Sunday, September 11, 2022

Notes of a non-native parent


[Parent and child trying to comunicate*]

The immigrant experience has many aspects and layers. One area in which even long-term immigrants feel like “a stranger in a strange land” (to quote Heinlein) is parenting. Immigrant parents are often at a loss what to do in their adopted culture. More significantly, their children discover that fact very quickly. This lack of clear hierarchy changes the nature of interaction with our children and affects parental roles.

As an example, I have an American father and French mother, grew up in the US and have lived in Israel for some 33 years but came here as an adult. I was fortunate to marry and raise a daughter here, now 25 years old. She and I just took our annual camping trip on the Dan river in northern Israel and ran into a problem of an absurd rule at the site, a bit like Woody Allen’s executive order to speak Swedish in Bananas. My daughter told me to let her handle it and negotiated/argued with management until it agreed to ignore the rule. I, her father, sat back and watched her, knowing that she is far more skillful in navigating Israeli waters than I am. Facts are facts but, somehow, it does bother the parental ego. Considering my position as a non-native father, I see how my foreignness has impacted issues of language and culture but also enriched our lives.

Coming from four generations of immigrant parents, my family having a tendency to change countries for one reason or another, I was always aware of language discrepancies. Specifically, children at a very young age often already  speak more accurately than their parents and have no compunction in correcting them. My daughter from the age of 8 already noticed my mistakes. Today, despite my rather rich Hebrew, she handles voice and digital communication, i.e., phone matters with authorities and services of all kinds, when we are together. I have to admit that she is far more efficient and effective although I do believe that I can communicate the issues. One obstacle may be that people worldwide assume having an accent means that the person is stupid, to be blunt, with the possible exception of Henry Kissinger and Einstein, who sounded and were considered quite intelligent. As the adult in the equation, immigrant parents have to accept that their children speak and write better than they do regardless of the fact that it somehow reduces their personal standing. I suppose that my daughter’s occasional grimacing at my Hebrew is due punishment for my making fun of my mother’s pronunciation mistakes. There is some kind of ultimate justice, albeit even slower than the human justice system.

On a more insidious note, not having grown up in a culture as a child means that an immigrant does not fully understand the unspoken code of behavior. Cultural rules of communication are so complicated that adult analysis is insufficient in terms of attaining full assimilation of the code. In some ways, immigrant parents cannot shed all elements of the old country. For example, all communication involves explicit and implicit elements, including message, seriousness and ultimate intent. Not having grown up in Israel, I tend to misinterpret how much bluff there is in Israeli conversation and how “flexible” rules are. In terms of negotiating bureaucracy and attaining goals, it is fortunate that both my wife and daughter are “locals” but in terms of self-respect, it is not always easy on the pride. As an extreme example, older Ethiopian males that immigrated to Israel have suffered greatly from the loss of the prestige they held in their native society as they neither understand the language or culture of their new country and are entirely dependent on their family, even to read a letter. This cultural deficiency potentially has a far greater impact than the language issues.

Yet, in many ways, this dialogue between immigrant parent and native child is an enriching experience. Children expose aspects of the adopted world as they go through their journey from infancy to adulthood. These aspects include songs, beliefs, behaviors and special events, all experienced vicariously. In the other direction, immigrant parents imprint on their children a knowledge of worlds and morays that may not always fit their native society but serve them well in other places. I am proud to say that my daughter is far more polite and, in many ways, more confident than many of her peers, knowing the importance of saying thank you, respecting her elders, if only on the basis of their age, and with less gender-defined limits. Her world view goes far beyond the small world of northern Israel. She is aware of the relatively free world of Los Angeles in terms of behavior and sense of style that is France, including shops with smelly cheese. This knowledge probably means that she too will become an immigrant parent but that is her choice. The foreign culture I imprinted on her at least has given her a choice in life, a problematic gift but nevertheless a rich inheritance. We both have profited from our cultural exchange.

Clearly, there is a very high number of households with at least one immigrant parent worldwide with each having its own personal story. Still, clearly a foreign parent creates a different house and world view as compared to a native one although not necessarily an easier experience. As both such a child and parent, I can say that, while there is a price, especially in childhood, for growing up “different”, the cross culturization is an enriching experience. I would not have it any other way even if I have to let my daughter sometimes do the talking for me. Such adjustments are all part of the immigrant experience.


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