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Confessions & Confusions: Raising dual culture children

27 Comments
By Melodie Cook

“Confessions & Confusions” is Melodie Cook’s monthly advice column on alternative parenting in Japan. Here, she answers questions from potential adoptive or foster parents, those who have already been through the system or any parents who just need to let off some steam. Got a question? Leave a comment.

This month we are tackling a question from a Canadian resident in Japan on a topic that many intercultural parents struggle with: “How did you deal with raising your children in a Western way while actually bringing them up in a Japanese environment? Did you want them influenced by your own culture or not?”

Actually, I don’t know if I’m trying to raise my kids in a “Western” way. Well, not consciously, anyway — I just do things my way and if that’s the Western style, so be it. My husband does things his way, which I guess is the “Japanese” way. Sometimes we have different ideas about what to do with the kids in certain situations, but I think all parents come up against that. I would hope for more for my daughter than to be an office flower, and also for my son to feel free to not be a salaryman. I don’t want to pressure either of my children to go to a brand-name college and I hope, like any parents, that they will find their happiness in the future.

The Language Issue

Let’s remember that our son came to us at the age of 3 going on 4 and our daughter at 12. Both came with personalities intact and both identify as Japanese. Because we started taking my son to Canada every summer right from the get-go when his brain was still pretty malleable, his passive knowledge of English shot up like a rocket and after a month there, upon returning to Japan, I was able to communicate with him in English (although he answers me in Japanese). Once, when I couldn’t remember how to say an English word in Japanese and was asking my husband, my son answered. I think he was 5 or 6 at the time. His English level is nowhere near kids of his age in Canada and I don’t expect it to be. However, we have done some work on phonics and he can read children’s graded readers, for which he is rewarded extra screen time.

My daughter is another matter. Although she went to an English day care at the Catholic orphanage she lived in (and likely has some English stored in some far reaches of her brain) it is slow to come up, even though we’ve been together for almost a year. I have to speak to her in my very-less-than-perfect Japanese and she often corrects me (which is fine). I wish her English was better so that I could talk to her more, but after 20 years of living here, I also wish that my own Japanese was better, too.

A Cultural Chameleon

I’m Jewish, so although I give the kids Christmas presents because Christmas is a secular holiday here, I won’t go so far as buying a tree, decorating the house or even ordering a turkey and attempting to roast it. We do celebrate Chanukah (complete with latkes) and I give the kids gifts for that, although my husband thinks I spend too much money on them. I also enjoy celebrating Japanese holidays, although my husband thinks the kids are too old for them. For setsubun, I wore the mask as the “kiss devil,” knowing full well that my kids hate being kissed and they eagerly (and rather savagely) threw peanuts at me. Sometimes, when I want to hug and kiss them, they’ll not-so-gently remind me that they are Japanese and we are in Japan so I should just cut it out. I entertain the notion that they secretly enjoy the affection, so refuse to be daunted.

Food Is a Universal Language

I can cook both Japanese and Western food, but my kids definitely prefer lasagna and garlic bread to grilled fish. My son enjoys eating Canadian food more than my daughter does and he is a very happy camper while in Canada. Although my husband cooks primarily Japanese meals, he is not beyond picking up something deep-fried at the grocery store to supplement the miso soup and rice. Both my husband and I have tried to make bento for my daughter but they don’t look nice, so as long as we make the dishes, she’ll arrange them attractively. In summary: we’re a mixed bag.

Roles of Females and Males

I think maybe the most important way I’m influencing my children in a “Western” way is by living the reverse of traditional roles for females and males in Japan. I’m the main breadwinner at home; my husband works part-time and does the bulk of the cooking, cleaning, and childcare. He goes to PTA meetings, takes the kids to their sports practices, medical appointments and other important activities. I often travel for work presenting at conferences both in and out of Japan. They live in this environment and I believe they learn that there is another side of the coin: wherever we happen to live.

My Own Parental Dilemma

I do feel a sense of guilt at times that I am not enough of a mother to my kids, especially the kind of Japanese mother who makes artistic bento, keeps a spotless house, wakes before the family and goes to sleep after every else (does she really exist?).

So, in answer to this month’s question, I am not consciously trying to raise my children in a Western way. I respect their Japanese roots and it’s everyone’s fate that we ended up together. Basically, I look at it like this: they can pick and choose from both cultures as they like. I told my son that knowing English is his superpower. Should either of the kids wish to study abroad and better their English, we’ll make it happen. If they don’t want to do that, fine. If they had come to us at younger ages, my influence would have likely been stronger and they’d likely both be bilingual and bicultural, but then, I have friends whose mixed-race birth children rejected their foreign side, so time only knows what will happen.

Melodie Cook (originally from Canada), is an adoptive and foster mother currently living in Niigata, Japan. She is also an Associate Professor at the University of Niigata Prefecture. After adopting her son in 2009, she started an online yahoo group “adoptioninjapan” in order to connect with other mixed-race families raising adopted children. She also has created a facebook page where adoptive and foster families can give and receive advice and support. Both groups are private, so please contact her to join: cookmelo@unii.ac.jp.

© Savvy Tokyo

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.


27 Comments
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Very interesting as ever. Thanks!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Ultimately, I don't think it's fair on the kid to raise a half-Japanese, half-something-else in Japan.

-11 ( +1 / -12 )

Ultimately, I don't think it's fair on the kid to raise a half-Japanese, half-something-else in Japan.

You're entitled to your opinion, but I think you're wrong. Like Melodie, we raised our kids 'our way' - they identify as Japanese, since this is where they live and grew up, but they have a pretty strong UK element, including food preferences, attitudes to gender roles, language, culture, etc. Being 'half-something-else in Japan' has never been a problem, and has often been an asset.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

You're entitled to your opinion, but I think you're wrong. Like Melodie, we raised our kids 'our way' - they identify as Japanese, since this is where they live and grew up, but they have a pretty strong UK element, including food preferences, attitudes to gender roles, language, culture, etc. Being 'half-something-else in Japan' has never been a problem, and has often been an asset.

I have to say the same, though my kids are not as old as yours. But being half non-Japanese has not been an issue for either of my kids.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

I think maybe the most important way I’m influencing my children in a “Western” way is by living the reverse of traditional roles for females and males in Japan.

Would even go further and call that a 'progressive' way (although am not a massive fan of this word) rather than Western per se (let's call it a 'what feels right for you/hubby way!'). Actually think it's a great opportunity for your kids to have a mum & dad who have chosen to break free of traditional gender (and to some extent, racial) stereotypes. It will be interesting to see if later in life (work, love life etc) they need to adjust/conform to society's norms or if it happens naturally.

Excellent read, as usual!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

You're entitled to your opinion, but I think you're wrong. Like Melodie, we raised our kids 'our way' - they identify as Japanese, since this is where they live and grew up, but they have a pretty strong UK element, including food preferences, attitudes to gender roles, language, culture, etc. Being 'half-something-else in Japan' has never been a problem, and has often been an asset

Agree with both cleo and Strangerland. Never been a problem (though there were some challenges especially when it comes to languages) and has been an asset. Both for me, and for my children.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

We raised our two as 100% Japanese. Mainly because of (my) concerns about bullying.

Now they're older, I wish they spoke better English. But they're both happy and healthy, so no complaints.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

lucabrasi

We raised our two as 100% Japanese. Mainly because of (my) concerns about bullying. Now they're older, I wish they spoke better English. But they're both happy and healthy, so no complaints

Just curious.. what do you mean by raising your kids 100% as Japanese? Does that mean your family only spoke Japanese at home and ate Japanese food and not interacting your foreign side of family and not visiting your home outside of Japan?

I mean, I'm just not sure what you mean when you say 100% Japanese because to me, that's not possible. My kids (mixed) go to Japanese school, they speak multiple languages because of living in Japan and having two parents who speak different languages, they have relatives outside of Japan.. They are probably more Japanese because majority of the people they interact with here are Japanese, but we don't raise them "as Japanese", in fact, we don't even think we want them to live as Japanese or non Japanese or half Japanese or whatever.. They are what they are and they eat, speak, and interact with whoever that are in their lives.

They have brown eyes and brown hair but that doesn't chase their Japanese friends away and they don't get bullied because of the extra languages they speak or the food they eat at home. Like I said in my earlier post, there have been some challenges when it comes to languages because living in Japan, it's not so easy to learn second/third language to be as good as their native Japanese language. But that's just a challenge nothing negative..

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@fishy

As far as speaking Japanese goes, yes. Japanese food, too - I'm English, so home-cooking wasn't an option.

Of course we went to England, but we never pushed it as an choice. Just because you have an English father doesn't suddenly make you a subject of her Majesty.

I love my kids. They're Japanese. Don't understand the problem....

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

lucabrasi,

I love my kids. They're Japanese. Don't understand the problem....

Oh no, it's not a problem at all, I was just curious how it's possible to raise them 100% Japanese as in my book there's no such thing. The fact your kids visited your country made them see outside of Japan and the fact that you being from outside of Japan probably gave them a broader view of the world. They can be Japanese AND English, no need to label them as Japanes, no? (even if they only spoke Japanese). Because being Japanese doesn't mean speaking only Japanese or eating only Japanese food :)

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Just because you have an English father doesn't suddenly make you a subject of her Majesty

I thought having an English (UK) parent did make you a UK citizen? Whether you go and demand the passport you're entitled to is a different matter....

I'm English, so home-cooking wasn't an option.

???

1 ( +3 / -2 )

@fishy&cleo

I was bullied for having the wrong accent (Shetland/Cambridge vs. North Lancs). I was determined that it wouldn't to my kids. It didn't. So I win : )

0 ( +2 / -2 )

You've lost me, lucabrasi. You didn't want your kids to have a Shetland/Cambridge vs. North Lancs accent? So you didn't teach them English? Did you have similar reservations over their Japanese accents? I started off wth a Toyama accent, most of which I think I've now lost, Mr cleo has a Tokyo accent, our kids have a (slight) Tochigi accent. Their English has a Japanese accent, mine has a (apparently still pretty strong) Lancashire accent. Who cares? It's all good, all grist to the mill. Variety is the spice of life, and all that.

Happy and healthy is the most important, we share that. :-)

1 ( +4 / -3 )

My son has a Tokyo japanese accent(wife was from Nagoya), his english has an South African accent and his german an vienesse one.

Wait till I start him on french, etc.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Our family moved to Japan when our daughters were 5 and 6. They spoke English and Japanese. They attended regular Japanese school for three years before returning to the USA. In our case, imo, our kids suffered culture shock. We have been dealing with some issues that might be traced to this cultural confusion. But since they are 15 and 16 now it's hard to say. Teenagers being teenagers.

I have come to the conclusion we should have been more aware of the challenge moving presents to kids. Especially between cultures.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

lucabrasi

i was born in japan.. with a japanese dad and french mom. i grew up in japan so my japanese is my native language. my french has a slight japanese accent and my english which i learned as a teen in the united states has some japanese and french accent with an american twist :) my kids (both me and my husband are half japanese. husband is half american) speak japanese with no accent and their french and english have japanese accent. learning french and english as their second/third language doesn't change their japanese accent.

it's not about winning or losing. but you love your kids.. so that's a win for your kids regardless their nationality!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Thanks everyone for the lively discussion!

-Mel

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Ultimately, I don't think it's fair on the kid to raise a half-Japanese, half-something-else in Japan.

I disagree when it comes to your own biological children. To deprive them of half their biological cultural roots seems very cruel and they will probably have regrets about it later in life. However, I would be hesitant about imposing my own western culture on a biologically Japanese adopted child.

Of course, there are benefits to being exposed to a second culture and language whatever that might be. But with an adopted child, why does it have to be the culture of the adopting parent? Why not pick a different culture every month. March can be Canadian month and in April it can be Spanish.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

with an adopted child, why does it have to be the culture of the adopting parent?

This is a trick question, right?

Because it's the parent. Your child is your child, adopted or biological. If you're going to treat a child differently from a biological child because it's adopted, then it's probably better not to adopt.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Um, yeah, the fact that some people write about their adoptive experiences is a sure sign that they are not treating their kids the same as bio kids, no?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Of course you treat your adoptive child differently Cleo. You respect the fact that they are not your biological child. They have their own cultural roots and psychological needs. Melodie's adopted children are understandably never going to feel any strong psychological urge to connect with their ancestors by visiting the place where Jacques Cartier first came ashore and claimed Canada as New France. They might find it interesting, but it won't satify the need most people have to understand how they and their ancestors fit into history. (Of course, Canada doesn't have a particularly strong and singular culture so it's not the best example.)

I suspect that if you have no hesitation about imposing your own culture on an adpoted child, you will be politely declined if you try to adopt. It might be tempting to declare that you are 'the parent' in order to simplify the situation, but it's not that simple. It's pretty self important to think that just because you become the legal parent, it's your own culture that needs to be instilled in the child. The child might naturally be interested in your own culture if you become a valued part of their life over time (and if they find it interesting), but not simply because you are the legal authority figure on paper. Clearly, if someone is a poor adoptive parent and the adopted child comes to despises them, there would be no great tragedy if the adoptive parent's culture is not passed down.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I raise my two daughters both in a Dutch way and Japnese, kids pick up languages very fast and they seem to do alright in school and at home with my wife since I learned most about kids from my mother also the in laws are also always ready to pitch in when needed.

I want to share all the wonderful things of my homeland with my kids even if some consider that bad.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Of course you treat your adoptive child differently Cleo. You respect the fact that they are not your biological child. They have their own cultural roots and psychological needs

There may be a need to 'respect the fact that they are not your biological child' if they develop a medical condition and the doctor asks if anyone else in the family has the same (genetic) condition.

I hope any parent would deal with a child's psychological needs regardless of whether the child is adopted or biological.

If the child is adopted as a baby or at a very young age, it has no 'cultural roots' and it's the parents' duty to provide them, just as they would for a biological child.

If as in Melodie's case the kids are adopted when they are older, then obviously they come with their own roots that of course must be respected - just as (I hope) a parent would respect the different perspective of a biological child from whom they have been separated, by divorce, illness, work or whatever.

You don't 'impose your culture' on a child. Biological or adopted, you do the best you can for the child and give the child the best of yourself.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I was bullied for having the wrong accent (Shetland/Cambridge vs. North Lancs). I was determined that it wouldn't to my kids. It didn't. So I win : )

lucabrasi - Glad your kids are healthy, happy and all, but you wasted a golden opportunity to raise them as flint bilingual speakers. They lose.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

@clamenza

Agree completely. I wish I could go back in time and change it all. All I can say is that my desire that they "fit in" was too strong and perhaps took away my common sense. Still, they weren't ever bullied, and in fact were popular in a way I never was. So I'm not too unhappy.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Fair enough Cleo, but I think you are underestimating the sense of kinship and identity most people get from feeling connected with the culture, language, customs and country of their biological ancestors. To say that a baby has no cultural roots might be strictly true if we look at culture as a purely social construct, but that child will eventually ask 'who am I? Where did I come from? What's my identity?'. Whether you like it or not, the answer that society will give them is that they are whatever their biological parents were. You can either try to convince the (now adult) child that society is wrong, or you can just make the extra effort to ensure that the child has significant exposure to the culture of their birth parents.

To see how things can go wrong you only need to look at the thousands of Chinese children who were adopted by American parents in the 1980-90s and raised to be completely American. Many are now desperate to reconnect with the cultural and language of their biological ancestors in order to feel a stronger sense of identity. Parents need to be a bit more sensitive to these special needs of adopted children, so only in that sense do I think that they need to be treated a bit differently.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Thank you for the excellent discussion, all! It is a very complicated issue with no simple answers. I have heard many, even among my Canadian relatives, advocate that I treat my children no differently than if I had given birth to them, but I don't think that's possible. As M2M3M3 has said above, parents DO need to be sensitive to the special needs of adopted children. I have a good friend whose family hid the fact of her adoption from her and she always knew in her heart that she wasn't the biological child of the family and found the truth in a rather abrupt and difficult manner.

Basically, we all need love and respect for who we are no matter who our parents are!

-Mel

3 ( +3 / -0 )

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