Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Sharing Our Roots - an interview with Suzanne

In the fourth post of this Sharing Our Roots series, Dutch mother Suzanne shares her viewpoint on raising culturally aware children whilst living in Britain.

Making friends the English way - school
uniform and all!
(c) Suzanne
Suzanne was born in the Netherlands but now lives in London in England with her husband and two daughters who are two and four (or as her eldest prefers "four and three quarters"). Suzanne's daughters were born in Britain and hold British passports but not Dutch ones. Suzanne explains why,

"The sole reason is the inconvenience of legalizing their British birth certificates, which is a requirement of the Dutch embassy. The passport of my eldest will expire soon and I’m thinking of taking advantage of the situation to get both girls a Dutch passport as well as extending their British ones. As we have different surnames and nationalities I always get questions at the border and am asked to show their birth certificates when my husband isn’t travelling with us, which is most of the time."

Thinking to the future, Suzanne also sees another advantage of obtaining dual nationality for her daughters, but also considers the practicalities of the unthinkable,

"I can also imagine it being easier for them to move to the Netherlands with Dutch passports if we or they should ever want or need to. For example, their legal guardians (should my husband and I both die) are in the Netherlands. I can imagine a few legal hurdles would need to be overcome before they’d be allowed to leave the UK in such a case."

Asked whether she thinks it is important for her children to know about the country she herself was born in Suzanne replies,

"I don’t dwell on it, I don’t even consider myself an expat - I’m just Dutch and happen to live in the UK. I do think it’s great for kids living in a “dominant” culture (like the UK or North America) to have a true appreciation of the differences between the country they’re growing up in and the other country they’re culturally linked to (or countries, as my London-born husband’s parents are Italian). It also helps them relate to their cousins who are huge role models for them."

So how do you share Dutch culture with your children whilst living in London? Suzanne teaches her
Getting used to Father Christmas, even though
Sinterklaas still visits Dutch children living
(c) Suzanne
children about the Dutch holidays and communicates with them in Dutch. Whilst she is working the family has a Dutch nanny who keeps the Dutch language in use in the family home. Suzanne says,

"Between us we read stories, sing songs and show videos that provide context around Sinterklaas, koninginnedag and day-to-day traditions such as hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles), cycling, street play, the absence of school uniforms and so on. Our nanny is a lot younger than I am and can share more of what the current generation experiences."

The children soaking in the Dutch culture
during a visit to Leiden
(c) Suzanne
The family also visits the Netherlands around three times a year which is hugely beneficial for the language skills of her children as Suzanne explains,

"Whenever we visit my family in the Netherlands they get a full 4-5 day language and culture immersion resulting in a huge improvement of their spoken Dutch."

Suzanne relays that she doesn't seek out the Dutch community locally or attend Dutch related events. Instead she makes optimal use of the internet and brings back Dutch books from their trips to the Netherlands.

"We also call the grandparents a lot and sing at least one Dutch song at bedtime each night," she says.

The only real issue that Suzanne relates to bringing up children in a country she was not born in revolves around language although she does notice a potential culture difference in parenting styles,

"My husband doesn’t speak Dutch so I find it hard to speak Dutch consistently. Besides this I cannot think of any negatives. I’m completely at home here and don’t have issues with not being able to relate to how they experience childhood. I do find kids a bit self-entitled and spoiled here and feel I’m always the tougher parent (“no, you can’t have a biscuit the second you walk out of the school gates even though all the other kids can”) but that may be a trend of the time rather than the place."

Whilst bringing up bilingual children can throw up challenges for parents, Suzanne has a gem of advice for other parents when the going gets tough,

"If you do want to teach your kids your language, stick to it. Don’t worry about them getting behind in the other language. They will catch up very quickly and will be forever grateful for being bilingual."

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Sharing Our Roots - an interview with Britt Breu

In the third post of this series American expat Britt Breu shares her views on passing on her birth country culture with her children. Britt currently lives in South Africa with her German born husband and her two children who in turn were born in England and Germany.

Photo Credit: Stephen J. Sullivan
Both of Britt's children have dual nationality (American and German) and it was a decision that the couple took to open up the world to their children.

"Initially it was important to me that both have the choice of where to later study and live. Now, I believe it will enable them to. move more freely about the globe," says Britt.

Britt not only believes that her children should know about the countries she and their father were born in, but also any country they call home along the way even if it is temporarily. Britt explains why,

"I believe it is important for my kids to know about where they were born, where they currently live and the counties of which they are citizens. All of these things influence who they are and are a part of their heritage in my eyes, even if we are or were only guests. It will allow them to be more flexible and allow for greater tolerance of others later down the road."

Like Charlie and Vinita, Britt uses media extensively to share American culture with her children. She reads American books to them and plays children's music from the States with them. She also makes sure to talk about topical events with them. She explains further,

"I talk about American current events that a three year old can relate to and understand - not how the Democrats took the Senate but weather phenomena like Sandy,  and about seasons (since we are now in another hemisphere) and American holidays. I will definitely talk about politics and history when both are a bit older, as well as show them my absentee ballots when voting".

Family back in America and Germany also play an important role in sharing the culture of those countries with Britt's children. Through Skype the children hear about every day life in the USA and Germany. In fact, Britt states that she relies heavily on technology to share information with her children about the countries they have a link to.

"For us, YouTube, resources online and Skype are essential parenting tools. I don't think I could do it otherwise."

However, local groups and resources also prove to be a valuable in keeping German culture at the heart of their family,

"I enrolled my daughter in a German language nursery school and have taken both my kids to German mum and baby groups."

Traditions and holidays are also marked to help share important cultural origins. Britt tells,

 "I incorporate what I understand to be our national traditions with those of my husband's alongside those of our host country's - things like roasting a turkey for Thanksgiving. Last year I watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on the computer with my daughter since that was something we always looked forward to as kids. That is when we knew Christmas was coming."

Like the other parents interviewed for this series, Britt agrees there is little that can beat regular trips back to a country to immerse your children in the culture of a land. Britt however also notes that it is essential in her eyes for the family to get involved with the culture and citizens of the country they are living in.

Photo credit: Leigh-Anne Auerswald

But it is not always easy. The challenges of keeping the American and German cultures alive whilst living in South Arica certainly keeps Britt on her toes.

"I face three major challenges bringing up my kids here in South Africa:

  1. Lack of family close by. I think every expat mum can relate here. 
  2. Trying to encourage the use of the German language and promote German culture while trying to reinforce Americanisms is hard when another form of your mother tongue is spoken all around you and your kids start becoming and speaking more like your guest countrymen than you. 
  3. The safety issue. Everywhere else we have lived, we have been able to live so carelessly and not be conscious of our safety at all times. It has been especially daunting at the beginning of our stay here."

Bringing up bilingual children is an issue that many expats face and Britt is no exception but it is not a challenge she shies away from.

Britt says, "now that we are here in RSA and were in Manchester 3 years ago, raising the kids to speak English has been easy.  When we lived in Germany, I  spoke English to the kids and showed them American TV shows for kids. Eva spoke better English than German whilst we were living in the UK and then the other way round when we left Germany for Cape Town. Now I have to encourage German through TV, online media, books and the pre-primary. I am doing this because I believe bilingualism or multilingualism, or better yet, multiculturalism is the best gift you can give your children."

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Come Join the Expat Parenting Conversation

With a little more time on my hands (as my "baby" turns 18 months old and my eldest two boys seemingly able to entertain themselves a little more without me on the sidelines for the entire duration of playtime) I've finally found the time to create a Facebook page for this blog.

Not only can you read all the blog posts there but you can join in (or start) a conversation about things that matter as an expat parent. I'll also post relevant links and articles on the theme of parenting abroad. Let's share this journey! Head on over and like....

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Dutch Language Lessons from My Six Year Old

My six year old son announced this morning from his sick bed,

"Mama, there are some Dutch words you can't say properly because you're English."

One topical example is sneeuw. Unless I pull a funny face and attempt to say 'snow' like the British Queen I can't quite get the right sound in Dutch. I also have a real issue with moeite.

I didn't ask him for a comprehensive list. Having my Dutch language skills corrected by my child is not on my parenting bucket list but it is a fact of life. What is really fun to think about is that in a couple of years I will have three little language critiques to deal with......

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Sharing our Roots - an interview with Charlie Raemakers

Continuing the series about passing on culture and traditions to children who were born or who live in a different birth country to one or both parents -  this week Charlie Raemakers shares her experiences.

Charlie was born in Scotland and currently lives in Hollands Kroon in the Netherlands. She has two children who were born in England and Scotland. Her eldest is six and her youngest is five and they had just turned three and two respectively when the family moved to the Netherlands. Both children have British nationality but the intention is to obtain dual nationality for both of them now that they are living in the Netherlands (their father is Dutch).

Charlie has no doubts at all that it is important that her children know about Britain, despite moving away,

"My nationality, language, heritage and culture are all very much part of who I am and therefore part of who my children are. When we lived in the UK I also felt very strongly that they knew about the Dutch culture and language (my husband is Dutch).  Traditions across the nations are so diverse and for us family is very important, so I think for our children to be able to share in the traditions with their families on both sides of the North sea and to be able to communicate with both sides of the family is part of the glue that keeps us all bonded and connected."

With this in mind, Charlie has a solid plan for sharing the British culture, traditions and holidays with her children,

"During the big holidays such as Christmas, Halloween & bonfire night it is relatively easy to continue the traditions I grew up with. Once Sinterklaas has been and gone we start to focus on the count down to Christmas.

The tree goes up, the kids help to decorate it, they write to santa with their wish list.  They always get a personal message from Santa in the week before Christmas via the Portable North Pole website and we track Santa on Norad on Christmas eve.  They put out milk and cookies for Santa and a carrot for the reindeer, hang their stockings up and always find new pyjamas on their pillow that the elves have sneaked in whilst they are having a bath.  We put reindeer food (oats with glitter) out on the street so the reindeer know where to land.  They hang a sock on the end of their bed in which they always find a satsuma and chocolate coins on Christmas morning."

Charlie also makes sure that the Christmas meal remains a British tradition, even if it means scouring the shops for ingredients and asking for the help of family. She explains,

"I have gone to great lengths in the past to source a turkey for Christmas day and always manage to get hold of parsnips.  These are things that are not easy to come across in the Netherlands but so far, every year we have had a traditional British Christmas. I have been sent Christmas crackers every year as well, so you will find us all sitting at the table wearing our paper crowns listening to the Christmas hits I grew up with. We went back to Scotland last year for Christmas, I couldn't wait to take them to a grotto to meet Santa and have all of the family around over the festive period - so magical for the boys!"

Christmas is not the only holiday that Charlie shares with her children. Whilst Halloween is growing in popularity in the Netherlands, it's not yet marked on the same level as in Britain.

"Last year I threw a halloween party for the kids and their friends. My mum was visiting so we decorated the house with cobwebs and spooky banners and went to a lot of effort with the food to make it as gory as possible.  Mum also brought some halloween decorations over and my Dutch mother in law, who now lives in the UK, sent a box of halloween goodies over.  We did "dooking for apples", ate candy apples, listened to halloween mash ups and played games and of course dressed up.  For the Dutch kids & our adult friends this was their first taste of Halloween and everybody really enjoyed it. I love the fact that our traditions aren't just about us and our family but they are stretching out into our friends lives as well."

Charlie raises an interesting point. When expats travel they not only learn about a new culture, but they share their own cultures with new people. November 5th is a special day in Britain, but it means nothing to the Dutch. Dutch friends and family, as well as the children, are often eager to learn about the origins of Bonfire night too. Charlie makes sure it's marked in her household, even if it isn't easy,

Hard to celebrate Bonfire night abroad - but sparklers
are always a hit
Photo Credit: Jenny Sliwinski
"Bonfire night is tricky because legally you can only set off fireworks on December 31st in the Netherlands.  Sparklers however are easy to come across and we talk about Guy Fawkes and look at bonfire videos on You Tube."

Sharing holidays, traditions and culture is not always straight forward. Sometimes it clashes with what the children already know and like,

"For Burns night I had a tin of haggis I bought from a deli in Scotland...nobody liked it though, except for me! On shrove Tuesday (pancake day in the UK) I decided to make a batch of scotch pancakes in place of the traditional Dutch ones we eat most of the time.  I put a load of sweet toppings on the table... sugar, jam, lemon, golden syrup.  My youngest son was appalled that I would dare put such tiny pancakes on the table and defiantly declared "Where is the cheese and icing sugar?" but hey, you can't win them all!"

Like Vinita Salome, Charlie finds that food and tastes are an important way to share her culture with her family. British food is often served in the Raemaker household,

There's not much more English than scones!
Photo credit: Ariel C
"I love nothing better than spending a Sunday afternoon in the kitchen preparing a big roast dinner. Again this is something I have initiated my Dutch friends and family into. From time to time I make stovies, shepherds pie, mince and tatties and chicken pie. We bake scones every now and then too."

Whilst Charlie is raising her children with an understanding of their roots, she believes it is also important to stay faithful to their Dutch heritage. With that in mind when Charlie got married in 2011 the wedding represented the family's dual background,

"In October 2011, after nearly 11 years together my partner and I got married. We decided to get married in Scotland, in a big castle near Edinburgh. We had a traditional Scottish wedding with some Dutch twists; there was a Scottish piper, the kids and my Scottish family wore kilts, there was a pipe band in the evening, a ceiligh band and lots of Scottish dancing. We had traditional Scottish and Dutch food, there was a Scottish and a Dutch flag flying on the masts and the kids were totally immersed in the Scottish culture but with a reminder here and there of their Dutch roots too. The master of ceremonies introduced everything in English & Dutch and my in-laws conducted their speech in English & Dutch as well.  The best thing about that weekend was having all of the children's Dutch & Scottish family together and the two cultures intertwining for a day."

Sharing culture on a daily basis is a little trickier but with the help of TV, books and the internet Charlie has the tools on hand to make sure her children are keeping up with the English language,

"My kids watch CBBC (the BBC's children's channel) and I have some fantastic Scottish kids books, such as Rory McGrory, Clan Mingen and a horrible histories of Scotland book.  With supervision You Tube is a fantastic source of information for young kids and great for watching retro british cartoons, such as Super Ted, Banana Man, Desperate Dan and the Funny Bones.  My kids watch these so that they are regularly immersed in the English language."

Television also beams British events directly into the family living room, allowing the children to witness historic happenings that they otherwise would miss. Charlie explains,

"The last couple of years have been very exciting times in the UK, with the Royal wedding, the Queens diamond jubilee and the 2012 Olympics. We have followed all of these events on the telly, watched videos on You Tube and discussed these events."

The family are lucky enough to welcome lots of visitors from the UK, including lots of young children so the Raemaker children have plenty of opportunity to mix with other British people. There is an annual trip back to the UK too.

Raising children in a country you were not born in brings with it many challenges. One such challenge centres around raising children to be at least bilingual. The children lead the way according to Charlie,

"I speak English with the kids and they answer back in Dutch.  However when other English speaking people are visiting they switch to English easily, which is always a relief because they speak so little English at home.  What I have learned from raising bilingual children is that they go through phases of preferring one language or the other but when they NEED to speak English they do it, fluently."

Another challenge Charlie has faced is that parenting overseas often demands adaptation from at least one parent to deal with cultural differences and that often requires a change in mindset.

"One of the biggest challenges I have faced has been learning about the education system my kids are going through, it is very different to the system I grew up in," says Charlie.

The abundance of water in the Netherlands requires
a change in mindset from expat parents
Photo Credit: A van Mulligen
"I have had to abandon a bit of my Britishness when it comes to molly cuddling kids.  Here the kids have so much freedom from a young age and there isn't the same health & safety mentality that there is in the UK. I found I had to be more relaxed about what my kids can and can't do.  Í frequently mutter to myself 'that would never be allowed in the UK' especially at soft play centres and swimming pools.  A good example is that we live a few paces from a waterway and there is a play park for young children on a decking over the water!"

Despite being eager to ensure that her children know about the country they were born in, the country she grew up in, she has no reservations about immersing herself in her Dutch life and making sure the Netherlands feels like home to them all. But it is something she has had to work at by putting herself forward and stepping outside her comfort zone.

"I am a stay at home mum so getting out and meeting people and socialising with the kids was very difficult for the first ten months before my eldest started school.  Communication was difficult and I always had to take my husband to things like parents evenings.  Being the 'foreigner' on the playground felt very strange at first as well and I really struggled in the first year. I was always self conscious when I spoke Dutch so kept my head down a lot.

Within a year that changed, I grew in confidence and my language skills improved very quickly.  It is so so so important to learn the language of your new country, otherwise you are totally isolated and I can imagine after a couple of years you end up very miserable.

We have lived here for three years now.  I speak the language fluently, I get involved with everything going on at school and throw myself into taking part in all of the Dutch traditions and festivities throughout the year.  I was class mother last year and I give English lessons at school (on a voluntary basis).  I have made a fantastic circle of friends, both mothers at school, neighbours and some of my husbands colleagues.  There have of course been challenges along the way, moving abroad is never going to be easy.  But with some determination and good support at home from my lovely husband I really feel we have found our place here."

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Sharing Our Roots - an Interview with Vinita Salome

If you don't already know Vinita Salome, let me introduce you. Vinita is a photographer. Well, actually she's not just any photographer. She's an exceptional talent behind a camera lens. She specialises in capturing the essence of families and children and creates atmospheric memories to treasure. I should know because I have a host of such pictures hanging on my wall.

Vinita is an expat here in the Netherlands with an interesting background. She was born and raised in Japan and went  back to her roots when she moved to India aged seventeen.

She now lives in the Dutch city of Gouda, where her son was born six years ago. Her son has Dutch and Indian nationality and Vinita thinks it is important that he grows up with an understanding of the countries she grew up and lived in. Vinita explains why,

"We have family in both India and Japan. My brother lives in Japan and is married to a Japanese lady and together they have a daughter. My mother lives in India."

Vinita learnt how to share the culture and traditions of the country she was born in and the country of her family roots by turning back to her own childhood and remembering how her parents shared her roots with her,

"My mother cooked delicious Indian food, we spoke Sindhi (one of the Indian languages) and English at home, and learnt Japanese when we lived there.  We were part of an Indian club where festivals were celebrated and children took part in the celebrations. We had Indian neighbours. We visited India almost every summer and met our extended family."

So Vinita is well prepared to teach her son about Japan and India. She too shares her culture and past with her son through food and language.

"I cook a mix of Asian foods, leaning towards Japanese street food. I cook mostly stir fried food and buy a lot of Japanese ingredients from the Asian supermarkets. I only cook Indian friends visit although I love to eat it. I speak to my son in Japanese when Japanese friends are around, and when I have my Indian friends here we speak together in English. In India, through prefixes, it is easy to identify who is who in the family. For example, Nani is mother’s mother and Masi is Mother’s sister and so on. Explaining these prefixes also makes him aware of things that are done differently.

On my last trip to India, I bought several comic books and dvd’s featuring many Indian mythological figures. He watches these, is curious to know more and asks questions about them. And when he is in India, or if he happens to see a Ganesh in someone’s house, he points it out to me.

We also listen to old Japanese folk tale CD’s in the car which has proved to be quite a hit with him.
He watches Japanese stuff only when he is with Japanese people, so in this way I try to build in some consistency and separation so that his mind isn’t flooded."

Vinita also highlights that communication with her family in Japan and India is an incredibly valuable tool to show her son how her life was in the countries she grew up in.

"Skype really works for communicating with my brother and his family. It’s just lovely to see how my niece and my son communicate and exchange notes. Japan also celebrates many traditions based on the seasons and when we chat we share these traditions and share so much about our different lives," she tells.

Of course, modern day technology makes it much easier for expats to keep in touch with family than in years gone by but at the end of the day nothing compares to actually visiting a country to taste the cuisine, witness the traditions in action, absorb the culture and understand what life there is like. Vinita knows this all too well and tries to visit family as much as she can.

But sharing your childhood life with your own children is not always easy. Vinita explains one problem they faced the last time they took a trip to India,

"Since I mainly cook Asian/Japanese meals at home, it was difficult to find food that my son could enjoy. We managed to introduce him to new tastes, but since I myself lean towards the Japanese cuisine, I see that the Indian cuisine gets left behind and he starts wanting food that he is used to eating like pasta and pancakes."

Sharing her childhood languages with her son is also an area Vinita has to work hard at.

"I find that I have to be consistent in all aspects of sharing my culture and traditions, but especially where language is concerned. Since my son doesn’t have an equal amount of vocabulary in English or Japanese, it’s easy to slip into Dutch while speaking to me. I notice that I’m the one who needs to keep at it."

Despite both the physical distance and the cultural differences between the Netherlands and Japan and India Vinita still finds it easy to share information about both countries with her son. She elaborates,

"I’m just fascinated how children can take in so much information where language is concerned, and their flexibility in how they adjust to cultures."

Top Tips from Vinita to Teach Your Children about Your Origins
  • Use the palette and share tastes with your children by cooking traditional meals at home
  • Shop together for different ingredients that represent your country of origin - we frequent Asian supermarkets. 
  • Eat out in restaurants that cook the cuisine of your birth land - we go to Indian or Japanese restaurants so that he knows the difference.
  • Teach the language of your birth country - in our household we speak Dutch, English and Japanese
  • Use cartoons, books and DVD's to share language and culture
  • Use tools like Skye to stay in regular contact with family in other countries
  • Take a trip - nothing beats visiting a country and family
And a last note from Vinita, which I thinks sums up beautifully how lucky us expats and our children are,

"I feel privileged to have been exposed to so many countries, cultures, and languages and that exposure has helped me in my life. I would like to pass this on to my son and hopefully it will also help him with his endeavours."