Nebraska/askarbeN

This summer we spent 5 days in Nebraska. I’ve apparently been in Nebraska before, as Eric insists that we drove through and even stayed in the state on our drive out from Michigan, but I have no memory of it.

One of our friends, Chris, grew up in Nebraska and his mother lives on 5 acres out somewhere in the middle. His family goes every year to visit and also for his boys to run around in the woods and creek and make things out of found objects, like time from summers past.  So different from city summers which are spent, for us, with pools and parks and the occasional camp.  We don’t have sheets of corrugated aluminum and bricks lying around our woodshed for kids to create forts out of.

So we piled into our minivan and headed East.  My two kids, his two kids, Eric, Chris, and myself.  Chris’ wife was off on a retreat and couldn’t join us. I’ve driven across areas of the Midwest before, once when crossing the continent to go from San Diego to Michigan, and once again when we drove from Michigan to Denver ten years ago. I’d just returned from a month in Ecuador and had missed the last 10 or so episodes of “24,” and a friend had taped them for me.  Every night when we decamped to a hotel, I’d pull out the VCR and watch a few episodes. I can get a little obsessed like that.

The most amazing thing about driving across the midwest to me has and still is the big sky. No buildings, no mountains, just sky as far as you can see in a 180 degree horizon. For miles and miles and miles. And grasses, and some trees, and then more of those.  I don’t know how the early pioneers didn’t get bored at some time.  Maybe that’s why so many of them stopped in Kansas or Nebraska when they headed out.  It was like, enough is enough.

big sky nebraska

big sky nebraska

We arrived in Franklin, Nebraska in the evening, and the kids immediatlely set out to finding random things in the yard and shed and began trying to make a tractor out of them.  At some point we heard a loud clanging and figured we should remove the large hammers from the play space, but otherwise let them play unhindered.

running girl

running girl

The next day we headed out to Red Cloud, Nebraska, to visit some of Chris’ other relatives.  His aunt used to be a teacher in a one-room school house and several years ago, her husband bought her an old one as a present and she had it refurbished and now gives tours.

one room schoolhouse

one room schoolhouse

Her first order of action was to gather all the kids around the flagpole and ask them, “Do you know the Pledge of Alllegiance?” in a tone that one would use to ask something like, “Do you know how to walk?”  All four children looked at her blankly. “Don’t you say it before class?” she tried again.  Crickets. Utterly horrified at the state of education these days, she instructed the kids to put their hands over their hearts (which also wasn’t really done that successfuly) and led them in the chant.

pledge

pledge

The siding is original and you can see the signatures and other writing on the  wall from times past.  I love seeing things like this when people try to say that kids used to be much better behaved-I mean, it’s just another version of graffiti, right?

IMGP4866

Inside was the communal cups and washbasin (aka dysentery transmission module) and then the little classroom itself. It was remarkable to see something completely from another era and get a piece of life back then.

washbasin & cups for washing and drinking

washbasin & cups for washing and drinking

Are you ready to recite?

Are you ready to recite?

We then went to the town center of Red Cloud  and did a tour given by the Willa Cather historical society, as it was her home and many of the characters in her books were based on real people and houses.  In preparation for the trip I had just read “My Antonia” and it was unbelievable to see places and houses that she described in the book.

We visited the old bank

door handle of bank

door handle of bank

inspection notices from the safe

inspection notices from the safe

and then her home. Eric commented that it’s a weird sort of hagiography to preserve living residences for people like authors, instead of knowing them through their work. I disagree-I think that seeing where someone lived and understanding their enviroment gives you a different perspective on their works, and helps you to picture who they were, where they came from, and what was happening in the books.

The day before and after this we actually just spent wandering around creeks and railroads and campfires and getting good and muddy, at least for the kids.

IMG_3165

IMG_3192

backyard campfire

backyard campfire

Saturday we headed for Omaha, given that the real reason that Eric was even excited about this trip was to see the Flaming Lips in Omaha. Something I’ve been thinking about ever since this trip is the experience of being brown in rural America.  These were small, small towns we were in.  Everyone knows everyone and if aren’t from there, regardless of skin color, people stare at you, as even Eric can attest to.  Somehow, though, it felt different for me-more aggressive, unfriendly, and unwelcoming.  (This excludes, of course, all the people in Chris’ family who we met who were just lovely, wonderful people. I’m just talking about walking around.) In Denver, especially near where we live, I’m pretty used to going to restaurants and being the only non-white people there. Something I didn’t appreciate before this trip, though, is that Denver is cosmopolitan enough that I’m not unusual, or at least no one seems to stare at me. It was so uncomfortable in small town Nebraska to just be walking around. Maybe I’m making this up, but I don’t think so.

The other thing that struck me was the food. Whenever we ate at home the food was delicious-Chris’ mom is a wonderful cook and eats very healthy and largely vegetarian, which was great. Anytime we went out though, the options were entirely cheese/fried/meat. Even the salads all had meat or cheese dripping on top of them.  The healthiest place we could find to eat out was Subway. When we finally got near Omaha, we found a little Vietnamese place that was utterly delicious and fresh and wow! a green vegetable. How can people eat healthy if there isn’t any way to do so?

At any rate, I never thought I’d be saying this, but it was a relief to get to Omaha and not feel like we were in a small town anymore. There is a weird inclusivity in being ignored, or at least not feeling like you’re an exotic zoo creature. We stayed with Chris’ cousin, Travis and his family, who were all wonderful people. I hope we get to spend time with them all again!

That night we went to the Maha festival at the Askarben amphitheatre.  “What is ‘Askarben’?” asked Eric at one point.  It’s written on everything, much the way that everything here is named, “Mile High” something or other. Travis looked at us and said, “Well, it’s ‘Nebraska’ spelled backwards!” and then started laughing at the ridiculousness of it.  I mean, really? Let’s not make this a nationwide trend.

The festival was great! I’m usually not a music festival type of person, but this was awesome. It’s not commercial at all, it’s entirely run by volunteers, they had tons of community involvement and other tents and such with displays. First up was Bob Mould, who Eric was excited to see as he knew Husker Dü, who I don’t know at all. Then he started playing all these songs I knew by Sugar! Took me back to the early 90s and listening to “Helpless” over and over again in my dorm room my freshman year at college. Then came Matt and Kim who played very little actual music but were so entertaining and fun that I was smiling the entire time.

IMG_3265

matt & kim

Last, but most for Eric, was the Flaming Lips, who did their usual megalomaniac Flaming Lips show. Eric insists that plebians like myself “Just don’t get them,” and dear readers, I have to say that I’m fine with that. Just fine.

lips, doing their lippy thing

lips, doing their lippy thing

The next day was a long 7 hours home, listening to books in the car, playing games, giving into ipads, and finally getting back to Denver, where we were all happy to be home.

Playground blues

At the park today, I’m pushing the girl on the swing.  My boy was off on the play structure.  The nanny pushing the boy in the swing next to us looked at me and asked in a friendly voice, “Where are you from?”

I almost immediately knew where this conversation was leading, but thought I’d wait just to be sure.

“India,” I reply, giving the untrue answer for which most people are looking. “Where are you from?”

“Ethiopia. Oh, Asia? Are you a student here or something?”

“No, I usually work but I have the week off, so I’m hanging out with the kids during the day.”

“Oh, it’s just that I don’t see many Indian babysitters around here.”

“Oh, I’m their mom,” I say with a smile, gesturing in the general direction of the play structure to indicate that there is another child of mine in the vicinity.

The woman looks at the blonde, light-skinned girl that I’m pushing in the swing and says, somewhat incredulously, “She’s your daughter?!”

“Yup!”

Truthfully, I’ve been expecting this and am quite surprised it hasn’t happened sooner.  I mean, look at us (pic from another day):

I know that nowadays families come in all sorts of mixed colors, but the general truth of darker-skinned nannies with lighter-skinned babies largely holds true at the Denver playgrounds, at least in my experience.  Should I have been offended? I wasn’t, really.  I have to admit to myself, though, that if the person who had mistaken me for a nanny had been a white woman, I would have been entirely offended.  I’m not saying that that’s right, but it would have been true.  The funny thing is, I make the exact same assumption that I don’t want people to make about me–that if I see a dark woman out with a pale baby, she must be a nanny.

This won’t be the last time this happens, I’m sure.

There was something else about the exchange that I found a little disturbing, to be honest.

I’m old enough to be slightly flattered that she thought I was a student.

What’s next? Lighting up at being carded?

Rain dance

The other night, sitting on the porch watching the floodgates of the sky open and pour down, crashing thunder punctuating the rain.

The boy’s eyes open wide and he exclaims, “Mommy! I know who’s sending us all this rain!! It’s Indra!”

I reply, “No, I think he’s the sun god.”

“No, he’s the thunder god! I know he is!!”

I pull out my trusty reference guide, The Little Book of Hindu Deities, and dammit if the kid isn’t right.

Often, when he is upset or has been in a screaming match with me and gets sent to his room, I will go up a few minutes later and find him surrounded by his books on Ganesh, Hanuman, and the Ramayana.  He calls these his “God books.”

“Mommy,” he says, “I’m going to ask Ganesh to help me calm my body.”

Wouldn’t you know, it works.

The kid’s a better Hindu than I’ll ever be.

Aftermath

Thanks to all who left such insightful comments, and those whom I spoke to in person.  We spoke to the teacher’s aide, whose face just dropped when we mentioned what the boy had said.  She told us the incident was over a month ago, but had happened basically the way that the boy related to us.  She had overheard them, and immediately talked to B about how different people have different skin colors but are all the same.  She then talked to the boy, too, and all seemed to be well until the other day.

I felt strongly, as did most people that both Eric and I spoke with, that we should talk to B’s parents and let them know what had transpired.

Eric caught up with B’s father as they were leaving school, and here’s how the conversation went, after pleasantries exchanged:

Eric: “A while ago B said something that really hurt the boy, and I wanted to let you know about it”

B’s dad: “Oh, what was it?”

Eric: “Well, he said he didn’t like brown skin, and it really hurt the boy’s feelings.”

B’s dad: “Oh.  Well, I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”

And then walked off.

The next day, B’s mom walked right by Eric in the morning without making eye contact or saying a word.

I was dismayed by this seeming utter lack of concern and even questioning–I mean, if someone ever told me the boy did something like that, I’d at least want to ask more questions about it to know what had happened and express concern for the other kid.  I can’t say I was entirely surprised. Even before Eric spoke with B’s dad, though, I steeled myself because I know from experience that when you approach people for conversations like this, the response you get is NEVER satisfying.  It was important for them to know, but I can’t control what they do afterwards. Who knows, maybe they’re working on some elaborate apology card for the boy at home, but I’m not saving any space on the mantel.

We also spoke to the teacher’s aide who overheard the conversation, and did say that we wanted to know if anything like that ever happens again.  We love her in general, but I do think she should have at least talked to the head teacher about what had happened–maybe they could have had some conversations in class, or songs, or something.  Now that I type that, I realize that I’m asking the teacher to teach something because I don’t think the parents are.  We ask a lot of our teachers, no?

In the end, I think this has been a good thing.  It’s made us more aware of the need to actively teach both our children about race and that despite living in what I perceive to be a fairly liberal, open-minded city that seems to have a lot of mixed couples, they will still have to deal with issues about their skin color.  Now that I think about it, it shouldn’t be that hard to talk about.  I mean, we talk about how there are all different kinds of families–two mommies, two daddies, adopted, etc., how women can do most anything that men do and vice versa, why not expand that to include talking about how people of different races can do anything, too?  It sounds sort of dumb to my ears to even say that as an adult, but maybe that’s what the kids need to be hearing.

I’ve got to think that it’s better than saying nothing at all.

Colorblindness

This morning, while brushing his teeth, the boy says, “Mommy, don’t I look white?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant–like, was he white from his toothpaste.  I asked him to clarify.

“My skin, it looks white, doesn’t it? Not brown.”

“Well, no, honey. It looks brown, and it will always look brown.” I said.

“You mean I’m never going to turn white?!” He cried, upset.

“No, you’re going to stay brown your whole life.” I was beginning to wonder where this was going.

“But, I want to be white! I don’t want to be brown anymore!!”

Oh boy.

“Why not, sweetheart? What makes you say that?” I asked.

“Because B—* told me he doesn’t like brown skin and that made me sad.”

Oy.

Eric walks over and says, “You are beautiful, inside and out.  You have a beautiful heart, and you are a wonderful person, no matter what color you are on the outside.”

I tell him that is true, and that sadly, he may always hear people say bad things about his skin.  “I think your skin is perfect, and I love it, and I would never want it to be any other color.”

This brings a big smile to his face, and we hug, and things seem to be fine again.

Po Bronson wrote a book recently called “Nurtureshock,” and while I haven’t read the entire book (and don’t know that I agree with everything in it based on what I’ve heard), the chapter about race is excerpted in Newsweek here.  In a nutshell, it says that the trend towards NOT talking about race at all or using phrases such as “everyone is equal” have the opposite effect, and do little to instill the colorblindness that they are intended to teach.  According to the studies cited, children as young as 6 months see racial differences, and certainly the 4 year olds in my son’s class do.

Still, what does it mean exactly to talk about race?  I’ve read the examples in the article, and understand those, but I have to think that there’s more than that.  It’s easy to talk about religious differences and say how people believe different things, but it’s not quite so easy to do that for race, is it?  I think the take home point is to make sure that you teach your kids that people DO look different, DO have different skin colors, but are all the same on the inside.

I’m not sure exactly what happened in the classroom.  The boy tells us that he told one of his teachers what happened, and we’re going to ask her about it tomorrow.  Depending on what she says we may or may not talk to B’s parents, but the truth is that the boy has an excellent memory and doesn’t make stuff like this up.  B’s parents are very nice people, and my guess is that they may fall into the category of people who simply don’t talk about race at all, and that it may not be something that they have to deal with much. I mean, I was recently called “the prettiest little colored girl she’d ever seen” by a VERY elderly patient, am asked on a regular basis “where I’m really from,” and have had people comment on how I “don’t have an accent at all”!  I’m quite certain that neither of B’s parents, both Caucasian, have ever had anything like that happen! Bronson mentions a statistic that most white parents don’t talk to their kids about race, and most non-white parents to.  He fails to mention that this is because if you are the majority race, you simply don’t have to deal with the same racial issues as someone of a minority race, and the questions are less likely to arise.

I think we handled it okay so far, but we’ll see how it goes with B’s parents.

And, on a side note, if there is a patron saint of parenting, could you PLEASE slow down on the difficult questions? What’s next? Where do babies really come from?

*name changed to protect the toddler.

Language Lessons

My parents were in town this past weekend for the girl’s birthday, and everyone had a great time. My mother outdid herself making delicious food for every meal that both kids gobbled up eagerly, and both grandparents enjoyed playing with the kids.

One of the things I do with my parents, often without knowing it, is slip into speaking Marathi. Once, at the lunch table, my parents and I were having some rather simple back and forth in Marathi (“Can you pass me the pickle?” “Here, take it”) and the boy started to hyperventilate in his dramatic way and wailed, “When am I going to learn that?”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“When am I going to learn to speak Indian?” he replied. “Aaji,” he said, turning to my mother, “Where did you learn to speak Indian?”

I had a twinge of guilt over not being better about teaching him any Marathi, but the truth is I’m not very good at it anymore after years of not practicing it, and was never fluent in the first place. And another truth is that, well, it simply isn’t that useful to know Marathi.

In a country with hundreds of beautiful melodic languages, Marathi is like the German of the Indian languages, in sound and in culture. It’s just rough. There is no common way to say, “Please” or “Thank you,” and no one would say it anyway. The typical greeting when you answer the phone is not “Hello,” or even the elegant “Moshi Moshi” of Japanese, but is instead, “Kon aye?” which means “Who is it?” I recently learned that there isn’t even a true word for the color brown–everyone just says “chocolatey.” This in a country where EVERYONE IS BROWN. How does that make any sense? (My father told me that there is technically a word for “brown,” but no one ever uses it.) Even the way to say “I love you” is somewhat convoluted and people just end up saying it in English.

We use Marathi when we wish to gossip about someone who is right in front of us without them knowing. This works poorly for two reasons. First of all, in accordance with the language, Marathi speakers are not typically subtle. This means that we will walk up to a grocery checkout line speaking in English, then see the lady with the crazy curly red hair wearing large polka dots in line, look her over, make eye contact, and then promptly switch to Marathi. When gossiping about how her hair and clothing makes her look like a clown, we will speak the word “clown” in English, which the woman will overhear and be able to deduce that we are talking about her, which makes the entire switch to Marathi completely pointless in the first place.

Now of course, Marathi is apparently the 17th most commonly spoken language with 70 million speakers worldwide (surprisingly, more than Italian)–I don’t mean to say that the language shouldn’t exist. After all, people still learn Latin and it’s not like you ever have a riveting chat about how the Nuggets are doing in Latin. But the sad fact is that my kids will probably find cause to speak Marathi about 20 times in their life. Even when my sister and I TRIED to speak Marathi with our cousins in India growing up, they generally mocked us for our poor grammar and we ended up just using English–in this lies the big problem, which is that most Marathi speakers we would interact with speak English just as well. Many first-generation Marathi kids speak less Marathi than I can and it’s doubtful that they would be able to speak to each other in Marathi without a great deal of effort. If kids that are raised by two native Marathi speakers don’t speak Marathi fluently, then there’s no hope for my kids at all.

From a cultural heritage perspective, it would be great if they spoke Marathi but the reality is they won’t. Of course, I could just focus on the more useful vocabulary and mild swear words that I know so that at least we could insult each other in Marathi when necessary. That would probably stick.

WWHD?

Last year, we bought a few children’s books of Hindu mythology. One of these was the story of Hanuman, a monkey who is the son of the wind God and has magical powers. He has the ability to fly, to grow and shrink as he wishes, and is incredibly strong. In the Ramayana, a Hindu epic, the evil demon Ravana steals Sita, the god Rama’s wife, and Hanuman helps to save her. To paraphrase heavily, he first flies over to the island (Sri Lanka) where Sita is being held captive, then purposefully gets captured. The demons set his tail on fire, so he grows his tail out as long as possible before dancing all over the island and setting it ablaze, then jumps back to Rama on the mainland. Later, when Rama’s army is in full battle with Ravana’s and there are many dead warriors on the field, he is told to fly to the Himalayas to bring back healing herbs. Unable to tell which are the right herbs, he simply lifts the entire mountain and brings it to the battlefield. As the wind wafts over the mountain, the scent revives the fallen warriors.

We recently bought a new illustrated book of the Ramayana, and the boy loves it, as do I. The pictures are stunning, and the text is witty and clear. It’s a joy to look at and to read, which we’ve been doing almost every night since we got it almost six weeks ago.

His favorite character, by far, is Hanuman. Whenever we get to Hanuman’s part in the story, he pumps both fists in the air and yells “Hanumaaaaan!” Once, right before he was going to fall asleep, he cocked his head and whispered to me, “You know what, Mommy? Hanuman is more powerful and braver than all the superheros!” After reading the Ramayana, he told Eric he wanted a mantra of his own, and Eric asked who his favorite person was in the story. Sometimes we’ll hear him softly chanting, “Hanuman, Hanuman” to himself, over and over. I couldn’t figure out his adoration at first, but then Eric pointed out that Hanuman is basically a monkey and a superhero, so what’s not for a four year old to love?

This is so cool to me that he loves the Hindu myths and is familiar with the gods and demons. Like I’ve mentioned before, we’re not religious but I think it’s great that the names and stories are familiar to him. After all, it’s all part of who he is and I want him to be connected to it. Honestly, I didn’t know the stories in such detail until we started reading them to him. More than cultural identity, though, I learned the other day that there are more immediate tangible benefits to his love of Hanuman.

A few nights ago, we received “Fantastic Mr. Fox” from Netflix, which the boy had seen in the theatre with Eric, but which I hadn’t. I asked if he could wait to watch it for a few minutes while I cleaned up the kitchen, and despite my polite exhortations, he refused and said he wanted to start the movie right away.

I went upstairs while Eric stayed down with him for a bit, and then I heard him yell up the stairs, “Mommy! I’ll wait to watch the movie with you!”

Eric came upstairs, and said, “Ok. Now, don’t laugh at this, but do you know how I got him to wait to watch the movie?”
“How?” I asked.
“Well, I sat down, and looked at him, and I said, ‘Now, what would Hanuman do in this situation?’ The boy said sheepishly, ‘He would wait for Mama.’ And then he thought for a few seconds, and yelled up the stairs that he had changed his mind.”

Not only did he wait for me to watch the movie, he came upstairs and helped me clean up the kitchen. He wrapped the leftover pizza in foil, wiped down all the countertops, the fridge, and the dishwasher, and then patiently waited for me to finish the dishes before we headed downstairs and watched the movie together.

If Hanuman can inspire my child to be a thoughtful, considerate person, I’m all for it. Moreover, that a phrase which has been reduced to a bumper sticker and is basically fodder for pop culture mockery (WWWCND, anyone?)–that this sentiment can still hold meaning is rather remarkable.  Maybe there’s some power in these old myths after all.