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Chapter 5 – Between Two Worlds : Identity vs. Assimilation

As anyone who has come across the great website Spanglish Baby, I’ve been a big fan of the work of its founders Ana Flores and Roxana Soto for a very long time. I was therefore delighted to have the chance to participate in the discussion of their wonderful book Bilingual is Better in the  book club organized by the Multicultural Kid Blogs. You can read more about MKB and the book club here.

I enjoyed the entire book immensely as it is very well researched and written. As a European I found it particularly interesting to read about the situation of bilingualism in the US and the challenges and possibilities of especially the large Spanish-speaking population. I was, for instance, very happy to find in this book the best overview of bilingual education in the US that I’ve ever read.  Also, while we’re on different sides of ”the pond” (as we like to refer to our dear Atlantic Ocean), the basics of raising children bilingually are the same everywhere. These too are very thoroughly explored and presented in the book. I could have chosen any chapter of Bilingual is Better and talked in length of its many qualities and the thoughts that it provoked, but in the end I chose chapter five, entitled Between Two Worlds :  Identity vs Assimilation as it is the one that touches me personally on many levels at this very moment. 

In this chapter Roxana shares with the readers her experience of living between two worlds, the wonderful opportunities that this has presented her, but also the natural feeling of missing her home country and the occasional feeling of not belonging anywhere. She describes how difficult it was for her as a teenager to move to the United States with her parents and leave behind her beloved Peru, and how, even if – or because – she has spent decades in the USA she is holding tightly on to her cultural identity as a Peruvian.

Personal reflections.

There were many things that touched me in this chapter. First of all I was in awe of Roxana’s words, which I could tell came directly from her heart. Reading them I could feel her appreciation and respect for her new country, her longing and nostalgia for her native land and the frustration she experiences trying to justify to others her decision not to apply for the U.S. citizenship. I admire her for doing what she feels is right despite pressure from family members and other people. The situation is the same with my husband who is a French citizen, a fact that has never prevented him from fully integrating and contributing to the Finnish society. He speaks fluent Finnish, works and pays taxes, and goes about his life like almost any other man his age in this country. Still, his cultural identity is French and he doesn’t have any need or desire in his heart to change that and become a Finn. I encourage him to hold on to his cultural identity and pass it on to our children.

 Even if I’ve traveled extensively I’ve never lived outside of Finland for more than a year, but the situation might be about to change.  After nearly 20 years in Finland my husband is eager to return to his native France, and I’ve run out of excuses why we shouldn’t do that. Before you think I’m extremely egoistic, let me explain one of the reasons why I struggle with this. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles (all but one) have passed away, and my half siblings live hundreds of kilometers from my home city Helsinki. I fear that, leaving the country, I will not have a home to come back to, and that I might not come home anymore for this reason.

I’m willing to put my own feelings aside though for the benefit of my children – not that they appreciate it for the moment, of course! Emma, almost 13, is very much against the move (which at this stage is not definite, only planned) in the same way as Roxana was. The only difference is that she won’t be leaving behind her country, but one of her countries. This is why it is so important for me that our children, who are French also, experience life in their second home land. I want them to be able to make an educated decision later on when choosing the country they live in (which, I know, might not be one of the two). I couldn’t put the book down as Roxana talked about the ”art of meshing two cultures” and  the ”cultural tug of war” – how having two cultures can sometimes make one feel like having two personalities and how there are things in both cultures that you like and others that you don’t.

There are times when I think and worry about how things will be for our children if and when we move. What will they miss about Finland, what will they have a hard time adjusting to in France? For the most part, though, I’m confident that they will integrate very well. We have prepared them for it for years by, as Roxana writes, “instilling in them a love for their heritage culture while remembering to give the same importance to the culture of the country of their birth.” We have helped them become bilingual, celebrated the traditions in both countries, spent summers in France to help them identify as a part of their French family, too. And the most important if you ask their dad: we have taught them to cheer for Finland in ice-hockey  and for France in soccer. It could have of course been the other way round too, but frankly the odds of winning would not have been as high!

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Lines that made me think

“The way I see it, we’re also very lucky because we can take the best from both worlds.” – Isn’t this true? While I’m extremely attached to many things in Finland, there are many other things in France that I couldn’t imagine life without. And no, I’m not only talking about wine.

” It has long been believed that for immigrants to become “AMERICAN” they must “disconnect from the old and connect to the new” as did those who came before them.” – You could replace “American” by quite many other nationalities here, too, unfortunately. I’m a teacher and continuously encourage my immigrant students to speak and read their first language and value their heritage culture and traditions. Even if they now also belong to a new culture, it should never have to be just one or the other.

“There’s an erroneous belief among many first generation Latino immigrant parents (as well as educators) that in order for their children to learn English they should not be exposed to Spanish at all.” This too is something I often run into with the parents of my immigrant students. It is indeed an erroneous belief as they think they’re doing the right thing. In the process, however, they are depriving their children of their heritage language and culture and even of a natural relationship with their parents who often only speak rudimentary Finnish. 

Questions

1. Have you applied for the citizenship of the country you live in? Do you find this important for you or not and why?

2. In what ways have you been able to take the best from your two worlds?

3. How do you pass on your heritage culture to your children who have (perhaps) never lived in your birth country?

 

I would love to continue the discussion about the chapter and the topic so please leave a comment! Make sure to also read the previous chapter discussions, as well as the ones that will follow this one:

 

Introduction & Chapter One (Spanish Playground)

Chapter Two (Family on the Loose)

Chapter Three (Spanglish House)

Chapter Four (For the love of Spanish)

Chapter Six (Laugh & Learn) – Nov 7

Q&A with Author Ana Flores (Dads the Way I Like It) – November 14

Wrap-up (Kid World Citizen) – Nov 21