Helping children to understand who they are brings a slew of challenges for products of a Third Culture. Growing up in Mumbai, I “learned” Hinduism by osmosis, much like an apprentice in a woodworking shop. Years later, I find myself raising two ethnically Indian kids – one born in London and the other in San Francisco – in Hong Kong.
This city has a culture of its own. So is it any wonder that I turn to books and scholarly essays to recreate the osmotic effect of simple conversations I’d had with my grandparents or the family pundit (priest)? My kids have always taken the Hindu god Ganesha very seriously. Initially, I prided myself on the fact that this could be traced back to my geographic roots, as Ganesha is Mumbai’s favourite Hindu god. Like the opportunistic residents of India’s most commercial city, my children took an instant liking to Ganesha.
Not because of his chubby, cherubic nature, but because he is the “remover of obstacles”.
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The evenings before exams are always laced with prayers to Ganesha. So are requests for sleepovers, candy money and the never-ending Christmas lists destined for the North Pole
My 13-year-old daughter goes to a school that strictly abstains from celebrating religious occasions like Christmas. They mark the festive season with non-partisan celebrations such as International Day, when each student marches in a grand parade behind his or her national flag. I initially wondered whether Ilya would march behind the Union Jack, the flag representing her country of citizenship, or the Star Spangled Banner, which represents where she grew up. Proving once again that I had no understanding of her psyche, Ilya showed up behind the Tiranga Jhanda, the Indian national flag. She was smiling and waving at everyone as though she were competing for the next Miss India title.
Needless to say, I was thrilled at her choice of ethnicity over citizenship or residency. “Ilya! You chose India?” I said, with a mixture of pride and disbelief. “D’uh, mum! What else could I possibly be?” she responded.
This year, I received an e-mail from the organising committee of the International Day festival: “Dear parents of British children, please advise what national dish you will be contributing to our British table.” Visions of British pub fare danced before my eyes – sausages and mash, and fish and chips. There were endless British dishes I could bring to the table, but knew full well that although they represented Ilya’s citizenship, none of them represented her identity.
So I responded: “Dear committee organisers, I will be contributing balti chicken. Although this is an ethnically Indian dish, it has become common culinary fare in Britain.” This choice impressed the committee, but not Ilya.
“How could you do this?” she wailed, gesticulating at every syllable in typical Bollywood fashion.
“But I thought you wanted to be identified as Indian!” I responded. “Mum – we’ve been here for more than two years now! Don’t you understand that my Indian-ness has taken on a different flavour?”
Frankly, I have a lot of problems understanding most of the opinions expressed in my household. Ilya continued: “I am a British-born ethnic Indian who lives in Hong Kong. What you should be contributing is Colonial Style Chinese Chilly Chicken!”
She definitely had a point. Colonial Style Chinese Chilly Chicken is a family favourite recipe passed down to me from my own grandmother. In truth, it represents all the flavours of my daughter: her ancestry and present culture.
Occasionally, I call my mother for advice, knowing that it is not necessarily a good idea. “Don’t over-analyse. Let the kids tell you who they really are,” she said. She was right. Later, I criticised the prospective candidates for the US presidential election. Arya jumped in quickly to admonish me.
Arya: “Watch what you say, Mum. `Those Americans’ are actually my people.”
Me: “Right you are, I should stick with mocking our own PEPs.”
Me: “Paneer Eating Punjabis.”
Arya: “Watch what you say, Mum. Punjab is my heritage.”
Me: “Right you are. We live in interesting times.”
Arya: “Watch what you say, Mum. That’s part of a Chinese curse and China is my culture, after all.”
I am now wondering about the value of osmosis in raising Third Culture children.
Reenita Malhotra Hora is the author of Ayurveda: The Ancient Medicine of India and producer/presenter of Money For Nothing, RTHK’s morning business/finance show.