Yesterday morning at this time I was working with my seven-year-old daughter on her homework assignment for Tuesday: sharing with her classmates and teacher a piece of her culture. The options provided for second graders were fun: a song, for example, clothing, a game.
We chose a book Ellen has loved for years: Kennst du das? Mein buntes Bilderwörterbuch or Do You Know This? My Picture Dictionary.
In the next few days Ellen will practice telling why the book is important to her family and culture. She will present verbally to her classmates the reason she came up with on her own: “So that we continue our heritage and language.”
My daughter has been raised in two languages since she was born: German and English. She is now learning Hawaiian and a bit of Japanese. Her other father, a Harvard-educated linguist, feeds her Basque and Cornish words for fun. We keep it light in our home when we use languages other than English either in speaking, playing games, singing or reading.
For me, German has always been part of my life even though I lived only about six years in German-speaking countries. When I did, friends from those countries who knew I that I had grown up in the United States would either say I was an “honorary European” or that I was American. I would gently correct them and state that I was German-American, even Bavarian-American.
To many of those folks, this seemed incomprehensible. If you grow up in the United States, you love McDonald’s (I actually do have occasional cravings for McDonald’s fries), baseball, American football, violence, and only speak an English many Europeans, as best as they try not to, look down their noses at. You care only about being an American, have no interest in other cultures or languages.
Well, no, actually for many of us!
In my vast family with our German surnames, we pretty much know our family roots from centuries ago — where and how they lived, whom they married, when they came to the “New World.” Many of us grew up with the German language or at least German words that became kind of a family dialect on my mother’s side. A few of us are bilingual.
When my husband and I visited our daughter’s pediatrician when we were living in Germany, she asked what language we spoke to Ellen. Ben said English. Sheepishly, I said, “Well, I prefer to speak German to her.”
“Of course,” Ellen’s pediatrician replied, “That’s your mother tongue.”
Well, that was enough for me to keep my vow going that I had made to my maternal grandfather: that I would always keep the language going in our family.
So when my daughter said to me yesterday that she speaks and reads German because that way our family’s heritage stays alive, a shiver went down my spine in a good way.
She gets it. She lives in a city where you can walk down the street and hear four different languages at any time of day, is part of a faith community that traces its origins to Japan, learns Hawaiian culture, language and dance on Saturdays, and then unwinds at home by reading German!
This is all balm for my soul after reading news articles about a president ensconced in his golf club for the weekend in New Jersey firing off vicious tweets to the mayor of Puerto Rico’s largest city, a woman of non-white heritage, who has been working nonstop to deal with a hurricane that has devastated her island. The reason for his cowardly, disgraceful attacks on her? She had the nerve to question him and his lack of leadership, of understanding.
I want my daughter to continue to embrace other cultures, traditions, languages, to appreciate that if you do, you can go anywhere in this amazing world and find community. How lucky we are to be in a part of the world where that is valued deeply. How lucky we are that our last president grew up in Hawaii. How lucky we would be if only our current president could open his mind and heart just a little.