Navigating the tricky waters of bilingualism

So our family is bilingual. Father and mother are both Francophone, with a father who grew up speaking both French and Creole, and a mother who grew up speaking both French and Spanish. My husband and I speak French together, and it was always clear to us that French would be the language spoken at home. Sounds easy enough.  Except when you start realizing that speaking French to your children is not the same thing as speaking French with your children.

Our first daughter spoke French with us exclusively until the age of 6 or 7, when school (always English medium ones, at first because we didn’t have a choice, and later for a number of reasons to complex to go into, here) started occupying an ever-expanding place in her life. Also, by that time, her little sister had joined the same English-medium school and was becoming quite talkative.

For years, I fought an ongoing battle with my older and very strong-willed first child, tutoring her as she took a long-distance course that follows closely the language and literature curriculum taught in French schools. I just had to mention the acronym CNED, and a rebellious look would spread across her face. Some days, a little cajoling was enough. Other times, the conflict escalated into a power struggle, a war of wills between two equally stubborn people, the young one clamoring that it was profoundly unfair that she had to do boring grammar exercises and writing assignments when she could be playing, the older one responding that it was of paramount importance that she should be able to not only express herself in her maternal language, but to write it well as well, something she would understand later. Nowadays, the child has turned into a teenager, and she still follows the CNED at her 8th grade level. In other words, were we to move to France, or was she to end up studying in France, she would be perfectly able to. She still grumbles from time to time, but as the course has now been taken over by the school, she also understands the futility of arguing about it.

I’m now fighting with her younger sister, who has a very different way to express her defiance and dislikes, but I’m now a seasoned warrior. Most importantly, because our second daughter lived her first few years in a family environment that was no longer entirely francophone (from the moment both girls attended school, English became the language they spoke together), I feel the pressure to impose this curriculum even more than I did with her older sister.

But now, I face another dilemma. Neither of my daughters wants to speak French with me. “Parle français” is something I hear myself repeat practically every other minute from the moment they walk through the front door at the end of the school day. The little one manages to slip back to French, but the Teen, who has not lost her spunky spirit, well, she just won’t.

Now what?

Should I give up? After all, she IS bilingual by now. She WILL continue with her French until she graduates from High School.

But it’s no longer about that only. And here comes one of the many threads of contradictions that run through the tapestry of my multicultural life. I love the English language. So much of what I’ve done in my life, so many of the roads I’ve traveled are a direct consequence of my falling in love with the English language. Am I not writing these words in English?

But I also love the French language. I’m still French. Besides, as I  once told an English lady who’d asked me who edited my English before I published anything, seemingly implying that it couldn’t possibly be good enough without someone bringing out their red pen: “No one. Maybe I write English better than I speak it.”

And Spanish. I already gave up part of my heritage when I chose French over Spanish as the language I would use with our children. It was an obvious choice, and yet, it does pain me that when we go to Spain, they can’t understand a word, nor can they communicate with their aunts and cousins there (although our little one started learning Spanish this year – she had a choice between Serbian and Spanish, and it was a difficult one, and I was even pushing for her to learn Serbian, thinking it might give her a better advantage, on top of helping her to fit in better in her host country, but her mind was made up and I didn’t insist). And I’d bet it somewhat pains their father that they cannot speak or understand Creole when we go to Haiti, even though communication is not an issue, there, as everyone in the family speaks French and/or English.

I don’t want to speak English with my children. Of course, words, expressions or idioms will slip in from time to time, as the conversation flows. But I don’t like these disconnected conversations we have, nowadays, where I speak French, the Teen speaks English, and the little one alternates between English and French, depending on how much energy I have (because it takes a lot of energy to interrupt them constantly with a reminder to speak French to me.) I worry about what this will do to our relationship.

And yet, how do I justify the importance I’m attaching to the issue? Shouldn’t I let go of that, too, and accept it as a direct consequence of the displaced life I have happily chosen. I wanted it to be a beautiful, multi-colored patchwork, didn’t I? So what if the patchwork now has to accommodate multiple languages, including at the dining table?

Last night, the teen came back from her ballet class and wanted to tell me something. Parle français, I interrupted, on auto-pilot. She got angry and went to that place where she retreats whenever she’s asked to do something she doesn’t want to do (and also when she’s asked to do something she might have happily considered, but since someone else asked her to do it, well, she’s no longer interested.) And she went to bed without sharing what she had in mind.

This is where I need to draw the line.  I know – it’s about time. I’m slow, what can I say? What matters, right now, is to work at keeping the channels of communication wide open. Life, and the normal course of things will create enough interference without my adding to it. Forget about the language. Put it in your pocket with your handkerchief on top, as we say in colloquial French. Maybe it will come back. The important thing, here, is that she communicates, in whichever language she chooses –  which doesn’t prevent me from continuing to speak the language that feels right to me.

I know this is the right decision. I just would never have thought it would be so hard.


Racing boats and celebrating Women in Agoiljhora, Barisal

Last week, I (along with 8 fantastic ladies) visited the village of Agoiljhora, a couple of hours drive from the port town of Barisal, in the south of Bangladesh. We were gone only 48 hours, just enough to travel back and forth and partake in the celebrations around International Women’s Day, but these hours were filled with intense, fun-filled, and unprecedented experiences.

We left Dhaka aboard one of the Rocket Boats, a paddle-wheel river steamer built in the 1920’s, and I’ll dedicate another post to that first leg of our journey. For now, I would like to rush to the Barishal regional office of TARANGO, the acronym for Training, Assistance and Rural Advancement Non-Goverment Organization, where a traditional welcome with marigold garlands, and the traditional Tilaka or Tikka (the area is predominantly Hindu) awaited us.

In the past 30 years, TARANGO has helped tens of thousands of women through their programmes (Handicrafts, Women Entrepreneurship Development, Village Savings and Loan Association, and Women Institutional Development.) They’re best known for their beautiful jute bags, and their baskets sold across the UK and other European markets, including fancy stores like The White Company, London.

Recently,  TARANGO started organizing a women’s boat race on International Women’s Day, but this year, the race involved a group of unexpected, if rather conspicuous participants: eleven Bideshi (foreigners in Bengali) women crazy enough to embark on a traditional flat bottom boat without any preparation whatsoever. All we had was a pair of arms each, and plenty of enthusiasm.

I had somehow accepted the responsibility of steering the boat, being blessed with reasonable good balance, but after only a few minutes during which I narrowly escaped falling headfirst into the water, and almost clobbered my friend sitting at the tail of the boat, a man wearing a dhoti tucked high up on his legs jumped aboard, grabbed the steering paddle from my hands, and proceeded to steer the boat while yelling orders in Bengali that none of us could hear – the racket was astonishing – forget about understanding them. In his considerable enthusiasm, our rescuer also cheered us up, shouting, and swinging his arms wildly back and forth. Incidentally, he also hit my head and shoulders (and those of my friend paddling on the other side of the boat) whenever they happened to be in his way – pretty much all of the time. And when he felt we were not paddling fast enough, he’d drop the steer, leap forward to the middle of the boat, which immediately diverged according to the current (which was pretty strong and contrary, I forgot to mention), yell and swing his arms some more, before he remembered his mission and bounced back to his steering position.  I have no idea how long the race lasted, but thanks to this impromptu collaboration, we eventually did glide under the red string marking the finishing line.

Of course, we lost the race. But it’d been a long time since I’d laughed so much. And, if the joy and appreciation demonstrated by the very large public is any indication (the banks of the river were packed with throngs of people on each side, as shown in pictures below), the story of our clumsy participation will keep the area’s villagers entertained for many years to come. Invitation was already extended for us to come back again next year, and indeed, why not ? It would be nice if we could train, though, so we don’t look so utterly ridiculous, next time. Maybe I’ll bring a helmet, too.

None of us took their cameras on board the boat. We weren’t even sure we’d be able to operate it without capsizing it. Besides, we’d seen a few of the local participants frantically scooping water out of theirs, so we also had to worry about it sinking. But I still hope some pictures or short video will turn out, somehow.

In the meantime, here are photos of the area, the crowds cheering on each side of the river, and last but not least, the official participants to the 2011 TARANGO Boat Race.

This lady kindly demonstrated the paddling moves for us.

Before the races, we sat under a colorful tent as they kicked off the day's celebrations with a few speeches and, much more to my taste, a couple of songs.

As we only participated in the last race, with the winning team, we first got to follow the action onboard a "speed boat" - well, it had a motor. This was the bottom! See what I mean when I mention the possibility of sinking?

On your marks! Get set! Go!

As I said, there were a few people around...

The winners, their red and white saris still soaking wet. It was a joy to witness their pride and unabashed happiness. The team was awarded medals that we each passed around their necks, and... a television to be shared by the community.

By then, it was only the middle of the day, and we still had a few mundane things to do, like break a clay pot blind-folded, sing a cappella in front of hundreds (more?) people, and dance, but this is for another post…

Zumba, my cure of choice against Dhaka blues

All the books on expatriation say it. When you find yourself in a “challenging duty station” (I like the diplomatic flavor of that), you need to find your niche, something to do that makes you feel good, whether it’s knitting, baking, volunteering with street children, spending all your time at your kids’ school or the spa, organizing coffee mornings, lunches, or afternoon teas, playing bridge or golf, whatever…

For me, filling my days with things to do is never an issue. I have novels to translate, stories to write, a blog… In fact, I’d need more hours in a day. The problem is that I work from home, which means my social life is basically nonexistent (my VIRTUAL social life, now, that one is thriving, but as retired but not forgotten expat guru Robin Pascoe might tell you, you gotta beware of having only a virtual social life – very unhealthy, that.)  Of course, I could never figure out whether my poor social life is a result of my working from home, of if I never really tried to work outside of home because I’m socially challenged. No matter. The bottom line is, when living in dump places like Dhaka (good-bye diplomacy), one needs to find things to do that make us feel good. In my case, it is imperative that said thing takes me out of my house.

Well, I found it : Zumba.

Nothing fancy, mind you. A handful of fanatics (OK, maybe I’m the only fanatic) get together and we all shake our bums (and everything else) in front of a TV screen blaring a fusion of musics. Yep ! No live instructor. But who needs one when you have those DVDs ?

A little backstory, because it’s the kind of story I love : according to the official website, Zumba is the baby of a Columbian Aerobics instructor, Alberto “Beto” Perez, who one day forgot his tapes and decided to use the latin music he had in his backpack to improvise a dancing work-out for his class – and they loved it ! A happy stroke of fate. In 1999, he took the concept to the US, and the rest is history. Today, Zumba is the largest dance fitness program in the world.

His last DVD series has music and dance styles that include cumbia, salsa, merengue, mambo, flamenco, reggaeton, soca, samba, belly dancing, bhangra, african, hip hop music and tango. The DVDs went from having him with two young women who did most of the talking, to a much more professional series with four different work-outs including a Zumba party that had about 6 to 8 people on stage, and what looked like a few hundred in the room, to the last one we were watching tonight. The Zumba Concert has a revolving double stage going up and down, giant screens, and what looks like thousands of people dancing along, every single one of them looking as if they’re in a kind of happy trance. Of course, in all of them, Beto is very much the Presence ! I mean, just looking at him dancing is enough to lift your mood. Picture a Latin version of Shahruck Khan – dark good looks, strong features, gorgeous body. Are you there ? And Goodness me, can he move.

As I was happily dancing, last evening, in a small school room, with a small TV screen, I was thinking how Beto didn’t only seize an opportunity, he also turned it into gold because he knew how to ride a global music and dance wave. Zumba is not only about exercising, and I’m tempted to say that’s precisely the reason it is such a huge success across the world. Call me French, but I could never understand people who sweat on machines. And I did try. Spinning ? You mean people actually do that without someone holding a gun to their heads ? Beats me. But Zumba ! Now we’re talking. I get to sweat and somewhat shape up and tone my drooping pre-menopause body, but those are secondary (if most welcome) side effects. Most of all, I get to dance to musics that lift my spirit, and connect me to Columbia, Mexico, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Cuba, India, and other countries around the world. I learn new moves and steps. Oh, and I get to watch Beto’s bare torso while I’m at it.

Is it any wonder I come out of each session feeling so light on my feet, and, yeah ! Happy ?!

Note to self: when feeling the blues in Dhaka, get out of the hole, and go Zumba !

Christmas, here or there, one way or another.

Christmas is coming. A friend was in Paris, recently, and mentioned shopping at the Galeries Lafayette. That brought back a flood of memories. As a child, my parents used to take me and my siblings to see the Christmas windows of the famous department store. We lived about half an hour away, and walked there, and back, something we did as a matter of course. To this day, I remember the excitement, the little clouds that came out of our mouths, the lights and colors all around, the smell of hot chestnuts being roasted over a fire burning in big oil drums. Approaching les Galeries Lafayette, we just couldn’t  wait to push past all the people until we stopped right in front of the first window, our cold noses touching the even colder glass, but who cared ? Inside was a magical world: animated scenes with animals and dolls moving, dancing, singing, riding electric trains…

Photo L'Internaute Magazine / Cécile Debise

My children have never seen that. The older one did see the Gigantic Christmas Tree at the Rockefeller Center when she was 5 months old, but of course, she doesn’t remember it.

I was in that nostalgic frame of mind, when I read an interesting article: What do you do when the kids think Colonel Sanders is Santa ?  The writer is from New Zealand, married to a Japanese, and they live in Japan. Her family has struggled to create a tradition they can call their own.

When we lived in Nigeria, spending Christmas in France, with family, was easy. Then, we moved to India, and after the first Christmas trip, I remember pushing the door of our house in Hyderabad, dropping my suitcase on the floor, and saying : No more !

It’s all right to go continent-hopping with two small kids in tow when you have at least one free month ahead of you. Otherwise, it’s just exhausting. Besides, we wanted to visit India. So, for a while, we just made it a point to be home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and we took off on the 26th. But it made for really short vacations, as school started soon after the 1st of January, and my husband was due back at work. So, we changed again. Nowadays, Christmas means frantic, last-minute, separate shopping in Bangkok, taking turns keeping the kids busy, and for Christmas Eve, we might be found sending paper lanterns up in the sky, on a beach in Thailand, or trying an organic restaurant in Bali. This year, we’ll be in Siem Rep, and apart from the frantic shopping part in Bangkok, I have no idea what to expect.

But in the meantime, we will take our tree out (most likely this week-end), and deck it out with our international mix of decorations. Buddha and Ganesha will find their usual place in the nativity scene. And we’ll continue to work around our circumstances. Flexibility is the name of the game.

Shake up your story by Raghava KK

A friend sent me a link to another great TED talk by artist Raghava KK. It’s very short (4.30 mns) and yet, what he says is so important, and it resonates beautifully with what I’m going through in my own life : posted in a Muslim country, after six years in a predominantly Hindu country, our two daughters now attending a Christian school, my own agnostic, shaky approach to spirituality which strongly rejects all dogmas but loves to embrace rituals, and finds peace in most Buddhist teachings…

It’s a lesson in tolerance, an invitation to remembering the need for perspective, and it reminds me of another extraordinary TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie : The Danger of a Single story. I especially love Raghava’s last sentence : “I cannot promise my child a life without bias, we’re all biased, but I can promise to raise my child with multiple perspectives.”

My Global Bookshelf : The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, by Uma Krishnaswami

I have been sooooo looking forward to the release of that book, of which I had the pleasure and privilege of reading excerpts when it was still in the revision stage. The novel was not totally finished, but it already had the qualities that now shine through the printed story. A happy, boisterous feeling that leaves you thoroughly satisfied, your heart smiling and your feet ready to tap-tap-tap. Plus, it took place for the most part in the Nilgiri hills, where we went on our very first trip in India – our little one was 9 months old – and so, I’m also feeling a little nostalgic, now.

Dini must leave Maryland, USA, and her BFF Maddie to follow her parents to a small town in the hills of South India called Swapnagiri (which means Dream Mountain) where her mother will spend two years working at a clinic. Dini and Maddie are Bollywood movies fans, and they adore the famous actress Dolly Singh. And, would you believe it, Dolly Singh may well be hiding somewhere in these hills, nursing a broken heart. Will the fan and the actress’ paths cross each other ? Of course they will – in true Bollywood fashion. Which doesn’t mean Dini will not have to deal with some plot twists here and there…

What did I LOVE about The Gran Plan to Fix Everything ?

First, the obvious : it is lovingly written and crafted, it is funny in a tongue-in-cheek way (Uma mentioned somewhere being inspired by P.G. Woodhouse), it is a breath of fresh mountain air carrying the fragrance of blue flowers, and some goat smells, too.

The fusion quality : Dini’s parents are Indian, but she’s growing up in the US. Dini’s BFF is American, and she is as much a fan of Bollywood movies as Dini is. Emails, phone calls, and video computer calls allow both girls to remain in touch. Dini soon meets another girl named Priya whose parents are in Washington DC, but will soon be going to Chile, and then Haiti.  This is the kind of world I can totally relate to, a world where people from different walks of life, different countries and cultures, all learn from each other. I just can’t wait for my daughter, who will turn 11 in August, to read the book, but she had to wait, ’cause I had to read it first. Actually, I think I may even read it aloud, see if our 7-year-old can enjoy it, too. Oh, one last thing : we also get to “taste” curry puffs with a touch of chocolate, and dark chocolate scented with rose petals !

Uma, being of Indian origin, puts her own stamp on the English language, and I’m not talking syntax or grammar, here, but music, and a unique way of stringing words together. You can see this is someone who loves the picture book medium and studied it extensively. Her language literally sings and dances and follows some of the cadences of the Hindi and Tamil languages that she speaks, as well as English. Dini look-looks, and listen-listens, for instance, and a few Hindi words and sentences are woven into the story without any of the heavy-handedness that you sometimes get when authors use foreign words and then proceed to translate them, almost in the same breath.

As a writer, I loved all the references to plots and plotting, and how Dini, a true movie-buff, sees life through the eyes of a budding writer. Everything translates in terms of scenes, the place of the actors/characters in them, plots and their inevitable twists… Uma and Dini have a lot in common, for sure.

I also loved the way Uma describes parent/child, and adult/child relationships. It is refreshing – and a little cringe-inducing, also. Refreshing because you, the adult (OK, me, the adult) are suddenly reminded of the way you were at that age, and how some of your thought-process went  just like Dini’s. The cringe comes from the sad realization that  you need someone as talented as Uma to channel the authentic voice and feelings of that child who got somewhat lost when you took on the role of parent.

Which is probably why I so love reading, and writing for children, and I think all adults should continue to read some kids literature, at least from time to time.

I’ll end up this long review by saying that I will now wait for the movie version of this book. Come on, filmi people out there ! Whether you’re in the US or in India, this book has all the necessary ingredients to make a perfect family movie – complete with songs, and dance numbers, if you please !

The Grand Plan is on the last week of a month-long blog tour at Uma Krishnaswami‘s blog, Writing with a Broken Tusk.

Mother’s Day

So, I’m reading my Facebook wall, and all of a sudden, it’s all about Mother’s Day. As a majority of my friends are women, and many of them either live in the US or Canada or hail from there – even if the expat bubble landed them elsewhere – yesterday was all about celebrating mothers.

If not for Facebook, this would have eluded me totally.

To begin with, Sundays are working days, here, in Bangladesh. Something I’m yet to get used to, even though we’re now reaching the end of our ninth month in this country. A full gestation, but it has not given birth to an organic understanding of that bizarre shift in our week. I constantly refer to Friday as Saturday, to Saturday as Sunday, and routinely forget appointments made on Sunday. Strange, how our minds get used to a rhythm, to things being a certain way. If we think about it, we still have two days off work and out of school at the end of the week. They just happen on different days. But that makes the whole difference.

If that was not confusing enough, Mother’s Day is not on the same day all over the world (see here.)  In Spain, it’s on the first Sunday of May. In France, it is usually on the last Sunday of May, or the first Sunday of June (to not clash with Whit Sunday, and to keep everyone on their toes, ’cause that’s something the French like to do.) Haiti celebrates mothers on the last Sunday of May, Pentecost or no Pentecost. And according to the Wikipedia link above, Bangladesh celebrates it on the same Sunday as the US.

Really ? I just checked the newspaper, and indeed, found a small article and photo of some function in the city marking Mother’s Day, yesterday. Bangladeshi mothers don’t even get a free day on their day.

For this mother, Mother’s Day yesterday was also like any week day : I worked, my kids came home, I supervised their homework, made sure they ate dinner and brushed their teeth, and everyone went to bed.

The nice thing about our family’s confusion about Mother’s Day is that pretty often, I get a surprise when I least expect it. Not that I’m sending any hint to anyone…