhood park. The kids on scooters, bikes and strollers following our 4-year-old tour guide on wheels. It seemed that, even at a younger age than my 7 and 5-year-old kids, our tour guide knew the rules of stopping at every street corner before crossing, making room for other pedestrians on the sidewalk and being aware of the cars at all times.

Now, is not like my kids were running around and crossing the streets without looking, but, they certainly had to be reminded to use their street smarts more than a few times. The fact that they didn’t know where they were going didn’t help to keep them on their side of the sidewalk either. But I think they were very impressed by their little cousin who was used to the “urban rules”. On the way back, they were certainly more conscious of what they were doing. It was a good lesson learned.

During this short time we had sharing sinks, and cleaning after 5 children, the four adults got a glimpse of what life is like for other multicultural families. We influenced each other in a positive way and our children spent meaningful time individually among each other. It was wonderful to hear my 2-year-old daughter and our little tour guide engage in a conversation at play time -when they thought nobody was listening. It was equally amusing to hear my 7-year-old responding in Spanish to a sentence said in French.

I love having this connection with my multicultural cousin and his family as we always get something positive out from our encounters. In this case, it was the opportunity of engaging my children in activities out of the norm for them. They loved having breakfast à la française and listening to our multilingual conversations.

I believe that while our goal to raising bilingual children has met some challenges as of late; the one of raising multicultural ones is right on track! Just ask them what some of their favorite foods are and you’ll find a colorful blend of cultural backgrounds.

I say we can feel pretty victorious at the moment!

 

I Give Up April 4, 2017

OK, I admit it… I can’t be solely responsible for my children’s bilingualism. There, I said it. I’m giving up. But not in the sense that you might think. 

I will continue to speak in Spanish to them, to encourage them to read in Spanish, listening to music in Spanish, and celebrating our multicultural traditions. Perhaps even device strategies to help them engage in conversations in Spanish in a more organic way (one that doesn’t requiere constant nagging on my part).

However, I have finally understood that I cannot do it alone -even by being a Stay-At-Home-Mom. 

So I’m giving up on the idea of doing it all by myself. I need reinforcements from the community and family and friends. So I have come up with an alternative plan. One where I model behavior and try to keep my kids’ bilingual and multicultural knowledge growing as they mature themselves.

I wish we had the option of enrolling them in a Spanish-immersion program but that isn’t the case right now. That’s why, I have contacted a tutor specialized in children to help me teach my children how to read and with whom they would only speak Spanish to -if only for a set period of time every week.

I encourage them to call their grandparents in Mexico as often as they can so they can practice conversation (even though they don’t know that they are doing it also for academic purposes).

I also joined a playgroup in Spanish so that my youngest one can increase the exposure to the language outside of the home.

This journey to bilingualism doesn’t stop here. It doesn’t end with the tired children who prefer to speak in their main language only. It may be a childhood-long learning experience in which breaks will now be allowed, but where the main goal of full bilingualism will always be in sight. 

I’m giving up direct control over the situation but I hope the combination of outside influences and constant modeling will rekindle my kids’ interest in Spanish.

Wish me luck! And as usual, I welcome any ideas and experiences in your own journey to raising bilingual and multicultural children. 

 

Salty Cheeks December 3, 2016

My face was salty. I could taste the tears that had been flowing all morning. The same tears that my toddler with her little hand wiped away from my face. “It shouldn’t be like this” I thought to myself as I held my two-year-old in my arms afraid of what the future may bring for her, for us.

In this post-election climate, I find myself wondering how the recent rise in xenophobic comments and racism around the country will affect us -a family comprised of a Middle Eastern man and a Mexican woman, both immigrants, and their young children.

I find myself surrounded by people who voted for the very man behind the white supremacist movements around the country. A man who’s careless rhetoric filled with hatred toward my roots has encouraged many to “say it like it is” insulting the very existence of my family. I wonder if they feel the same way he does about “us”. I wonder if we are safe.

I could not help it but to teach my young six and five-year-old children about racism. Forced by a comment made to my daughter on the school bus. “A fifth-grader told me Trump doesn’t like Mexicans or women” she said. Mortified I asked if that was said to hurt her or just to inform her of the facts. She really could not tell me. So I had to fast track time and talk to her and her brother about racism and how it is around us. I felt I was lecturing a pair of teenagers with baby faces.

I told them “we should never disrespect people and should try to always act with kindness but if someone is mean to you because of where you come from, because your parents where not born here or because of your appearance, you cannot tolerate it and you have to let an adult know immediately. This is not a joking matter under any circumstance and if an adult is the one who makes you feel sad, you have to call me right away.”

It is a harsh lesson to impart on such young hearts but it is one that needs to come from the parents before they start tuning in to the TV, the radio or god forbid, they witness it first hand. I hate to be a pessimist, but it suffices to read a few news stories of racism happening in schools with Latinos being a prominent target for attacks such as chants of “build the wall”, by their peers, to be horrified.

I don’t know what the near future will bring. I only know I’m scared for my kids’ innocence to be shattered by a careless comment from someone close to them. I hope I’m wrong but the news coverage doesn’t seem to bring anything promising for the new times we are about to enter.

 

To You, Natalia October 13, 2016

Filed under: Living Abroad,Living in the US — ForeignMom @ 1:35 am
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I could not write any new posts without dedicating a very special one to you, dear Natalia Gomez. You were my champion from the first posts, an encouragement whenever they were raw and full of emotion, a guide and an inspiration. You were a friend and sometimes a role model.

I remember when I first met you as a freshman in college. I did not take any of your classes but, as homesick as I was, found comfort in some of the faculty members who spoke Spanish. You assessed my skills as a Spanish tutor and gave me my first job in college. You also, on occasion, heard about how much I missed my home. You listened carefully and helped me find ways to stay connected with my culture -even when I felt so alone. The doors to your office were always open for me.

After graduation, I found my way back to you when working with the Sister Cities committee. You were always so willing to participate in any efforts to enrich the community and to get the university involved in cultural opportunities.

Not much longer after that, I became a mom. I remember how when you came to meet my baby you encouraged me to get out of the house and suggested I joined any of the organizations for moms in the community. You told me how much joining one had helped you meet people in those lonely times that come when you stay home with young children. You taught me about hiding vegetables in the most ordinary things, like pancakes and macaroni and cheese. You repeated once and again that there was no shame in looking for help when we needed it, and how great it was to have more than one reliable baby sitter on speed dial.

Whenever we got together, you shared about the very many ways you were trying to make a difference in the community, always insisting that I joined you in at least one of your efforts. And when you first were diagnosed with cancer, you were not passive. You looked the illness in the eyes and made every effort to get healthy again. You didn’t stop being involved. Instead, you helped write the new law that will help thousands of women in Michigan that have dense breast to have the right to require more tests and more information in order to detect breast cancer early.

You got better and continued to be a source of inspiration to so many. Even when you were not 100% better, you gave me a very cute baby shower for my second child, because you knew that we have one for every child in Mexico, because you knew I was homesick, because that was you: always trying to brighten up the world.

We didn’t see each other frequently. Your young family, the community and unluckily the cancer needed your attention. The later perhaps too much. However, whenever I saw you, your positive aura surrounded me and I always left our encounters feeling empowered, happy to be dedicating my best to my children, happy to be writing this blog.

One of my last truly happy memories of you is from about two years ago, when you came to see me at the hospital after I had my third child. You were so nervous to hold a newborn that it made laugh a little. You were so happy to be in that moment with me that we shared some joyful tears.

This year was a very hard one for you. You could not get as much done as you wanted to; yet, you were able to continue helping people. Like that time when you read my blog post about getting rid of my baby stuff and immediately getting a hold of me so that you could buy whatever was left to help a young mom. When I came to deliver the stuff you were very weak so I couldn’t see you, but that didn’t stop you from sending the most heartwarming text.

You were grand. A beautiful soul full of light, full of warmness, full of gratitude for every extra day you were able to spend here with us. So amazingly strong that you even pushed yourself to finish your poetry book just a few weeks ago.

I will miss you Natalia, but I am happy to be a part of the tribe of people you touched and so grateful to have had you in my life. Your children may not know yet of the very many people who have a little bit of their mother in their hearts, but I am sure they will always be reminded of the greatness of your heart and your joie de vivre.

I wish I could have done a lot more for you than what I did. I wish I could have spent more time with you. I wish to always have you in my heart and I wish to have your strength and your commitment to live life to the fullest.

Rest in peace dear friend. I will always think of you fondly.

 

Opening Little Minds to Tough Topics March 7, 2016

Filed under: Living Abroad,Living in the US,Motherhood,Stay At Home Mom — ForeignMom @ 7:26 pm
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Sometimes I have the most profound talks with my children when I am the least prepared for them. Some days ago, this image on a party item that I had stored in my closet prompted a very important talk about race with my kindergartener.

 

For Martin Luther King Day, my kindergartener learned for the first time about racial inequality and segregation. She learned that people with dark skin had to sit in different places and where not allowed to go where they wanted to go. She drew and wrote a touching little assignment with a sentence reading: I have a dream that our world would let everybody go everywhere. I know this was mostly prompted by the lesson taught at school but I also know it got her thinking.

Many weeks later, as she was with me when I was putting away some clothes in my closet, she found the party piece in the photo and after asking me what was for she started the following exchange:

Is my skin color darker than yours? -Yes, but just a little bit, look.

Are we different than most people? By this, she meant around our community where more than 90% are Caucasian. -Well, different in skin color and hair, yes. But we all are different and alike in many ways.

If we lived in the time of Martin Luther King, would they have let us go to the same school and ride in the front of the bus? -To be honest, I am not sure. But I’m guessing some people wouldn’t have liked the idea of us being so close.

Are they still people that don’t like others because their skin is a different color? And this was the hardest thing I have ever had to answer to my children so far. -Yes, unfortunately, there are people who feel their skin color or the country that they are from makes them better than others.

With a sad face she said: that’s mean.

I took advantage of this crack in my little girl’s mind to open a window to an issue that we will have to deal with in our life time. Racial inequality, intolerance and xenophobia are not topics that I planned on covering when my kids were in kindergarten. In fact they are the type of topics that I hope wouldn’t cross my young children’s minds. But they are topics that every parent should cover with their children and since the opportunity presented itself, I had a very honest talk with my little girl.

Having two of the most criticized stereotypes in the U.S. right in our household (Middle Eastern and Hispanic), I feel it is important to slowly but effectively arm my children for the racial battles that may await them in the future. So I wasn’t going to sugar-coat the situation for her. Instead I insisted that while there might be people out there who do not like us because of our skin color or nationality, they are many others that are our friends, and we should always value that.

I proceeded to tell her that when I first came to the U.S. to attend college, many classmates didn’t want to be on my study groups or do projects with me because they thought that since I had an accent, I was probably not that good of a student. I had to deal with some discrimination and intolerance, which made it hard for me, but I ended up meeting wonderful friends and that helped me ignore the negative people.

I compared that experience to when she’s at the playground and she gets excluded from a game. I emphasized that there are always other people to play with. I also was very clear to tell her than when people don’t think that you are good enough simply because you are different than them, then they are not worth the effort to befriend.

One should always be polite to people and show respect to all classmates but I told her that there’s a difference between a classmate and an actual friend. Not everyone who comes in touch with you is your friend and that is why true friendship is very valuable. Your true friends don’t care about your skin color or where you are from, they just want to play with you.

I think that answering her question truthfully without any scary details was the best way to start talking about racism. But I also feel that if I had ignored it or played it down, I would probably have close the important channel of communication that I wish to have with her and her siblings. I always want to be one of the main people that they turn for advise and for truthful answers.

I cannot say that my children have experience any racism at school or anywhere else, but I think that is important to think of an action plan should the occasion arises. As their parent, your children are always learning social cues from you. The way in which I respond to racism will shape the way they deal with it in the future. Like for everything else, I just want to be prepared.

 

Vacation vs. Family Trip February 28, 2016

Exhausted and with 4 hours left on a plane ride during our journey home after our visit to Mexico, my husband pointed out how our “trip” had turned out to be more like a stumble than a journey. We laughed at the ambivalence of the word trip as we thought about the major unplanned things that turned our respite into a few days of extra intense work.

We looked at each other with a little irony. Vacations are no longer what we have when we go places with our children. They are not restful, peaceful or otherwise free of stress. Having a six, four and one-year-old turn every little journey into a big production. We still carry a diaper bag full of snacks, diapers, wipes, a thermometer and some basic OTC meds (because you never know when someone isn’t going to feel well or need a band aid); as well as a stroller or some kind of carrier. We resemble more a camping crew than that quintessential photo of a couple laying on a chaise long at the beach sipping piña coladas while their kids play safely at the beach shore that airplane magazines often use to sell you the idea of going somewhere with your family to rest and relax.

Now, I’m not saying that traveling with my family is not fun. Not at all, anyone who knows me can tell you that I love going places with my cubs and giving them different experiences. What I am saying is that, although we have fun, it is stressful and not very restful for the parents.

Take our most recent trip. We landed in Guadalajara, Mexico on a Thursday evening at 11 pm to drive the next day to a state close by to visit extended family. After spending two evenings hanging out with our kin, we returned to Guadalajara for a few activity-packed days and then drove four hours to get to the beach. We were very much looking forward to this beach trip as we had planned it with some very close friends for a few months already.

They had bought lots of food and “recreational refreshments” for after the kids were in bed, we had also brought quite a bit of supplies. Twenty minutes before we were supposed to reach our destination, I received a phone call from my brother (a Hematologist), to whom I had sent some photos of a rash that my toddler had developed over night -it wasn’t unusual for her to have a rash but I wanted to make sure that I didn’t need to take extra precautions because we were headed to the beach. He announced his suspicion of chicken pox. How the heck did my toddler contract chicken pox? And then I remember my cousin’s son having a fever at a family gathering during our first weekend in Mexico and someone mentioning that his classmate had the disease.

I called my mom to confirm my suspicions. She had already talked to my aunt and told me that indeed, my toddler’s playmate had chicken pox and that the rash had started the day after the party. Still in disbelief and upon arrival to the house we had rented for our fabulous escaped, I informed my friend who was riding with her family (including a toddler) in a different car. We decided to take my sick child to the hospital for a final verdict and to look for a hotel for my family to stay at, so that we wouldn’t expose her little girl.

They said it was a mild and non typical case of the virus since the child has barely had a fever and, other than the rash in her extremities, was formidable. We could stay at the beach if we wanted to, but they advised against the sun and going in the pool and ocean. Great! How could I keep a toddler from wanting to do whatever her siblings were going to do at the beach?

But we were already there, our oldest daughter was turning six that very day and we had our minds made up to have a beach “vacation”. We found a place to sleep and booked it for two nights. I was still not buying the whole chicken pox infection so I sent the photos to my sister-in-law who is also a doctor, who in turn sent them to a couple of pediatric dermatologists friends of her. Their advise: to wait 48 hours from the time the rash first appeared to know for sure, but they were not so sure it was chicken pox. In the mean time, our friends and us between disappointed and mad at the world, kept weighing whether it was worth the risk of getting the families together.

At the end we decided to give it another day before sending more photos to our team of doctors, which by now had grown to six. By our second day at the beach the conclusion reached by all was the same: chicken pox. My husband and I took turns taking our older two to the beach and pool while the other stayed at the room watching cartoons, or took the sick toddler to the shaded swing sets or to play underneath the shade of a palm tree (don’t worry, because of the time a year, we were the only family at the hotel with children and there were only a handful of guests around).

We were determined to make the best of our situation so we also drove to a nearby artsy beach town and time even allowed for me to escape with my girlfriend to have dinner one of the evenings. We had to cut our four day “vacation” short because it was impossible to keep the toddler happy inside and away from her siblings. A cloud of disappointment followed us back to Guadalajara but, oh well, we had visited the beach and spent some time under the sun and that was not too shabby considering the snow back home.

We finished our time away from home hanging out with fewer friends than we had planned as the chicken pox prevented us from getting together with some families but we had a very nice last days. Then, on the day we were supposed to return to the U.S., we got up at 4 am to make our early flight. Got through all the stress that taking three young children through airport screening implies, made it to our gate just in time, when we spotted on the screen the worst words that one can see next to their flight number: CANCELLED.

This has to be a joke -I thought. But it wasn’t, a snow storm had cancelled all the flights into Chicago. After being in a line to figure what our options were for two hours (my husband actually in the line while I entertained the kids with books, granola bars and chicken nuggets), they told us that they had no availability until eight days later. How could that be possible!? But it was, and we needed to collect our luggage too.

We were stressed out and pretty irritated but we needed to keep things light for the kids and figure a way to get back home. Luckily, our phones had Internet access so while we were in line, my husband looked for flights to alternative cities and I looked at the coverage of our travel insurance. We were going to have to incur some expenses, but the insurance would help out, and we had just enough time for my husband to purchase the new tickets while I ran to get our luggage from the other side of the airport.

The line to get the luggage was huge and we had to get on our plane in less than an hour. I did what any desperate person would do: Excuse me everyone, I know your flight also got cancelled but as it turns out, my family and I were able to get in a new flight that leaves in an hour, would you PLEASE let me cut through the line? I must have been pretty convincing because not one single person complained. They let me through and we rushed through security and the airport to make our flight to Mexico City and from there to Detroit -where the snowstorm was headed.

After an unplanned hotel stay in Detroit, we made it home, exhausted but in one piece. After having a whole day to get back into our routine, my husband and I were talking about all the unplanned “excitement” of our travel and we came to the conclusion that for now, and as long as we have young children who completely depend on us, our journeys will be more trips than anything that remotely resembles a vacation. We will happily continue to take our children different places but we will always make sure to have travel insurance! It has been so useful in so many different occasions.