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Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Real Intercultural Family in Thailand: Portuguese, Cantonese, Thai and Japanese

Welcome Simone and Ewan!

Where are you from?
Simone: I was born in Brazil and my parents are Japanese.

Ewan: I was born in Los Angeles, CA to Chinese parents and we moved to Hong Kong when I was three. We came back to the U.S. when I was a freshman in high school. I went to high school and college in the U.S. then went to Japan after college. I was always interested in Japanese culture growing up in Hong Kong–all the cartoons on TV were Japanese and being a guy I like gadgets. In that time, the 70s and 80s, all the gadgets came from Japan, like the walkman.

Where do you currently live?
Bangkok, Thailand.

Which countries have you lived in since you’ve been together?
Japan and Thailand.

How did you meet?
Simone: We were both living in the foreign student dormitories in Japan, studying and working and met at a party.

Ewan: But it was only four years later that we saw each other again. We became friends first–hanging out and having fun every weekend with other friends. It took a while for our relationship to develop.

Ages of children and where were they born?
Nikolas- age 6
Rafael- age 5
Both children were born in Thailand.

What passports do your kids hold?
American and Brazilian.

What about a Thai passport since they were born in Thailand?
Simone: They don’t qualify for Thai citizenship since they are not Thai. They could only get the Thai citizenship if one of the parents were Thai and still, they would have to choose one passport when they turn 21 years old.

What languages do you speak together?
Simone: English. When we met in Japan, neither of us spoke Japanese that well so our common language was English. I don’t speak Cantonese and my husband does not speak Portuguese. Afterwards, we both spoke Japanese but our common language continued as English. I speak to my husband’s parents in English and he speaks to mine in Japanese.

What languages do you speak to your children in?
Simone: I speak Portuguese exclusively. They used to get angry at me if I spoke to them in another language. Now they don’t get so mad as they can understand other languages but they don’t like it.

Ewan: I speak Cantonese.

Simone: When we had our first child, we decided to speak to them in the minority language. I would speak in Portuguese and him Cantonese. He debated whether he should speak English or Cantonese. We also read some books in Japanese and English. It is hard to find Portuguese books here so I buy Japanese books and read them first in Japanese then translate them to Portuguese. My husband does the same with English. He reads English books to them then translates them into Cantonese.

What language do your children communicate in?
Simone: They speak Thai to each other because they go to Thai school. They are most fluent in Thai, second in Portuguese, third in Cantonese and fourth in Japanese. They also speak a little English. When all four of us are together, the kids speak Thai with each other, Portuguese with me and Cantonese with their father. They translate what they say to their father to me and do the same for him.

Grandparents also play a big role in language. When they are here visiting, my husband’s parents stay for three months and speak in Cantonese to them. My parents visit once a year and speak Japanese to the kids. The kids understand a lot, more than they can speak.

Do you have any concerns about your kids’ language acquisition?
Ewan: We like to joke that our kids are very good at minority languages. They speak Thai as their strongest language and who speaks Thai except people in Thailand? They speak Portuguese but not Spanish and Cantonese not Mandarin. And they don’t speak English very well yet. We figure what the hell, that’s our roots so it makes sense to us and we can teach them that with confidence. Plus I think it is good for their brain development, how naturally they can switch between three languages. I learned two languages at the same time growing up so I never thought that was a big deal. Then I look at them with three and it’s fascinating.

Simone: They grew up around four languages so we noticed they started talking late. In the early days, they confused all the languages. Around the age of three, they started shifting and could address each person in the language in which they spoke. And now, in kindergarten, their Thai friends speak a lot more words. If a Thai kid, for example, knows 1000 words in Thai, my kids know 1000 words in different languages. Even Portuguese books for their age are too advanced for them so when I read to them in Portuguese, I cannot read straight from the book because they won’t understand some of the vocabulary. Most of the times, I have to simplify the sentence and the grammar.

What religion is your family?
Christian and Buddhist but not strict.

Simone: My husband’s mother is Christian and his father is Buddhist. My husband doesn’t really have a religion but is more Buddhist than Christian. My parents were not religious but I went to Catholic and Protestant schools so I grew up in a Christian, although largely Catholic, environment. We live in a Buddhist country but my kids here will go to Catholic elementary. I’m not so strict about being Catholic but I’m a little Catholic so plan to teach them about what I know. I think kids should be free to respect any religion they want.

What have been your major challenges as an intercultural family?
Simone: We want them to have a little of every culture that is found in our family. I especially want them to keep the Portuguese language. I know as kids grow up, they get lazy. They’ll go to international school, they will start to speak English and they know I speak it. I didn’t have the chance to take the kids to Brazil yet so they lack a strong connection to Brazil. I really want to keep that connection to the Portuguese language.

Ewan: In monocultural families, your cultural upbringing is even stronger in terms of bringing up your kids with your cultural values. In a multicultural family plus if you live in another country, these cultural values don’t get reinforced. Some of these values define what your identity is. If you lose them, then what is the identity of your future generation? Our kids are a little of everything–they are not strongly any culture.

My parents are Chinese, born in Hong Kong and liberal–they didn’t enforce strict Chinese values. But we celebrated Chinese New Year as a kid. When you meet your elders, you show a lot of respect. Younger people give older people tea on Chinese New Year and older people give red envelopes. These are little things you know you have to do when you are brought up in that culture. We don’t live near our parents and these are things you get from your grandparents–they can give a deeper dimension to things I can’t give my kids. Since I’m more aware of these little cultural values I know of Chinese tradition, I try to reinforce this and try to take them to Hong Kong since we’re not so far away.

What are some of your cultural differences?
Simone: My husband is very flexible and I am too so we haven’t had so many problems as we don’t push; we try to accept each other’s cultures. I don’t push culture or religion. The only thing I push is language.

I had some problems with my mother-in-law when I got pregnant and had our first child. In that time, we were living with her. From the moment I woke up, she would hand me a list of baby names she wanted, even though I already had a name. When I mentioned I wanted to breastfeed, she didn’t want me to. In her day in China, breastfeeding was not recommended because women didn’t have adequate nutrition. She also insisted on feeding my baby water and bananas and other foods from an early age. I was opposed to anything but breast milk for the first six months. And she bought us everything. Some friends thought that was great as we didn’t have to spend any money but when it’s your first child you are excited and want to buy clothes and baby things. Here, in Thailand, we don’t decorate the baby’s room like you do in the U.S. so clothes and baby things was all I could buy. She didn’t let me do that and I bought my baby his first clothes when he was one year old.

Finally, we had a big fight when he was six months old. I exploded and told her I needed my own space and needed to decide my own things. She started to cry and I understood she was trying to help. She felt she was doing everything right. It was her first grandchild and Chinese praise baby boys. She felt a lot of responsibility and did the same things her mother-in-law had done with her. Now we understand each other better. I got to understand that she loves the kids-that’s the most important. I want them to learn Chinese culture from her.

Ewan: I’m amazed at my wife. She is still more Brazilian than Japanese but all these years in Asia conditioned her more to Asian values. She’s become more Asian than she used to be. She is more sensitive to Chinese culture and respecting elders than she used to be.

Food is our biggest difference. She’s more of a bread person despite her years in Asia. She likes her spaghettis and pizza. I always prefer Chinese. We do some compromise. She’ll make a stir-fry and while it’s not exactly a Chinese stir-fry, it’s a compromise. Japanese food is our common ground–we go out to a lot of Japanese.

Going back to something you said before, why don’t you decorate the baby’s room in Thailand?
Simone: Here in Asia we co-sleep.

Until what age?
Simone: They still sleep with us. Work keeps my husband traveling a lot so whenever my husband is away the kids sleep with me. When my husband is home we try to keep the kids in their own room but we are slowly working on the separation saying that they will have to sleep by themselves when the older one goes to first grade and they seem to accept it. We do it this way because one day the kids will grow up and be independent so why not keep them close by when you can still have them close by. Now they want it and so do I–eventually they won’t anymore.

What have been your greatest joys as an intercultural family?
Simone: Kids get exposure to other cultures and assimilate them easily. We also see the pride their grandparents have that the kids speak their languages. Recently we went to Europe to visit some of my husband’s family. One of the boys’ cousins who lives in the U.S. also met us in Europe. That cousin did not speak Cantonese and only English. When he heard his cousins speaking Cantonese to their grandfather, he started crying that he didn’t understand. The grandparents felt happy and sad about this. They were proud of us for passing on their language. I think my mother is also proud she can talk to my kids in Japanese. With her other grandchildren, she can only speak in Portuguese.

Ewan: Society is changing and intercultural families are becoming a dime a dozen. You see them all over the world. People not from intercultural families are not used to this but our kids are ready for this changing world. They might have less prejudices and be more open to new cultures. That’s a good thing. Now that my kids are five and six, my older son has good Thai pronunciation and is teaching me Thai. They’re old enough to give me feedback and teach me.

Anything else you would like to add?
Simone: People often ask us, how can you live without a common language? We don’t feel it’s a problem. We talk to each other and the kids translate things we don’t understand. I feel we communicate more having no common language. For example, when the kids talk to their Dad and I don’t understand, the kids then have to translate for me. People without that experience can’t understand it at all.

One day in Japan we were with both sets of parents. We have four languages spoken when we are all together: English, Cantonese, Portuguese and Japanese. When the waitress came over she asked confused, “What are you guys?”

“We’re a family,” I answered.

© 2010 – 2013, The Editors. All rights reserved.

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InCultureParent is an online magazine for parent's raising little global citizens. Centered on global parenting culture and traditions, we feature articles on parenting around the world and on raising multicultural and multilingual children.

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentsjust a reader   |  Wednesday, 01 December 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. I think how you have put the effort into raising your kids to be multilingual is just great. I am single and have no kids, but reading your story actually almost makes me want to get out there and get a family going so it can be like this. :) Kudos!

  2. CommentsAC   |  Saturday, 08 January 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Interesting story! I’m a Caucasian American that speaks English, Spanish, Mandarin & Cantonese. My husband is from Hong Kong, but grew up in the States. He speaks Cantonese, English, and a little Mandarin. It’s time for our baby son to be exposed to more Chinese language, but Cantonese is not taught in our city. Then the next issue is whether to learn traditional characters (and be indoctrinated by Taiwanese), or learn simplified (and follow the commie route).

  3. CommentsI-Ju   |  Friday, 25 March 2011 at 1:33 pm

    I love this story, mostly because it’s beautiful and interesting, but also because this is the type of story we don’t often see: Intercultural families where both parents “appear” to be of the same ethnic origin (when in fact they are no) are often overlooked in mainstream media. Kudos to InCultureParent for featuring this family, and congratulations to Simone and Ewan for providing such a rich cultural and linguistic environment for your children.

  4. CommentsAkari Rokumoto   |  Friday, 29 April 2011 at 8:01 am

    Simone, Ewan!! (Ewan, I did not know this was how your name was spelled…)
    So great to read about how you are doing. I had heard from Uri that you were in Thailand but the details of your family life is fascinating. Thank you for sharing. She told me about this site when I was talking about raising our boys bilingual/bicultural.

    I have two boys also and because I work in Chicago for Osaka, we currently have an aupair from Japan and my kids dominant language is Japanese. As you mentioned we struggle to give context to what we want to share but I am very much hoping to be able to become mostly a stay at home kind of mom soon. Do you think you will stay in Thailand? I am hoping to go home for shichi-go-san (a coming of age celebration at age 7,5,3) this November and see if I can have my boys spend time with their cousins…
    Simone, I am totally with you on the breastfeeding strictly for 6 months thing. I had two home births.

    I will be thinking of you from this end of the planet…

  5. CommentsSusan   |  Wednesday, 15 October 2014 at 12:15 pm

    I loved reading your story since it’s similar in our household in terms of the amount of languages (Our languages are German, Braz. Portuguese, French and English). We are always treated a bit like a purple cow when it comes to how we raise our kids, but slowly the community has opened up (very monolingual, monocultural community). Now kids in school are wanting to learn vocabulary from the kids, and have stopped laughing at my children for being different. They are slowly embracing our diversity, which is great to see how curious and open minded young children can be about it if you explain it to them. It was a tough beginning in school (they had to learn French from scratch), but it was worth it, seeing it two years later.

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