MIXED KIDS, MAJORITY PARENTS, & THE GLOBALLY BLENDED FAMILY

I recently learned that the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat Blog has ceased offering new content or publishing their existing content for free. I wrote a piece for them last year about raising mixed kids in global families, with the intention that it would remain accessible and free, so here it is in its entirety (with the title they gave it):

‘Blind Spots’ and Other Problems in Globally Blended Families

When the parents are in the majority and the kids are in the minority

By Tracy Slater

Perhaps your child, like mine and many others in globally blended families, belongs to the world’s growing mixed-ethnicity population. The World Factbook finds a countable percentage of mixed-ethnicity people in almost a quarter of its 236 countries and territories. Among western nations, England’s and the U.S.’s mixed-race populations are increasing faster than any other minority group.

Mixed-ethnic children often face very different experiences than their parents, a point stressed by many studies tracking this population’s growth. But within multinational families, there is a unique generation gap. My daughter may be mixed, but she has two biological parents without much clue about what it feels like to be a minority as a kid. I’m a Jewish American, raised with all the cultural privileges afforded to whites in the U.S., her father is native Japanese, and we live in Japan. She is only two, but as she grows she will likely experience the joys and struggles shared among many children in global families—yet absent from recent conversations about mixed-race kids.

There is a growing body of English-language research about minority kids with parents who grew up in the majority, although much of it focuses on transracial adoption of monoracial children. Sharon H. Chang, author of the book “Raising Mixed Race,” cautions against applying this research to families like mine. The experiences of monoracial minorities and mixed-race people, she explained by email, are like “apples and oranges. Monoracial people have not lived the experience of mixedness, no matter their minority or majority status.

Moreover, globe-trotting, multicultural couples who grew up in the majority and give birth to mixed-race children may show a particularly complex set of tendencies, combining an openness to cultural differences and an understanding of how it feels as an adult to stand apart from the norm, with a blindness to the way race can play out within families and the broader community, particularly for children. They are frequently aware of racism as a concept, but many still lack a deeper understanding of its felt truth during a child’s formative years.

American Eliaichi Sadikiel Kimaro, director of the award-winning documentary on mixed identity A lot Like You, said “race just wasn’t a factor” for her mother growing up in Seoul or her father in Tanzania before they moved to the U.S. as adults. “My parents infused me with the belief that I had to work harder, over-achieve and out-perform my white counterparts in order to be seen as equal,” she explained by email. But they also had “blind-spots when it came to race” that limited her own “understanding of the reality, the truth” of how racism would impact and shape her life.

Samuel Ahovi, raised in France by his white mother and Togolese father, said by email that the hardest part of growing up mixed was not fitting easily within the ethnic identity of either parent. But he admitted that the majority-minority generation gap also mattered. Both Ahovi and Hilary Duff, whose mother grew up in China and white father in Canada, said that parents in global families should be careful not to ignore ethnic differences. “My parents didn’t focus at all on my cultural identity. I suspect this was because they wanted my brother and I to think we would be treated like any other kid,” Ms. Duff said by email. But “we didn’t look like any other kids, and this affected us whether they wanted it or not.”

For Mr. Ahovi, the biggest regret involves his inability to speak Ewe, the Togolese language. “I think parents should work hard on transmitting their own culture to their children,” he said. “Maybe if I was able to speak Ewe, if I were at ease with Togolese culture, I could be assimilated as an African, and finally feel 100% part of something.” Ms. Duff urged globally blended parents to “embrace the duality of their child,” and teach them about their background. “Even if kids don’t entirely understand, they’ll appreciate it later.”

Not everyone agrees that the majority-minority generation gap matters in multinational families, although race plays an important factor here, too. According to mixed-race American Nilina Mason-Campbell, in her father’s native Jamaica, black people are both in the majority and “secondary in their own country” to white and light-skinned people. “I haven’t personally seen a connection between whether a parent was raised as a minority or not making a difference,” she said in an email.

Despite these differences, most stress the benefits growing up multinational, mixed-race, and first-generation minority. For British blogger Philip Shigeo Brown, even as a child, “it was always somehow especially nice to meet other half-English, half-Japanese kids that you could relate to on so many levels, often without anything being said,” he wrote in an email. For instance, someone might ask, “’Shoes on or off? ‘Definitely off!’ everyone always agreed!”

According to Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, a Stanford University psychologist and author of the book When Half is Whole, his mixed heritage—from his Japanese mother and Irish-American father—has provided lasting positive impact despite the “sense of isolation” he said in an email he experienced occasionally when young. As he wrote in an article for Psychology Today, “I tolerate inconsistency and dissonance rather than trying to resolve differences and needing to decide which way is right and which is wrong. I embrace complexity and ambiguity, balancing these diverse and even seemingly conflicting culturally learned perspectives.”

Overall, mixed-race children of multinational couples said they expected an even brighter future for kids from families like theirs. Many pointed to the internet as vital part of that. As Mr. Brown put it, “The world is getting smaller and more connected, facilitated hugely by social networking.” This helps kids combat isolation and forge “communities to talk to, share and learn from.”

Tracy Slater is an American writer living in Japan. She was recently interviewed about her bookThe Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self & Home on the Far Side of the World.

Many thanks again to all who offered quotes and helped me write this piece!

When parents are in the majority, kids in the minority

Grateful to the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat Blog for publishing this piece focusing on some of the issues I’m trying to work out about race, privilege, and identity as a white parent married to a native Japanese man and raising a mixed-race child in Japan.

From ‘Blind Spots’ and Other Problems in Globally Blended Families:

As a woman in a multicultural, multinational, and multiracial couple, I’ve sensed how some people assume I must be uniquely open to cultural differences, and thus uniquely equipped to raise a mixed child. But this assumption betrays a flawed logic. Globe-trotting parents in mixed marriages who grew up in the majority may be aware of racism and may even have faced it themselves, but most still lack a deeper understanding of racism during a child’s formative years.

Read more in the Wall Street Journal online.

I kissed my student. Then I married him.

Here’s a short video clip from my reading at the Tokyo launch party for The Good Shufu at Four Stories Tokyo.

It narrates what happened just before my first kiss with the shogun.

PS. Apologies for the background noise. We like the Four Stories events to be festive so we encourage eating and drinking even during the readings. The upside is the funny, tipsy questions we get at the end. The downside is the occasional background noise!

Catcalls & the Japanese Construction Worker

In the U.S., women walking past construction sites pretty frequently attract whistles and comments. In Japan, where decorum and manners are paramount, especially among strangers, I’d never once seen that happen in 10 whole years of living here–until recently.

Lately, I’ve been walking past a construction site on my daily trips to the market with the mini in the carriage. Every time I pass, one of the guards calls out, Kawaii bay-bee! Kawaii mama! (“Cute baby! Cute mama!”) The first few times he said it, I thought he was saying something about the weather or rain coming (rain in Japanese is am-e, which sounds a little bit like “mama”). Then I realized what he was really saying, and I was surprised.

Granted, he’s about 4’10” and looks to be pushing 70, with about as many teeth as my 11-month old. But then again, I’m 47, sleep-deprived, not nearly back to my pre-pregnancy body, and perpetually dressed in either old yoga clothes or what could pass for pajamas.

So I’ll take it.

What Expats Like Best about Japan

Recently, someone asked the members of a group I belong to, KA International Mothers in Japan, about their favorite aspects of this country. Here’s what these expats said:

The hand signals train drivers do as they reach the station, and how the dudes on the platform hold lanterns in the evening

Knowing exactly where the train door is going to be on the platform, and which side the doors will open when getting off

Getting whiffs of incense while walking around town

A Jizo statue
A Jizo statue: Photo from KA International Mothers in Japan

Hats on jizo statues (little statues meant to commemorate children who have died or were miscarried; the hats are meant to keep them warm)

The music from street vendors. I only kind of love the fact that they have fire in the back of their trucks. It just seems so wrong that it’s kind of right.

The baggy pants worn by construction workers

Shoes with split toes

The elevator ladies at department stores

Hazard lights saying thank you to drivers behind

When I must pull over for a service vehicle, such as an ambulance, then receive a thank you over their loudspeaker. So civilized!

The way bus, streetcar and taxi drivers wave at each other when the pass each other on the road/tracks, as if they are sharing a joke

The “smalltalk” on the street with the older people I meet

The obasan tachi (elderly women) and when they stop me on the street just to tell my half-baby is cute!

The ability to say nothing and still be understood as saying “no” without upsetting anyone

How if you leave something behind someone will drape it from a fence, hang it on a pole, or leave it on a ledge and nobody touches it, knowing it’s a lost thing waiting for someone to reclaim it. I once, drunkenly, lost a pair of earnings and found them hung on an evergreen tree by my house. It looked like Christmas, and I felt bad taking them off.

Umbrella condoms (those umbrella-shaped plastic bags available at stores to put over your umbrella when it’s wet, so you don’t get water on other people or the store’s goods)

Warm toilet seats!

When you shop and the staff put the item in a bag and tape the bag and fold over the edge of the tape so it will be easier to open

Clean bathrooms at most stores, especially department stores and the big shopping plazas

The nursing rooms/baby rooms in stores and malls

Onsen (natural hotsprings)

Napping on tatami (straw mats)

Vending machines with warm drinks

The cans and containers used to hold snacks and sweets. They are great to use for a nice storage place afterwards, too!

The elaborate gift wrapping at many stores. Sometimes I tell them it’s a present when it’s really for me.

The sound of wind-chimes in summer

Japanese lunch sets and all the freebie add-ons like salads, coffee, desert, etc.

The total attention to detail. Everything is just-so and beautifully presented.

Trains and buses that are always on time

The hundreds of soda flavors and seasonal foods

Amazon delivering next day and sometimes the same day

Beautifully designed cakes, even from cheap shops

The little strings inside the bed covers to hold the futon in place

Baths that fill up automatically at the perfect temperature just by pressing a button

Affordable child care

Affordable health care

The general safety and cleanliness

Karaoke! And plastic food samples

The takkyubin package service. So easy to mail a package anytime, from almost anywhere, and reasonable cost. Logistics heaven!

The actual convenience of convenience stores (paying bills, picking up food for dinner, and buying tickets for a show all in one stop)

Construction road barriers shaped like cartoon characters

No guns

Thanks, KA International Mothers in Japan, for reminding us why, even on our hardest days, Japan will never fail to intrigue and even delight us.

Early Readers’ Reviews

I feel a little out of it, since someone else had to tell me that The Good Shufu is now actually up on both Amazon US and Amazon Japan in both hardcover and Kindle versions. The book will be released officially on June 30, 2015, although it’s available for pre-order now.

I’m so touched by, and eternally grateful to, the early reviewers, who have written:

“A thoughtful, involving examination of what happens when a thoroughly American woman says “I do” not just to a man, but to a new culture, country, and way of life. Filled with fascinating tidbits about Japan’s quirks and customs, this debut is as informative as it is entertaining.” —Sarah Pekkanen, internationally bestselling author of Catching Air

“From Boston to Osaka, Tracy Slater writes about the intersection of romance and culture shock with great sensitivity. The Good Shufu is a story about how people communicate and love each other in unexpected ways and places, a fish-out-of-water tale that illustrates the ever-expanding definition of family.”—Ann Mah, author of Mastering the Art of French Eating

“Tracy Slater is one of those great women who refused to give up when so many people said she should. (She’s my kind of woman.) Honest, brave, and moving, this is the perfect book for someone who needs to believe big dreams can come true.” —Amy Cohen, New York Times–bestselling author of The Late Bloomer’s Revolution

Sarah, Ann, Amy, you’ve made my decade.

Which “Multi-” Matters Most in Love?

I’ve been trying to figure out which community I’ve joined since marrying the shogun, which “label” matters most. Which way would I categorize our relationship if I had to pick the most relevant descriptor? Multilingual, multinational, multicultural, multi-ethnic?

I asked the shogun about our mixed marriage, about what he thought was the most significant difference between us. “Man and woman,” he said–which illustrates where the multilingual part comes in. Since I made no headway at the source, I’ll ask here what people in similar relationships think.

I rarely think of myself in a multicultural marriage in the American sense, because when I research what others are writing and thinking about it in the U.S., it seems like the focus is on people from different ethnic groups. But if the shogun were Japanese American, not Japanese Japanese, I think our marriage would be vastly different.

So that makes the think the multinational aspect is the most significant. It’s certainly the one I focus on the most, on a daily basis, but that’s because I live in his country, half a globe away from my home, where I barely speak the language and can only read the nonverbal signs correctly about a quarter of the time. Maybe it’s the mix of expat and non-expat, then? That he’s the one who navigates fluidly through our life and community, while I need to rely on him for almost everything practical and social? (Never thought I’d be in a marriage when I needed to ask my husband for money, but then again I never thought I’d be in a marriage where the ATM machines play cartoon pictures of uniformed bank tellers bowing at me).

So I wonder, if you’re in a similar partnership, or imagining being in one, what multi matters most?

“Japanese husbands. No good!”

I think I’m developing a love-hate relationship with the prenatal nurse. The last two times I saw her, she failed to yell at me about gaining weight, even though I looked on the Japanese chart and I’m still a few kilos (now two!) above where I’m supposed to be at this point. I sort of missed her chastising me and her funny comments about Americans and their eating habits.

Still, today, just to disabuse me of any inkling she’s becoming a softie, she dismissed my assurance that we’d be OK after the baby comes, even though we no longer have any family in Osaka to help us. I assured her that the shogun was always really helpful, pitching in with laundry and cleaning, and that he’d do a lot of childcare, too. She shook her head, completely unconvinced. “Japanese husbands. No good!” she said.

But then she smiled hugely, her eyes going all crinkly at their corners, like she used to when she was telling me how fat I was getting and how I shouldn’t enjoy the holidays coming up. I think it’s that combination of harshness and sweetness that gets me, like a lover who’s all push-and-pull, until you fall under their sway even though you know you shouldn’t. I also have an inkling she might make a great interrogator, or hostage-taker.

Is it possible I have some sort of weird Stockholm-Syndrome attachment to her? Does this happen with women and their prenatal nurses?

And on the Topic of Japanese People Reacting to a Pregnant Westerner…

A week or so ago, I wrote about my hospital midwife’s reaction to my being 1.5 kilos over the Japanese target weight for a pregnant woman at my stage. The encounter with the midwife happened a little more than a month ago, so now, my belly is even rounder.

I’ve actually been surprised to find that, once my nausea waned at about 19 weeks, I’ve really enjoyed having a pregnant stomach. There are two things I like about it:

  • One, I love not having to suck my stomach in after eating. I used to favor tight-ish tops before I got pregnant, and when I ate a big meal, I’d want to tuck my little belly roll in. Now I don’t even need to think about that.
  • Two, I kind of like being able to touch my own stomach in public! Is this weird of me? I realized yesterday, as I was coming home from a walk and rubbing my belly to see if I could feel the little one kick, that being pregnant is one of the only times we’re really allowed to touch our bodies in public without it seeming inappropriate. (I think this prohibition against interacting with our own bodies in public goes for both women and men, in both the West and Japan.) I didn’t realize being pregnant would provide a kind of unique bodily permission, and I really like it now, how it feels both secretive and special and public all at once.

My Japanese neighbors have seemed very sweet about my pregnancy, cooing over my belly, urging me to kiwo-tsukete, “be careful!” But they invariably seeming bowled over when I tell them that no, I am not about to give birth, I am due in about four months. (I don’t have enough Japanese skills to explain that, according to my American pregnancy books, size-wise I am right on target, so I just nod and smile and say Oki, ne? “Big, right?”) One neighbor, who has three incredibly polite kids of her own, is especially sweet, but every time she’s seen me for the past month or so, she points to my stomach and asks, in all seeming earnestness, if there are one or two babies in there.

I always smile and hold up one finger, but inside I’m always wondering, “Does she think, at 6 months, they are suddenly going to discover a hidden twin?”

The Draconian Midwife

Before I got pregnant, I’d heard from my Western friends in Osaka that Japanese midwives and doctors are very strict about weight-gain for expectant mothers. Pregnant women in America are told that “normal weight gain” falls between 25 – 35 pounds. In Japan, it tops out at 10kg, or 22 pounds.

At 5’5″ and 118lbs when I conceived, I figured weight-gain in pregnancy wouldn’t be a big concern for me. After-all, I’ll be 46 next month and had gotten pregnant naturally at 45 and 1/2, against all expectations. Weight gain, when I learned I was actually knocked up and not sick with the stomach flu, was the last thing on my mind.

Apparently, the midwife at my maternity hospital here would like to disabuse me of my laissez-faire attitude towards my growing belly.

At my last appointment, I was about 1.5 kg over target. In addition, the baby’s heart was still beating and the chromosomal screenings came back all-clear. I couldn’t have been happier. Until that draconian midwife beckoned my husband and me into her office.

In Japanese with my husband translating, she informed us that I was already entirely too fat. She admonished that Americans like juice, and I needed to stop drinking juice right away. Although I asked my husband to explain that I don’t drink juice, she remained unmoved. She encouraged me to weigh myself every night and every morning, so I could remember how fat I was getting. Then, despite it still being late summer, she brought up the holidays. December was around the corner, she warned, and then she switched into broken English, seemingly for emphasis: “So please don’t enjoy!”

In my own broken Japanese, I tried to explain that I didn’t celebrate the holidays. “Why not?” she wanted to know.

I couldn’t remember the Japanese word for Jewish, so I asked my husband to translate again. A brief conversation between the two of them ensued about what “Jewish” meant, and it seemed to distract her for a moment. Veering off course from my apparently egregiously ample belly, she inquired about what I celebrated in December, if not Christmas.  Next followed a rough explanation of Chanukah, although, I explained, adults don’t usually celebrate it, since it’s mostly a holiday for kids.

She mulled this information over for a few moments, uncharacteristically silent. “Well,” she finally told me in Japanese, “You’ll still probably be too fat in December!”

After my husband translated this last bit for me, we both couldn’t help but giggle. And I still can’t get worked up about her distress. If I end up becoming much more than 1.5 kilos over the Japanese target, if I develop high-blood pressure or gestational diabetes, if I stop being able to eat healthily and start scarfing down sweets, then I’ll start taking her diatribes more seriously. As I said, I’m still in shock over my luck that, if all continues to go well, I’ll turn 46 in about 3 weeks and be 24 weeks pregnant. I don’t have any room in my psyche for distress over 1.5 extra kilos. In fact, as I reach the 21-week mark now, I think I’ll celebrate with a fresh glass of juice.