Since when I became a mother, I’ve kept wondering how will our multicultural family influence our children’s cultural identity. Adopting our son from India has added a new layer to this. How will R and E culturally define themselves as adults? What actions can I take as a parent to help them navigate through their identity building journey? I am blessed with many friends from other countries and cultures, and some of them were so kind to share their story with me for my new blog series “Growing up in a multicultural family“.
I had a deep conversation with Raj, a friend of mine. He was born and raised in India, then moved with his parents and younger brother to the US at the age of 12, and came to live in Finland at the age of 24.
“My parents are both from the North of India” he tells me, “That’s a very Anglo-Indian part of India. We aren’t considered real Indians compared to those who comes from South India – the natives – because there’s a lot of mix from other cultures. There’s Iranian influence, German influence, and so on”.
I ask him what languages were spoken in his family, “We spoke Hindi mostly and when we moved to the States sometime we spoke English at home, mostly with my brother”. Growing up in India, he was fluent in the official languages, English and Hindi, and in the local language Marathi. As a kid, he was surrounded by people coming from other states and picked up Punjabi and Bengali as well.
Raj explains me how language developed for him and why it felt more natural to talk with his brother in English, despite they were respectively 12 and 9 when they moved to the US. “When it came to complex emotions, I couldn’t express them in Hindi because I was learning them from my friends in school. For instance a romantic connection or expression of a romantic relationship is actually very difficult for me in Hindi”. At the same time, he reveals that when he feels anxious, he impulsively says few words in Hindi. Despite that, he tells me both his thoughts and dreams are always in English. I’m curious to know what language he would feel as most natural with a child of his own, since he lived through his parental relationships in Hindi. He shares his plans to integrate Indian culture into his family, probably through connecting with Indian expats in Finland and travelling as much as possible to India. However, he would feel more natural to talk to his children in English on a daily basis.
His parents focused on preserving Indian culture in the family, but at the same time allowed their kids to take part into American culture. “They never put restrictions on what we had to choose, so if we felt uncomfortable with something, we were allowed to skip it. They are quite religious but they understood they could not force culture, religion, on anyone”. Raj’s parents were in their late 40s when they moved to the States, their kids were quite independent already in their social life, and they didn’t open much to American culture. He goes on explaining me his upbringing, quite rare for Indian standards “Unlike most Indian families we don’t follow a hierarchy. We were told from a very early age that whoever is right goes forward, as in, if there’s a discussion and I happen to have the best solution, then I’m the one who gets precedence. It’s not my father or my mother because they’re older”. This aspect of their education had a big role in allowing Raj and his brother the freedom to build their mixed cultural identity.
I go on and get to the central question: how does he feel now? Indian, American? Or something else entirely? “I feel a little bit of both, and Finland is definitely influencing me as well. On a deeper level, I would say I have Indian roots, but what people see on the outside is a little bit more American”. He concludes, it’s a mixture of both. To the day he questions it, as many typical Indian customs and tradition don’t belong to him at all. He tells me India shaped his childhood, while USA and Finland built his identity as a teenager and an adult. Both in India and in New York, he lived surrounded by people with different cultures.
I ask him if he sees growing in a multicultural environment as an asset and he tells me, “When you have tried different things, then you know what to pick from each culture, so that you can make the best decision, you take the best things out of everything”. Raj’s diverse background was also a kind of ice-breaker in the US, to start new friendships. He never felt discriminated because of his culture and roots. His parents never gave him any talk about his skin colour, but tried to make their family a safe space for their kids to talk about any issue. I was happy to hear this comment of his as a son, since it’s the same strategy we resolved to implement in our family.
I am grateful to Raj for sharing his story. It’s fascinating to hear that he grew up in such a diverse environment and speaks so many languages (I have to add he also went on to learn Swedish, German, and Finnish as an adult). I feel some comfort as he tells me how his cultural identity built quite naturally. I have the impression he questions that as an adult, and he didn’t much while growing up. Kudos to his parents and how they managed to preserve his birth culture, but still favour his integration.
I’ll publish more posts on the topic, follow the tag GUMF series. If you grew up in a multicultural family and feel you have a story to tell, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Disclaimer: names have been changed for privacy, as requested by the interviewee. The conversation was carried out in English language and reported as faithfully as possible.