The other day, Shyra-Beth asked me out of the blue if she was an “India girl”. I always knew that eventually, we would have to talk to our children about their incredibly diverse racial and cultural backgrounds. I just didn’t think I would be explaining it in the car, on our way to get the groceries.
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We make jokes about how our children are little fruit salads. We laugh about how we have to tick multiple boxes when asked about their ethnicity. Together, we shake our heads at the time I was asked in the supermarket if my fair-skinned, blue-eyed baby was a result of an IVF mix up. Yas, that really happened!
As our children have grown up (and tanned up), I have realised that the significance of their multiple ethnicities is far more than skin deep. Both my husband and I come from backgrounds rich with culture and tradition that have shaped who we are, as individuals and as parents. So when Shyra-Beth asked me that question, I realised that we have a responsibility to intentionally educate and celebrate our diverse racial backgrounds. In order to raise children who are not just aware of, but also value their differences, we have to be intentional about this.
As a stay-at-home mum, I spend a lot more time with our children than my husband. Incorporating things from my culture into our daily lives feels pretty easy for me as I spent the first 10 years of my life in Singapore. My husband is a quarter Kelabit, and although it’s a small part of his genetic makeup, it’s the culture that he identifies most with. I’ve been really trying to make an effort to learn about the Kelabit culture. The reason for this is pretty simple really – our kids will imitate what they see. When our kids see us learning about, respecting and participating in each others culture, we’re setting them up with the lifelong tools of learning how to bridge differences. I definitely still have a lot to learn.
When it came to spending three weeks in Malaysia, I had to start with a place I felt comfortable in. For me, it’s the kitchen. That meant I was intentional about being present in the kitchen to help and to learn. The key to learning about culture whether it’s yours or your partner’s, go with what feels natural to you.
We need to teach our children about where they come from. Following on from our car conversation – I proceeded to explain to Shyra her incredibly diverse ethnic background. I’m not sure just how much her four-year-old brain actually understood. But do I know that she knows that she has a Kelabit middle name and that when she goes to East Malaysia, that’s what people call her. She knows that every morning we recite Psalm 103 in Tamil because that is what my dad taught me and his dad taught him.
Cultural education can get really overwhelming really quickly. Start by choosing one or two age-appropriate things to teach your kids. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it all by yourself, this is a great opportunity to get your extended family involved. The best part about teaching our children these things was that when we took them back to Singapore and Malaysia, they recognised things. There was familiarity and a sense of connection.
A really good way to keep culture alive is through memories. Celebrations are a great way of creating positive, long-lasting memories. It could simply be sharing a meal with family and friends. Get the kids involved in the cooking and let them sit at the table and hear the stories. When we were in Malaysia, Josiah and I took part in a traditional naming ceremony. What our kids are still talking about (six months later) are the traditional dance performances, causing chaos with all their cousins, and singing ‘He hōnore’ to share our culture with our Malaysian family. The key to creating good memories is just making it fun and engaging. If there are smiles, you know you are on the right track.
As New Zealand grows in diversity, it’s really important to teach our children that different is just different. It’s not bad, it’s not weird, it’s not inferior – it’s just different. I have realised that if I want to see a generation that leaves stereotyping behind, we need to educate and celebrate our cultures within our homes. That way our children will be proud to share it and will be interested in understanding other cultures too.