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 blog series “Growing up in a multicultural family“.
I have sat down for coffee with Ping to hear about his experience. He was born in China from Chinese parents, then at age ten moved to Finland with his mother and her Finnish second husband. “[Being ten years old] I was a little aware of Chinese culture and language” he says and, to my surprise, adds “When I moved to Finland there was no cultural shock. I just started studying the language and got along pretty quickly”. At home, he would speak Chinese to his mother and Finnish when his step-father was taking part to the conversation. He maintained a good level of spoken Chinese for everyday conversation, but says he’s missing the professional vocabulary and cannot write anymore.
His family moved to a town of 40 000 about 50 km away from the capital area. There were other Chinese families in his living area, but their kids’ ages didn’t match with Ping’s. This represented an obstacle for him to maintain a connection to his Chinese roots and cultivate language. “I remember taking some Chinese classes during elementary school and my mother was a teacher, she also taught [Mandarin] to other Chinese children”. He would follow his mother’s lesson, but they were targeted at children with lesser ability to speak Mandarin and would not carry much value for him. The school system had a crucial role in his integration. Despite being quite small, the town had a school programme targeted at immigrant children. It allowed him to gradually learn Finnish language and after six months he was transferred to a normal class with other Finnish kids. He reveals: “I think in Finnish most of the time, but sometimes I think in English. The oddest thing is that I still count in Chinese”.
I asked him if beside language, Chinese culture was brought into family life. “We celebrated some Chinese holidays like the New Year with other Chinese people. We went to a restaurant and ate”. Chinese food (“as Chinese as you could get it here” he says) was also part of their family daily life. Nowadays, only occasionally he cooks Chinese food at home. My favourite question came up, does he identify more as Chinese, as Finnish, or something in the middle? “At the beginning I felt Chinese, nowadays I definitely think I’m a Finn”. He has few contacts with Chinese people living in Finland, he does not feel any need to. And what about his mother? After almost twenty years, “I think she is still a Chinese living in Finland. She speaks pretty broken Finnish. She can manage with it in day-to-day life and at work, but the grammar is a little wonky”. However, he points out living in Finland changed her ways of thinking and affected her parenting. She became less strict, especially in the context of her son’s education.
Ping has no children, but I asked him what parts of Chinese culture he imagines he would include in his family life. He would not speak Chinese to his kids as he doesn’t feel confident. He would like to pass on Chinese culture, without forcing it in any way. “[Growing in a multicultural family] was not particularly an asset. There are good parts and inconvenient parts. Like, everyone talks English to me here and I’m like, I can speak Finnish. Then again, there are some benefits to know some things of other cultures. I’m pretty thankful that my mother moved to Finland with me. There are so many people in China and competition is so fierce that I would probably vanish into the mass. Here in Finland it’s easier to stand out”.
As usual, I asked for advice for parents of multicultural kids. He stressed language can be an asset and he regrets not fostering Chinese language. He recommends to encourage kids to learn or keep the foreign language. Concerning culture, he concludes “What will happen, will happen. Just let everything go forward naturally. Do not stress too much [the minority culture]. If the kids want to know more about it, teach them”.
This story was very different from Raj’s. I had the feeling the minority culture got quite lost in time in Ping identity. As an expat parent, I see a trade-off between a smooth cultural integration and a chance to share cultural values with my children. I must admit I am afraid when I think of what parts of my culture my children will lose on the way. There’s a human core wish to somehow survive inside your children’s identities. It’s somehow scary to think that in them big chunks of me will be overwritten by Finnish culture. On the other hand, I was really pleased to hear how smoothly and quickly Ping integrated here, to the point of not feeling torn between two cultures at all.
I am thankful to him for sharing his story about growing up in a multicultural family. If you want to share yours, don’t hesitate to contact me.