Bindis and Buddhists: How my girls see the world.

When I first had Pea, I really wanted to move out of the city (i.e. New York City). I was lucky enough to be working for an extraordinary organization (PopTech) in their Brooklyn office but the company is originally based out of Camden, Maine. If you haven’t been to Camden you are missing out on possibly the most picturesque town in the United States if not the world, and that is only one of its many qualities.


I’d been there plenty of times but never with my eyes open to what it would be like to live there. After spending a little over a week with my husband, we both felt the town was, well…I guess at the risk of sounding un-P.C. I’d say it was simply too white for us. Having grown up in New York City, surrounded by every ethnicity under the sun, I felt odd not having more diversity around me. I was so fortunate to have grown up in somewhere where I was regularly exposed to most cultures under the sun and I wanted this for my daughter too. The decision broke my heart as I desperately desired to live in this wonderful, kind, smart, and creative community.

Fast forward a few years and a lingering economic crisis drove us to South East Asia. Our first stop was in Singapore, a city-state renown for its diversity with four official languages (Mandarin, Tamil, Malay and English) and three official ethnicities, discounting the large number of other immigrants bringing a whole host of cultures and languages to the country.

I’ll remember the first time Pea noticed a Bindi on a woman chatting with two Muslim friends wearing headscarves. Given the muslim population, Pea was used to the scarves but had never seen a bindi before. I was picking her up from her local nursery and she was quite tired and grumpy as we sat on the bus in traffic on the way home. The woman with the bindi not only offered her a sweetie (a way too common occurrence in Asia and it’s rude to refuse) but the whole pack. Pea, absolutely thrilled with her generosity, started paying close attention to her and turned to me to enquire about the red dot on her forehead. Taken off guard, I am not sure what I replied but I am guessing it was something along the lines of it is part of her culture or religion. I don’t know if I mentioned India. I think I didn’t which leads me to wonder if she posed the question to someone else as, a couple of weeks ago, she kept sticking these small little heart stickers on my forehead and saying: “ok Maman, now you are Indian.” And of course Bindis are increasingly common and are no longer restricted to Hinduism which leads me to my next point.

With young kids, it can be difficult to explain things, especially if you are a stickler for accuracy. Often, it can end up requiring too much information not to mention the awful realisation of how much I know or am even quite sure about. For example: when I started writing this article, I thought only Hindus used Bindis. I now know otherwise –I am including a couple of links here and here on the subject– but as a researcher and someone suffering from rigouritis, my toddler’s incessant stream of questions frequently comes close to making my head explode as I try to fully acquire all the necessary knowledge to answer. G-d I can’t wait until she can read and I can simply point her in the right direction.

I know I’ll have plenty of time and opportunities to add in layers of complexity and, to date, I haven’t specifically tried to knowingly expose Pea to different cultures since she is bathing in them all the time. Instead I find myself trying to reinforce her heritage cultures. I do look forward to being able to travel more to expose her and her sister first hand as well as continue to mine all the wonderful resources from other multicultural parent bloggers such as the ones taking part in this wonderful new monthly cultural blogging carnival which is due out on around the 10th at Vibrant Wanderings.

Personally, I am still getting to grips with all the different Asian cultures and holidays. We’ve been living in Thailand now for nearly a year and I still find it magical to pass the orange clad monks making the morning alms rounds as I cycle little Plum to her nursery.

Monk Alms via Flickr CC by Denis'Life

I also still long for certain types of diversity missing here. I’ve nearly got myself into some awkward situations as I couldn’t help but break out into a massive grin and stare at the few Black men I’ve encountered who thought I was flirting with them when really I was just so grateful to see someone neither White nor Asian.

Readers, please note that I stalk Latinos too, another rare sight where I am and am persuaded there is some Facebook group somewhere posting warnings about this crazy Farang (term used here to describe foreigners usually of European descent) lady following with eager eyes and a stupid grin plastered across her face.

And I must remember to check the mirror before I leave the house. I now understand why people were staring at me for our 30 minute walk through our neighborhood to the music/ballet school, market run and journey home. I wonder what they thought about my puffy rainbow heart bindi!

Night and Day, and the Alphabet

A new friend who is expecting her forth explained to me one of her rationals for having more than two kids. It goes something like this: If you just have two, it’s too easy to fall into categorizing your kids good/bad, generous/selfish, gregarious/quiet, etc. She claims that with three or more, it ends up being more of a merry-go-round in terms of who is acting up which leads to less labeling.

It’s an interesting concept and I loath to admit that I find myself doing exactly this. Among the dichotomies, they are divvied up as verbally gifted and the late-speaker. Some of you may have read my timeline post on the early days of P’s language emergence; it’s called: when self-doubt creeps in.  The title is quite the giveaway. There were times I wondered if she was ever going to speak. If felt like forever and this is due, I am sure in part, to the fact that her two best buddies were seriously early and prolific talkers. They were singing full songs before P could put two words together.

I spent a lot of time seesawing between believing–and explaining to everyone who raised an eyebrow–that some kids are just late talkers irrespective of the number of languages spoken at home, and entertaining the fact that maybe it was the three languages but that I should hold tight as she would eventually catch up.

I’d read that children in multilingual households were often a bit slower to speak with more limited vocabularies but they usually caught up and surpassed their little monolingual mates. Hurrah  By the age of 2-3….err wait my kid only has about 80 words and that’s including water in French, English, Spanish and ASL. If you cut it down to just meaning, she had about 20 words.  I’d also read that there was no difference in the development timelines and heard stories of children–actually my little cousin was one of these–who speak on time, well and in all of their languages. My best friend had often repeated that she knew a tri-lingual (Japanese, French & English) family whose first daughter had no speech issues while her little brother was an extremely late talker for whom they sought expert advice.

All this to say that from the time that C was 10 weeks old, I could already spot the difference. As a baby she vocalized a lot just as all those annoying parenting books said she would. P never did. She watched everything attentively but overall, she was, with the exception of crying, a very quiet baby. She was definitely a prolific smiler but laughter took forever to happen. For a while, I was worried that I was the least funny parent on the planet. All my ‘new-mothers’ group friends were posting cute YouTube videos of their babies chuckling and gurgling and all I could get at best was a gummy smile. Sometimes it was if she was laughing silently.

C did end up quieting down a bit and I figured I had another slow talker on my hands.  Her babbling was done rather quietly. Some first words came – the usual for babies these days: Mama, Papa, iPad, Milk but nothing out of the ordinary and not at an accelerated rate. These were said loudly and confidently but the rest of her babble was more of a mumble.

Then out of the blue, around 18 months, when she was using a handful of words and signs but not much else, she started speaking in sentences. And by sentences, I don’t mean

“Give milk me” or “me want biscuit”

but things like

“I want to sit there” and “no, I don’t want that”

The first couple of times I told my husband I was clearly hallucinating as I could have sworn that C was speaking in grammatically correct sentences. She was still in her barely audible phase so I was certain I was mishearing. But then in happened when he was there. And we both looked at each other and then I knew, it wasn’t just wishful thinking.

Claude also spoke more readily in the various languages though here I attribute this in part to me making a much bigger effort at sticking to French and that she started attending a bilingual French/English program, something we were not able to provide for P at the same age. She also had that vocab explosion most kids have where they repeat every single word or phrase they hear.

And at the age where P finally put “hi” and “mama” together, C was giving us full renditions of twinkle twinkle little star and her absolute favorite, the alphabet.

Everything in due course. Children develop at different speeds but they all get there eventually. C sang at 2, P didn’t sing til around 3.5. In this age of  league tables and measurements and researching everything to death, when we bathe in an environment rife with hyper-parenting, drowning in endless streams of activities there to amuse our children but more often to assuage our fear of not doing everything possible to give our children the best start in life, it is very difficult to take a laid back attitude and just let kids be kids. But it is critical for our kids wellbeing and more importantly perhaps our own that we take a step back, slow down and let them develop at their individual pace.

My girls were night and day when it came to their language development but now, I sit here, sweetly serenaded by the pair and realize I need not have worried so much.

This post was written for the October Bilingual Carnival, hosted this month by Bilingual Babes.