Back from the USA

Young man holding snowballs

AM had never seen snow like this before.

Well, we are back in the land of Oz, reality, home, summer, call it what you will — our big holiday is over, although the jetlag lingers.

I can’t remember the last holiday AM & I had together. It would have been one of our regular beachside visits to my parents in their Mid-North Coast retirement village sometime before they died in 2011. We haven’t been overseas since 2008, when we embarked on a marathon journey to visit AM’s family in Ghana (via the US and Germany). If you’re interested in reading about that adventure, the story starts here

This time, we didn’t make it as far as Ghana. The aim was to visit my niece and her family in Orange County, California, as well as friends in San Francisco and Boston, and to generally have a good time after two years of hard slog for AM, who finished high school forever last November. Continue reading

Monday music: Goodbye school

Last week AM finished school — forever.

Ok, tertiary education still awaits, but as of Friday, when he finished his last exam (physics) it was no more uniforms, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks .. ever.

Hurray! I no longer have to listen to him revise his physics homework, which was, well, a brainsqueeze. Although it did mean I learned about something with the wonderful name of ultraviolet catastrophe. Don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t. Something about radiation. But there is some music …

Continue reading

Dreadlock action plan

AM’s hair is a mess. There, I’m not mincing words. I have nothing against dreadlocks, in fact I like them, but the dreads he’s acquired through wilful neglect of his hair are just dry and yucky. Phew, feels better to get that out in the open.

AM has promised his stepmother Obaapa that he will come to her salon & get his dreads sorted out, (i.e. combed out and re-done) but – well, that was a month ago and nothing’s happened.  Continue reading

Copping it

AM knows how to play - under attack from two small cousins.

AM knows how to play - under attack from two small cousins.

I was at an Australian African Network picnic on the weekend, and got to appreciate once more the benefits of being a member of this organisation. AAN is a group for people in mixed relationships and families, where one of the partners is of African background, and meeting other people at picnics & social events means you get a chance to share stories and experience with people who actually understand the challenges you face.

I took AM’s (half) brothers 50 Cedis, Abrantie and G Ketewa. AM, being now 15, scorns the whole concept of picnics – unless organised and attended by his friends – so of course he wasn’t there.  Lucky I carry his pic in my wallet or no-one from that part of my life would recognise him anymore. In fact, when he got take-away from the latest AAN dinner party, one of my friends didn’t recognise him.

Another reason he doesn’t come to AAN events these days is because they are connected to what he considers my obsession with all things African. I was explaining this to someone at the picnic and she just nodded and laughed and said, “Yes, I’ve got friends who are going through exactly the same thing with their teens”.  Well, it’s great to hear this from another source! I am not the only white parent who’s copping criticism.

I guess to AM it might look like I’m obsessed. I’m very involved with AAN, and as you can tell from this blog I love African music, dance, fabrics, food, etc, etc. I explained to him one day that with limited time on my hands, I usually choose to enjoy those things when I get the chance, rather than doing something more mainstream. Especially when African musicians like Salif Keita only come to Australia once in a blue moon! And also I like to learn about African history, politics and culture because – well, it helps me navigate all my different friendships and relationships. But there are also things about my own culture that I love just as passionately – literature, language, roast dinners, sponge cakes, bagpipes, Irish music, Dr Who, dry humour – the list goes on and on. 

I like to think I’ve got a balance. But I’m not sure. Maybe he’s right to call me on it. It hasn’t been awful, angry criticism – more teasing really. Sometimes when watching TV he’ll accuse me of having a crush on a black character. “Don’t deny it, you know it’s true! Racist, racist!” he’ll crow. My denial only feeds his triumph over having scored against me. Or the other night I was helping him with a school assigment about gender and suggested he search online for pictures of super models – like Naomi Campbell. His response was something like “Ha! gotcha! You only thought of her because she’s BLACK! Ha ha!” I hurriedly cast around in my mind for a white supermodel. Ok, I confess, it took a minute or two to come up with Elle McPherson. “Racist, you’re racist!” he accused. “Oh yes, I’m so sorry, I do my best not to be, please, please forgive me!” I cried, pleading on my knees.

Now before you start worrying about us both, please note that this was all quite playful, even though the content might sound harsh. It ended in laughter, not tears. Play has always been an important part of the way I parent since AM was a baby. Kids are naturally playful and I believe that play helps them work through things that trouble them, express things they can’t in other ways, experiment with roles and power, become closer to their parents – and of course have fun. If as the adult you can stay light and relaxed when kids bring up hard stuff in play you can build trust, gain a lot of insight into their lives and help them heal from hurts. AM’s no longer small but I think these things about play are still true for him.

As well as that though, what he’s raising in this case is a real issue for me too. After all, he’s the black person in this scenario, so perhaps – probably? – he’s got a clearer perspective on my interests than I do. And it’s certainly true that white people often do objectify black people as exotic, fascinating, sexual, other. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that at times. It may not be vilification, but it is still a kind of racism because it gets in the way of us seeing their full humanity. This has been historically embedded in my culture for centuries, it’s part of how we see and think of black people. As white people we need to be aware of that, reflect upon it, and stop doing it. Self-awareness and a willingness to change is more useful to everyone who cares about equality and justice, than getting defensive about a spot of unaware racism.

So when AM accuses me of being racist I don’t worry about the truth of it, I don’t take offence. Instead, I try and figure out how to keep the playfulness moving us forward. I take it as a good sign that AM can raise these issues with me in this way. A very good sign. For him, for me, for our relationship, and for the future.

Here are my two favourite resources on how play helps build closeness between parents and children:

And an article about the role of white people in ending racism:

Food shock

Burgers, chips and Bombe Alaska at the Rexmer Hotel in Kumasi.

AM, Owure and 50 Cedis enjoy burgers, chips and Bombe Alaska (!) at the Rexmer Hotel in Kumasi.

It’s school holidays and AM is eating my money. Movies, gaming cafes, junk food, pearl milk tea. Perhaps I should just not give him any money other than pocket money, but I’d rather he went out and had fun than moped around all day in front of the computer. Whatever, he’s going to have to get a job soon, I can’t afford him.

A few days ago he went out with a friend who’s just come back from a trip to grandparents in Ireland and Germany, who was complaining about how much he’d had to eat at his German Grandma’s table. It prompted AM to commiserate and recount his own overseas food trauma. He blamed his tendency to over-eat on our trip to Ghana. Personally, I just think it’s because he’s a child of extremes in everything, but his analysis is that he missed Aussie food so much  that now he’s got unlimited access to it, he’s so relieved that he can’t stop when he should. 

AM told his friend how in Ghana he’d had nothing to eat for weeks on end but rice with a bit of chilli and tomato stew. He missed out on the part of that story where he’d refused point-blank to eat anything else for the last couple of months of our stay. (Unless we went to a ‘European’ hotel , when he’d plow through burgers, chips, steak and pasta). Peanut soup, fried chicken, fresh fish stew with palm oil, all these and more were on offer, but no … now that’s what I call cutting off your nose to spite your face.

However, although it was frustrating to watch, I do understand how he was feeling. (He probably doesn’t think so). I remember feeling the same way at school camp, where at a similar age to him I ate nothing but peanut butter sandwiches for a week and then totally binged when I got home. I also went through much the same experience on my first trip to Ghana. I was only there for four weeks but it was probably only a matter of days before I was craving a simple ham sandwich or a salad – anything but spicy, oily, weird Ghanaian food! At that time (early 90s), it was impossible to find either ham or salad, at least in Kumasi, and I suspect it would still be difficult to find what I think of as good ham, although I hear you can get a decent salad in Accra these days. My saviour was the Chinese restaurant in Kumasi (tender beef! broccoli!), but it was expensive and I couldn’t eat there much.

I tried making my own salad, but it was a dismal, almost inedible disappointment. The lettuce,  carrot and capsicum were bitter and the cucumber turned out to be zucchini (yuk). The tomato was ok but the dressing was awful.

After that, I gave up on substitutes for ‘European’ food and I have never, since, sought it out in Ghana. It’s never teh same as what you’ve grown up on. I’m sure that’s the expereince of expatriates everywhere. My approach these days is to appreciate what’s available rather than mourn for what’s not. However on that first trip it was awful because I got to a point where I just didn’t want to eat anything at all. It was unfamiliar, it was too hot and too heavy, and to make things worse I had a bad stomach bug. I guess that’s the same place AM was in, but for longer than I had to endure it, poor kid. I hope it hasn’t totally put him off.

The next time I went to Ghana I was lucky enough to be staying with my sister-in-law Serwaa, who is a very good cook. Between us, we soon figured out my favourite Ghanaian foods and I survived more than a month in the village, with absolutely no access to any foreign foods (except tinned milk, blech). I still lost weight, due to more or less chronic diarrhoea, but on the whole I was well fed and satisfied. And on our recent trip, I mostly had a wonderful time eating. I just avoided offal and it was all good. So I guess, even tho it had been ten years since the last visit, I’d acclimatised. Just hope AM gets to do the same.

AM taps his foot

One of the difficult things lessons of parenting adolescents is that they still need you in the background of their lives but the moment you take up some space in the foreground, you become anathema, and sooo embarrassing.

This is one of the reasons I missed out on the Rokia Traore concert a couple of weeks ago. Rokia Traore is a singer from Mali who was in Australia for the WOMAD festival in Adelaide. I hadn’t quite got to the  point of organising to go see her, when AM got an invitation. A (mixed) friend of his, whose father is a musician, had free tickets to Traore’s only Sydney concert and was inviting his four best friends to come with him, as a way of celebrating his 14th birthday. So I decided I wouldn’t go to it myself. I didn’t want to jeopardise AM’s fun – perhaps by dancing in public. Anyway, the idea of a quiet night in without him was pretty attractive.

Now as it happens, AM is going through an anti-African phase at the moment. His bad memories of our trip to Ghana have completely over-ridden the good memories and he shudders theatrically whenever anyone mentions the country or even the continent. Whenever I talk about this to (usually white) parents of younger mixed race children they get very, very worried. Many of us have put a lot of time and effort into trying to connect our children with Africa, so they don’t want to imagine it all evaporating after their child turns 12. I am less worried. A friend of mine with a son in his late teens went through a similar experience but her son now appears to have ‘come out the other side’ and is again prepared to contemplate, and perhaps even appreciate, his African heritage and connections. So I’m hoping AM will be the same. But yes, I still worry too.

So it was in this context that AM got invited to the concert and I held my breath – wondering if he would turn down the invitation when he realised Traore was (shudder) African. But the allure of going out on a school night with friends proved far stronger than his aversion to all things African. It also – to my relief – proved stronger than his prejudice against all music that is not Eminem.

And off he went. And I’m told he enjoyed it. True, the other boys all jumped around yelling right in front of the stage, whereas AM sat quietly in his seat and just tapped his foot. True, he didn’t come home raving about it. But he didn’t come home groaning about it either, and said it was “ok” when asked – which from an adolescent Australian male is high praise, really. So perhaps there is hope. Hope that AM will rediscover a wider world of music than Eminem, and hope that he will remember that Africa really isn’t all bad.

Hair Despair

What blog about African heritage children/teens would be complete without a section devoted to hair? Kinky, bushy, nappy; cornrows, dreads, perms, braids; product, product, product!

I used to think, being the mother of a boy, that I’d escaped the hair despair of other non-African mums. Yes, I could laugh smugly at a friend’s story about how mixed children in England got called one-bunchers, because all their white mothers could manage to do with their hair was tie it all up into one recalcitrant bunch. I could tut-tut when desperate mothers straightened their daughters’ hair (all those chemicals!). And naively, I would think it could never happen to me.

And then ActionMan started high school. And decided to grow his hair … Continue reading