Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Call Me Okaasan: A Review
Over my extended spring break last month, I had the opportunity to read the soon to be released Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering, edited by Suzanne Kamata. This book is a collection of personal essays written mainly by expat mothers living around the globe as well as a few by multiculturally-minded mothers. As an expat mother, I have often searched for such a book as the predicament of raising children outside of your home culture and known resources is often isolating and frankly, difficult. As these eloquently written essays illustrate, it is definitely a challenge but within that challenge there is ground for growth as both parents and as humans.
All of the essays share a poignant perspective that captures the triumphs and defeats involved with raising children abroad and at home. The unique situations faced by the different writers such as Saffia Farr’s experience with the antiquated health care in Kyrgyzstan during her first pregnancy (“Dr. Bucket in Bishkek”, page 30) or Devorah Lifshutz’s trials in attempting to raise her children bilingually in Israel (“Promises to Myself”, page 169) allows readers insight into worlds that aren’t described in travel guides. These mothers are on the ground, struggling with controlling in-laws, uncooperative schools, prying neighbors. They witness their children growing into people unimagined at conception, accepting host languages as the dominant form of communication within the home, and allowing themselves to surrender to what it means to be truly bicultural.
Out of all of these excellent essays, the one that hit closest to home for me was Holly Thompson’s “Two Versions of Immersion” (page 113). In it, Thompson described her experience moving, much like we did, with her husband and small children to Japan without too much consideration of what it really means to live here as an expat family. I honestly was very disturbed by this essay because it made me realize the extreme amount of effort and energy involved with bringing children up through the Japanese school system. It’s not that I am lazy: it is just I don’t know how I can manage to learn enough Japanese in order to support my kids in their education. And then the education system that Thompson described fanned my own sparks of concern about the topic. It was interesting that the older child, who had gone to school in the States before moving to Japan, was the one who felt bullied and bored in school. His younger sister, on the other hand, who had started preschool in Japan did not share his problems and thrived in Japanese schools. This made me wonder if it was just a matter of not having a basis for comparison that made life easier for the daughter. In the end, it seemed that the family had found a healthy balance of culture and language, which is encouraging and inspiring.
I was particularly drawn to this essay besides for the shared host country because both of the parents were American. Most bicultural families that we encounter typically have one expat parent and one native parent, thus a rather different situation than what we are facing right now. The book is very satisfying in this regard as it includes such a wide variety of situations that there is bound to be some essay that the reader can relate to. This book may be written by multicultural mothers but the audience will be much broader than that small sliver of the population. Families considering moving abroad, as many are in these dire economic times, as well as readers just curious about a more grounded experience of life in foreign countries will benefit from this book. Beyond the journey-bound, other readers will profit from truths that have no borders, shared candidly and poetically in the pages of Call Me Okaasan.