Reviewed by Katrina Grigg-Saito Not every parent faces the questions of what language to speak at home or in which hemisphere to raise children. Not every parent is faced with sorting through the morals, rules and customs of disparate cultures, and not every parent feels growing pains with their children, as both adjust and discover their changing cultural identities.
The mothers in “Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering” offer personal essays that grapple with these challenges.
Editor Suzanne Kamata begins by admitting in her introduction that she had no idea how to raise her children in Japan. This book is an attempt at a changing, developing answer, and she assembles a strong collection of mothers who can help.
The families described in this volume define “multicultural.” They live in New Delhi, Tokyo, Jerusalem while bouncing between the Philippines, South Africa, Japan; speaking Korean, Russian, Spanish, English; and writing in Persian, Hebrew and Japanese. Each essay is startlingly different, a jump into vividly colored worlds with new tastes and bewildering sets of rules.
Though the collection sets off to a slow start, by the third essay, Violeta Garcia-Mendoza’s “Two Names for Every Beautiful Thing” — a clear and vibrant piece — the book finds its pace. From the perspective of her own mixed heritage, Garcia-Mendoza expresses the joys of melding cultures and languages, and seems most capable of explaining to her three adopted children that they can be “from” many places simultaneously.
Leza Lowitz also adopts a child with fierce determination and is the first “okaasan,” or mother based in Japan. Her essay is a sensitive contemplation of motherhood as a spiritual path. She struggles to find a child she can adopt, and the heartbreak and longing inherent in that search brings her to the realization that, “after all, the root of the word sacrifice is sacred.”
The most successful of this collection of essays — like Garcia-Mendoza and Lowitz’s — are those that approach the interconnectedness of different worlds, rather than focus on “otherness.” The women who are tourists in a new country, without the support of a spouse from their chosen country, seem more unhinged by their experiences.
Watching her boy interact with his father’s Filipino family, Stacy M. Lewis, in “Ghost Stories,” sees that her child is “holding within him all possibilities.” Her descriptions are vivid: “The homes in the Philippines are physically porous, and the people, too, spill through the cracks and live their lives just as much around their homes as in them.” Her detail and show of curiosity both seem to come from a fierce love of her family and surroundings.
It is from this place of appreciation that Lewis appears able to offer an investigation that is clear and balanced. She doesn’t attempt to stop her children’s varying cultural experiences saying, “Who am I to monitor the ethnic content of these interactions . . . “
Anjali Enjeti-Sydow picks up where Lewis leaves off, addressing race more directly than the others have chosen to. She is concerned about her daughter who is lighter-skinned than her other children. She fears that being paler will mean that her daughter “won’t feel as connected to her brown ethnic background because she doesn’t look the part . . . or that she’ll feel silly wearing Indian bangles or salwar kameez on her white skin.” And she worries that her daughter will be seen as an “ethnic fake.”
The concerns and fears within these essays may be those of any parent — that a child will not be accepted or happy in his or her own skin. But as a collection, these essays build on each other, with mothers picking up where others leave off, continuing a conversation that connects the experiences described in this book. Kamata offers beautiful and sometimes treacherous maps of the territory that multicultural parents face. They are maps that such families need, and it is up to the reader to continue the conversation.
Let’s hope that Kamata produces a companion collection, “Adventures in Multicultural Fathering.”