The holidays are upon us and it’s time to share!
Since starting this blog, I have had the privilege of coming into contact with many cross cultural families around the world. I receive countless emails from readers wishing to share their challenges and successes in their own lives, and I feel honored that they trust me enough to share. The sense of community is a new and inspiring one for me.
Recently, I’ve been in contact with a reader who has a beautiful and happy cross- cultural family that has inspired me! Mullai and her husband Rick are from Overland Park, Kansas, and have two adorable little boys, Vikram and Sanjay. Having been married for nine years, it looks to me like they’ve figured out their own “song and dance” for making it all work.
Curious about just how they handle the mishmash of cultures in their daily lives (I’m a little bit nosy that way), I asked her and her husband to share some of details of their life with my readers. Since the holidays are upon us, I especially enjoyed finding out how they make Diwali, Thanksgiving and Christmas fun for their kids! Here is what they have to say. Get to know them and share your thoughts…they deserve some props!
Where are you both from? What are both of your religious backgrounds?
M: I’m of Indian ethnic but born and raised in Malaysia. I try and go to visit the Hindu temple nearby a few times in the year.
R: A small mid-western town, Mostly Agnostic
Where and how did you meet?
M: We meet in 2003 in Sydney, Australia while studying. We meet at students and we were living the same apartment dorms.
R: We lived in the same apartment complex in Sydney Australia and met through friends
How long have you been married?
M & R: It will be 9 years this January!!!
How many kids do you have?
M & R: 2 boys. They are 6 and 3.
You live in the Midwest. Is there an Indian community there that you and your family are a part of? Do you see many other cross-cultural couples in your area? And, how do people react to you as a couple and family?
M: There is a huge Indian community here in the Midwest. We try and attend most of their cultural events. My oldest attends language classes to learn to speak my mother tongue (Tamil). We are also active with Malaysian community in the Midwest. I relate to both cultures a lot since I was brought up in Malaysia. We see quite a bit of interracial couples here but they are of different cultures. We mostly get at least these people who stare at our children to see how a bi-racial looks like. I think it was gotten better over the years.
R: There are both and Indian Community and a Malaysian community to which we are a part of. We have a few mixed couples that we have become close to, I can’t put into words how much this helps because, as I said to one of them one day, ” Who the heck else understands these challenges but other couples. It really helps to have folks around that can compare notes. Interracial and intercultural couples are not uncommon in Overland Park, and it seems that as the years have passed, we see more of them and people seem to be more tolerant to it. We use to get stares (in all honesty mostly from the Indian community, and going to temple is still a bit awkward. However, my wife gets plenty of stares in the more rural areas). But now that we have kids it really seems to have died down and is mostly limited to the older generation. This is not without work and active steps to facilitate that acceptance. I make efforts to learn about the culture and act accordingly when going to parties, eg: Sit with the men, eat with my hands, try every dish regardless of how hot it may be, politely decline the offer of a fork, call the boys by their first names Vikram and Sanjay, and then, when they ask, explain Indian first names and English middle names. All in all, both display and practice not being an American Imperialist there to ask/expect my wife to abandon her culture.
What are some challenges you’ve had to face raising an intercultural family?
M: I would think it’s mostly cultural ignorance. Hubby and I usually discuss any challenges we have when it comes to cultural differences. I think the biggest challenge we have faced so far is naming our boys. They each have a Hindu first name and a Western middle name. We get a lot of questions about how and why they were named as such. I have had trouble adapting to some of the cultures introduced to me by my in-laws. If I find it impractical, then I wouldn’t follow and I think it didn’t make everyone happy.
R: Outside of the typical challenges of cohabitating and raising children with another person, there is the added layer of culture for rationale. Meaning that our arguments can sometimes come down to a difference of opinion due to our cultural background. I remember a debate my mother-in-law and I got into after our first child was born when she was pressuring my wife to stay inside after childbirth. Her position was a combination of superstition and concerns over outdoor air pollution. Mine was more along the lines that if she felt up to it, the fresh air could do her good. Ironically my wife did what she pleased regardless of my or her mother’s opinion. Incidentally, this bit is important because when you marry someone, you also marry their family and it always makes things easier if your spouse can keep their family in check and you have to be prepared to do the same. I must say that my wife is better at this than I am. It has taken me years to understand the things that my family did that upset her and why, simply, because I (and they) didn’t know any better. And in all honesty, didn’t see them as things that should upset her. So I guess my point is that when two people get married, more than two people have to blend there cultures and traditions. This is true in every family mixed or otherwise, but doubly challenging when culture and tradition are the rationale for actions.
How much of your partner’s culture have you adopted? In what ways have you managed to blend the cultures and what have you kept separate? Did you two negotiate a plan before you got married?
M: I think we have adopted a lot of each other’s culture. We really don’t think much about how our cultures blend into our daily lives. We usually deal with it if, and when, it comes up. We didn’t really discuss much about it before we got married. We have learnt that something might work with one side of the family, but doesn’t really work with the other.
R: Negotiate a plan before we got married? LOL. No and I know no one who has. We’re all winging it here. We blend in all that we can but at the end of the day we live in the USA. But to answer the question, Diwali and Tamil New Year are the two major holidays and Thanksgiving and Christmas are the other two. Our oldest recently started Tamil class and I have also decided to pick it up. I think a second spoken language in the house will take our blending to the next level and further create a bridge for our children to experience their mother’s culture.
What are your favorite childhood memories of holiday celebrations? Are those things that you’d like your kids to experience?
M: My childhood memories of celebrating Diwali are so different from what we celebrate here. For starters it’s holiday back home and we get to wear new traditional clothes, visit the temple for prayers and celebrations. We get to visit family and friends. There is always feast in all the houses we visit. Sometimes family will visit us instead. We get to play with firecrackers with cousins. Here it’s just another day. If it’s a weekday, then we are either at work or school for the kids. We got lucky this year, as it was the weekend. We usually get to wear new clothes, visit the temple and maybe go eat at an Indian restaurant. This year we celebrated with my in-laws at an Indian restaurant the night before and on the day we had another dinner at a friend’s house. We had plenty of Indian dishes.
R: For me most of my great childhood memories surrounded annual hunting, camping and floating trips. I really wish we did more of this, as I recently realized I’m raising my kids in the suburbs and I’m not so sure I’m happy about that. But I think most parents have great childhood memories and would like their kids to experience them. But in reality they will have their own memories and their own experiences and trying to relive the past is more for our memories than theirs. So I think exposing them to new experiences and old traditions is the best that we can do and just enjoy as much of it as we can in the short time that is possible.
You mentioned to me before that you are just finished celebrating Diwali, and are now preparing for Thanksgiving this month. Do you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah also? Can you paint a picture of how you and your husband blend your holiday traditions? I’d love to hear about how you make them fun for your kids! Food, rituals, family gatherings, gifts…?
M & R: Yes we just finished celebrating Diwali. Thanksgiving is in a few weeks and then the Christmas mad rush begins!! We celebrate each holiday separately with family and friends. In-between these holidays we usually have our annual Diwali/Christmas party. We have Indian and Western dishes. That’s how we blend our holidays together. My kids think that Diwali is all about food and Christmas is all about gifts!!
Can you explain one part of your partner’s culture or holidays that you found surprising?
M: I think my hubby was more surprised when discovering the Indian customs and culture. He found it weird to eat with hands or why we have so many different gods. The one I found weird that anyone who was family is called the cousin regardless on how they are related.
R: The similarity between them. At the end of the day most holidays are designed to gather family and friends with food as a platform to gather them. This is cross-cultural and I think if more people knew this, or witnessed it, there would be less conflict in the world.
What’s the best thing about being in a cross-cultural family?
M: We get to celebrate a whole of different holidays. We have learnt so much and adapted our own unique little family culture. My kids get the best of both worlds.
R: It’s never boring.
Do you have any advice for other cross-cultural parents on how to make celebrations from both cultures a part of their happy family?
M: Take the best of both worlds and celebrate in your own unique way!!!
R: Take it one day and one holiday at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, this is hard, and most people wouldn’t even try, so don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t go smoothly. Blend as much as you can while still respecting each other’s boundaries and remember that, especially around the holidays, you are asking more than you and your spouse to blend. So don’t get upset if some portion, be it food or ceremony, is outside of someone else’s comfort zone. Be as warm and welcoming as possible because, if we can manage to get along, then perhaps there is still hope for the rest of the world.
Visit previous posts on Holidays…
The Family We Have Become: A Multicultural Thanksgiving
Our Nearly Naked Christmas Tree