Thoughts on Raising Bi-Cultural Kids

“I’d rather be lucky than good” — Lefty Gomez

A recent conversation with my son Ry inspired this post.  A colleague asked him to develop a seminar on raising well-adjusted, bicultural children, with a focus on “half” children of Japanese-Western parents.

The idea came from the aforementioned colleague, an American married to a Japanese woman. They currently live in the Tokyo area, young parents raising a “half” child in Japan (something I never had to do). The young father asked Ry to get involved in the seminar because, in his words, “I want my son to be just like you, Ry.”

His kind words brought a tear to this father’s eye.

It’s an interesting concept: a seminar taught from the perspective of a bicultural, bilingual child rather than the parents who raised him.

At first the notion seemed a bit off. But upon reflection it occurred to me that Ry’s take on parenting–being on the receiving end–is just as valid as mine. So I thought, imagine the power of combining our son’s take with ours? (Can’t wait to find the gaps.)

That’s what the next few posts will be about. Today’s piece covers some obligatory disclaimers and basic background, with a few “talk-story” meanderings thrown in for good measure. In ensuing posts we’ll delve into intercultural marriage and childrearing in more detail.

Disclaimers and Full Disclosure

Let’s get this out of the way: no preaching, no pontificating. I don’t speak God’s truth, nor do I have answers. If anything, my goal in writing this is to help two-culture parings of parents better define their own “current situation”, by sharing what my wife and I learned through the years. In the end, parents are responsible for drawing their own conclusions, and deciding what works best for them.

Another disclaimer is that wife and I possess no fancy degrees, official credentials or titles to qualify us as childrearing “experts”, bicultural or not. So take it for what it’s worth and no more.

But what we do have are two key credentials more relevant than any academic accreditation known to man. We call these credentials “Ry” and “Grady”, our very well adjusted, very cool (occasionally wretched) bicultural children.

The Path that Got Us Here

Ry was born in Japan in 1986. Following a career opportunity, I dragged him to Tennessee at the tender age of 18 months, where he continued his rascally ways, speaking Japanese with mom at home, playing with friends in English (Southern English to be precise).

A few years later Grady made his debut in Hendersonville Hospital. He has been entertaining us ever since.

Tennessee was a beautiful place. But it was a much different “culture” than the north-side Chicago neighborhood I grew up in. Our Southern friends and neighbors were kind and friendly no doubt. But they could be just as distant and clannish. In terms of social attitudes and norms, they were 50 years behind the times, or at least that’s how I saw it through my cultural filters after living in Japan for ten years.

It still blows my mind today that it was easier for me to adapt to life in Japan than in Tennessee. And therein lies the mystery and power of culture. To say culture affects us is an understatement. We’re immersed in it! We fit, we adapt, or we don’t fit. Over the years I’ve come to understand that many of my Midwestern values parallel those of Japan, so adaptation was relatively easy for me. In retrospect this gave my wife and me an edge in building a successful intercultural marriage, proof that common values can be found in a relationship if you bother to look for them.

In all we lived in Tennessee for five years, right about the time Ry started pronouncing “dad” with a 2-syllable drawl, “da-yed! ” Meanwhile I was getting funny notes from his teacher Miss Blankenship–riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.

The universe was sending me a message: it was time to move on to more familiar, grammatically greener pastures.

Next stop, Suburbia Chicago where we bought a 1,260 square-foot cookie-cutter house in a soulless, antiseptic neighborhood about 45 minutes northwest of Chicago. Blessed with some of the best public schools in the nation, my sons shared an educational experience with students of various economic strata, from poor to middleclass to rich. Their friends were from multi-racial backgrounds including Caucasian, Black, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Hispanic, Chinese and more. (Thankfully there were enough Japanese families in the neighborhood to keep the boys connected to mom’s culture.) It was a great place for my children to build a solid educational foundation. Only downside was that the local culture was one of excessive materialism, chockfull of status symbols, from fancy cars to hotel-sized homes to heated indoor swimming pools. This was the good old days, back when the U.S. economy was roaring. (Seems like forever ago right now.) We did our best to discourage materialistic thinking at home. No magic bullet, just reinforced, through routine conversation and behavior, that the most important things in life weren’t things. And it looks like we succeeded: neither of our sons is materialistic.

Before You Have Children

My wife and I started discussing long before our children were born, how we planned to raise them. Our conversations often were prompted by mutual, ongoing observations of parents interacting with and disciplining their children. As luck would have it, we soon figured out that we were on the same page. To my delight I discovered that my “samurai wife” is old school in many ways (A graduate of Japan’s Spartan Physical fitness University, Nihon Taiiku Daigaku). No sir, my wife doesn’t believe in indulging children at all, so we had no conflicts from the beginning.

Japanese grandma and grandpa were a different story so we worked around it: we moved to the U.S. 🙂

Our ongoing discussions evolved over the years into an unwritten set of guiding principles. To wit: expose children to various stimuli/different people from a young age; no indulging children; when social rules are broken administer firm, timely discipline; teach children to respect adults; support each other in front of the children; insist on/give apologies when appropriate; catch kids doing good things; make children earn praise and rewards; show affection routinely; no corporeal punishment; make reflection part of all disciplinary measures.

Bilingualism: Gift or Curse?

My wife and I are fortunate enough to speak different native tongues, which means we were blessed with an extra option that monolingual parents don’t have: the opportunity to give our children the gift of bilingual gab.

As a Communications major in college I learned from a wise Linguistics professor that if you are going to raise a bilingual kid in a two-language family, then the most effective way is for mom always to speak her native language (in my wife’s case, Japanese), and dad always to speak his native language (in my case, English). Other effective approaches exist, but this one was easy and practical so we went with it.

In terms of how my wife and I would communicate with each other, it made sense to pick one language and stick with it. Otherwise we’d run the risk of mixing languages in the same sentence, a no-no we’ll cover later. For practical reasons and by default, wife and I (with few exceptions) have always communicated with each other in Japanese.

In short, we consistently kept the two languages clean and separate throughout our childrearing years. So clean, so separate, in fact, that after Ry and Grady got older, they were so thoroughly indoctrinated into this communication pattern that they would refuse to respond to me when, on rare occasion, I’d jokingly speak Japanese to them. (Their typical response: “Dad, why are you speaking Japanese to me? C’mon speak English!”)

It’s worth addressing a popular myth in Japan that says raising children bilingually will “confuse them”. I’m happy to report that there are enough well-adjusted, bilingual folks in the world to thoroughly debunk this myth.

And yet it’s easy to understand where it came from. After all, not all bilingual kids are well adjusted, particularly in their ability to express themselves coherently in at least one of their two languages. I have several Japanese/American “half” friends who struggle to put a sentence together without mixing vocabulary and grammar from both languages. They really have to think to keep the languages separate as they’ve been speaking this way since early childhood. Their inability to naturally separate English and Japanese cognitively is a huge handicap when communicating with folks who only understand one of the two languages (and that would be all but a handful of people on the planet). In a linguistic sense my friends are truly “confused”, along with most of the folks listening to them.

I recently met a Japanese lady who, like me, has two “half” children, both about ten years older than each of mine. I made the mistake of mentioning to her that we raised our children in a bilingual environment, not knowing that she hadn’t. She caught me off-guard by being defensive. She prefaced her opinion by mentioning she had a Master’s degree in linguistics. Then she proceeded to tell me that raising a child with two languages would render the child “only able to speak each language marginally”. As proof that she was right, she described in great detail her two children, both successful, highly educated monolingual professionals thriving in America.

Sure wish my articulate bilingual kids were with me at the time, as they are living proof that articulate, bilingual children actually do exist.

I’ll be the first to give the lady her props for raising two successful, well-adjusted kids. But her logic on not raising them bilingually doesn’t compute.

It saddens me when well-intentioned parents buy into these myths and, in doing so deprive their children the “gift of bilingual gab”. I sometimes wonder, though: might other motivations be at work?

An example would be a Japanese spouse committed to learning English (or just as easily an American spouse bent on learning Japanese). In either case, the spouse chooses to create a monolingual environment conducive to achieving these ends. In this scenario the parent gets enriched by learning another language, but at the cost of denying the same opportunity to the child. Not wanting to acknowledge the selfish motivation, the parent chooses the path of self-deception: buy into the myth that bilingualism will “confuse” the child, and the guilt disappears.

Another possible motivation for not raising a child bilingually might come from a fundamentally ethnocentric view of the world by either or both parents. I remember speaking with my wife in Japanese in my front yard in Suburbia Chicago years ago. Our neighbor, normally a very affable guy, overheard us and had the gall to ask me to stop speaking Japanese. “This is America,” he said. “We should speak English in America!”

He was only half joking. (And why does he deserve the privilege of eavesdropping on our conversations anyway?) As you might imagine it made me want to speak Japanese even more. (Hey, I don’t like people telling me what to do, what can I say?)

Or imagine a paranoid, monolingual American father too insecure to allow his Japanese wife to speak Japanese to the children. Not only would he be left out of the conversations, they’d all be talking about him! So he “solves” his problem by outlawing Japanese in the home, and raises monolingual children as a result. Farfetched? Indeed I’ve met such a person.

It’s worth reiterating once again that how parents raise their kids is a personal choice. My conviction stems from the fact that I learned a foreign language as an adult. I spent countless hours and made countless mistakes learning Japanese, and still I’ll never achieve native level. I wanted my children to have the native-level gift without the pain of learning it later in life. This is why I recommend that two-language parents give their children the bilingual gift. But if parents choose not to do so then that’s their call. I would at least hope they’d make their decision with open eyes.

Anyone with half a brain can find a study or paper that supports one’s own point of view. Here’s proof that I’ve got half a brain–a totally biased link that supports our 25 years of childrearing experience.

To be continued…

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011


8 responses to “Thoughts on Raising Bi-Cultural Kids

  1. Good initial post! Lots of useful insights. Looking forward to the next installment.

    • Hi Jun, thanks for checking in. Looks like you’re shinnenkai is coming up soon so down a couple shots of New Year’s sake for me, okay? 🙂 And good luck on your June presentation in Vegas!

  2. Aloha Tim! Thank you for writing about this subject…Noriko and I raised our children in much the same manner…although we spent 13 years as a family in rural Japan and as a couple chose to speak English to each other. As a side note because we chose to speak English my Japanese deteriorated while her English improved dramatically…anyway a secret for us was to send the four children to spend summer holidays with the grandparents not present (living in Japan ship them off without us to their grandparents in the U.S. and vice versa). This really helped them improve their bi-lingual linguistic and cultural skills…and gave Noriko and me a chance to spend some quality time together with out the children.

    To this day my adult children, who now live in Hawaii and Spain, visit Japan every summer or winter holiday. They all have picked up a third language and culture as well…seems to become much easier to pick up the third language/culture once you are bi-lingual and bi-cultural in two languages/cultures.

    In many ways I think world peace has a much better chance of success depending on how many “hapa’s” or “bi-lingual” or “multi-cultural” people are involved…

    Looking forward to the future posts!

    • Grif, your children are yet more proof that it’s possible to be bilingual AND articulate. In comparing our situations, we had the same goals with different challenges. My family was in the U.S., yours was in (rural) Japan. Frankly, I think your circumstances were more challenging because of the identity issues that often plague “half” kids (or as Sue would have me say, “double kids” :-)) who are raised in Japan.

      Here’s an example: let’s assume our hypothetical “double” child is living in Japan and doesn’t attend an international school; let’s also assume that, culturally speaking, this child is raised traditionally “Japanese”. Now you know as well as I do, that in a homogeneous, collectivist society like Japan’s, children of mixed race (or any other kind of nail that sticks up) have a tough time fitting in–even though the “double” in this scenario speaks Japanese better than English. Totally acclimated to life in Japan, the child would be lost living anywhere else. (Try dropping the kid in Chicago or New York–he’d get eaten alive!)

      My point is that many of these “double” kids want so much to belong to the culture they were raised in, but they never will. Had they grown up in America or in other Western countries at least–in most places–their mixed race is inconsequential. (Some places like Hawaii it can be an asset.) Acceptance by a social group is, imho, an important condition for establishing one’s own sense of identity. Happy to say my children have a very strong sense of identity: Midwestern American at the core, with lots of Japanese influence mixed in. Like your kids, mine are “hybrid” with a core foundation of values. They can step into Japanese culture and “play the game”, but would also thrive if I dropped ’em in Chicago or New York. I believe your kids would do just as well.

      So you found solutions that helped you play the hand you were dealt. The end result is you raised a precious resource the world has too little of: bi-cultural/bilingual citizens of the world. Ya did good, Grif!

  3. Aloha Tim! Agree. We had a couple of advantages in raising our children in rural northern Japan. First was the fact that we were “big fish in a small pond” because of our ESL schools and other businesses. Second was the fact that their grandparents were also big fish in a small pond with lots of local well established DEEP connections in the society….so people treated our children well. I remember Anthony’s painting he brought home from kindergarten…it was a picture of his class lined up for a concert….20 black haired children and one blond hair child….NHK picked up on this when they did a documentary on this weird American-Japanese hybrid family in rural northern Japan.

    The society issue here was provided by the kids relatives being big fish in a small pond…I know of other hybrid children in that same area who did not fare nearly as well as my children.

    Thankfully 25 years later I think the society has changed a lot in Noriko’s hometown for “hybrids”…for the positive.

    My 74 year old mother often comments when I visit her here in Hilo how my going overseas for a year in France at 15 from a rural Oregon town followed by my wife to be Noriko joining us a year later as an exchange student totally changed, in a very positive way hers and our family’s lives…another positive impact of inter-cultural experiences…

    Looking forward to your next post in this series!

  4. “This is America, we should speak English in America!”
    That’s something I heard a lot in Illinois and on internet forums. However, I’ve heard a lot more of “I wish I could speak Japanese” (or another language). Clearly–and especially in Hawaii–many kids, teens and young adults want to be bilingual since they weren’t raised so. Now, my Japanese definitely isn’t perfect yet, and neither is my English, but my English is good and my Japanese is good enough (for now) to help me out in so many different ways. While it seems that the main argument brought up by others is that the bilingual child will be confused or not as fluent in both languages, I actually believe that my understanding of each language has complemented my understanding of the other language (and “language” here is interchangeable with “culture”). When it comes to language structure, sentence structure, etc, I can compare and contrast the two languages, dissect them, and study the anatomy. I can do the same with each culture, because I have been raised with both, and I can see things, hears things, and read things from different perspectives. If that isn’t beneficial, then I don’t know what is.

    So thank you, Mom and Dad.

  5. It also helps to be forced into a situation where you need to find your identity. If you grow up in a certain part of the world in a certain society, your identity is going to be formed whether you like it or not. It’s when you come across something that will challenge your identity when you become confident with how you’ve been raised.

    I grew up in Illinois and felt fully solidified as an “American”, but going to Japan it tests your assimilation skills. “Becoming Japanese” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re assimilating, but you often find yourself trying too hard to be something else. This is not only an identity problem, but a stressful time in life when you just want people to accept you.

    When you understand how to “blend in” to another society without looking like you’re really trying to fit in, is when you can be at ease with your identity (assuming you’re having an identity problem in the first place!).

    Some of it is an “aha!” moment, but I think a majority of it is a constant process of adapting, assimilating. It just gets easier the more you do it.

    And its a lot easier when you can speak both languages =)

  6. I am a grandmother of a Japanese/American 4 year old who lives in Tokyo.
    Our intention is for summers with us, when she is a little older. Now, it is iChat/Skype with visits too far in-between.

    Her father is hoping to get into the foreign service, where my granddaughter will go to international schools with many diverse nationality students with many different languages. I think that will be great for her!

    She is more fluent in Japanese than English, but understands and speaks both. She has learned to print in English.

    I don’t know what else to say other than I find the subject of bicultural children very interesting. So thanks for the posts.

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