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Honest Voices: A Review of Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering

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Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering
edited by Suzanne Kamata
Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2009; $16.00
ISBN: 978-1-932279-33-7

When I, an American, married my husband, a Japanese, we made plans to start a bicultural family that explored even more cultures by following my husband's career: teaching music at international schools abroad. I would translate, edit, and write wherever we lit, which is currently north of Bangkok, Thailand, inside a multinational expatriate community distinct from both our host and home cultures.

Life among four worlds -- America, Japan, Thailand, and the expat world -- brings many benefits. Our three-and-a-half-year-old daughter enjoys a Wee Sing song with greetings in several languages not because the words are foreign, but because she actually uses them: hello with Mommy, konnichiwa with Daddy, ciao with our Ecuadorian neighbor, shalom with a teen at the international school. We slip in sawat dii kha, which she uses all day every day with Thais. I love to think that these words are all hers, and that I grew up in Kansas but can hear a child speak Japanese in a mall in Bangkok and realize that it's my own offspring. My husband and I were thrilled recently to welcome a second child to our mélange of worlds.

But life abroad is not simple. Our preschooler sometimes has to be prompted by my husband to use his native Japanese here, while she readily uses my American English, except when it's Thai-accented English, which she believes she should use with Thais. Like us, she is least fluent in the language of our host country, though she was born here. I wonder sometimes about her future: Where will she call home? Will she feel chronically displaced? Despite all of the people, places, and words she knows, will she feel cast adrift?

These are questions specific to people raising children among cultures, and ones I seldom see addressed in parenting books. I am happy to report that Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering is an exception to this rule. This collection of 21 essays by mother-writers in expatriate, international, adopting, and/or diversity-seeking families offers the kinds of stories I hear and tell daily, about parenting in multiple languages, juggling identities, and rearing children in terra incognita. It also addresses challenges of parenting among different worlds, including some much more daunting than my family and I have faced.

For example, in the second essay of the collection, "Eleven Snapshots for Your Babybook, Reconstructed in Blues," France-based Austrian/American writer Susannah Pabot describes growing up as the daughter of a depressed expatriate mother, and then struggling to adapt herself when she moves abroad with her husband and infant. Her body revolts against unfamiliar language, weather, and living arrangements, in a disturbing development that could affect her child. "How to become a mother without drowning in my own mother's sadness?" Readers witness how a rocky cultural adjustment can lead to scars felt for generations.

Other contributors to Call Me Okaasan allude to potential pitfalls of multicultural parenting. Devorah Lifshutz, a second-generation Hungarian-American parenting in Israel, describes being told that her son has "no real mother tongue" and observing bilingual children of acquaintances grow into "cultural chameleons," linguistically functional yet not fully at home in places where they might expect to have roots. Violeta Garcia-Mendoza, a U.S.-based Spanish/American mother of adopted Guatemalan children, speaks of growing up in a bicultural "house that crumbled," though she still insists on teaching her children "Two Names for Every Beautiful Thing." In "Like the Lotus," Japan-based American Leza Lowitz describes the death of a friend's son in a hiking accident, in a reminder of the high stakes involved in taking risks with children: "Life is not safe." Should parents keep to level paths?

This question answers itself later in Lowitz's essay, in which she and her husband adopt a Japanese son and her family welcomes him in a moving Jewish naming ceremony. Other contributors strike similarly hopeful notes: American writer Rose Kent's adopted South Korean son cheers for an Olympian from Ireland, homeland of three of her four grandparents. English/Polish writer Angela Turzynski-Azimi and her Iranian husband watch their son flourish in a Japanese Montessori school, even as he speaks English and asks to study Persian. American Marie Lamba's half Asian-Indian, half Italian-American teenage daughter attends a multicultural students' weekend and comes home saying she fits in "'everywhere, Mom. Everywhere.'" These stories of multicultural success remind me of why my husband and I chose this life, and of how rewarding it can be.

I appreciate how the upbeat essays in Call Me Okaasan counterbalance the more cautionary tales, boosting my confidence as a parent without diminishing less comfortable material. I also relish how countless essays articulate aspects of my personal experience. I relate readily to Corey Heller, an American married to a German who wonders how it is to raise a family in her own home region; watching parents when I visit my birthplace, I sometimes feel like an anthropologist. So this is what they do here. Like Stacy M. Lewis, mother in an American/Filipino family, I know about reporting the death of a relative overseas to a youngster who sees the person as still present, part of a "magical troupe of friends, family, and characters, to be called upon at will."

I am grateful that the book includes a reflection on parenting amid civil unrest. After reading Shoo Fly to my daughter while eyeing plumes of smoke during Bangkok's political clashes in spring 2010, I connect with the essay "Carrying On" by Katherine J. Barrett, a Canadian who was parenting in South Africa during anti-immigrant violence in spring 2008. She captures the sharp perspective shift that occurs when parents move their families close to foreign conflicts and share concerns with the parents involved, as everyone scoops up a child and copes. (Barrett is careful to note that mobile expatriates also learn how economics shield them, yet not their counterparts, from the worst of possible fates.)

The essays in Call Me Okaasan address an array of other important subjects: the stiff challenge of placing children in local schools abroad, as portrayed by Americans Holly Thompson in Japan and Kathy Hamilton in Turkey; the journey of raising children who speak another language, as described by Dee Thompson, an American mother of adoptees from Russia and Kazakhstan; and the experience of raising children long-term in an adopted country, as described by Spain-based American Kate MacVean, America-based Malaysian Juli Herman, and Japan-based American Suzanne Kamata, editor of the collection. Americans Michele Corkery and Anjali Enjeti-Sydow reflect on experiences of diversity in their home country, prompted by interracial marriage and a child's multiethnic classroom.

The collection is silent on certain relevant topics, such as peripatetic parenting and childrearing in an expatriate enclave. The theme is defined broadly -- multicultural mothering as everything from parenting abroad to choosing a diverse school -- which means that each subtheme could fill its own volume. Some subjects ask to be explored from more perspectives; for example, many parents would disagree with a speech pathologist's advice to Lifshutz to parent her son in a language that she herself struggles with.

Read as literature, the collection proves somewhat uneven in register, as highly structured, sweeping essays contrast with straightforward reflections that bite off smaller chunks of the theme. Pabot's essay and Chinese-American Xujun Eiberlein's "A Hundred Years at Fifteen," another crafted look at a family's experience over generations, overshadow nearby snapshots of inconvenient prenatal care in Kazakhstan (by former British expatriate Saffia Farr) and the ups and downs of repatriating from Mexico with preschoolers (by Australian Andrea Martins). These more column-like essays succeed as what they are, and perhaps better match the tone of the subtitle, Adventures in Multicultural Mothering.

About half of the pieces in Call Me Okaasan feature affirmative endings in which mothers seem to conclude that, despite travails, they are glad to have gone the multicultural route. I treasure such reassurance yet value the reflective pieces just as much. This may be because, in writing about my own experiences, I have noticed a nagging tendency to dwell on the positive and project certainty. The reality, as my family has learned, is often more complicated. Call Me Okaasan supports this discovery and makes me hungry for more authentic glimpses of parenting among worlds. Aware now that my family is not alone, I am eager to share true stories and listen to honest voices.

Avery Fischer Udagawa grew up in Kansas and lives with her bicultural (Japanese/American) family in an international school community near Bangkok. Her translations from Japanese include J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965, a middle grade novel by Shogo Oketani. Her writing has appeared in Kyoto Journal. Please visit her website to learn more.

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I would love to read this book. Thanks for the great review.
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