My bicultural life: 2014

Our much smaller family on AM's first birthday in 1995.

Our much smaller family on AM’s first birthday in 1995.

This year marked 20 years of being the mother of a mixed race child. Twenty years of learning, negotiating difference, celebrating diversity, experimenting, arguing, making mistakes, sometimes getting it right.

So what has living in my extended bicultural family meant this year? Continue reading

Review: Mixed

9780393327861_p0_v1_s260x420What can the parents of mixed race children learn from the experience of people who are, themselves, mixed? That’s the question that was in the back of my mind while reading Mixed: An anthology of short fiction on the multiracial experience.

I’ve come away a little wiser, but not a whole lot happier, because the main message of this collection of stories by mixed race authors is that multi and biracial people have been doing it tough. Very tough. Continue reading

Monday Music: Twenty years of being a mum

fam20014Last week, while it was still Loving Day in the US, my son (AM) celebrated his 20th birthday. Loving Day commemorates a landmark US court case in 1967 which made laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. Continue reading

God in the mix. Or not.

Gye Nyame symbol on plastic chair

The Adinkra symbol Gye Nyame (except God I fear no-one) on this chair shows how integral religion is to daily life in Ghana.

A few weeks ago, for work, I attended a forum on HIV for religious leaders. I am not a religious leader, I was just there to observe & report, but it did get me thinking about faith, and I realised that I have rarely blogged about the place of religion in our bicultural family life.

I think it’s fair to say that faith plays a big part in the lives of most African people. I’ve rarely met an African atheist or even agnostic, and my own lack of belief is met with surprise, and usually, politely incredulous argument.

AM’s dad, DadaK, was raised Seventh Day Adventist and is now a valued and enthusiastic elder in a charismatic, more or less fundamentalist congregation: the Ghanaian Pentecostal Church. We don’t usually see him or his second family on Sundays because often the entire day is devoted to church and related social activities. Continue reading

Traditions

AM learning my cultural culinary traditions with grandma. Now a teenager, he avoids cooking unless the outcome is cheesecake.

Hey, all the other Anglo-Celts out there! What do you like about y/our culture? Don’t tell me you like how you can get sushi for lunch and kebabs for dinner. They way I see it, that’s our society, not our culture.

A few years ago I was at a conference where exactly that question was asked “what do you like about your culture”, and because it was a conference about multiculturalism, Anglo-Celtic Australians (who were, unusually, ina minority) were encouraged to speak out. I was disappointed with the response because people answered along the lines of sushi/kebabs as above.

I guess we were all put on the spot.  And the wonderful diversity of Sydney is certainly something to celebrate and enjoy, so in that sense the comments were fine.  But why is it so hard for us to think of things we like that belong to our own culture?

It’s not unusual to hear people – both anglo-celts & others – lamenting our lack of culture. DadaK has said that to me – although I guess compared to Ashanti culture, the A/Cs really do appear to pale into insignificance.

Is this perception of ‘no culture’ because our culture is increasingly like that of the US? Because people have rejected the stereotypical bush culture of Croc Dundee and the Man from Snowy River, but found nothing to replace it with? Because we don’t have lovely colourful festivals?

But I think it is also a symptom of how the dominant culture, while it really runs everyone’s lives, appears invisible. It’s the ‘norm’, and boring in comparison to other people’s. We have to think up things like Mardi Gras and the Biennale to add a bit of life to it. (Not that there’s anything worng with those events!)

There’s another problem – liking your own culture might feel like it’s steering dangerously close to a reactionary nationalism – parochialism and racism. But does it really make sense to throw the baby out with the bath water. Can we genuinely appreciate people from other cultures if we are busy ignoring or rejecting our own? It could appear kind of shallow and grasping – our culture’s no good, let’s have yours.

As a single parent raising a child of mixed heritage I’ve been very aware of this issue. I’ve felt a bit like I’ve had to over-compensate on the African side because he’s flooded with A/C culture every day. But I like to think I’ve also celebrated my own cultural roots.

So here’s a short list of things I like or even love about my Anglo-Celtic Australian culture:

Food

  • The Victoria sponge – light -as-a-feather sponge cake layered with good strawberry jam and real whipped cream, the top dusted with icing sugar.
  • Butter
  • Hard bitey yellow cheddar cheese
  • Sunday roast
  • Lemon cordial
  • The BBQ – like my Dad used to do it, on a recycled plough disc, charred steaks that are pink in the middle

Music

  • Irish and Scottish fiddle – how about  Shooglenifty – celtic rock?)
  • Bagpipes
  • Ok, I’m struggling to think of contemporary Oz music that I like, I admit it. Well, there’s the Qantas song …

Fun

  • The dry, dry humour
  • Our love affair with the beach
  • How my cousin used to call me Fred
  • Board games, especially on rainy afternoons

Wisdom

  • I love proverbs and probably use them more than is healthy – don’t put off today what you can do tomorrow – don’t cut off your nose to spite your face – babies and bathwater, as above, etc. etc.  Actually I mostly try not to spit them out  but I think them all the time.
  • The story of Tam Lin – stolen by fairies and rescued by his true love, who wouldn’t let go of him even when the fairy Queen turned him into a series of fearsome monsters. Tenacity and faithfulness bring rewards.
  • Our incredible curiosity. Ok, that’s had some appalling side-effects over the centuries, like colonialism and nuclear bombs, but people of my ancestry have also made wonderful contributions to the body of human knowledge. I guess – end with another proverb  – that’s a double-edged sword.

No, he’s my son …

She's my mum, OK!?!

She's my mum, OK!?!

The other day I was  reading an article on Intermix by Canadian ‘Piss’ comedian Sabrina Jalees. (Piss, by her own definition = Pakistani/Swiss). She listed all the pros and cons of being mixed race. The one that struck a chord with me was “Your innocent mother-daughter love is easily mistaken for a ‘creepy sugar momma and her young misguided brown girl’ lesbian fling.” Not that AM and I have ever been mistaken for lesbians of course, but there was that time in Germany last year when the hotel proprietor seemed to think we’d be needing a double bed … ick. AM was only 13 at the time.

Anyway, her comment prompted me to think of the three major ways in which white mum’s relationships with our kids get mis-identified. From birth through primary school people think you’ve adopted them. (Aren’t you good!, they exclaim to you beside the swings).

Then there’s the Cougar phase I just referred to, starting sometime during puberty and lasting, I assume, a very, very long time. 

And finally, I’m guessing that when I’m old and decrepit, people will think he’s a kindly care worker or volunteer at an old people’s home. (Isn’t he good!, they will think to themselves).

I don’t really hold it against people. They’re usually just curious about us. I’m sure it’s good for my patience. This pic at right from when he was little, is for everyone who wonders who we are.

Get used to it.

Swimming and sickling

4 years old x 4 metres deep

4 years old x 4 metres deep

I’ve been thinking about swimming. We’ve just spent a few days up the mid-north coast visiting my parents – which means going to the beach every day for a swim. It used to be twice a day for hours and hours, but adolescence seems to have given AM an allergy to exercise, and now when we stay at the coast it’s once a day for a quick surf and that’s it.

Just as an aside, my boy told me he doesn’t want to be called ActionMan in this blog. In just one short year it has become a misnomer anyway. So until I can think of something more catchy, (that he approves of) he’ll just be AM – which also happen to be two of his initials. Perhaps they could also stand in for AdrenalinMan – his idea of fun these days would be Parkour (if he could persaude some friends to do it with him), parachuting and wing-suiting.  Eeeeek! What’s wrong with good old soccer?

But back to swimmimg. AM truly was an ActionMan from a very early age. I love swimming myself and I’d take him to the pool or beach often when he was little. The picture shows him swimming in a 4 metre deep pool just a few days after his 4th birthday. From the age of about 7  he had surfing lessons every summer.

I’d love to have been able to do the same with DadaK’s children, but as more of them kept arriving on the scene, it became increasingly difficult to manage. Taking a bunch of non-swimmers to the pool without another adult handy is a recipe for disaster.  So none of them can swim. Every summer I hope to rectify this situation at least with the oldest, 50 Cedis, and every summer we don’t quite make it.

I did take him swimming in Ghana, but it was an expensive expedition to go to the pool so we didn’t do it often enough. In Kumasi the only pools we found were attached to hotels. The Kumasi Cultural Centre gave me a list of them, and we went by tro tro and taxi to two that were – kind of – close to where we lived in Asuoyeboah. We went to the Wadoma (off the Sunyani road) and Rexmar (Patasi) hotels.

The joy of burgers

The joy of burgers

I felt I couldn’t just take AM, but also had to take his cousim Owuraku, 50 Cedis and usually one of his other brothers. AM, pining for non-Ghanaian food, wouldn’t leave the premises without having eaten at the hotel restaurant, so everyone else would have to as well, and I rarely got out of it having spent under $60 – comparable to Australian prices. The picture at right shows 50 Cedis’ rapture at the prospect of the Rexmar’s hotel’s unique mini-burgers and chips. 

We managed to nearly drown Owuraku at the Rexmar pool, which has a very deep spot, but he and 50 Cedis both had a lot of fun at Wadoma, which is shallower, and one of the days we went they got to join in a riotous ball game with some young men who were there. (Who were quite drunk, so I had to keep a vigilant eye on my non-swimmers).

To be frank, 50 Cedis probably would have learned to swim years ago if he wasn’t such a panic merchant. AM hasn’t helped much in this regard; his sense of fun in the water is usually interpreted  as plain sabotage by non-swimmers. In the picture below you can see 50 Cedis enjoying a panic in about 1 metre of water. Perhaps Drama Queen is a better description. But with four siblings and non-swimming parents, the odds of him getting the aquatic attention he deserves have been slim.  Maybe this summer we’ll manage it.

I think swimming is such an important part of Australian culture the government should ditch the controversial citizenship test and just teach all new migrants swimming and water safety. I’m sure it would be more popular. Like barbecues, swimming is a part of our culture that most migrants embrace with enthusiasm – if not for themselves, at least for their children. We even have an Australian designed Burqini – “dynamic swimwear for today’s Muslim female”, just to make it accessible for everyone.

Even DadaK has expressed interest in swimming in the past. Not long after we met I took him to meet my parents, who were then living on the shores of a beautiful tidal lake on the south coast of NSW. I tried – unsuccessfully – to teach him to float on its shallow, sandy waters. In spite of his complete failure to float, it was fun – until the next day, which he spent moaning and writhing in bed, and I spent not wanting to believe that swimming had brought it on. This was my first encounter with a condition I’d only read about in high school biology text books, but neither of us knew it at the time: sickle cell disease.

Owuraku and 50 Cedis panicking at the shallow end.Sickle cell disease is a genetic blood disorder in which lack of oxygen in the red blood cells – triggered by a range of things, including dehydration and getting chilled – causes them to ‘sickle’ in shape and break down and block blood vessels. The main symptom is incredible, unbearable  pain as the surrounding area is starved of oxygen. The damage ranges from heart attacks and strokes to permanent bone damage to stunting children’s growth.

It took us a few years to get a diagnosis on what DadaK spoke of as his ‘unmentionable’ because his mother had told him never to mention it or it might come on. When feeling daring, he’d call it his rheumatism. These days he’ll refer to it as sickle cell, and still suffers the consequences of a life time with the condition, although fortunately he hasn’t had a severe attack for many years because he’s found a medication that helps stave it off when he feels it starting.

So, I mentioned it was genetic, right? Depending on the combination of genes you get, you can have no symptoms and just be a carrier, or you can have extreme symptoms – worse than DadaK’s. You can only get symptoms – generally – if both parents have a gene for it. And guess what. Out of all the women available, DadaK married Obaapa, who carries a gene for sickle cell.

They have been incredibly lucky really. Out of their four children, so far only Abrantie has been diagnosed with the condition. 50 Cedis and G Ketewa are only carriers (as is AM), and no-one’s been brave enough to test Treasure’s blood, but so far she’s not showing signs of it. Abrantie’s got the same genetic variant as DadaK – bad, but not as bad as it might have been. Bad enough tho, to make swimming a bit of a challenge.

It was taking him to the beach when he was about 18 months old that alerted us all to the fact that he had sickle cell. I got a call from DadaK in the evening afterwards, wanting to know if he’d hurt his leg because he was complaining of pain. No, I said, but could it be sickle cell? It sounded like it. (By this time I was somewhat of an expert on it, having been through quite a few ‘crises’ as the pain episodes are called, and hospitalisations, with DadaK). Obaapa was firmly in denial, DadaK  wanted to be in denial  but couldn’t help admitting that I might be right. A few months later (after another swim) Abrantie had another crisis and sometime the following year or two, he was hospitalised with it and diagnosed. This time swimming had nothing to do with it, to my relief, but you can understand I’ve been pretty wary of taking him to the pool ever since.

Looking into it online I’ve found that people with sickle cell can swim, but it must be in warm water and they have to keep their fluids up – and in my experience, not get chilled. I turn into a monster of anxiety when I take Abrantie swiming: Is the water ok? Are you warm? Are you cold? Do you want a drink? Where’s the towel? Wrap up really well. Are you cold? You’d better get dressed. Oh my god who got your T-shirt wet!? Are you warm enough? Have a drink. 

It’s paid off in one respect, because he’s never had a crisis after going swimming with me, since those two early incidents – and he loves being in the water. But it’s another reason why no-one else in the family’s learned to swim. Sickle cell just complicates the picture. I find it very sad.

I did a quick look around the web for useful sites but decided to just link to two that are for kids, which I intend to show Abrantie. Check them out.

http://www.sicklecellkids.org/sicklecell_temp.html

http://sicklecell.starlightprograms.org/