Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

You are what you eat

Good try Fee, but I think you’ll find that I am the baddest blogger in the PA house. Between a computer meltdown that happened on cue five minutes after I wondered out loud how many months it had been since I last did a back-up (aargh), a down-to-the-studs kitchen renovation that has coincided in more than one way with the blitzing of Beirut, and of course my ongoing gig as a 24-hour dairy, the writing rate has suffered a little.

But that’s OK, because now that I’m (ahem) Reviewer of the Year (puts down own horn, after particularly satisfying toot), I can afford to retire. Seriously, though, what a fantastic honour that was, and I’m telling the honest truth when I say I was thrilled just to be nominated alongside multiple previous winner David Eggleton and the excellent novelist Paula Wilson. I’m sorry I missed the big event, especially Nigel Cox’s last public speech, which by all accounts had the house absolutely hushed and deserves to be reprinted somewhere, soon. (Here maybe? Over to you, Russell...)

So, where were we, before the break? That’s right: nationhood, patrimony, cultural identity, the big ideas.

There has been a lot of musing about nationality around our house over the last couple of months, what with the 4th of July and the World Cup soccer. For the record, since the Non-Human (Dinosaur) team was not playing this time, we supported the South American team, which was defined at any given moment as anyone from South America, or anyone speaking Spanish or Portuguese, or just anyone kicking really good goals, really.

But Fourth of July, eh? All together now, with Hugh Laurie: “America!” The national day is traditionally celebrated with food, fireworks and glorification of the flag. Which is a nice flag, as flags go, although fearfully difficult to draw (and you thought the Southern Cross was tricky). Busybro loves Old Glory. Loves it. He loves it on a flagpole, on a T-shirt, on a shopping bag, on the bottoms of the bigger boys at the swimming pool (note to self: does that count as desecration? Or only if you’re not toilet-trained?).

He’s not the only flag worshipper in town, to be sure. Every other house this time of year seems to be decked out in red, white and blue bunting of some sort. Top marks go to the house en route to the pool which has a giant inflatable Stars and Stripes on the front lawn, taller than Abraham Lincoln himself.

Alas, our house remains grievously unbunted, to the disgruntlement of the native New Yorker. Every time we go shopping he plucks a flag from a bucket – always constructed of paper or nylon and ice-cream sticks and always labeled “Made in China” – and asks if we have enough money to buy one.

(Situational poverty is my catch-all excuse for not purchasing items of dubious quality. It’s a dubious excuse given that they’re usually dirt-cheap, but his maths skills are catching up. He figured out odd and even the other day by holding up his fingers and noting that “Three and five are similar because they both have a middle piece and some guards on the ends.”)

Sooner or later he’s going to put two and two together and figure out that I’m a teeny bit ambivalent about this business of having birthed American babies, especially American boys. Which will come first, I wonder in dark moments: voting age, or the draft?

Of course, by virtue of having two Aotearoan parents, he and his baby brother can also be New Zealanders. But not fully licensed New Zealanders, believe it or not. If you’re a New Zealander by descent rather than birth, you can’t pass that on to your own children. So for example, if we were to move back to the home country right now, and the boys were to grow up in New Zealand and fall in love with people who themselves had been born to New Zealanders overseas, and then they were all to head off overseas like we did, and have their children somewhere else, those children would have no more right to count themselves as New Zealanders than any random person on the planet.

Confusing, eh? Smart? Or short-sighted? Especially when according to best estimates there are maybe a million of us flapping around the offshore breeding grounds at any given time.

[A couple of helpful readers wrote to confirm that children who find themselves in this situation can upgrade from second-class to first-class citizenship by living in New Zealand for a couple of years before they turn sixteen. The Department of Internal Affairs webpage is not exactly illuminating on the details, however.]

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Last time I wrote, about a million years ago, I asked how you give your own foreign-born kids a taste of Kiwi, or how you preserve the ways of the old country when your kids are sprouting like totara in the new land. I also asked what you call dummies, or pacifiers, or sucky things.

Benjamin cleverly answered both questions in one go:

I was born in Germany and came to NZ with my family when I was 10 so I speak German to my wee girls (now almost 3, and 9 months). It's difficult for me to teach Katja that she's a little bit German because I haven't been there for almost 20 years now... although with fatherhood I'm getting more and more interested in my whakapapa and culture. We hope to go there for a postdoc in around 2008 because I feel like I need to go back and see my Vaterland (father land!) with adult eyes.

It's not easy, the German thing. I have few problems speaking German to her but I'm the only one - everyone else including the kids at daycare speaks English, so at the moment Katja can understand what I tell her but she inevitably replies in English unless I really push for her to speak German. It's probably as good as we can hope for.

One benefit is that we have an alternative vocabulary for everything. When it comes to dummies, we use the German word "schnuller", pronounced Shn-oo-lla (as in 'ooh la la'). We like it because it's a substantial word that we can really get our teeth into as Linnea gets her gums into it.

Schnuller. That is excellent, and goes straight into the family vocabulary along with “Auspacken!” which we got from Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About. So much of raising intercultural kids comes down to language, as Kath writes:

Our two were born in the UK, and I guess we never questioned that they would be wee kiwis, complete with buzzy bees and stuffed toy sheep from friends & rellies in NZ, and we had lots of NZ artwork on walls, NZ music on the stereo and the occasional trip home, and we knew we weren't Poms. But then one day I stuck my head out the window and announced that the morning was a bit chilly, and that was the impetus for our move back home, as the boy (3yrs old at the time - now just turned 9!) started marching round the house chanting "but chully, but chully, but chully."

Once they start mocking the kiwi accent, how can you call them kiwis? (And I don't even have an accent :-)

Dominic totally agrees:

I've got a three year old who was born in North London and is cultivating a distinct British accent - despite me trying to get him to say “sweet as” instead of “yes” at any given moment.

I really should just accept it. He is British and his mother is British so although I can teach him the difference between a pukuiti and a pukunui, he's far more interested in the Fat Controller and Thomas the Tank Engine.

Still, it's fun hearing my English wife struggle to get through the bedtime book when it's Hinemoa and Tutanekai.

Heh. Good one! Karts from Singapore chimes in:

Well I've also sprogged in the last year and am having the same thoughts on how to Kiwinese an 11 month old girl who carries a Kiwi passport but spent less than two weeks there at Christmas. (Being half English makes the task somewhat harder - will she grow up both proud and whinging?)

Her 5 year old cousin also happens to be Kiwi and English, and staunchly supports the boys in black.....with a Manc accent! Not sure how I would feel listening to my girl singing the anthem in a Singlish accent!

The 11 month old Puku Monster couldn't be more kiwi for want of trying by her Aunt back in Bay. Buzzy Bee wouldn't feel homesick if he camped out in my daughter's room (duvet cover, pillow case, soft toy, height measuring thingee, books, book ends, shoes, bibs - pretty much everything). Kapai the Kiwi is a regular favourite on the book reading list as is Hairy MacClary and Margaret Mahy. She has probably more All Black merchandise than the All Blacks themselves and call me sad, but a small Kiwi flag hangs on the wall between newborn pictures of her and Great Granny Elsie's framed cross stitching.

But that's all just "stuff". How do you instill that Kiwi sense of pride, she'll be right attitude, and get up and go whilst being 8000+kms away and surrounded by people more concerned about where they should cross the road whilst trying to find the next best sale to shop at? Sigh!

Tina wrote very eloquently from Manila about the confusion the kids feel even when we do our best; the competing demands of local culture; and trying to isolate those aspects of New Zealandness that aren't about "stuff":

A conversation today with my son’s preschool teacher.

Teacher: Can I ask if you have ever been to China?

Me: Yes, we lived in Beijing for 5 years and then Taiwan before coming here.

Teacher: It’s just that we looked at a map today and asked all the kids if they could show us where they were from, Finn said China.

Me: Oh really (flash to your blog asking for readers to share tips about raising an expat brood), China?

Teacher: So where are you from? Because Finn insists he is Chinese.

Me: (weakly) New Zealand.

Teacher: Really? He sounds American. Have you ever told him about New Zealand?

The short answer of course is yes. Both three year old Finn and his five year old brother Alex “know” about New Zealand. It’s the place we go to visit grandparents and cousins, eat sausages and where Santa seems unusually generous. But things get a little hazy after that.

Last year I took the boys to see a Kapa Haka group visiting Taiwan to promote NZ food and wine. En route I explained that this group was “from NZ, like us” and would be singing songs from NZ. They looked more than a little surprised to see a group that didn’t look at all like us (we are Pakeha) or sound like us (the boys speak English and Mandarin, and this was the first time they had heard Maori) and their moko and costumes were like nothing they had ever encountered. Like any homesick kiwi I burst into tears during Po Kare Kare Ana, which only added to the boys’ discomfort. New Zealand suddenly seemed like a very foreign place.

So I don’t feel I’m doing such a good job at ensuring my boys feel a cultural attachment to New Zealand. But they are young and hopefully it is something they will grow into. In the meantime we have tried to identify what it is about being a New Zealander, beyond our relationship with the land, which we are most proud of and are trying to instill those characteristics in the boys. Resourcefulness, respect, friendliness, that “she’ll be right” attitude, finely honed senses of humour... hopefully we are leading by example.

We’ve also thought about what being a kiwi kid meant for us growing up, and tried to create the same moments for the boys. For both of us, growing up in Northland, childhood was about being outside and active. We’ve kept the activities and just changed the location. So they’ve been hiking around Beijing, camping in Taiwan and kayaking in the Philippines.

So long as we don’t have “expat brats” I’ll be happy. I'm sure the sense of being a "kiwi" will come, although only time will tell if they will ever feel truly at home there.

For now I just need to work on their accents. Try as I might they still call me Mommy...

Beautifully put. And I feel you on the “Mommy” thing. So far we get around that one by having a child who addresses us by our first names (his choice from the word go). Sooner or later there will be a Mom moment, I know. I just hope I'm not wearing Mom jeans when it happens.

My old school friend Julie (hi Julie!) writes from China, where she lives with her Chinese husband and 3 year old daughter:

We've been here just under one year, but already Chinese is her number one language and English she reluctantly uses to communicate with me, watch a DVD occasionally, and say hi to her grandparents on the phone. Apart from that it's all Chinese – even when she plays or sings to herself. I'm worried when we go back to NZ for a visit next summer she's going to get a bit of a shock. I think it's really great for her to experience all this, but kind of wish she could be more of a kiwi kid too. I'll be interested to see what others say.

Well, I did promise to reveal my secrets. Someone once said (and I am very fond of quoting them even though I don’t know who they are) that patriotism is the memory of foods eaten in childhood. In other words, the way to a child’s cultural heart is right through its stomach, via the tastebuds. Hana just down the road in Pennsylvania seems to be on exactly the same wavelength:

Apart from the occasional trips home to NZ -- which really there is no substitute for, but given that this is an expensive option -- I find marmite and gingernuts a great value-for-money connection to home. Specifically, "marmite and chippie" sandwiches which I have converted a number of Americans to. [Nice going, Hana – no luck here! My American friends tend to leave the room, or retch quietly into the nearest potplant when I so much as whisper “vegemite”]. Golden syrup on fresh fried bread and Cadbury’s chocolate are a must as well. But food aside, keeping in touch with other NZ people overseas (luckily there are a few other families in central PA), and celebrating things like ANZAC Day, Waitangi Day, and Queen’s Birthday are things I really did not do while living in NZ, but mean so much more to us now.

We also have children’s books by NZ authors, as many as we can get, and give them as gifts to friends and classmates and teachers. This has been a great way to keep the faith, even though my 3 kids now all have strong American accents.

We are soon returning to NZ after 5 years in the USA and I am deliberately choosing to take the opportunity to enrol my kids in a small rural NZ school with 47 kids, 3 bilingual classes and 100% chance of reacquainting themselves with what it means to be "kiwi".

Righteous! Lucky kids. I dream of such an opportunity. But in the absence of the Sylvia Ashton-Warneresque rural school, I find the pantry to be a fine incubator of national feeling. When Busybro’s poppa popped over for a visit in June, he came armed with several packets of pineapple lumps, thereby winning the hearts and minds of the junior generation. I am also hoarding half a dozen jars of passionfruit syrup, to be mixed into plain yoghurt like a secret loyalty potion.

Now that I think of it, Busybro is coming up on his first anniversary as an official, not just nominal, New Zealander. We took care of the paperwork this time last year in Wellington, although things were made a bit difficult by the boy in question’s blanket prohibition on graven images of himself at the time. Cut to very testy session in a photo shop on Courtenay Place, with me wheedling “We have to take your picture so you can be a New Zealander,” and a small outraged almost four year old bellowing “But I already AM a New Zealander!”

In his citizenship picture he stares down the camera like a hardened criminal captured at last, with barely visible tearstains on his cheeks. Poor lamb. I bribed him with a ride on the cable car and a Milky Bar (and hey, let’s not go there with the cultural politics – “Milky Bar Kid only eats what’s right/ Milky Bar is creamy white” – Milky Bar Kid, you crypto-racist scamp!).

Lollies are a cheap bribe, but oh such a powerful one. I’m reminded of the Islamic birth custom of giving the baby a tiny taste of chewed dates or honey before it first drinks its mother’s milk. Now there's a thought. Would it catch on, do you reckon, if we did it with pineapple lumps, or hokey pokey, or feijoa jam, a taste of the distant motherland? Sweet as? Or wishful thinking, and bad oral hygiene to boot?


Tune in next week when I'll be hosting a virtual book-signing session for Ayun Halliday, a smart and funny gal who never tells the same joke twice, and boy does she tell a lot of jokes. I'm one of the last stops on the global-cyber-book-tour for her book of essays on the joys of motherhood in the 'hood. First published in the US as The Big Rumpus, it's now being released in the UK and across the Commonwealth under the bugger-why-didn't-I-think-of-it title Mama Lama Ding Dong. Ayun's adventures are NYC-specific, but the language of parenting is damn near universal. Don't miss her responses to my nosy questions about wringing comedy out of chaos, failing to meet her famous neighbours, and dishing out homeopathic doses of plastic brand-name crap.