Being in a multicultural family takes a lot of humility. I’ve had lots of “face plant moments” over the last couple of years! I am thankful though for those moments because they usually teach me the most.
While living in Taiwan, my 2 year old daughter and I joined my husband’s aunt at the local community hall during Chinese New Year. We met a remarkable 104 year old community elder (pictured here with my daughter and I) who volunteers every year to draw chūnlián 春联 for his neighbors. Chūnlián are long red pieces of paper used to decorate doorways and bring good fortune during the new year. Our aunt knew that I am a Christian and asked me what Christian phrase I would like the man to write for our door. I was surprised she asked because I was happy to have a traditional phrase. The only phrase that I could say in Chinese at the time was ‘Jesus loves me.’ Suddenly, my aunt and half a dozen Taiwanese people around us started to laugh! As politely as they could they told me that the phrase ‘Jesus loves me’ doesn’t make sense in the Chinese language. It would sound so weird and selfish. How can we think about a divine person loving one person? It should be “Jesus Loves US!” So that’s what the centenarian wrote in beautiful calligraphy on our red paper.
That piece of red paper is now one of my most treasured possessions because even though it was an embarrassing cross-cultural moment, it was a lightbulb for me in my understanding of Taiwanese/Chinese culture. I remember sometime in college learning that the basic unit in American culture is the individual but that for many other cultures the family (and some would say the extended family) is the basic unit. This moment in the community hall was a perfect example of this cultural value being revealed in language.
I grew up in a very loving and close family which encouraged me in my own individual passions and pursuits. When it came time to choose a major to study in college, I chose one myself without thinking about the effects on my family. I’ve since heard from friends who grew up with a more ‘family unit’ focus who sought input from their parents or at least weigh their decisions on the impact on their family.
Right now in my parenting journey (only 4 years in!), I don’t think one way is objectively better than the other. Hopefully a blessing of raising our kids in a multicultural family is that we can take the best from both worlds! We are currently living in the US which is driven by a pretty individualist perspective. So we want to balance this individualist mindset by teaching our children through words and actions that while we love them unconditionally, they are not the sole center of the family. I am learning to think of our family in terms of one unit, not four individual ones. I am learning to move from celebrating “me” to “we.”
Practically speaking, we’ve adopted two small ways from my husband’s childhood, for our young children to hopefully start to understand these concepts:
Big Sister, Little Brother
I recently mentioned on instagram that instead of calling each other by their names, my daughter calls her brother dì dì 弟弟 meaning ‘little brother’ and my son (once he can speak!) will call his sister jiě jie 姐姐 meaning ‘big sister.’ I love how these are more than just cute nicknames. They also reveal cultural value of seeing oneself in relation to another. Also it shows a respect for elders inside the family as well as their unique responsibilities.
The Passing Game
Another way we show our daughter the importance of our extended family is through the Passing Game. We ask my daughter to offer food to the eldest in the room first and then down the line in age. This requires a lot of patience for our 4 year old at first, especially when there’s 8 family members and cookies! But it’s a tangible way to encourage thinking of others above herself. My Sister in Law is amazing with children and always turns it into a game for my daughter. It’s usually a hilarious time around the table when my daughter has to guess how old everyone is. “Is Great Aunt older or younger than Baba?” My daughter loves offering the treat to everyone and squeals with glee when it’s finally her turn!
What about your family? Did you grow up with cultural values that are different from where you are currently living? Would love to hear about your multicultural experience in the comments!
(This is part 1 of 7 sharing how we try to #celebratecultures in our family’s daily life. Check here to see all posts in the series!)