Every few years we’ll land in another country, visit people, have delicious meals, see sights and catch up with relatives and my husband and I will tell our kids: ‘This is half of who you are.’
Our kids will smile but then they’ll look a bit, well, blank.
Because, although they are indeed fifty percent something else, they don’t really feel it.
I’m British and my husband is Romanian. Our two children, therefore, are half British, half Romanian. We don’t visit my husband’s home city of Cluj Napoca (in Transylvania, home of Dracula) as often as we should.
But when we do, I always marvel at the beautiful architecture, part Austro-Hungarian, part gothic, the rugged unspoilt landscapes of Transylvania and generally wax lyrical about how lucky my children are to have two cultures they can draw from.
But there’s just one problem. Our children don’t speak the language. And because of this, they can’t converse properly with their relatives there. Nor can they ever feel truly culturally at home.
It’s our fault, of course.
I’d read studies about how bilingual children are smarter, have more opportunities in life and that speaking two languages can even help fend off dementia
My husband and I talked and talked before having our first child, Alex, now nine. ‘We’ll speak two languages all the time,’ we promised ourselves. ‘Our children will grow up bilingual.’
We were excited. It seemed so utopian, so forward-thinking. And we had it all worked out. I’d speak English, my husband Cornel would speak Romanian.
I’d read studies about how bilingual children are smarter, have more opportunities in life and that speaking two languages can even help fend off dementia. It followed that we’d naturally ensure our kids spoke both languages.
But did we do that?
Life got in the way. They don’t call it Mother Tongue for nothing.
When my son was young, my husband worked long hours as a musician so it was just me and Alex home alone. I’d speak English to him and, because his dad wasn’t around as much, Alex didn’t hear Romanian enough to pick it up.
It’s been the same with our daughter, Adriana, now four.
Both kids understand a lot of what my husband is saying to them in Romanian – well, the basics. They can count to around ten in Romanian and know some colours. They’ve got a few books and a few cartoons in the language.
They can’t converse long into the evening with their grandmother in Romania on Skype
But the linguistic ability ends there.
They can’t converse long into the evening with their grandmother in Romania on Skype.
They can’t chat away when we visit or laugh at jokes.
But that’s not the only thing.
When your children are half from somewhere but you live somewhere else, there’s always that nagging sense that that part of their culture is not being nurtured or fulfilled.
I sometimes guiltily search Google pages about Romanian culture, language, food.
I’ll get my husband to play Romanian songs on Youtube and try to hurriedly talk about and encapsulate what the country means in a few sentences as our kids stare at me, perplexed.
But we can’t of course. How can we? In order to really feel that half of themselves, they’d have to live there, to feel it, to breathe it in.
I’ve had other expat friends over the years who’ve said similar things.
True, some have been more studious at ensuring their children speak two languages. And so much of culture is found in language.
Sometimes Alex will say to me: ‘Mummy, sometimes I forget I’m half Romanian’
But many of my dual-culture family friends say the same thing – that when they visit the other country their children are half from they feel a bit adrift, cut off, lost.
Sometimes Alex will say to me: ‘Mummy, sometimes I forget I’m half Romanian.’
And then more guilt comes crashing around me. Should we visit more? Should we try speaking it in the house more? Should we find Romanian friends?
It doesn’t help that my husband Cornel is an Anglophile.
Far from blowing the trumpet of his home country, he loves everything British and would dress in a waistcoat, watch cricket and take tea every day at three pm if he could.
‘I love this country!’ he is wont to say, marvelling at our off-the-wall sense of humour, British eccentricity and – what he says is – our welcoming attitude to foreigners.
And, as his cooking extends only as far as making toast, our kids have never got used to Romanian cuisine, either.
Last time we visited Romania, Alex and Adriana’s grandmother worked for days preparing a selection of delicious local foods: sarmale – stuffed cabbage leaves, soups, stews, hearty meat dishes.
I want them to really soak it in and understand that this is half of who they are, half of what made them
Alex would eat none of it, politely declining and asking discreetly where we could find a roast dinner.
I wanted the ground to swallow me. But again, should we have introduced these foods at home? Was it my fault, allowing one ‘side’ of who he is – the British side – to blossom, while neglecting the other fifty percent – his Romanian side?
Later this year, we’re visiting Romania again.
And this time, we’ve made a promise. We’re going to practise speaking Romanian at home for a few weeks first, so our children can at least understand the basics of what their grandmother is saying to them.
And we’re going to try and get them used to the food so they can eat it and enjoy it without asking for chips or baked beans.
But more than that, I want my kids to start feeling at home there. I want them to really soak it in and understand that this is half of who they are, half of what made them and half of who they’ll always be.
Sometimes Cornel and I joke that one day both our kids will probably take gap years between college and university and that we won’t be surprised when they tell us where they want to jet off to for a few months.
Romania? I’d really like to think so.