By KARI COBHAM
When the image of my father and daughter at nine months old rotated on the screensaver, the now-toddler rushed the screen, squealing, and tried to hug the TV. “Grandpa! Grandpa!”
The two face each other in the photo, almost nose to nose. He’s smiling in that slight, awe- struck way that even crow’s feet treat him gently. She’s leaning back in his arms, unsmiling at this first meeting, drinking him in.
Two years later, she’s attached enough to rush the screen. Now that she’s older, our annual trip to Trinidad and Tobago to see my family is richer, her experiences and relationships more lasting.
When the country of your birth is thousands of miles away, things like birthdays and holidays can be tricky. Then you start having children, and passing on your culture becomes just as important as sharing milestones and moments with far flung family.
But how do you infuse your offspring with a love for your roots without it getting lost in translation? Here’s how other immigrant moms and I have tried to rise to the challenge.
Food is one of the greatest unifiers and a vital means of retaining your cultural identity, no matter how far you travel. As author Mark Kurlansky wrote, “Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.”
Her boys are now teens, but during International Day when they were in elementary school in Maryland, Nadine Anderson Hunt would take a basket of Jamaican food, including yams, green bananas, sugar cane and tamarinds, and explain how they were used.
Over in Copenhagen, writer and founder of Bandit Queen Press, Lesley-Ann Brown, lives with her 16-year-old son. The Trinidadian, who has also called Brooklyn home, cooks rice and beans—her own version of pelau—for her vegetarian son. He’s also a big fan of bake. “Without having the means to ensure regular family cross-Atlantic reunions, I’ve had to learn a lot of our traditional food,” Brown said. (When we move to a new city, one of the first things my husband and I do is find doubles.)
Music has also played a central role in celebrating and sharing our cultures. In my house, the weekend is all about Soca Saturday and Reggae Sunday. With my husband as the DJ (he’s partial to soca star Machel Montano), we play soca and reggae all day, both days, singing and dancing as we cook and do chores. And yes, it’s on rotation even when we leave the house.
Like us, Anderson Hunt listens to reggae often. It has gone a long way toward shaping her sons’ identities. “Now that they are teens they have much more of an appreciation of my culture,” she told me via Facebook message.
Finding your people helps build an extended community and support system. My husband and I make a huge effort to go to Caribbean festivals and the Carnival in our area (because every city worth its salt has one) where food and smells, accents and music blend to make me feel almost home. I want my daughter, too, to feel comfortable in the space beyond the place she was born.
Scarlet Vikarby is African American and lives in Stockholm with her husband and their daughters. The mixed-race family spends a lot of time with other Swedish/American families and together they observe American holidays.
For her, community extends into connecting with biracial families so that her daughters see that there are others like them.
“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.” – Author Rita Mae Brown
Understanding another dialect — even if it’s bastardized English — and the lilt with which it is so imprecisely delivered is also a part of being biligual.
It’s why we use Trinidadian dialect in conversations with our daughter. My husband is a constant learner and knows when to explain what the colloquialisms mean and when to look them up. The ones I use most often? Mamaguy (to deceive or tease, in jest or by deceitful flattery) and maco (to mind someone’s business).
It’s adorable, not to mention gratifying, to hear her pronounce some words like me, a little Trini mixed in with her American accent. Our hope is that knowing the dialect will also help make her culturally bilingual.
But speaking it at home is nothing compared to arriving in Trinidad and being surrounded by the sound of your own accent reflected back at you.
We have been fortunate to be able to visit Trinidad and Tobago at least once, sometimes wice a year, since our daughter was born. The Vikarbys make it a point to travel to the U.S. a few times a year and Anderson Hunt heads to her homeland of Jamaica often. “Visiting family helps to reinforce our Jamaican culture,” she said. So much so that her sons’ friends consider the boys Jamaican, too. And how cool is that?
Going home has become even more important because of our daughter. We want to expose her to the culture and travel and the wider world beyond U.S. shores. But even moreso, we want to give my parents and extended family the gift of holding and knowing her.
Now, when my mother calls and the tell-tale FaceTime ring chimes, our daughter runs to the phone yelling for granny. The ability to stay in daily contact with family and see them pretty much whenever we’d like has allowed us to share everything from meal and bath time, to funny and memorable moments. We constantly send iCloud messages and text and talk via WhatsApp.
It’s easy to take it for granted. When I first moved to the U.S., I used international phone cards, collect calls, and later, Skype. Technology has been a blessing beyond measure. Because of it our daughter knows and loves her Trini family.
If you or your spouse are immigrants, how do you infuse your culture into your lives? Follow me at @KariWrites and tweet us with #MediaMoms.
Kari Cobham is a Trinidad-born, Georgia-based writer, editor and social media strategist. A former award-winning journalist at The Daytona Beach News-Journal, her work has been featured on MSNBC’s Today Books,Orlando Sentinel, the3six5 lifestream project, Trinidad Guardian, and SHEand Caribbean Beat magazines. She has edited four of New York Timesbestseller Pat Croce’s books on piracy. She currently works for Cox Media Group TV stations where she leads social audience growth and training for on-air talent. Follow her on Twitter @KariWrites.