Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Meeting Alice

I'm often torn between love and hate for our technological world. On the one hand, I cherish email. I am enamored by Instant Messaging. Being able to call my husband while I am riding on the bus to find out if he is picking up our kids from daycare is invaluable. But at other times I can't stand the attention my little laptop receives from me. My children can be pulling on my sleeve crying out, "Mama, mama, look at what I just made" and my response is a distracted, "Oh, right, yes, mmm hmmm, just a second, let me finish this email". My husband says, "Just shut the darn thing off!"

What it all comes down to is balance. I need to simply outline my priorities and set time for each. Spending time with my family is my top priority (why else have I made the effort to only work three days a week) but I also need time at home for things that are not family related, like the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network and Multilingual Living Magazine!

Many months ago, I came across a few blogs from bilingual/bicultural families like mine and soon was in email contact with a the writers. They were eager to be in contact, as was I, and soon we had formed friendships. Most I only know via their written words: I have never heard Lilian's voice and I don't even know what Clo looks like. It doesn't really matter to me that I am unable to meet with these new friends in person. There is something so meaningful about knowing what is REALLY on their minds; topics that wouldn't necessarily come up via in-person chats over coffee or tea. When I meet others in person, I rarely discuss the intimate details of making a bicultural relationship work or how torn I feel not being able to live in more than one country at the same time.

Maybe it is me. Maybe I am the one who keeps verbal conversations simple and superficial. Maybe when I hear the words come from my mouth I simply don't know how to say what I really want to say and so I don’t say much of anything important. Do I need more time, more contemplation to come up with the right words for the thoughts rolling around in my head? I am a people-pleaser at heart so when I meet in person I often feel nervous, limited, hesitant, worried, anxious. I want everyone to feel comfortable, I don’t want to create any confrontation or offend anyone. Yes, when I write about my thoughts via email or a blog, I feel a kind of expanse of space and time, a limitless freedom to be who I am. There is no one to offend since I am not writing to anyone in particular other than myself.

Then there is Alice. When Alice sent me her first column, it brought me to tears. It all started when I contacted her about her wonderful blog and if I could include it in our blog list. Then came a few email discussions about the dream of a newsletter or magazine for bilingual/bicultural families and whether she wanted to contribute.

It was the middle of the night of February 2006 and I had been sitting in front of my computer for over an hour, just staring. I felt hopeless. I felt that I had nothing to say. I felt that my dream of a magazine was over, that none of us had anything to say, especially me, and that I would have to simply let it drop. My husband couldn't console me, even though he tried.

Then Alice's email arrived. She had sent me a column for our new newsletter. I opened it and as I read through it my skin started to tingle and I started crying. It was beautiful and it was brilliant! Her words were exactly what I was looking for and I was so thankful and honored that she was out there sharing her feelings, thoughts and humor with me. She gave words to the world of a bilingual family, she was painting a picture, together with humor, of the struggles that so many of us face!

At the end of August of this year, I met Alice and her beautiful, wonderful family for the first time. We had decided that while in Germany visiting my husband’s family, we would rent a car and drive down to Austria to visit Alice. Somewhere in southern Germany, near the Czech border, I called her to let her know what time we would arrive that night. That was the first time I had ever spoken with her! After 6 months of almost daily email contact and that is the first time we ever heard each other's voices! I was nervous and a little worried that hearing each other's voices would dispel the image and myth we had created of the other. I can't speak for Alice but for me it was a delight and only further defined this wonderful person with whom I had formed a close friendship.

We arrived late that night in our rented black Mercedes (was the same price as a standard car that could fit three car seats). It was raining and our borrowed GPS navigation system had wanted to take us on small back roads through the Austrian countryside before we had figured out how to reprogram it. But we had now arrived and were about to meet for the first time. Alice met us part way to her home and helped scuffle our bunch of 5 into her dry home.

First meetings are always a little awkward and we had a lot of experiences that we were bringing with us. We were meeting each other for the first time “backwards”: We met for the first time already knowing each other's difficulties, struggles, foibles and pet peeves rather than first putting up our best personas until our true selves slowly seeped through. But meeting that way means having already gotten to know each other and not needing to start from the beginning. We met already having gained the trust of the other. I knew that Alice wouldn’t put me down for my insecurities and she knew that I would do the same for her. We knew that we were working together, not against one another, and had nothing to prove. In fact, we spent more time explaining to our husbands what we were talking about since they lacked our history.

The most fascinating for me was seeing where Alice lives, her town, her home, her laptop, her children's rooms. This was Alice's world. Her long shelves full of English literature books, a testament to her studies in the US. The things she delights in discussing when given the space and time. Of course, with our 5 kids under the age of 5 running around, we were often distracted and lacked the peace of mind to engage in drawn-out discussions.

We also met Alice's brothers and mother and in-laws. We were given a glimpse into her world of extended family, and it was a delight! English and German and Spanish mixing together fluidly and somewhere in the middle were conversations about life and love, past and future. Children running around in socks in the back yard... voices yelling out, sometimes in English, sometimes in German.

Writing this makes it seem so other-worldly, so unique. But it didn't feel that way at the time. It all felt so natural, so normal while at the same time so special, rewarding, a true honor It was a weaving of lives and families as if we had all known each other for ages while at the same time we were relating the basics of our lives - how we met, where we live, what our life is like in Seattle, what life is like in Europe vs. the US. Nothing to prove, nothing to defend, just a mixing of people and information.

Meeting Alice also meant meeting Austria. When we headed back to Germany, we had a better understanding of what it meant to be Austrian and a deeper understanding of Austria. During a trip to Linz, we were inspired to purchase a map of Austria and books of Austrian fables for our children (and, well, maybe for us parents too). Our children talk about their visit to Austria. They remember the street cars and underground train in Vienna. They remember playing with Alice's daughter and picking flowers outside the monastery in Alice's hometown. Visiting Alice has meant making her and her family a part of OUR life, not just mine. Seeing her in person with my family has meant all of us sharing in the experience. To me, that is priceless.

We will visit Alice again (if she will have us). We aren't done getting to know Alice and her family. We aren't done getting to know Austria. We haven't completed our tour of Vienna and my children really want another lollipop from the Turkish bakery around the corner from where we stayed. And the next time we visit, we are going to simply continue where we left off (if not further ahead) and this time we are going to have studied up on Austrian history BEFORE we cross the border. And if we are lucky, we'll get our black Mercedes rental again and drive 220 kilometers an hour on the long, flat stretches but this time I'm going to have my video camera in hand to document it all. *grin*

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Sweetness of Language

Language has its way of capturing the minds and hearts of young and old - the melodies, the intonations, the rhythms, the meanings. Although I am confident in our choice to raise our children bilingually, I have my moments of weakness and insecurity. Before heading to Germany I was anxious as to what the reactions of family and friends would be to my speaking German with my children. As a non-native speaker, I make many mistakes which my children pick up. I am trying to improve my German but it is sometimes hard to keep up. I was worried that family might feel that my choice to speak German with my kids was only teaching them incorrect German.

It is possible that some do think this. However, our first evening in Germany dispelled many of my worries. It wasn't that anyone said anything to me about bilingualism or my language abilities. In fact, I was in the other room when it happened: I had phoned my mother in California to let her know that we had arrived safely in Germany and then passed the phone to my oldest son so that he could talk with "Grammy". In the livingroom, where he was speaking, stood quite a few German family members. When my son's telephone conversation began, the rest of the room suddenly went quiet and everyone listened as he spoke. He switched comfortably between English with my mother and German with his siblings and others in the room - transitions without hesitation, without contemplation. I listened from the other room as family members discussed their awe and amazement that a child of only 4 years old could converse so comfortably in two languages. They were not only delighted with what they were witnessing, they were praising my husband and me for making the effort to speak German with our children and their delight with how well they could speak both languages. My heart filled with warmth and joy and my earlier concerns melted away. I felt that at that moment, our efforts were truly coming to fruition. At that moment, it was clear that what we were doing was not only wonderful but completely necessary.

What delighted me the most was that family and friends didn't ever treat our children differently. They never assumed that they had to speak English to our children. They spoke to them using the same sentences, using the same words as they did other German children. This may have seemed perfectly normal to everyone but I know better. I know that this meant that our children really, truly have the chance to feel comfortable in more than one culture. This means that family and friends actually think of our children just as German as any other German children, just as family and friends in the US think of our children just as American as other American children.

I have no idea what the future holds but I have returned home with a renewed sense of confidence and commitment. I am looking forward to improving my German - if not for the sake of myself, then at least for my children. I can't help but think that some of the over 300 lbs of books that we brought back with us from Germany will help (the majority of which are for the kids).

Since we are planning on homeschooling our children, we have returned as fully prepared as we can be. My husband's sister-in-law spoke with the principal at the local school who was delighted to give us books that the school has used to help teach children to learn to read in German. We purchased two year's worth of activity books, early reader books, story books and much, much more. In fact, it was hard not to pick up a few children's books each time we had the chance to borrow a car and go shopping.

What I was reminded of during this visit with family and friends in Germany is that life is full of unexpected joys, kindness and honesty if we keep our minds and hearts open to them. The world actually does want us to succeed in our goal to raise our children bilingually and biculturally despite the fears and anxieties upon which we and others tend to focus. As our children grow older and the reality of our choices become more visible and obvious, I am sure there will be new challenges and concerns and I'm sure I will be riddled with new anxieties and fears. In the meantime I feel ready for whatever challenges our bilingual family might face. Of course, I say this as the holidays are approaching - the time of year when being a bicultural family can be rather tough and a husband living abroad feels the distance between himself and his homeland. But that is another blog...

Stay tuned for my next blog where I meet Alice face-to-face for the first time!