Tuesday, December 22, 2015

words are hard

Words are hard… as is life, I realize. I feel as though my family is constantly battling language. Which English words to describe what we do, which Bemba words to make all of life work. Which mixture of both languages to do justice to who and where we are.

The language thing has been a near constant clash for Bronwyn. We messed up. We did. I see it clear as day now that we never should have allowed her to be out of Bemba land for as long as we did and now we're fighting scrappy to make up for it. As playful and outgoing as our girl is, these past few months have given her a run for her money and homegirl is struggin'.

We almost could have missed the boat on this one since she’s rarely alone. But then she started to get really clingy and whiney and regressing in ways that made is tune in and take note. Something was not right, and it took a week or so of watching closely to figure out that it's Bemba that is kicking her butt. 

The child is savvy, I'll give her that. She's done well at seeking out "safe" people and "safe" places. She doesn't know that these are the people who have been there from her infancy, and while that beauty is lost on her, I ooze indebtedness for the handful who have always been there for her in her time of need. 

Timo is her loyal side-kick and these two do almost everything together. The thing is, Timo is both the quietest and the most agreeable kid on the planet. Bronwyn talks at him in English and he says virtually nothing in Bemba and for some strange reason they both love this arrangement and have the grandest of times together.

they are such a pair.
For the times when Timo’s not around, the good Lord has sent us Mulenga. This kid. Mulenga is not actually a real person, I’ve determined. He’s some form of soccer playing, galavanting, 12 year old boy-angel. Mulenga has spent years hanging around our family and he is welcome at our home at any time, and as such, we do end up sharing a lot of meals and life and whatnot together. He’s one of the few kids in the village who is genuinely entertained by Bronwyn despite her lack of Bemba and I love him to the moon and back for that. 

I mean, they are just the most lovable people together.
Because honestly, most kids are not angels. They are normal humans, and normal humans have a low threshold for doing hard things, and playing with a foreign kid who doesn’t look or sound like you is a hard thing in the book of most kiddos.

Nowhere has the humanity of short people reared its head more brazenly than at preschool. Preschool this past term was like crawling into the trenches of a social development war-zone. I made Bronwyn go, despite her blaring “I’m-not-ready-ness” because I desperately wanted to immerse her in something other than "mute Timo" and "way-too-kind Mulenga" land. For three months she went, and for three months minus the last few days (glory), she wailed (W A I L E D) at the beginning of every day. The chorus of "I want to go home" with snot faced accompaniment began about 200 yards from the classroom door as I begged her to pull it together so her friends wouldn't find her any more madcap than they already did. I peeled her off my leg as she howled for me to stay, and E.V.E.R.Y. DAY, teacher Timothy saved us all from our pitiful fate. 

Sweet man of mercy, Timothy was the reason why, after the daily wail sesh, Bronwyn would calm down and actually learn something. Her darling Zam/British accent and vocabulary (over which I swoon) is entirely credited to Timothy, as is her general preschool aptitude of numbers letters and such.  He made preschool a safe place for her even though it meant him squeezing his full grown adult rear into a pint-sized chair and sitting next to her almost every day.

Bronwyn has no idea how much precious history she has with this guy.
Bronwyn legit loves Ba Sah ("Ba" is like Mr. and as for "Sah," sound it out and you'll sound like my child). I’m clinging to the hope that now with one term under her belt, her re-entry in January will be a less dramatic.

big man, itty bitty chair.

I would like this picture framed and hanging in every room in my house. 
I know that the social-linguistic anxieties are probably going to linger a while. She has started asking, in advance, if "anyone who speaks English" will be there. When there are too many kids around, I can see her getting lost in the cacophony. At those times she’ll often come and say she’s tired and ask if she can play on her i-pad. Nah, girl. No way, I will not let you withdraw into a screen and become one of those super awkward MK’s who can’t hang because you only talk to digital people and not real ones. Instead I’ll join her in the play and become a part of the chatter and she suddenly looks less tired. I’m trying to coach her as best I can. I’ve started speaking Bemba in the home so that she hears more things in familiar context. I give her phrases to use and she has been receptive to the coaching.

The nostalgia I feel for the yester-years, those "pictures on the left," is often insufferable. For the days when my first-born felt comfortable in her own skin, when she trotted around the village like she had planted the very turf, when I feared she would never speak English for all the Bemba she was spouting.

We fell for the trick of babyhood and took it for granted how “easy” we had it those early days. But now that she's a small child instead of a small infant, the rule of the game have changed under my nose and I catch myself homesick for another era.

I guess I forgot how disorienting and alienating it was for me, back in the day, when I didn't know what anyone was saying. Now I can preach and translate and eavesdrop and all that jazz and my world feels so much more… controlled.

I don’t totally know how to help her take control of her own brain, to be honest. I mean, she is three so she’s kind of a cave-woman-child in any language but this world of third-culture-kidhood is particularly unsettling, I know.

Hard seasons are what send us to our knees in the best way possible. They remind us to give thanks in ALL circumstances. I look forward to the day when her Bemba surpasses mine and we can have a “remember-when…?” praise Jesus festival of wordy gratitude in all the languages. I'm fighting the urge to ask, "but what if she doesn't get it?" I don't think the answer to that is mine to know. For now, we forge ahead, blundering and babbling and hoping and praying and hugging because yes, words and life are hard, but God is good.  

Sunday, December 6, 2015

individualist parenting in a communal culture (how to raise hybrid children without forfeiting your soul… or your possessions)

I experience my fair share of discomfort in the realm communal living. Like when I can’t charge my phone because the power has been drained charging everyone else’s. Or when the toy room smells like pee from all the leaky butts that have sat in there on any given day. Or when I have to “odi?” (“knock, knock”) my own pit latrine to make sure its empty. Or when I have to reclaim my personal belongings that were “borrowed” off of my clothes line. Uh, yeah... It goes over real well. Kind of like using sand paper as a slip and slide, which is to say, sometimes, I feel the rub.

I love village life. I really do. But more often than I’d like to admit, my old life as a purebred individualist knocks heads with my present life in a collective culture. If I were living in the country of my roots, I’d probably be one of those people with a fence, or at least a hedge. I’d have spotless floors and breakable objects on display shelves. My neighbors and I would maintain a certain respectful distance, ringing doorbells and asking favors with courteous scarcity.

Here? No dice. Village life simply imposes a different ethic – neither more right, nor more wrong, but certainly different. What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours and you are there for me and I am there for you all the time… ALL. THE. TIME. Perhaps it’s the perpetual commonality that gets to me. No one action is particularly troublesome, but little things add up and I start day-dreaming about vacationing on a deserted island. By myself.

Don't be misled; Bana Nkandu has an American flag as her front door,
but there is otherwise nothing else "American" about this village
The real threat of discomfort and the irritation is not that I have to clean up after kids who are not my own, or say “yes” more times than I’d like… but that I start resenting doing so. Chagrin is the pill we ex-pats have learned to swallow whole… but too easily, too often, resentment presents itself as the symptom of an overdose. Resentment makes our brows furrow and our hearts harden. It pushes back instead of embracing fully. It tunes our mind into all things negative and refuses to see beauty and goodness. And the truth of the matter is, (because Jesus jukes are often true),  resentment isn’t exactly Christ-like.

I’ve had years to work through all of this, and both Jeremy and I have made some changes to the way we approach village life so as to protect our hearts from the this particular brand of disdain. We’ve set certain boundaries on our how we give, certain parameters on our time and the intensity of our relationships, and we’ve intentionally chosen, in advance, to “let go” of about a thousand little things. We still give ourselves a fair amount of cultural latitude when we recognize that familiar curling in our bellies when someone makes a request (which always sounds more like a demand), that we just aren’t willing to meet. No matter how “Bemba” we have become, we aren’t lying to ourselves and pretending that we aren’t still a little bit (a lot bit) American. For the sake of our emotional health, we’ve learned to accept that.

Motherhood, however, has introduced a new realm of potential conflict as I seek to balance the communal/individualist interactions not only for myself, but for my girls as well. Sweet and innocent souls, they are like blank slates and I so deeply want to see them written on with the beautiful poetry that is the blending of cultures. Particularly in Bronwyn, (as she’s the one who does more than eat, sleep and poop), I see communal characteristics in her that make me beam proud.

I love my mini-me and I'm crazy proud of her
She firmly believes that anyone should be able to eat the food out of our house. I preemptively make her two cups of chocolate milk even if she’s still the only one in the room. She’s constantly dragging kids into the house and shoving toys in their hands. She writes my shopping list, “Timo needs this, and Beauty needs that…” Bless her heart.

She’s so generous and sharing and kind, I’m so blessed by her… and yet, it stresses me out. I’m not oblivious to the downsides to all this too. For example, Leonie has ZERO hand-me-down board books because the neighbor kids have totally thrashed every single one. I just threw out a stack of fully colored-in coloring books that artistically filled by everyone in the village – except Bronwyn. Her markers have all been run dry and the cars are now all missing wheels and we will never know who took the round green apple from her shape-teaching picnic basket. I’ve had to remove the carpets I bought for the girls to sit on, exposing the cold, hard concrete because I can’t handle the constant pee smell any more. Any of the toys that made any kind of noise are either dead, busted or missing parts due to CONSTANT-INCESSANT-COMPULSIVE use.

When another irreplaceable item bites the dust, I can’t lie, I’m a little sad. Because Bronwyn is three, and therefore kind of flighty, she does move on quickly, despite her disappointment. But I’ve started to recognize the pattern of destruction and loss and I feel the need to protect her from that.

No offense to my neighbor kids – I clearly adore them, and they are not all destruct-o-bots. But this is what happens when 60 kids a day play with a set of toys which are new and unfamiliar; playing with them in ways that they would play with their nature-based, indestructible, renewable toys. In other words, they play long, and hard and without a real sense of care or preservation, because this is what they are used to. 

all village babies are nature babies, and its pretty hard to break nature
I suppose we could cut our girls off from all toys... but something inside of us as parents (and all the grandparents) take great joy in giving these things, and we want to teach them the love language of receiving and giving gifts. Therefore, for the girls’ sake, (and to be honest, probably a little of mine) we’ve set some boundaries specifically for our kids to protect from what we believe would otherwise breed resentment.

·      * I separate out the girls' new/special toys and keep them in their bedroom for a while before putting them into circulation.
·      * I limit the number of kids that are allowed into the toy room at a given time. (That number is upwards of 20, but it’s a limit nonetheless.)
·      * I only give the renewable food items (Zam-bought) to the kids as snacks.
·      * I’ve kept the front room of our house (the kid room) simple and as durable as possible.
·      * I help Bronwyn in particular weigh the consequences of certain "communal" choices, and let her make the decision.

I don’t want to discourage the girls from sharing. I don’t want them to be suspicious of their friends as ‘kids who break things’. I don’t want them to be stingy or closed-handed or selfish or greedy; these are the characteristics of staunch-individualism that Jeremy and I have worked hard to shed from our own character, and we want better for our kids.

At the same time, I feel a sense of loss when the book gets ripped in half before it was ever read, when the gift from Grandma was enjoyed for a mere day before going hoarse with overuse, when certain little things leave the house and disappear into the void that is THE BUSH.

aww, little B; and yep, that lift the flap book has no flaps... or front cover...
I’ve waded through miles and miles of mucky guilt over this particular parenting ethic. I know full well that separation in any form creates a differentiation, and differentiation creates relational distance. In other words, by encouraging her to set boundaries with her friends, to not share all the things, all the time, I’m telling her to be different in a way that will remove her from the inner circle  at least a little bit.

My heart is wringing itself even as I share this because I hate that sentiment so very much. I don’t want to separate her – I want to immerse her, and it breaks me that it can’t just be easy to give her all the conflicting things in life.

G&G put a lot of love into this and I want it to last
However, in nine years of hard mistakes, I’ve learned that resentment comes easy when you feel like people just love you for your stuff – when you feel used and taken advantage of. In the fuzzy way that is the mash up of two cultures, my parenting wish is to help the girls create healthy boundaries that will help them love their friends more, neutralizing the breeding ground of bitterness and irritation.

playground = neutral ground. play hard, play long, play free. (also, Bronwyn is a goof)
We’ve known missionary families who have left the country because their children could not handle the relational dynamic of being the kids who were loved just for their toys. Their stuff got busted, and their trust did too – something I don’t want for my girls and our family.

Today is Saint Nick's Day, the day we do "Christmas" presents as a family, and the “stuff” question is on our minds once again. We are navigating the waters the best we know how.

The best we know how.

I should needle point that on a pillow for Bronwyn to sleep on, and maybe she’ll grow up knowing how hard we’ve tried to help her love others, share openly, and care for herself well.

Happy St. Nick's Day! 
What about you? Do you struggle with individualism in your own culture/community?