Guest Blog: What are the Challenges of Raising Bi-Cultural Children? Hapụ Nwa Ahụ Ka o Tinye Aka Ya N’ọkụ (Don’t Stop the Child from putting her hand in fire)
Raising a child is a daunting task in contemporary America, exponentially more difficult for a parent from a foreign culture.
Raising children is an exercise in patience, restraint, and uncertainty punctuated with periods of unadulterated joy. For an immigrant married to an American, the cultural differences are stark and sometimes bewildering. Yet, ultimately experiencing different cultures is a blessing in disguise for child and parent alike.
“Hapu nwa ka o tinye aka ya n’oku” is an admonition by an older parent to a young mother in the Igbo language of West Africa. It means that a parent shouldn’t interfere when a child insists on touching a hot item or naked flame. The operating belief is that the child will learn to avoid fire. In Western society, such an action would likely trigger off a call to child protective services. When my oldest son sought to put his hand in the fireplace, we restrained him and explained the consequences. But the next day, he dashed to the fireplace, touched the cover and burned his finger - albeit mildly. Needless to say, from that day onwards he exercised self-restraint with fire.
It’s obvious that I grew up in a profoundly different culture from that of my kids. I began life in a refugee camp in Eastern Nigeria and later lived in the bustling cosmopolitan city of Lagos - a microcosm of Nigeria’s 200 plus tribes, multiple languages and religious diversity. Nigerian culture is a mixture of Christianity, Islam and traditional African practices. Reverence for elders (almost to a point of infallibility) and male spouses are cardinal virtues. Corporal punishment is more the rule than the exception and - in direct inversion of Western society-, the head of the household (inevitably male) “rules” the home. Children (often supported by loving mothers) make secondary choices after Father has exhausted his choices. Meals, schools, travel and choices children in the US make (or contribute to making), are decreed by the male household head. My kids call their American grandparents, grandma C, and grandma G but call my mother, Grandma. Adding her name after grandma is considered rude in my culture. Likewise, calling older people by their first names is considered impolite. My kids have learned to use prefixes for certain older adults and first names for others.
Most parents in the U.S. aspire to have emotionally balanced, athletic, artistic and intellectually strong kids. It reminds me of James Bond. Bond is impeccably dressed in suits while rolling in the mud, climbing walls and swimming. The whole package is inherently contradictory. Nigerian parents, on the other hand, idealize a child that is polite, quiet, restrained in expression, sits “properly,” declines offers of food or drinks outside the home, reveres elders, is assiduous with work, and brilliant at school. For a female child, add demure to that list. My mother cringed the first time she heard the raucous laughter of my boys, considering it “improper,” but she also liked their confidence and marvelled at their precociousness.
Family is an interesting area of departure. My wife retains strong ties to her nuclear family, but she is not sure she’s ever met her second cousins. In contrast, I have third cousins who call me uncle and I have retained close relationships and visits with my third cousins in Puerto Rico, and they think of me as an uncle, I think of them as nieces. There is no Igbo word for cousin. The same word is used for both sibling and cousin.
Another contrast is in approach, in Nigeria, we seek to fortify weaknesses, mostly with strong disincentives and threats. My better half has positive reinforcement as her modus operandi, while I have to constantly remind myself to refrain from stressing weaknesses or failings. It is a familiar refrain. This conflict manifests itself in something as mundane as selecting meals.
It has been fascinating navigating the norms, taboos and reconciling the seeming contradictions in culture. On the credit side of the ledger, shared values are a stabilizing focal point. American values of individual liberty, equality, personal responsibility, generosity, and diversity are similar to Igbo values of egalitarianism, individual responsibility, diligence, respect for the community and fairness. Most immigrants voluntarily migrated to “the shining city on the hill,” despite sporadic periods that challenges these values - we live in one now - they are invariably reaffirmed.
For people like me, different perspectives afford the opportunity to appreciate the contrasts and seek to learn from both, fusing the strengths of two cultures and avoiding the pitfalls.
Matthias Chika Mordi is a proud father of four children. In the course of his life, Matthias experienced multiple cultures, travelling to over fifty countries - for business and pleasure - and speaking multiple languages. He spent his formative years in Nigeria and raised his two oldest children in Scotland, and together with his wife, Julie, is raising two boys in the Washington D.C. area.