Monday, October 8th, 2012
Real Intercultural Family in the U.S.: Spanish and English
Becky, Antonio and their four children (c) Becky Morales
Welcome Becky and Antonio!
Where are you from?
Becky: I am from Chicago and Antonio is from Mexico City.
Where do you currently live and what countries have you lived in together?
Antonio: We live in Houston, Texas. We have lived together in the U.S. and in the U.K.
How did you meet?
Becky: When I was a student at the University of Illinois-Champaign, there was a student organization called “International Illini.” It matched up U.S. students who had just returned from studying abroad with international students who had just arrived to the U.S. to study abroad. The idea was that the U.S. students had heightened empathy or understanding for how it was to live in another culture, with another language, and would be able to help the newcomers adjust to the university. We were assigned to be each others’ “buddies”.
So we met at the first picnic, with all of the other “buddies.” It took us a while, because there were a lot of people there, and I was looking for a “Jose” (Antonio is actually “Jose Antonio”) and Antonio was looking for a “Rebecca.” In the end, we found each other and clicked instantly. Over the following weeks I started to show Antonio all around the campus. We were friends with a large group of international students, and would go salsa dancing a couple of times a week, study together in the library, eat the dull dorm food together, work out together, etc. It was so fun—I brought Antonio home to experience an “American” Thanksgiving and meet her huge family, and the rest is history.
Antonio: Becky opened my eyes to so many things and cherished our conversations as we endured a four-year long distance relationship, as I finished my degrees in Mexico and Becky finished hers in the U.S. Pre-skype, we did send many emails and spent a fortune on long distance phone calls. I cherished hearing her voice as we talked late at night and learned more about each other. Becky opened my eyes to so many things. We complement each other in every aspect and always learn from each other.
How old are your children and where were they born?
Becky: Our oldest is Antonio (we call him “Tonito,” which means little Antonio) and he is seven. He was born in Urumqi, China.
Antonio: We adopted him four years ago..
Becky: Viviana (“Vivi”) was born outside Chicago, and she is also seven. Maya is four and was also born outside Chicago. Ricardo (“Ricky”) is also four, and he was born in Shebedino, Ethiopia…
Antonio: …where we traveled to bring him home over a year ago.
What passports do you and the kids hold?
Antonio: I have a passport from the U.S. and Mexico, Becky and the kids so far just have the U.S., but they are working on their Mexico passports.
What language do you speak together?
Becky: We try to speak only Spanish. The reality is that it is a combination of English and Spanish—certain topics come more natural in one of the languages.
In what languages do you speak to the kids?
Antonio: I only speak Spanish to the kids.
Becky: However, it is not a true OPOL situation because he works long hours, so I also try to speak Spanish with the kids when they are not in school. It is not a question of not being able to speak Spanish, it is more like in the chaos of having four little kids, sometimes English comes out instead of Spanish.
Antonio: Kids understand clearly what we tell them in Spanish and we try to foster and celebrate when they reply in Spanish as well. Reading and singing in Spanish is a helpful way to expand their vocabulary in this language.
What languages do the kids speak?
Becky: Amongst each other they speak English, with Antonio (and his relatives) they speak Spanish, and with me it is a combination.
Antonio: They are also learning Mandarin in a Saturday class, and we would love to continue this.
How do you reinforce all the languages beyond just the parents speaking it?
Antonio: In Mexico this summer, Becky purchased a lot of books they use in Mexico to teach reading/writing in Spanish, and we have been working on Spanish literacy. It is amazing to see how fast the kids are learning to read/write in Spanish.
Becky: We also do preschool-type activities in Spanish at home while the big kids are in school–for example I made a calendar in Spanish, we have some games/puzzles in Spanish, and we do activities in Spanish with simple patterns, numbers and letters. With all of the kids we read a lot of Spanish books. All of this increases their vocabulary and comprehension–what we are trying to do now is increase their communication (having them speak it).
Antonio: We are hoping that Mandarin school on Saturdays helps them to get some awareness and intonation. We’ve also purchased books in Chinese and Amharic to create awareness of these languages among all kids.
Do you have any advice for parents raising multilingual kids on what works and what doesn’t?
Becky: What has helped immensely is spending every summer in Mexico—they go to a day camp for a month and we live with Antonio’s parents. It is essential to have the kids speak the target language with other kids! We also make an effort to get together with other families that speak Spanish. Whether it is a playgroup, or just a regularly occurring playdate, I think that having the kids play with other kids—especially those that don’t speak English—is so helpful in developing the language. You don’t want the kids to begin to associate a language with only adults, or only with discipline, or only homework, etc. It’s nice to use it in a variety of situations.
Antonio: We celebrate when they try to speak Spanish and avoid over-criticism so they feel comfortable trying to speak a second language.
Do you have any concerns with your kids’ language acquisition?
Antonio: The speaking is the biggest struggle. They understand it completely, but we are working on building the confidence and natural ability to use the language (especially difficult to pronounce phonemes), and draw on all of the knowledge they do have in their little brains.
What religion are you both? And how are you raising the kids?
Becky: We are both Catholic, though because our son is from China and our other son is from Ethiopia, we incorporate celebrations that are Buddhist and Orthodox as well.
What are some of your biggest cultural differences?
Becky: In the U.S. we are very focused (and borderline obsessed) on making our kids independent—which is important, but it is also important to bond and nurture them, and let them enjoying being little. Another difference that I am happy we have overcome is that in Mexico, parties are not segregated into adults and kids. For example, you wouldn’t have a birthday party for a child that is just for kids and a separate one for family members. Everyone celebrates in one big party together. Parties in Mexico also are grand affairs, inviting everyone you know—we love to have huge parties now, with kids and adults mingling together.
One cultural difference that we now understand more is the differences in communication. For example a promise in each culture has different degrees or probability of completion. In Latin culture, sometimes saying you will do something could mean that you might do it, if you have time. Or you might just say you will do it to save face, or be polite, without actually having the intention to do it. Americans sometimes seem very rude when they are so blunt, or might seem cold for saying no without beating around the bush. It is all different communication styles that we have slowly learned how to navigate and understand. Now we are both good at understanding these hidden meanings—and we hope our kids will eventually acquire these nuances!
Antonio: Americans tend to go straight to the point, having a direct approach. In Mexico, you take some time to warm-up and ensure that the connection with the other person is there before going to the point, an indirect approach.
Another cultural difference that we have not had to confront yet is with teens and alcohol. From a U.S. perspective, teens should not be drinking alcohol until they are 21. In Mexico however, if the teens are with their parents, in a safe environment, it is fine for them to drink alcohol. In fact, Antonio’s family believes it is better for the kids to try it in the presence of their parents so they can take care of their son or daughter. We still disagree on how we will approach this, though we continue to discuss it and obviously will be consistent once we reach that age.
How have you ensured that your adopted children’s cultures are represented in your home? Has it been challenging to integrate cultures that are not your own and ensure balanced representation? Is balanced representation something you strive for, or do you think about it differently?
Becky: Our house is quite eclectic, with a collection of folk art, furniture, textiles, photographs, etc. from around the world, especially from our family’s cultures. In addition to be surrounded by the beautiful physical reminders, we also incorporate cooking a couple of times a month from each culture (Mexico, China, Ethiopia). We attend an Ethiopian church once in a while, and sometimes go to another church in Spanish. We celebrate the major holidays of each country with people of that culture. For example, we attend a party every year at the Chinese Consulate for Chinese New Year, go to the Ethiopian Church for major Ethiopian holidays, and go to a city concert/grito for Mexican Independence Day, in addition to hosting such parties for our friends. It is easier for us to incorporate Mexican and Chinese traditions into our lives because of the population where we live, and it has been a challenge to incorporate Ethiopian customs and celebrations due to a smaller population. To counteract this, we are hosting an Ethiopian exchange student for this academic year, in the hopes of learning more about Ethiopian culture. In fact she has come with us to the Ethiopian Church, and her family has put us into contact with Ethiopian families nearby us.
Antonio: In anticipation of the holiday or tradition, we also read for a couple of weeks about the origin of these traditions (e.g., Chinese New Year), how they are celebrated, and their significance.
What have been your greatest challenges as an intercultural family?
Sometimes a holiday sneaks up on us and all of a sudden we realize we have done nothing! For example, this year we realized that we did not set up our altar for Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday remembering the dead. What has helped is to make a master calendar of what traditions we would like to maintain. Another challenge is to find other families who are in similar situations, and who would like to participate in celebrations, etc.
What have been your greatest joys as an intercultural family?
We love having so much to celebrate! We love learning about other cultures, and are so happy our children have the opportunity to feel comfortable in so many different situations. I think our children are more compassionate and tolerant because they have the experiences of interacting with different people in different cultural traditions.
Antonio: Learning about other cultures enriches and strengthens family values. It also reinforces self-esteem by making our children proud about their origins. It also challenges their cultural framework compared to a monocultural environment like what is “cool” and “not cool,” realizing these things are relative depending on where you are.
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