Raising bicultural children: what do you pass on to them?

When my son was around seven years old, he said to me: “ I can’t wait to go to the US!” “ Why is that?” I asked him. “So I can eat rice and curry!”

I am an Asian-American living in the Netherlands with my Dutch husband and our three kids. My son knew that I was born in the US and that my parents were born in Sri Lanka, but he didn’t really understand how it all merged together.

Three cultural influences (Sri Lankan, American and Dutch) can be sometimes quite a juggle! Who I am…. is it due to my American influences or Sri Lankan? I see myself as an American with Asian influences. I love eating rice and curry, along with hamburgers and onion rings (with Ranch dressing, of course). I love Halloween and Christmas… and the sound of Buddhists monks chanting. For Thanksgiving, we would have Sri Lankan food, along with a stuffed chicken (nobody liked turkey in our family).

So, what determines your cultural background? What makes you identify with the country from where your passport is from? Is it the food, the rituals or certain morals and values which are passed on through your own parents?

Being a mother has made me realize this: being bicultural gives me the opportunity to pick and choose the best of both worlds/cultures. I can choose from two (or three) very different cultures and select which best fits me. I am neither one nor the other, but rather a combination of both. Sometimes, it isn’t possible (or even necessary) to identify where it comes from but that it simply exists within you.

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Over integration: when you can’t move back home

I moved to Amsterdam in the summer of 1996. Although I had traveled much as a child (my father worked for the airlines), I had only lived in the US. I saw my move to Europe as my next adventure—after all, what did I have to lose? I was young, educated, had a good relationship, and I was moving to Amsterdam! It could be worse, right?

I was determined to build up my career and not just move to another country for my boyfriend. Being I’m a social worker, I knew I would need to learn the Dutch language and culture if I wanted to really embrace the country and it’s people.

Which I did with a zealousness. I learned the language within a year and a half, got a job working with refugees and spoke Dutch without a big American accent (people often mistook me for being from Suriname).

In the beginning, it surprised (and annoyed) me how much the Dutch language was spotted with  French, English and German words—‘ never, nooit, jamais’ or ‘fohn’ when referring to a hair dryer. I thought the Dutch should be proud of their own language and make more of an effort to use only Dutch words, just as the Belgiums. This is the reason why the national dictation program  is often won by a Belg: they are language purists, using Flemish as much as possible.

Of course, I know that it is part of the Dutch culture as traders throughout the world to incorporate other languages into their own…but still, it was hard enough learning Dutch without having to know when a hair dryer is a ‘fohn’ (German) instead of a ‘haardroger’ (Dutch).

As time went on, I adjusted to the Dutch way of life—riding a ‘box bike’ full of children, eating bread for lunch (every day!) and unwrapping gifts carefully instead of tearing the paper off. I was happy in Amsterdam, found it endearing that you could theoretically do everything with the bike, and live in a capital of a country but still run into people you know when you happen to be in the city (proof that Amsterdam is quite small).

As the years went by, the kids came and my parents (still living in the US) got older. The plea for us to move back came more often. I suddenly found myself thinking: I don’t think I could get used to living in the States again. With all the violence, poor health coverage and lack of a social safety-net, not to mention the struggling middle class and high tuition rates.   Why would I choose for that? I felt safe in Amsterdam, knew that my family had good health coverage and my kids would be able to enjoy a great education.

I become disillusioned by the US when my mother needed an open heart surgery. Although she had insurance, her part of payment was $10,000. She was required to take vacation days during her recovery. Seeing the movie Sicko just emphasized this feeling that I don’t want to live in a country who doesn’t think that they need to take care of the sick and the elderly.

Studying social work in Philadelphia in the 90’s made me painfully aware of the safety issues people were dealing with. The people, the buildings, the roads. In Philadelphia, I saw the other side of things. There were abandoned buildings in the middle of the city. Female students couldn’t walk around campus at night without the fear of being raped. The local gas station attendant sat in a bulletproof cabin for his own safety. Growing up in L.A. (in a middle class suburb) meant getting around with a car. The neighborhoods were well kept (and if they weren’t, it didn’t matter since I was safe and sound in my car). I wasn’t exposed to the ‘rest’ of the world.

This is not how I wanted to live. In fear. I want to be able to celebrate Halloween without worrying if there are razor blades in the treats. I want to be able to bike home after a night out without worrying about being mugged. I want to know that if I fall ill, my health insurance will cover the bill (and I won’t have to worry if I will qualify for insurance the next year or not). I want to know that my kids will be receiving a good education, regardless of which part of the city they live in. I want to have four weeks of vacation instead of two.

So, when I think about moving back to the US, I think of these things. I would be giving up a quality of life which I think everyone deserves. Safe and security. I do miss certain aspects of the US. I miss the open and friendly people, always ready for some small talk with a smile. I miss the junk food (almond M&Ms, Ding Dongs, Mother’s Circus Animal cookies, Red Vines, Reese Peanut Butter Cups, to mention a couple). I miss the energy and fearlessness.  But not enough to move back.  Amsterdam is my adopted home.