Mixed languages, mixed messages

Within minutes of Forough Khanoom striking up conversation with me at the public playground, she was lecturing me on the importance of teaching SweetPea and LadyBug the Persian language.  After chiding me nonstop for an eternity on the importance of preserving our native culture, language and tradition, making me feel like the bad kid sent to the principal’s office, she turned to scream at her tot who was edging dangerously off the monkey bars:

“Nay-taaaaaaaaaaaaaan!!!… Nay-taaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan movazeb baash!… Nay-taaaaaaaaaaaaaannn!!!”

It took me a few seconds to realize she has named her son “Nathan.”  Talk about preserving your Persian culture!  Why, Nathan is as Persian as Dariush, n’est-ce pas?

But as much as I could ridicule Forough Khanoom and her ilk, I am not immune to the confusion and absurdity that are prevalent when raising kids with mixed languages.  After all, though hubby and I made a great point of naming our kids with Persian names, using the same logic as Forough Khanoom of wanting to preserve our culture, the reality is that 90% of the time, we speak to them in English.  The reality is, we are ALL confusing our kids.

It’s not just a matter of mixed languages, but also mixed messages about their identity.  Do we want them to assimilate and thrive in the country of their birth, at the expense of gaining insight into the formidable culture and rich language of Iran?  Do we want them to stick to the culture and traditions of their grandparents, when often their own parents have been born outside the so-called “native” land, never to set foot in it, knowing it only through the lens of their elders? Do we want them to speak Persian only until they get to kindergarden when they are six years old, and realize they do not understand a word that their teachers and their peers speak?  Do we want them to cringe every time the teacher is butchering their name for the first time?  It’s easy for Grandma to say that you should uphold traditions when she was raised in Iran, learning one language, one culture, one religion in a homogenous society.  But has Grandma experienced the trauma of the immigrant kid, forever being shifted from one country to another, one city to another, one school to another, and as if that wasn’t pressure enough, be expected to stick to an Iranian identity that he has no desire to do?

I don’t have the solution for this except to keep going forward, for better or worse, with a mix of what your own parental instinct tells you to do, a great deal of flexibility and the goal to adapt to circumstances day by day.  We are not the first immigrant parents nor are our kids the first immigrant kids.  I am sure that all this confusion, though it may seem traumatic at first, will have a way of settling in and even make our kids stronger in the future. 

Someone once said that the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau found success in politics because he sounded like a Frenchman, thought like an Englishman, and looked like a Native-Canadian.  Today, we live in a world where Barack Obama, a half American half African child growing up in Asian-infused Hawaii, managed to find and to relish his unique identity (after an identity crisin in his teen years where he tried to anglicize his first name to “Barry”) on his way to the White House.  So as for our kids, whether they are named Nathan, or Nay-taaaaan, or Ali, or Reza, or Jose, whether they are uni-, bi-, or tri-lingual, I am confident that they will succeed, either despite or because of their mixed identities.  Who knows? Maybe someday, we’ll have a President who sounds Persian, thinks American, and looks Mexican 🙂


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