I came to the United States 13 years ago, as an adult from Nigeria. Despite being well traveled as a former airline employee, I had very little understanding of other cultures beyond my own.
In Nigeria, we believe in showing the utmost respect for your elders–elders meaning parents and their peers, grandparents, older friends and teachers. It is also a country that is rich in traditions ranging from wedding ceremonies to the birth of babies. For instance, in the Yoruba culture, a baby is not given a name at the hospital, but through a “naming ceremony” seven days after birth. The baby gets names from the whole extended families, the parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and siblings. A child could end up with as many as fifteen names, and the parents choose one which they will use, usually theirs or the grandparents.
In the Yoruba tribe, we have several cultural norms related to how you greet and address elders. Females kneel down to greet our parents and elders (aunties, uncles, parents, friends and so on). To greet much older people like grandparents, you are expected to fully bend your knees and have them touch the floor. With parents and other familiar people, it’s ok to curtsy with bended knee, although some might insist on the knees touching the floor. For men and boys, they are expected to prostrate, lie down flat on the floor to greet, but again bending at the waist is a smaller, acceptable gesture.
When responding to older people, the answer is normally, “Beeni ma or sir,” meaning “yes ma, or yes sir,” which is another way to show respect. When someone (a visitor) meets you eating, you invite them to eat. The typical response is, “No thank you,” but some people may actually join in. This also applies to when people come to visit you. You offer them food, not just drinks. And lastly, if kids are old enough (usually seven or eight) they are taught to help when they see an adult carrying something.
Fast forward to raising a child in America. How does one combine “hi mommy” with the “good morning mommy” from home? How do you teach your child what’s valuable to you in your culture? How do you let your child know which context belongs to which culture? My mom, a retired school principal was very strict when instilling cultural values in us. Even though I hated it then, I more than appreciate it now because I hear her voice and feel her approval or disapproval in everything I do.
We can train our children in our culture by a simple biblical teaching: “Train up your child while they are young, when they grow up, they will not depart from it.”
I started training my children within the family. When grandparents visit, I teach them to kneel down or prostrate to greet them properly when they come back from school. They in turn get hugs from their grandparents. I listen to most of my parents’ advice but follow my own instincts when needed. My daughter is eight, so she gets it and does it without my prompting. My son who is five finds the prostrating both confusing and hilarious and prefers to kneel with his sister (which makes me laugh as it’s so funny to see a boy kneeling). For now it works, at least he gets that he has to do something different.
I have always been impressed when I see my friends’ kids curtsy to greet me when we are at events. Even though I don’t expect it, it strikes a warm chord within me, and I have started to teach my daughter the same thing. (I’m old school, I know). I have taught her that when we’re in a Nigerian gathering, she should kneel and say hello to aunties and uncles. For now, she still needs prompting, but I hope eventually it will come naturally. Note she doesn’t kneel to greet me though, and I didn’t teach her that! Sometimes, if I do something extra special, I might prompt her to “kneel down and say thank you” just to teach her for later, in case of visits back home. I grew up with my mum caring about the kneeling and my dad not caring at all, so we children greeted them differently.
When it comes to food, I love to cook both American and Nigerian food. I am successfully raising my kids on both. They eat our local amala (yam flour), eba (cassava meal) and the king of all–pounded yam–even though they refer to them as white amala or black amala. They laugh and plead with me when I tell them I’ll bring those meals to their school for “show and tell” though (I don’t know why).
Where I have failed miserably is teaching them my native language, Yoruba. They understand a few phrases but cannot speak it. I will continue to work hard on that as I believe that is another valuable addition to their cultural education.
So how do we train bi/multicultural child or expat children? Here are a few tips I have learned with time. Feel free to add your own:
- Speak your native language to your children from birth. They will still learn English particularly if they have a care provider that speaks in English or they go to daycare
- Teach them your cultural values early–respect, kneeling, whatever it is that is important to you
- Tell fun stories about your childhood as well as stories about the traditions in your culture
- Tell them what’s OK or not in your culture
- Teach them to practice their cultural values, language skills, etc in familiar surroundings (among close friends and families of the same culture)
- Let them know about your food
- Show and tell that you’re proud of your culture
This is not meant to be a “how to” guide but just some ideas from our rich Yoruba culture that perhaps other multicultural families can use.
A version of this article was originally published in African Goddess Magazine.