Thursday, March 31st, 2011
Real Intercultural Family in the U.S.: Arabic, Spanish and English
Welcome Selene and Jad!
Where are you from?
Selene: Guadalajara, Mexico
Jad: Rachaya El Wadi, Lebanon
Where do you currently live?
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Selene: We have only ever lived in Michigan together.
How did you meet?
Selene: We met in school (university) in Michigan when he was a junior and I was a sophomore and ended up working at the same office—a study abroad office—in college. We were friends first as we didn’t have the courage to do anything at the time. I started liking him but I didn’t see he had any feelings for me. He’d call me then not call me for three weeks so I thought maybe he just saw me as a friend.
Finally, I asked him for coffee one day and I was going to tell him how I felt. But he interrupted me before I could even tell him and he told me he had feelings for me. As it turns out, he had a crush on me first. A year a half after, we got married. We’ve been married since 2007.
Where did you get married?
Selene: Mexico. We had one wedding in the States as well. The one here (in the U.S.) was in our back yard.
How old is your child?
Selene: Nadia is 13 months old and we are expecting a boy in July.
What passports does your child hold?
Jad: She has only the American passport right now but she has Mexican citizenship as well. She will get the Lebanese and maybe Brazilian. My mother has Brazilian citizenship because my grandmother was born in Brazil. She was ethnically Lebanese but born in Brazil. She’ll eventually have 4 passports depending on the laws of each country.
Selene: We haven’t really researched it yet.
What languages do you speak together?
Selene: We speak English and Spanish together, maybe 80% of the time in English and 20% in Spanish. My Arabic is limited. I’ve been learning through him.
Jad: I learned Spanish because I took a class. I started with Spanish after we started dating to be able to talk to her family.
What languages do you speak to your child?
Selene: I speak in Spanish to our daughter. He speaks to her in Arabic. If I’m at home, it’s 100% Spanish. At a playdate, I introduce English, so on those days it’s more like 70% Spanish and 30% English.
Jad: When I’m at home I try to speak to her in Arabic. I’m not as disciplined in Arabic though. Outside of the house it depends. When we are with a group of people, I change to English.
What language does your child communicate in?
Selene: She’s too young to speak more than just a few words but she understands each language when we speak it to her. If we ask her, “Where is the cow?” in Spanish or Arabic, she’ll point to it. In English she’s more limited. She understands in English, “share the toy,” and stuff like that from a playgroup.
Do you have any concerns or comments about your child’s language acquisition?
Selene: My only concern is that she does not speak Spanglish. I am completely against mixing languages. When she goes to Mexico I want her to have an excellent level of Spanish and good grammar, not mixing in English and Arabic words. And when she goes to Lebanon, the same thing. I know she will mix up the three languages and I will have to be really patient to correct her.
What religion is your family?
Selene: I am Catholic.
Jad: Greek Orthodox.
Selene: We haven’t had any hardship of changing from one religion to the other religion. We go to Catholic and Orthodox churches. We’re not organized enough to go every Sunday but when we go, we try to alternate.
The only one of the main holidays that varies is Easter. Christmas is the same. In Lebanon, they are much more like they are here—they color the eggs and have all the traditions. In Mexico, it’s an important holiday, but it’s not about coloring the eggs, the Easter bunny, etc. It’s about the church and spending time with family; there’s no real tradition around it.
Jad: In Eastern cultures, Easter is really important, more important than Christmas. It’s a much bigger deal in Lebanon than Mexico.
Selene: We celebrate both but we would do the special meal for the Greek Orthodox Easter, skyping with his family, coloring the eggs, etc.
Do you celebrate other holidays, unique to your own countries?
Selene: Once you have a child, it is a tradition to present her to the Virgin del Guadalupe in Mexico. My family traditionally dresses the baby in indigenous attire. These were embroidered with her name before she was even born. When I went to Mexico in August, my parents and I dressed her up and took Nadia to a sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico and presented her then. You are supposed to do this on December 12 but I wanted my parents to be present so we did it while I was home. December 12 is when you see all the kids bringing flowers to the Virgin, and you give thanks you have your child with you and that they are healthy.
Since she’s still very little we didn’t do anything for her this year for Dia de los Muertos but I would like to decorate the skulls with her next year.
What have been your major challenges as an intercultural family?
Jad: Overall we do not have major challenges. Learning the language definitely makes it easier. I know it’s hard for Selene to communicate with my family because they don’t speak Spanish and their English is not that good. From my perspective, when I go to Mexico, I feel like I am home. I really enjoy the different cultures. I think the Mexican culture is very rich and very warm. In a lot of ways it’s similar to the Lebanese culture. A lot of family values and all that. It’s also a little more of an open culture than Lebanese culture. But Lebanese culture is in a way open as well; it’s been changing over the years. So overall, we’ve not had any challenges.
Selene: Because we studied here in the U.S., and did our college degrees here, we were Americanized by the time we met each other. We were college kids like any others, just with an accent. The differences are not huge between our cultures so culturally we have not had any challenges. Before we had her, we always talked about what we do before we had kids. Maybe choosing which church the baby was baptized in was something we had to talk about. We got married in the Catholic church, partly because it was an easier transition. In the Catholic church, they allow Greek Orthodox. But in the Orthodox church, they are more strict. I did not want the strictness of the other religion.
Jad: Selene feels stronger in her Catholic faith than I feel in mine. The church is more about my family than the religion itself. I grew up this way and never questioned it. I am attached to it because it’s my family, not as much for the religion itself.
Selene: I went to Catholic school. I grew up in a country that’s 76% Catholic. It was harder for me to give that up than Jad. For him, it was more just his family.
What are some of your cultural differences?
Selene: Food is where you notice the contrast. They eat much more lamb versus pork or chicken.
Jad: Pork is not readily available in Lebanon like here; you have to go to a specialty store to get it so not too many people eat it. It’s not something I personally prefer, not as much as lamb and goat.
Selene: Lebanese and Mexican cultures are very similar when it comes to family, values and what’s expected of you in society. Mexico has a huge Lebanese population that has been there for many generations. I was used to their food and parties so it’s funny I ended up with a real Lebanese.
Jad: The social classes and poverty in Mexico were something that shocked me. Lebanon is a small country and you don’t see the poverty you see in Mexico. Even the low income families still live pretty good in Lebanon—they still have houses, go to events, etc. It’s not like in Mexico.
What have been your greatest joys as an intercultural family?
Selene: Learning the traditions. I find it very enriching, like Easter for example, that we can do American traditions, Lebanese ones. Traditions are the most exciting part.
Jad: I really enjoy the Mexican culture. I love the history, the music, the dance, the mariachi, the tequila. Mariachi is especially something unique, it’s very rich. You go to a cantina in Mexico and see them dancing and singing mariachi—I love it.
Are there any parts of American culture you want to either incorporate or avoid as a family?
Selene: I really like the tradition of Thanksgiving. Even when you don’t have a family here, people invite you over and make you part of theirs.
I want to avoid the commercialization and capitalism of the holidays. I don’t want every holiday to be about the gifts. I really don’t want to have that. There’s a limit to gifts.
Jad: I like the idea of them learning how to depend on themselves and be an individual. The idea of them learning how to accept people from other cultures is also good. Growing up in Lebanon, we never had the experience of other cultures. Most of Lebanese are Lebanese. We have Armenians but after generations, they have also become somewhat Lebanese over time. Diversity doesn’t exist. We have diversity of religions and it creates a lot of conflicts although, I grew up with most of my good friends from different religions and we all got along.
Here, in the U.S., it gives you more openness to the world, just the nature of the country and from a tourism and business perspective, it’s open to people from other countries. In more cosmopolitan cities, people accept diversity more. If you live in a small town, you stick out more. In general, the U.S. is such a large society and has so much diversity, it’s hard to say that there is one aspect of American culture. I don’t want my kids to be ignorant about the world and only know the local news. That’s not really the whole culture, it’s more certain people.
How has your experience in the U.S. been where you live?
Jad: We live in a pretty conservative area so it has been really hard. We had to invest a lot of time in finding the right people who will fit with us and our culture.
Selene: In the suburbs here, it’s very white and the accent doesn’t help you to make friends. But if you know someone that lived abroad or they had a friend that lived in another country that makes it easier.
Do you plan to stay there?
Selene: In the end, we are here for job opportunities. We’re not tied to it here other than the job that we have and the friends that we have made.
Jad: I would love to move back to Lebanon. In Lebanon, people work from 8 to 2; they don’t have the crazy work ethic like we do. It would be a good experience for my wife, kids and for me to touch base as well. I’d also love to go to other countries as well, either South America or Europe. We like to look at different opportunities.
Selene: I would move to Lebanon, why not. The hardest thing for me was moving from Mexico to Costa Rica as a teenager for two years. Then I came here and I had to reinvent myself again. I could do it again. If the place has everything that we are looking for to raise a family, then I would move.
Thank you Selene and Jad!
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