Published in Centre Daily Times, State College, PA (March 6, 2004)
I embarked on an eye-opening journey two Decembers ago, when my daughter’s preschool celebrated cultures from all around the world. It was a wonderful month for the kids as they “traveled” around the world. It was a great opportunity for parents to build positive attitudes towards the diverse cultures in the USA – I loved to imagine that these would one day get us closer to true liberty and justice for all.
My family dutifully signed up for India, and began our preparations. On the big day, my daughter dressed up in Indian clothes, I packed up my presentation material and hands on activity, my snacks, and was just about ready, when my daughter burst out with questions, “Amma, who is an Indian? Are you an Indian? Am I an Indian? Are people who live in India Indian?”
It was a watershed event in our family. My husband and I had been conducting an experiment, where we had talked about different countries, but not used any adjectives to describe the people who lived in them.
We had talked about India, China, Korea and USA (four countries that we have been to with our daughter) and the “people” who live there without using any adjectives. We used “people” to describe all of humanity, and had been waiting to see if our child would classify people, and if so, at what age, and based on what? Would it be based on differences in physical features like skin color/ eye shape/ hair texture or language /customs/ religion/ geography/ something/ nothing else?
Our daughter’s classification started in response to the external stimulus of the “India day” celebration. We talked that day about who an Indian was and who an American was. The dialogue continued till I dropped her off at school, and continued when I picked her up.
By the end of that “Holiday Season,” she declared that she had “understood. All the children in my school are Americans and all the parents are from different countries. Is that right, Amma?”
“Well, you are almost right…,” and we talked about exceptions to that rule, about grandparents, great grandparents, cultural origins, Columbus and Native Americans.
Our dialogue continued. After a trip to an Asian grocery store around the same time, our daughter announced that there were only four Americans in the store, referring to the three of us, and another person of European origin in the store. All the others were of Chinese origin, and I explained to her that they may be Americans too. And the person of European origin may not be an American.
Then she declared “Some people think that only white people are Americans. They are wrong.” Another step taken in a long journey, and I felt glad that she had the opportunity to understand this truth so young, for I have met so many adults that have not figured this one out yet.
Over the past two years, her journey has continued, as she ties to understand people and things. Her questions have increased over time and last year, when we celebrated Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, she asked me “if it was an Indian festival.”
“Yes.” “… because Indian people celebrate It?”
“Yes.” “Is it an American festival?”
“Because many Americans celebrate it. Did you know that Christmas is an Indian festival too?”
“Because lots of Indians celebrate it?”
I then told her how I had 10 days of holidays from school in India, for both Diwali and Christmas.
The dialogue then continued with “Is Hannukah an American Festival?” and “Do Native Americans live in State College?”
Our family has had many discussions over the last two years, and my daughter has a better understanding of the complexity of our origins and our world.
Our dialogue on who an American is, was put to test recently.
A new friend walked up to my daughter in a park and said, “Where are you from?” I wondered what she would say. I heard her reply, “I am from here. I am an American.”
Then the other girl talked to her about a visit to England. And they both ran off to play.
So, a big thank you to all our schools that have the “Holiday Month,” or provide opportunities to discuss cultures from around the world. I am sure they have enriched discussions in many of our homes and taken us on some wonderful journeys, while building ethnic and cultural pride in all our children, and humanizing all of us.