Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 58 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Cultural Hybridity or Confusion?

| 4 Comments

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 58 seconds

Reading Time: 2 minutes

On the surface, there is no reason for my child to grow up culutrally confused or hybrid (I am not suggesting hybridity equates with confusion, I am asking myself which one my child is.).

She was born in Egypt to fully Egyptian parents of Egyptian parents, who grew up in Arab countries. My husband and I have lived very little of our lives in English-speaking countries, all of it as adults, a total of less than 3 years.

And yet here was my almost 4-year-old yday. She rarely goes out late at night. Yesterday was an exception and streets are full of lighting in celebration of Ramadan. Her reaction? “Look! Christmas lights!”. Oops. Eventually she realized the lights sometimes gave a shape of a lantern, what Egyptians call a “fanous” and consider a symbol of Ramadan (Egyptians are weird that way; I grew up in Kuwait and people there have fewer such symbols/rituals.

What adds to all this confusion are things like this, in the image below I just took of one of her toys:

Yes, it’s a lantern (fanous) with Snow White in it, and when you press a button it flashes red and blue lights and bursts into Ramadan song. It’s all very…incongruous?

Another hilarious East/West thing came in the form of this video shared with me on facebook by a Christian friend and colleague at work – it is of a guy (actually he is a friend of my friends, I don’t know much of his background) singing to the music of the 12 days of Cjristmas but instead he sings, “on the first dayof Ramadan my true love sent to me, a box of Ramadan Yameesh”. He goes all the way til 5 and is hilarious. My girl watched the video so often she started singing it and mixing the original xmas lyrics with the comic ones of the hacked one. Good one for #clmooc I thought. Hacking across cultures or something.

My point is, though, that in some way, in order to teach my daughter English, for her to be bilingual like me, there is a cultural “something” going on, from preschool to reading to pop culture. I don’t want her to grow up thinking she doesnt belong here, even though belonging is not the highest goal to strive towards, when openness to different cultures is cooler. I don’t want her to seem like she comes from some other world, or to lose her identity to another culture, but as Homi Bhabha says, the postcolonial person is not ome coming from a “pure” culture, we are already hybrid (a topic for some other post, particularly as to how intellectuals of a certain region can distort the image of that region because their voices are louder and more eloquent). My girl speaks both Arabic and English almost equally well but her academic language, even at 4 is obviously English (she knows more numbers, colors, animals, etc in English). For some odd reason, when she is putsdie home playing with other kids she tends to sepakin English. I don’t know why. Maybe coz she sees us (my husband and me or mom and me) speaking to each other in English in public to avoid everyone understanding what we are saying? I am not sure. I do so love it (and linguists be damned) when she moxes both languages in one sentence. Like “hay-sleep-o” (they will sleep). Or “ana ool-ing” (i am saying). She is completely capable of saying these sentences in either language. But she’s actually just talking like me 😉 

4 Comments

  1. I can really identify with much of what you say in this post, Maha. My parents emigrated to Australia and they are from Russian/German cultures. My first language was Russian for a short while and then I was bilingual once I started preschool. I immersed my own sons in Russian – speaking Russian, translating books from English to Russian when I read to them, showing them Russian children’s films. Of course once they got to school English was their dominant and almost only language, and it was our fault as parents too because we spoke mainly English with each other, my husband and I. I love being able to speak another language when you don’t want others to understand you although you have to be careful! I love mixing languages, even adding prefixes and suffixes from Russian to English words, and listening to how Russian communities in Australia adapt English words to the Russian language. Kids do it easily, I think it’s because their use of language is elastic and they play to learn anyway.

    Growing up I was also like other ‘real’ Australians who decorated streets with pictures of snow for Christmas. We don’t have snow and of course we are in full Summer at Christmas. I’ve watched the changes to the Christian predominance which slowly became less dominant as we became more aware of the multicultural (don’t even know if I can use that word now) communities we have. Of course now we are seeing a realisation that we are not a Christian country any more but we still hold on to Christian practices. There is a push to do away with the Lord’s Prayer in parliament http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-17/dickson-parliament-prayer/5203930 and really I think many people are saying we need a separation of state and religion because we can’t say we are predominantly one faith or non-faith or another.

    People hold on to things, customs, for different reasons even when they no longer make sense. A wintry Christmas, puffy white dresses for weddings – mixing cultures without really thinking about what is happening or even caring. I find it fascinating.

  2. I am reminded of friends of ours whose kids were growing up in a very French part of Quebec. They spoke English at home, and would often have friends from out of town over to visit. Their kids were very bilingual – speaking French at Daycare and then at school. The kids had somehow internalized this to mean that kids spoke French and adults spoke English! When on vacation in a different province, they would start to play with other kids and would speak French until they realized that the other kids had no clue what they were saying … then they’d switch to English … It is just funny how kids learn to associate language in totally different ways than we do …

  3. Hi Maha! Interesting questions.

    I’m intrigued at people’s varying sense of what they consider ‘acceptable’ invasions into what they consider as ‘their’ ‘culture’.

    Christmas, for example, is an intriguing mash up of pagan, christian, consumerist stories.

    Growing up in a family with wide differences in age, values, means, social origins led me to research to try and sort through the varying strands in order to situate myself.

    Living in France and having French kids who speak English as their ‘other’ language makes for an interesting family linguistic environment.

    I suppose all that makes me think that we all need space and loving elasticity of parents to remix, mash up and shape our particular stories.

    All of this connects to discussion on hospitality…

  4. Love this line because it surprised me: “Maybe coz she sees us (my husband and me or mom and me) speaking to each other in English in public to avoid everyone understanding what we are saying”

    Your daughter is so lucky to be raised in two (or more) cultures. My hope is that the world will eventually have more people who have cross-cultural understanding. And I love the way she blends the languages!

    I also hope the world does not eventually become so homogeneous that we continue to lose our valuable and necessary differences.

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