Friday, August 29, 2008

My Summer Vacation Essay, part II

The other day my little Léo was telling me about all of the stuffed animals he'd chosen to sleep in his bed with him, and he came to a WebKinz that my sister got for him at the Mall of America:

Léo: ...and this gecko we buyed when we were at the rides in... in... [thinks a bit] France.

Nico: No, in Minneapolis!

Our little trip to Paris last week to visit their French grandma had merged in Léo's mind with our earlier trip to Minnesota to visit their American grandparents. So if you were wondering whether my kids felt much culture shock going back to the U.S.A. for the first time in three years, the answer is that I don't think they did.

Staying at my parents' house for three weeks brought a whole lot of unfamiliar things, which my kids took in stride:

* Lots of dogs: My parents have a tiny but very loud yorkie, my sister has a quiet but big dog, and my little brother has a medium-sized, medium-loudness dog. My kids are normally a little afraid of dogs -- especially noisy ones -- but by the end of the trip, they were great friends little Louie the yorkie.

* A whole different set of toys! The first thing Léo noticed upon arrival was the electric train set my dad had set up in the family room. Then my sister brought over another train set (different from our train set at home), so Léo had the fun of setting up a new railway network all over my parents' basement!

* Riding in vehicles they don't usually get to ride in, namely cars, airplanes, and small boats on a lake. Their reaction to that can be summed up in one word: "Yay!!!"

* Having their own parents (us) with them all day with nothing to do but take them to the swimming pool or an amusement park (like at the Mall of America) or help them with a nature documentary.

* Getting to know the whole family, including cousins their own age and attentive grandparents who had a whole bunch of activities planned for them.

There were so many differences, but it was as much a question of "it's an adventure to stay at someone else's house" as a question of "it's an adventure to go to another country."

The one thing felt weird to me on this trip was the fact that we were surrounded by people speaking English all the time. In the past six months in Zürich, I'd gotten used to having a communication barrier between me and every random person I encounter. Once people discover I don't speak German, they immediately switch to English for me -- so I feel like I'm creating a little bubble of American-ness around myself (that I'm self-conscious about). It actually felt weird to be back in a place where American-ness is the norm and speaking English is the default assumption.

(As for my excuses for why I still can't speak German, that will be a topic of another post, probably entitled "A foreign language is best learned in the bedroom.")

Did my kids have a similar reaction to being surrounded by English-speakers?

Hard to say. The only noticeable change was that after this trip Nico started calling us "Mom" and "Dad" (instead of "Mommy" and "Daddy" or "Maman" and "Papa"). I think he was probably influenced by his cousins calling their parents "Mom" and "Dad". Damn peer pressure! J/K ;^)

And the religion question?

As I've said before, the fact that my parents don't agree with each other on religion has created this wonderful haven of secular space throughout the household. So there's no pressure to go to church, and non of those ugly, tense showdowns where religious participation is assumed -- so you're forced to go along with it silently or be seen as a bad guy for objecting.

The only exception was prayer over dinner.

Now, obviously I'm not going to complain about them practicing their own religion in their own house, even in front of my kids. As I explained here, I'd rather have my kids exposed to other ideas, not sheltered from them. If my religious family members had taken the liberty of teaching my kids about God and Jesus, I would have immediately responded with my own opinion on the same subject, but they didn't. And I appreciated the fact that they were willing to respect the values we're teaching our kids.

I wish I could say my kids were equally respectful of my parents' one religious observance. No matter how many times we explained to Nico that he had to stop talking for the prayer, he just didn't get it. The kid is fundamentally incapable of being silent for more than a few seconds at a stretch when he's with people. (My husband once played a game with him to see how long he could go on a walk with us without talking, and he never made it to a full minute.) So my parents were kind enough to just keep the dinner prayers short.

This was the simplest solution since, in fact, Nico wasn't the only disruptive one: Louie the yorkie also hadn't mastered the "stay quiet for the prayer" trick...


Anonymous said...

Also, German should be learned in a country where they speak German. ;-)

(Hmm. I'm having deja comment...)

When we go to the states, we're always overly alert the first few days, our attention constantly being automatically grabbed by hearing English...and then you remember it's all around you. It's such an odd feeling.

I love hearing about how the boys experienced it.

Aerin said...

Sounds like a good time! My kids talk during prayers too.

Eugene said...

Peter Payne comments here about his bilingual children: "I don't know my own kids. Or rather, I know the half that speaks Japanese, that works diligently on homework and reads books or plays video games in Japanese. The English-speaking side of my children is something I'm less familiar with . . . and no amount of pretending to not understand will get my kids to switch to English [when we're in Japan]."

MoHoHawaii said...

I loved this post and its predecessor.

With McCain's recent VP choice (an anti-choice, anti-gay, creationist and former supporter of Pat Buchanan), expat life is looking more and more attractive from this side of the pond.

Best and warmest regards.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wry!!!

Exactly, and I'm feeling the déjà comment too. It's almost as though I'm writing about the same country switch experiences that you've already written about. ;^)

Hey Aerin!!!

Yeah, it was fun!!! I'm actually trying to teach my kids to respect the rules of other people's households, but it's tricky at this age if the other household has unfamiliar customs...

Hey Eugene!!!

That is so typical. Even if the kids know two languages, they seem to almost always have a strong preference for the language of the country they're living in. I think it's because they're highly motivated to speak to the other kids.

At Rutgers some of the grad students had brought their wives and small children from China, and I remember at a department picnic watching some of these little Chinese kids playing together in perfect American English. Then their mothers would call to them in Chinese, and the kids would respond in English. I heard them carry on quite an extended conversation that way. Similarly, we had some friends in Princeton who were a bilingual family, and the Italian father was frustrated that his daughter would never respond to him in Italian. Then they went to Italy to visit all her little cousins and discovered that she spoke Italian perfectly. ;^)

In our family, my kids speak in both French and English at home and when playing together -- and they don't seem to have a strong preference for one or the other. I think this is somewhat exceptional, though, and I think it's largely because they have so many children's videos that are in English, plus even when they were in France lots of random people -- including kids -- would talk to them in English. During this last trip to Paris, Léo was playing on a playground and made friends with a little boy who wanted to speak to him in English. Since educated people are expected to learn English, my kids ended up feeling special for being native English speakers instead of feeling like being half-foreign made them weird.

Hey MoHoHawaii!!!

Well, we'd be happy to see you in Europe!!! :D

Bull said...

When I was returning home from my Bolivian mission I was in Miami international for nearly an hour before I went, "WTF, why am I speaking in Spanish. I can speak English here." This included going to the airline counter, getting food, etc. all in Spanish.

Of course, being Miami, nobody even batted an eyelash and even the blond, nordic looking american woman at the airline counter spoke perfectly fluent Spanish.

I've also seen the same thing WRT to bilingual children here in the U.S.; they refuse to speak Spanish to their parents or at home.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Bull!!!

lol, I totally know how that goes. If you understand what people are saying, so often it doesn't even register to think of which language you're speaking or whether it would be easier to switch.

Varina said...

Bull, your story reminded me of when I visited Germany and for the first day my brain kept insisting "in foreign country, speak foreign language" and out would come French. This especially (unjustifiably) confused the guy at the bureau de change who felt, as I was converting Swiss Francs I must speak German (everyone I met in Germany felt that I should speak German when they found out I live in Switzerland, and were only slightly put off from this when I explained I live in the French speaking part). I was so embarrassed.

C. L. Hanson, I think if I were living in Zurich I would be so lazy about learning German. Since everything essential is printed in French and German it seems like it would be so easy to just coast, since you can do all your shopping, paperwork filling out, and traveling without knowing any German.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sabayon!!!

You would think everything would be printed in French and Italian (in addition to German) here, but it's not. Products at the grocery store, yes. Official government documents, perhaps. But most things are printed and announced in German only. If you'd like to buy a train ticket from a machine and you can't read German, good luck!

Varina said...

That is so bizarre. Here in the French speaking part all the ticket machines (including the ones for city buses) can be switched to German, Italian, or English (although options for English and Italian are always easier to find and appear first!).

Anonymous said...

In Zürich you can get along just fine with "standard German". Getting to know the local Schweitzerdeutsch dialect isn't necessary. Given that there are about 20 distinct dialects of Swiss German in Switzerland it's beyond reason to consider learning them all. The vast majority of Swiss can switch to standard German anyway, so that's where your efforts should be spent. It's fun to learn some of the more common conversational discourse in dialect, just to be able to add colour to your speech, but I'd put the priority on "Schriff Deutsch" (as the Swiss call Standard German). I liked learning the language. But if I had the chance to live in Switzerland again, I'd rather live in Lausanne. It's my favourite Swiss city.

I spent a couple of years in Zürich in the mid-80s. I already spoke a passable French, but worked really hard to learn German. Getting started was the hard part. After sorting out the basics of German, learning more wasn't so bad. I still get along in German pretty well, even though I've been back in Canada for over 20 years. Sadly, the passable French didn't ever get any better. I keep thinking I'll get back to it some day, but with 4 kids and a busy job, it's not happening.

Anonymous said...

It's funny you mentioned about the boys and prayer. My grandkids (2, 4 and 6) just returned from a visit to their maternal grandmother's place. (My ex-wife.) First thing they did when they sat down to the dinner table the other night was fold their arms and ask if they could bless the food. My daughter and I looked at each other, rolled our eyes and groaned silently.

They've never had moism or any religion at all in their lives since the day they were born but one week at the mormon grandma's and they're all ready to start blessing the food. I wasn't sure if I should laugh or cry.

I think your boys are so lucky to have such diversity of experience growing up. I think it gives them advantages that can't be had any other way. You and your husband have created a very big, very rich world for them. Someday they're going to thank you for it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Canuck!!!

Of course you can get by on standard German here in Zürich, but that's part of the problem -- you can get by on English. What I want is to understand what people are saying when they have a conversation, and that's well nigh impossible here...

Hey Tom!!!

Your ex-wife trained such little kids to pray? For me, that would be overstepping a boundary, but in your case, of course, it depends on the agreement that Auri has with her mother.

Back in Me, my kids, and "teach the controversy" I was planning to try to explain about prayer and religion a bit before going to the U.S. (so we'd be ready for questions), but I couldn't come up with how to explain it. I feel like at six and five they're still awfully young to understand something like "Grandma and Grandpa are attempting to communicate with unseen beings that Mommy and Daddy think don't exist..."

So I'm glad the confrontation didn't happen this time. By next time, I think they'll be old enough to understand a little better.

Anonymous said...

My SO and I watched that video of Nico, and he says, "I want to adopt him!" LOL

You've got an amazing son who obviously was blessed with some very good genes. His grasp of english (as a second language!) and his intellect are just - "wow"!

That kid's going places - and I'm not talking about America. :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Christie!!!

We had a lot of fun making that video! :D

Anonymous said...

LOL, I have one of those incessant talkers as well.

Anonymous said...

You have got lot's of sweet memories to share from your vacation trip, I enjoyed them lot.