Thursday, 29 September 2011

Our Summer Language Experiment

This summer I tried something drastic in an attempt to expand my children’s secondary language use and exposure. Something they weren’t happy about at first and that even my – usually very supportive – husband found a bit extreme. Did it work and boost the kids’ language learning and did - as Germans say - “Der Zweck heiligt die Mittel” (the end justifies the means)? Here is our summer story with a little background…

We are a bilingual English-German family – dad is from the US, mom is from Germany, currently living in England. Two boys – age 9 and 7 – who grew up first in the US and then moved to the UK almost 3 years ago. Both kids go to a normal British Primary school, so German is restricted to the interaction before and after school and in-between the many activities they attend. We are very strict followers of OPOL (One-parent-one-language) - see previous post. During their early childhood this meant their main language was German, since I was home with them, but when they started (pre)school, English became their main language of communication especially amongst each other.

During the recent school year, I’d become increasingly frustrated with the vanishing amount of German in the house. Since they are older, the kids don’t really want to play with me anymore, but rather with each other (=English) or make up their own role plays with cars or Lego (=English). They don’t even *want* me to talk to them a lot, they need their peace and quiet after school, time on their own to unwind and relax after a long day before homework is calling again. So the most precious time to speak German (after school, but before dad comes home) often passes without much interaction. While it is great that I can prepare dinner in peace, the lost opportunities of communication became more and more apparent to me as the school year was winding down.

In addition to the lack of spoken language, there was also little reading and writing going on in German. We try to have German school (that I teach) every 2-3 weeks with 3 other kids, but scheduling problems between the three families had made those lessons infrequent and inconsistent. As for reading German: while we have plenty of German books, both boys now prefer to read on their own and don’t want to listen to me reading a story. Each has their favorite series of typical boy books (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Horrid Henry, action hero stories, books about cars and Lego) – and they are practically all English. When I try to expand their horizon and get more variety (science and history), we sometimes go to the library, but – of course – all books from there are in English! In addition, as part of their homework they have to read to a parent (which they do with their dad since its English), so reading out loud in German never occurs unless almost forced. The most obvious sign that most new knowledge and interesting facts were gained from English sources was the difficulty with which they tried to explain to me what they discovered. They simply lacked the vocabulary for this rapidly expanding world of interesting facts!

While German books were around, I only rarely saw one of them pick one up. Part of the problem was the speed with which their interests had specialized and the fact that they were outgrowing the classic German children’s books rapidly! Despite my encouragement, German books were not perused as often and since free choice and free play are central in our parenting philosophy, I watched frustrated but powerless. I realized, drastic measures had to be taken in order to at least attempt a change and reintroduce some more German back into the life of my children!
In the past our usual vacation schedule had included daily German exercises and activities. I started with these intensive summer classes when they were 3 - first with the ABC, then teaching them to read / write, lately they had to work through age-appropriate work books from Germany over Christmas and Easter. (In my opinion it is better to avoid parallel acquisition of reading/writing in two languages to avoid confusion and not hinder progress in school.) For a couple of reasons - the main one being that we had to prepare for the UK Music Grade exams after the summer and had a schedule of daily sight–reading and listening exercises already – I assigned no German homework for the break. Instead I used a passive, but hopefully effective approach…

I waited until the summer holidays were in sight (here in England you get 6 weeks of vacation between the end of July and the first week of September). This way there was no English homework or reading assignments and no after-school activities. And then I did it: On the last day of school I removed ALL English books and videos and put them in the guest room. The shelves looked a bit bare, but I replenished them with our German travel comics (which they are usually only allowed on the plane), some German versions of their favorites (e.g. a car model book and Wimpy Kid/Greg’s Tagebuch) as well as some cool new science and experiment books as gifts for their last day of school. Finally I had also ordered two of my favorite childhood books by Astrid Lindgren which I hoped they boys would like (Mio, mein Mio and Brüder Löwenherz/Brothers Lionheart). I wanted to read to them in the evening as part of our new bed time routine.

When the kids came home they were less shocked then expected, possibly appeased by the gifts. Over the first couple of days, some books were missed (especially the Horrid Henry ones, which you can gleefully read out loud, shouting and screaming horrid things without getting in trouble!) but on the plus side there was now a pile of German comics and some picture books they hadn’t seen in a while as well as the new stack! Both kids settled into reading German books without complaints. As far as I could tell, the frequency of their reading did not change. That swap was painless and successful!

More resistance was met with the restriction to German videos. The current favorite (on loan from the neighbors) was English and their German DVDs were apparently too boring or for babies… Alas, faced with the possibility of watching a German movie or foregoing the only weekend TV session, they settled for German.

The biggest success from my point of view however was the bed time story. I know that everybody says you need to read to your children, but life often gets in the way – sometimes they come home too late from Karate, other nights I leave early for choir – but I made a point to read a chapter to them almost every night during the summer, we even took the book on vacation with us. There was new vocabulary to discuss and best of all we always recapped the story line up to the point to which we had gotten so far, which was a great opportunity for using German and expanding a vocabulary field that had nothing to do with the daily grind, school or food. The stories resonated with my boys as we talked about what might happen next. Sometimes during they day they would ask a question or make a comparison to the book. It was all effortless communication, very clearly not inhibited by the fact that they had thought/experienced something in English and then tried to translate it for me. It was clear German input-output, which is the smoothest and therefore most confidence inspiring.

Over the course of the summer, some compromises were made. The big Lego book and two car magazines found their way back into circulation since they were read for the pictures rather than the text. (They were also taken with us on the cruise since they simply give the most entertainment for the least weight.) We also watched two family movies in English, since my husband was participating (and watching “Star Wars” in German would have been borderline ridiculous when you have the original!).

So did this experiment work? Did their German improve by passively diminishing the exposure to English? And was it more effective than covering 4 pages in a work book every day? On the positive side, they certainly increased their vocabulary, new words from books were clearly absorbed and incorporated into the active language. The discussions of the bed time story were lively and immediate. Certain words necessary for comprehension were inquired rather than ignored since there was no easy English alternative book. Thus reading comprehension in German increased, however I am not sure whether this would also reflect in their writing – spelling is definitely something that improves more with workbooks and repeated writing than just reading (unless you have a very visual learner or a child with photographic memory).
Despite the bigger exposure to (written) German, I am not sure how much impact this had on the language of their inner dialogue. During the summer they still mainly played with each other and with their toys in English. However, the Lego figures and some of the cars we had picked up on our short visit to Germany were deemed to speak German and so some toy activity was entirely in German, which had never happened before! In addition, the acquisition of cool new knowledge (and the many ideas for exciting experiments) was dominated by German (and thus the translation into English to share with their dad was for once halting). There were no negative feelings towards German exercises, since it was all play and no work, no pressure to fill out workbooks and no grammatical corrections.

But would I do it again? What I have learned from this experiment is that I need to read more German stories to my children, it was the most effective way to increase vocabulary. I might also buy some more German DVDs so that they would pick these over English ones because of the content, disregarding the language choice. On the other hand, if I want my children to have age appropriate reading and writing skills compatible with their German native peers, I will not get around the work books and grammar exercises. But it sure was nice to take a break from the German homework pressure for one summer – both for the kids and mom!
Now school has started again and during the last weekend, we moved the mountains of books back to the boys’ rooms. They were happy to see some of their old favorites and started reading immediately. Here is hoping that some of the German discoveries will also stay in circulation until there is a new batch of cool German books for Christmas!

Monday, 20 September 2010

We are the OPOL-Fanatics!

Hallo – we would like to introduce ourselves… We are the OPOL-Fanatics! If you have read some bilingual theories, you have probably come across the term “OPOL” – it is the abbreviation for “One-Parent-One-Language” - and it is the mantra of our family. We adhere to it religiously, we are diligent in its execution, appear rude and inconsiderate as well as consistent and disciplined in its wake. Its proclamation inspires admiring sounds of approval from some and disbelieving shakes of heads from others, bilingual and monolingual families alike.

It all started fairly simple. We were a couple, German wife, American husband, who decided to raise their children bilingually. At the time we lived in the US (currently we are in England) and since it was an English speaking environment, German would have to be especially nurtured. Since my husband’s German was not fluent enough at the time to use German as the only home language, we decided on OPOL (even though we were not familiar with the term then). I have to admit that I also did not want my children to hear my husbands accented and sometimes grammatically challenged German, so my tendency towards strict language enforcement was already present at the beginning…

So son No 1 was born and we were so well established in the Chicago Suburbian German community that I had one German play group and one German music group in contrast to only one American play group. German dominated the house until my husband came home in the evening, which is when I would continue speaking German to the kids, but English to my husband. And he, of course, spoke English with all of us.

Another son was born and the years passed happily by with tolerant American friends and family, who accepted my German-only approach. I had assured everybody that I would never say anything “behind their back” in German and sometimes repeated information or instructions in English or even better, let my children translate, when it was time for snack or a walk etc. during an American play date.

Already in the early years, strict OPOL resulted in some weird arrangements: Books were strictly segregated into “Papa books” and “Mama Bücher” and no parent would ever cross the line of reading the other language to the child, even though it would have been quite easy. Certain books of the “I Spy” / “Wimmelbuch” variety could be read or talked about with both parents in their respective language, however I never read “Good Night Moon” and my husband never picked “Die kleine Raupe Nimmersatt”. As silly as this discipline of not reading your child’s favorite book of the moment to them, if it is in the other language, seems, it prevented my “slide” into English. One of my biggest fears that I was constantly aware of was the mixing of languages. Under no circumstances did I want to end up like a dear friend of mine who spoke with her older children in such a mixture of German and English that only a person fluent in both could understand.

I believe the biggest brick in the wall that stemmed the flood of English into our house was the rule that only German DVDs could be watched and no commercial American television was allowed. This is the point that most other bilingual parents shake their heads and say they could never do that with their children – however, since my children didn’t know any better, they didn’t realize they were “deprived” of English speaking TV until they were old enough to understand the importance of fostering both languages. By now we own a lot of DVDs that have both German and English sound tracks and they find it rather amusing to alternate between the two.

When my oldest started preschool, insisting on German got more complicated. All of a sudden he was swamped with English, experienced things in English, learned whole new fields of vocabulary in English... But since it was only 3 hours a day, I was able to counter balance things. I made sure he learned the ABCs in German first, provided the German equivalents of the new words and tried to not fall into the trap of using English expressions of the preschool terms. I tried to find acceptable German alternatives for things like “Potty Time”, “Play Doh” and “Craft session”. I even went so far as to make a German version of the “Clean-Up”Song, which he sang enthusiastically at home, so that we could use it. Yes, it was forced at times, but I wasn’t going to let English creep into my German!

Not letting main stream language words slip into your conversations is the BIGGEST challenge for the OPOL parent who speaks the minority language. It requires discipline and complicates conversations enormously. It is so much easier just to use the majority word, since it is often the one on the tip of your tongue! You might even find that you can’t remember the correct word in your OWN language, because it is buried under the other – and that’s pretty embarrassing! I’ve have had many situations where I used a quick translation, but it wasn’t quite correct for the context. For example talking about baby formula and how it is made of powder, I used the word Puder, which is a correct translation, but not in this context, where it should be Pulver. Sometimes, quick and direct translations can even change the meaning. So if your children have homework, you translate home + work = Haus + Arbeit, however Hausarbeit is more commonly used as household chores and Hausaufgaben is associated with school homework. In these situations, you have two choices – you let it slip with the risk of your child remembering the incorrect word or you correct yourself. I generally rephrase with the more appropriate word and since rephrasing is a major method of correcting German in this household, the kids hardly notice.

The older the kids get, the bigger the challenge gets to hang onto German in an English speaking environment - and the more fanatic I become about OPOL. The language balance in our house has certainly tipped towards English. When son number 1 started school and son number 2 preschool, they switched to speaking English with each other. Yes, it broke my heart, but there was little I could do. They still speak only German to me, but they struggle more. Now they are both in school 6.5 hours a day, they experience and learn in English and sometimes have to ask “How do I say that in German?” The little one sometimes lets an English word slip in from time to time, especially when we haven’t been to Germany in a while. At this point, I say “I don’t think that was German you spoke to me” or rephrase and offer the German vocab. School homework has been tricky, since it is obviously in English, but the English speaker comes home late in the day. So what we have resorted to is that Papa does all the reading homework in the evening before bed. Other homework is done with me.
But sometimes it gets slightly ridiculous. For example: My son reads the math homework text. We talk it through in German, we calculate in German, we formulate the answer in German, then he translates the answer into English and writes it down. Sounds complicated? – You bet it is! I was so annoyed with the procedure at one point, that I read the text in English, which caused my appalled son to demand that I stop immediately. It is engrained in their brains that I should speak German to them. So much so that they PROTEST, if I speak English – not so much when I speak English at a play date, birthday party or family function to the group, but when I clearly address only THEM and it is in English. But I am not complaining. Not in the least. “Mama, sprich Deutsch mit mir” is music to my ears… because it means, I am raising some fine OPOL-Fanatics!

Friday, 25 June 2010

You speak English and what? – Views of my bilingual family in the US versus the UK

We are a bilingual family – mom from Germany, dad from the US – who moved to England from Chicago over a year ago. While this move didn’t change much of our family’s language dynamics (I still speak only German to the kids, my husband only English and school instruction is also in English), the way our family’s bilingualism is viewed has changed quite a bit!

In the US, hearing a language other than English is not uncommon. There are simply so many immigrants, you are bound to pass somebody that speaks “something else” - very often it is Spanish, but it could just as well be Chinese or Gujarati, Swedish or Russian. In the grade school that my children went to, there were a couple of families in every class that spoke another language at home and the ESL (English as a second language) program was well established. For the American ear, any language other than English sounds like white noise. This is partially due to the fact that a foreign language is often not taught until middle school, many people have never traveled outside the US and English is the main language of international relations anyway. But on the other hand, the tolerance for heavy accented English high, since many people in the US speak it as a second language. Native languages vanish fast in the American melting pot – for the second generation of immigrants speaking English is often emphasized as a means to move up in society and in the third generation (and its often English based marriages) most traces of the foreign language are gone. There is little comparable tradition of preserving your language as part of your cultural identity over centuries like you would find in European enclaves, and if there are, they are mostly fueled by new immigrant generations. Thankfully, most of the German community in the Chicago suburbs consisted of German expatriates that would return to Germany after 3 years and therefore actively kept the language alive, especially for their children. I was lucky to have a German play group and children’s music group, as well as a regular German Ladies Night Out. We even could have attended German Saturday Language school!
When we ventured out into the world as a bilingual family in Chicago, we were mainly ignored. A mother speaking a different language is not an unusual sight. But what amazed me time after time was that there was no recognition that it was “German”. Often somebody asked where we were from and the answer was followed by a positive reaction – most Americans have some German ancestry or some have traveled to Germany. But while they were proud of proclaiming their German heritage, they would have never recognized it was German. Being bilingual (with the exception of maybe Spanish) seems unnecessary for most Americans. German, even though a major European trade language, is viewed no different than Vietnamese. Speaking it in addition to English is maybe cool, but weird. When we visited the US recently, one of my husband’s uncles wanted to make small talk and ask “Soooo… do you still speak your language with your kids?”. He couldn’t even remember what language it was, it was not a distinction he thought was important to make. As for Spanish, is it the dominant foreign language in the US, appearing in bilingual instructions and forms all over the country. So it was no surprise the new American babysitter reported: “The kids wanted to look at some of those books, but I told them I could not read Spanish”. Of course they were German children’s books, but in her mind anything not English had to be Spanish.
So speaking German in the US was equivalent to talking “white noise” – but that had its advantages! I could reprimand my children in public without anybody knowing the details, I could provide points for a conversion (“…and tell grandma about the frog”), avoid fights before they happened (“Let Daniel have a turn first”) and bribe them shamelessly without the raised eyebrows of other parents.

In the beginning of last year, we moved to the US with my husband’s work – and I was excited! Back in Europe, closer to Germany, surely that must mean more language opportunities! And it is true: we are only two flight hours away from the grandparents instead of nine (plus jet lag!), German Amazon send books without enormous shipping costs, you can get movies with German sound tracks and even German satellite TV. But for some reason, that also means the German community is less eager to stick together. The Germans I have met so far, have no interest in any regular meetings – neither for the kids nor for themselves. They mainly want to blend in, maybe because the threat of extinction is not so big for a language/culture that’ s just across the channel.
In addition, maybe because we are far North, away from the London metropolitan area, there are no other bilingual children in my kids’ classes and only a handful in the entire school. When I speak German with my sons, the other kids stare. (Funny enough the adults don’t stare when we speak German, but when they hear the American accented English). The children are not used to people conversing in another language, even though they often get taught French or German in primary school. That said, the overall reaction to raising my children bilingually is extremely positive - people say “Oh, I wish I could do that for my children!” instead of “Why would you want them to teach another language? That will just confuse them!”.
However, the biggest change, when we go out as a bilingual family is that now everybody seems to recognize that I speak “German”, even the people that have never learned it at school. Not only that – most people understand part or most of what I am talking about… and that means I really have to watch what I am saying to the children!!! Whereas in the US, I had no problem acknowledging my child’s comment that “This lady in front of us is really fat” or tell them there will be no TV on the weekend, if they behave like this - now I have to be conscious and careful! It even happened that I was telling my son to leave the candy in the check out isle alone or else - and then I started counting “Eins, zwei…” and a chorus of bystanders chimed in “drei… vier”. German is understood or at least recognized, and I am identified as German, which in England (especially during this world cup) is sometimes not entirely positive – but that’s a topic for another blog.

So in a nutshell: In America we encountered language indifference that resulted in expressive freedom and tight native speaker connections, while in the UK we are experiencing bilingual encouragement and more language identification, but looser national ties.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

For Whom The International Wedding Bells Toll…

There are big differences in wedding ceremonies across the world, from the week-long party of India to the red dress of China, from the Jewish stomping on the glass to the Greek-Orthodox wedding crowns – every culture has their distinct customs and traditions. However, more and more cultures adopt aspects of the “Western Wedding” into their ceremonies, mainly the white dress and veil and sometimes the “giving away of the bride” as can be identified in almost any wedding scene from a Hollywood movie. So you would think that the wedding of two Westerners – German and American – would not run into too many cultural complications… Well, here is my story:

We decided to have two smaller weddings, one in Chicago(where we lived at the time) and one in my hometown in Germany. Each could be attended by the local friends and family from that continent. Only the core family - parents, siblings and (for the American wedding) my grandmother or (for the German wedding) an aunt/uncle with their daughter and husband, would attend the respective ceremony in the foreign country.
We tried to make each wedding small, but special. Since my dad is a reverend, we decided on USA = justice of peace/formal dress/summer and Germany = church/white dress/winter. During the preparations, have to admit, I was getting a bit carried away by the American wedding hype – I should have never bought these Bridal Magazines! I even attended a Bridal Show (and walked away with a rotisserie, one of their door prizes!). But certain aspects of the Hollywood wedding were not possible, practical or wanted - in the end the Chicago ceremony was a cultural compromise, just like our daily intercultural relationship: no white dress, no traditional bridal party, no rehearsal dinner, no giving away of the bride, but traditional wedding vows, a “you may kiss the bride” scene, the tossing of the bridal bouquet, a beautiful wedding cake and a great party!
The first of these cultural compromises (no white dress, because I wanted to reserve this for the church wedding in Germany) almost backfired badly: I was lucky enough that my mom had kept her light blue engagement dress from the 60s and was happy to have me wear it (at least old & blue!) at the wedding. I am not sure, how explicit I was when I described this dress to my in-laws, but when they arrived the evening before the wedding, I – on a whim – showed them the dress. My mother-in-law went pale – she had bought a dress the EXACT same color for the wedding. So she went out the next morning and bought herself another (rose and beautiful!) dress. Phew.
We had also decided that my father would not “give me away”. We had been living together as a couple and made the decision as a couple, so we would enter as a couple. (Plus, I was not comfortable with the notion of a changing property from father to husband.) So the classic scene of the dewy eyed husband watching as his bride walks towards him, did not happen.
The most obvious cultural clash was happening when the flowers arrived… A major “filler” flower for American wedding arrangements are carnations, which are traditional funeral flowers in Germany. I had said at every meeting with the florist, I did NOT want any carnations, alas of course the arrangements all came with plenty of them.
I will spare you the rest of the little glitches that seem to come with every wedding (groomsmen were not able to unroll the cheap felt runner without ripping it, one couple came late and walks behind us in the isle nicely captured on the wedding video, I cried so much during our thanking of the parents it was almost incomprehensible, my father-in-law did a somersault during the crazy Macho Man dance - which he later edited out of the wedding video!)
Our final break with American tradition came the week following the wedding. The top tier of every wedding cake is wrapped for you to take home and put in the freezer, in order to eat at your first anniversary. We had heard horrible stories about freezer burn, so we took the cake home and ate it with the family members that had stayed on. It was delicious!

The German wedding, which was the part with the church and the white dress, a reception and meal to follow, went much smoother - after all, we had already practiced! My dad had prepared a service in German and translated the sermon into English for the Americans to follow along. Our wedding games at the party were all bilingual. We threw the bouquet (again) and tossed the garter (which was new to the Germans). Only a few cultural glitches happened here - funny enough they were due to my having become “Americanized”! My sister played the organ during church and had wanted to make my church exit special. So she played “Pomp and Circumstance” instead of my choice of music. All in “Bridezilla” mode, I was not amused. Not only did she go against my wishes, but she had picked the traditional American high school graduation tune! But maybe she was having her revenge… A couple month earlier, she told me she had bought a red dress for the wedding and I – in my American Bridal magazine convoluted mind – said it was an inappropriate color! She was miffed, but bought another dress. In retrospect I have to laugh about my bridal self-importance. While I remember the WRONG song she played, I can’t even remember what song she was supposed to play!

A final intercultural wedding misunderstanding happened during our honeymoon in Hawaii. When we were at a Luau alongside a lot of other couples/honeymooners, I wanted a Pina Colada. When I went up to the bar, the barkeeper wanted to see an ID. I didn’t have one on me, but I laughingly pointed at my wedding band and said “But I am married”. The guy just looked at me expressionless and then I realized that this reasoning made absolutely no sense to him: I was in America, where you can get married a long time before you are old enough to drink!.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Your intercultural future is starting right now – moving-in together and/or getting engaged!

So you have found a partner from a different culture that you love and want to be with, you have figured out which country you will both live in to make the relationship work, you have met each others' friends and possibly family and now you are ready for the next step…
In most of Europe this next step would mean moving-in together, in the US it would more likely mean getting engaged. Even though we were in the US at the time, we choose to first share an apartment to try out compatibility after a year and a half of long-distance relationship. Our families viewed this step very differently. My mother-in-law was hoping we would get married before we moved-in together and my own mother was hoping we would try living together before we got married.

Living together brings out a whole new set of cultural differences. Even for couples from the same culture, moving together comes with many adjustments because you come from families with different routines and traditions. Most of our disagreements (e.g. which direction to peel carrots or how to fold underwear) weren’t necessarily rooted in our cultural differences. The fact that we were both hard working graduate students with little money was a bigger unifier than our cultures were a divider. Plus: I had slowly adopted quite a few American habits. (How many really, I am only realizing right now, that I am back in Europe!). Two areas of cultural disagreement emerged quickly however: food and holidays – both of which will require an entire blog (which will follow this one over the next couple of weeks).

After living together for about 2 years, it became clear that we wanted to stay together and get married. With this decision, a whole different level of cultural challenges appeared.
First of all, while becoming engaged is the traditional start of the American road to a wedding, most Germans of my generation do not get engaged anymore and if they do, they don’t make a big deal out of it. When we got engaged, we decided to have a picture taken by a friend and send out announcements to friends and family near and far. (Little did we know that the generation of my parents in Germany would see this announcement as a request to give a present - how embarrassing! and a nice example of cross-cultural misunderstanding)
You have to know that getting engaged in America is the starting signal of a (at least one) year long preparation for the big day. Girls are indoctrinated from early on that the wedding day will be the culmination of their life, when they will be the most beautiful and everything has to be perfect. This image not only causes a bride lots of stress (some of it positive, some negative), but requires a lot of money, time and effort. In order to know what you want on your wedding day, you are expected to read bridal magazines, go to bridal shows and decide even the smallest detail in order to create the perfect day. (I guess a lot of Germans put the same effort into the first house that they build, while most American’s just buy one to start off with).

It doesn’t matter whether you are twice divorced or just out of high-school. The announcement of an engagement is bound to produce screams of joy where ever you go followed by the immediate showing-off of your ring finger! I have to admit that I had become “Americanized” enough by the time to look forward to and expect an engagement ring. However I did not want the customary big honking diamond that sticks out like a crown in your finger – too expensive and to impractical! I imagined getting caught on things, scratching along surfaces and really didn’t want such a knuckle-duster. I had made sure that B. knew about my preferences and we had been pseudo ring-shopping a bit, where I pointed out nice flat rings with sapphires in them.
When he proposed, he had picked the ring I wanted: flat with three oval sapphires and two small diamonds! Since it was just before Christmas and I was flying home, I was able to show the ring to friends and relatives in Germany. Everybody was very impressed that I got a piece of jewelry for my engagement and admired the ring. Quite the opposite happened when I returned to the US. The ring was so contrary to American expectations (= one big diamond), that my showing of the ring was often met with an unsure look and quick glance to my face - as in: “Is she really happy with this ring? Should I congratulate or pity her?” You have to realize that the established American cultural expectation for a wedding ring is a stone worth “two or three months salary” of the man and anything less means he doesn’t really love you that much. (This message is nurtured by jewelery store adds, especially around Valentine’s day). So the bigger the stone, the greater the love – theoretically. So just imagine my ring in their expectant eyes… It didn’t help my case that at the same time another girl in my department also got engaged – with a traditional American big rock ring. So, often, when I told people that I got engaged, they said “Oww - show me the ring!?” and not only did just my little sapphires come out, but from the back came an “I got engaged, too” scream and the hand with the honking diamond was shoved over mine. It sure made it difficult for people to say something positive about my unusual ring in the face of cultural perfection.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

In-Laws-Relationships – Difficult To Begin With, Challenging If Cross-cultural…

Dating a person from another culture is always an adventure, your differences make it more exciting, but sometimes also more complicated.

Start with the concept of “dating” itself: In most European countries, there is no such thing as an American “date”, where a boy and a girl go out together for one night to do an activity (most often dinner and/or a movie, but also dancing, bowling, etc). The idea behind this being a) test-driving how compatible you are while b) having a defined end to the activity, so that if you don’t like the person, you can get rid of them after 2h without either of you losing face. In Europe, you would not sign up to go out alone with a person you don’t even know. You would either have known them from group activities, friends parties or met them by coincidence (e.g. in a bar) and then decide to spend the evening with them. Thus you already know that you like them and this activity alone together without the buffer of friends already marks the first step towards becoming a couple. There is no such thing as a European girl/boy having multiple dates with multiple people in one week, some of which they know in advance they might not like, but want to test. With the American date comes a set of cultural rules, that are not entirely strict, but apply in the majority of cases: A) The guy asks the girl B) Since he asked, the guy pays for the activity C) Often the guy picks up and drops off the girl (especially, if she still lives at her parent’s house and they want to have a good look at him). D) If you liked the date, you don’t immediately ask for another, but you have to wait a day or three and them make contact again. E) One or two dates with one person does not mean that you are exclusive and it is totally acceptable to go on a date with somebody else in between. At some point – and I myself am not entirely sure when/how that happens most often – the whole “date” procedure is dropped in favor of being exclusive and a couple. But I digress…

What I really wanted to write about is: When you have overcome the differences in dating, you declared yourself “together” and things are getting serious, you are often faced with the prospect of meeting the in-laws. If you are in the same country, this could be sooner, if you are far apart this could be maybe not until wedding plans are made.
I was still in the “this is just part of the foreign experience” mode when my new American boyfriend took me to his parent’s house for the first time, about 2h away from the university town. It was Thanksgiving, a holiday we didn’t celebrate in Germany, so I was eager to go and experience it. On the way there in the car I asked him whether anybody else had ever brought a girl to the Thanksgiving dinner and he assured me that many of his cousins had. “So what happened to them?”, I asked. “Oh, they are all married now!” That freaked me out quite a bit! Parental expectations are hard enough to deal with, but when you have a culture and/or language barrier in addition, you start walking on eggshells. I think this first Thanksgiving encounter went quite well, but I am also sure that I did or said odd things in the eyes of the American family… I’m not sure how often I offended my American (future) mother-in-law unintentionally with my German directness or simple cultural mishaps in those first months (and possibly still today), but I’m sure know it was often. (And my poor boyfriend/husband was stuck in the middle trying to negotiate misunderstandings, realizing where both sides were coming from, but not necessarily knowing how to resolve things.)

When he came to visit me in Germany for the first time – about a year later for Christmas, since I by then had returned to finish my exams - he was exhausted from his first semester of Graduate school and out of whack with his sleeping patterns due to his first jet-lag. I remember sitting at the breakfast table my family waiting for him to show up… - Punctuality is a very big deal for Germans! - We had waited for a while already, so I went to check on him again and he had fallen back asleep! I was embarrassed in front of my parents and I knew they were wondering what kind of listless slacker I had brought home!? (Thankfully that impression changed at some point and – despite him not speaking any German in the beginning - they somehow found a common ground.)

Mothers-in-law are generally a touchy relationship, but when an American friend of mine got married in Germany, she got a good dose of MIL plus German frankness. All Americans believe that a woman is most beautiful on her wedding day (just a Italians find a woman with a baby on her hip most perfect), so when my friend put on her wedding dress and her American mother and friends were oohing and ahhing over it, she turned to her MIL and asked her opinion… and the woman shot back with German honesty: “I don’t think the cut is the best for you and I would take off that bow in the back.” Stunned silence followed from the American side.
A father of a friend, who is Norwegian, always told the story of his first Kaffeetrinken with his future German in-laws. While the Germans tend to say “Thank you” as in “NO thank you”, the Norwegians say “Thank you” as in “YES, thank you”. So after his first cup of coffee and piece of cake, he was offered more several times, kept saying “Thank you” and then didn’t receive anything. But since he wanted to make a good impression, he kept quiet (and hungry and thirsty).

As a general rule, I would say, in-laws become even scarier when they speak another language or come from a different culture! Especially since sons- and daughters-in-law can be scrutinized for faux-pas’ that aren’t even existing in their respective culture - just think of greetings, table manners or dress code … and never mind wedding ceremonies or child-rearing later on!

Do you have a culture clash with your in-laws to add?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Intercultural Relationships – The Lure of the Unknown

If you are raising bilingual children, chances are you are either in an intercultural marriage or living in a foreign country or even both. So before children usually comes courtship, so my next round of blogs will be about intercultural relationships.

So imagine you are a young man or woman about to embark on an adventure in a foreign country – new language, new environment, new customs, new people… new love?

While being at university, I have seen hoards of fellow students go on a “study abroad” program, spend a semester or a year in a foreign country and in addition to improving their language and experiencing something new, they also fell in love. Most become enchanted by the new way of living and the new language – and what better way to experience this different life to the fullest than embracing somebody that embodies all that is new and exciting… After all, the best way to learn a new language is “to sleep with your dictionary”.

Many people that go to live in a foreign country (be it as a student, in the military or on a business assignment) feel lonely at some point – and nothing soothes a lonely heart better love! A new relationship is a great solution, when you are single, however causes problems if you have left a partner at home. At least among the student population not many relationships survived one partner’s stint in a foreign country. (This is not to say that it is impossible to survive a longer separation, but you need to work on it: Not only will you have to keep your partner up to date with new experiences the s/he can’t share, but they have to be secure enough not to succumb to jealousy – be it for the new experiences themselves or towards the people that you now spend a lot of time with).
The lure of the new combined with an exotic setting, is hard to resist. At the same time this spell often quickly gets shattered when you return home. You are faced with the choice of a long-distance relationship or frequent visits in the short term and one of you moving in the long run. Since your feelings have often been intermingled with the experience of the other country and culture, importing your new partner in your old environment is often a sobering experience. Your partner, now a foreigner him/herself, is pushed out of their comfort zone and appears clumsy all of a sudden, where there was self-confidence before. Trying to keep a romance alive that depended on the thrill of the unusual while living back in the ordinary is hard! My friend S. added a second year to her stay in order to extend her romance (but in the end to no avail). Another friend had a fling abroad, but returned to her old boyfriend once at home again.

I was well aware of this very likely outcome of foreign romances when I embarked on my exchange year. At the same time, I was young and single and wanted to experience life to the fullest. So it happened to me – I fell in love … but I wasn’t going to make that obvious mistake! So when another girl showed interest in the boy I started flirting with, I told her, she could have him back after my year in the US was up. I was just wanting a fling. Little did I know I would end up marrying that fling…