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Mitali Perkins: A note to kids between cultures

Posted by Ben Terris  February 17, 2009 08:04 AM

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By Mitali Perkins

Newton is home to a growing number of "zero-generation" Americans, or people born in other countries. As I visit schools and libraries, I notice these newcomers' faces, sometimes hear their parents' accented English, and always see them trying hard to fit in. Be ready, children of immigrants, I want to say. You lose a lot once you're tossed into mainstream America.

You lose a place that feels like home, a community where the basics are
understood, where conversations can begin on the next level. No easy havens
await you; no places to slip into with a sigh of relief, saying, "At last. A
place where everybody is like me." In the neighborhood, you can feel like a
pinch of chili tossed into a creamy pot. You lose the sharpness of your
ethnic flavor quickly, but find that you can never fully dissolve.

You lose the ability to forget about race. You're aware of it everywhere in town, like a woman aware of her gender in a roomful of men. You dodge stereotypes at school by under performing or overachieving. You wonder if you're invisible to the opposite sex because you're foreign or because you're unattractive.

You lose a language. You speak your parents' language, but it will soon begin to feel foreign to lips, pen, and mind. Your heart won't forget as quickly. It will reserve a space for this mother tongue, your instructor of emotion, whispered in love and hurled in anger. Your heart language will speak words that tremble through tears; it will join you with others in the camaraderie of uncontrollable laughter. In your new language, English, you enjoy the lyrical cadence of poetry and glimpse the depth of ancient epics, but your heart will remain insatiable.

You lose the advantage of parents who can interpret the secrets of society. Your friends learn the art of conversation, the habits of mealtimes, the nuances of relationships, even the basics of bathroom behavior from their parents. Your own parents' social etiquette sometimes leads to confusion or embarrassment in the outside world. You begin to take on the responsibility of buffering your parents from a culture that is even more foreign to them. You translate this new world's secrets for them.

Sometimes you lose the stabilizing power of traditions. The year is not punctuated by rituals that your grandmother and great-grandmother celebrated. Holidays in this new place lack the power to evoke nostalgia and renew childlike wonder. Your parent's feasts of celebration fall on days when you have to go to school.

You might lose the chance to disappear into the majority anywhere in the world. In the new neighborhood, you draw the reactions common to minorities - outright racism, patronizing tokenism, enthusiasm from curious culture-seekers. If you travel across the seas to the neighborhood where your parents grew up, you're greeted with curious, appraising stares. You're too tall, move your arms and hips differently when you walk, smile too often or not often enough, and employ the confusing non-verbal gestures from another world.

But I could also encourage them not to get discouraged. In fact, they should feel quite the opposite. There is good news about life in the melting pot. There are gains to offset the losses if you manage not to melt away altogether. You're boiled down, refined to your own distinctiveness. You realize early that virtues are not the property of one heritage; you discover a self powerful enough to balance the best of many worlds.

A part of you rises above the steamy confusion of diversity to glimpse the common and universal. You recognize the ache that makes us all feel like strangers, even in the middle of comfortable homogeneity. You understand the soul's craving for a real home because yours is never sated with a counterfeit version.

So take time to mourn your losses, I'd like to tell these Newton newcomers, but remember to revel in the gains. Learn to embrace a litany of genuine labels - words like stranger, pilgrim, sojourner, wayfarer. Stride past the lure of false destinations, intent on traveling to a place where at last, everyone can feel at home.

Mitali Perkins is a Newton-based children's book author.

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