It was always very much in the plan to raise Bo bilingual. Cultural identity is such an important part of our sense of belonging… it gives us a language by which to understand the world around us. It gives us benchmarks. It gives us something to rebel against and something to adhere to (some of us do much more rebelling than adhering, which I think is great). Without it, we would be lost. Some people may think we would be better off, but the reality is we are conditioned by our culture, by the very undertones of the world around us… whether we like it or not we need it as a platform from which to jump. It’s up to us to choose what we do with that cultural shaping. I digress, there is actually a LOT more I want to say about this, but not right now. Right now I want to answer one readers question about what happens now with Bo, with how we (I) choose to raise her.
For me in many ways it would be easier to just raise her my way. In my language. With my social norms (which are not always societal norms – but more on that another time). With my words and my understanding and my (lack of) religion. But that wouldn’t be fair on Bo. Bo is half Indonesian. That culture, those words, the smells, the religion, the earthy beauty of the people, the salt in the air, the generosity of spirit, the grounded spirit of my in-laws – it’s all a part of her. The coconut trees and the dark sand and the salty fish are part of her identity. They always will be. A part of her will always belong to that spectacular archipelago of islands that I fell in love with (and in). It would be irresponsible for me, I think, to ignore that. It is important that she understands a different way of life. It is important that she can eat rice with her hand off of banana leaves and that she can successfully de-bone a fish with one hand. It is important that she understands never to offer or receive gifts or money with her left hand, that can use a squat toilet and doesn’t balk at the idea of showering out of a bucket. It’s important that she is respectful of her families religion and of their traditions. It’s important that she understands that many people live without the creature comforts that come standard living in the western world. It is important that her family in Indonesia live without hot water, ovens, fancy toys and clothes and house furnishings… that we lived like that for years too… that we will probably live like that again. It’s important that she understands that what you have does not define who you are, it’s what you DO that counts. I learned all of these things whilst I was there and I will do everything I can to hang on to them so that I can teach them to her. So that when we visit Indonesia she can learn more about who she is from the family there that love her…
I don’t know what will happen next week, month, year with Bo’s father and I. I don’t know what will happen to our relationship or where we will go from here when it comes to parenting our child. But one thing is certain, I will work very hard to ensure that the Indonesian culture is an important part of her life. It is a challenge for me, seeing as I am not Indonesian and we are not living within the culture any more… but I will find a way.
When Bo is big enough to really ask questions and interact more then i will have a better shot at weaving some of the intricacies and differences between Eastern and Western life into the fabric of our day to day lives. For now, that’s a little unnecessary and might be over-complicating things.In many ways the Indonesian culture is a big part of her life still. Babywearing and co-sleeping are very important elements of Indonesian parenting that we (I) have always incorporated into our lives. We didn’t use them because they were Indonesian, but because they were right for us – regardless of the fact they are not Western societal norms. I stand very strongly by my decision to continue to co-sleep as well as extended breastfeeding… but those are food for thought for another day.
For now what I see is most important is language. And that’s a very tall order for me. When I arrived in Indonesia three years ago I spoke not one word of the language. I now can confidently say I can speak Indonesian. I can hold a reasonable conversation and I can understand a fair bit of written (casual) Indonesian without the need for my dictionary, but I am by no means fluent. Regardless of this I talk to Bo in Indonesian a lot. Although Ni speaks very good English his family speaks none, so for Bo to have a good relationship with her Indonesian family it is vital that she can speak the language.
So this is where I start. Language. I talk to Bo primarily in English, because that is what comes nturally to me. But when I give her simple instructions (ie. eat your dinner, it’s time for bed, careful that’s hot etc.) I try to do so in English and then repeat the instruction/explanation in Indonesian. Sometimes now I just use the Indonesian word or simple phrase and I know now from her response that she understands. She clearly understands the words for eat, drink, follow, sleep (lay down), wake up (get up) and kiss in both languages. So I guess we are getting somewhere.
It’s a big responsibility to have alone as a parent. It’s a lot to think about and a lot to consider. I know that I wont be able to give her as full a picture of the culture, as full an experience, as her father would have been able to give her if he had the time or the inclination to do so. But I will do my best. We have a few picture books that are in both English and Indonesian. Unfortunately they aren’t very well written (or illustrated) so they don’t hold either of our attention for long. Perhaps it requires that I do a bit more research to find better stories.
We are at the very beginning of this journey into bilingual childhood. I was only raised with one language so it’s completely new territory for me. I’m sure there will be plenty of stories and mistakes and achievements and set backs and wonderful slip-ups along the way.
Are any of you raising bilingual children? Do you have any tips? I think I could use all the help I can get!