My multicultural family

By Paola Matthews

Families are the new multicultural melting pots. About half the people out there have more ethnic roots than names and where do they all feel they belong?

Think about it. It could be two languages, maybe three (just how long does it take to say “I love you”?). Some like to shake hands and others like to give three kisses. They might celebrate Christmas on different days (although that could be a blessing and avoid the argument about whose parents they will spend Christmas with) or not at all.   Children at schools celebrate significant “other” days, like Chinese New Year, and St Patrick’s Day.

Let’s look at a typical melting pot: Me and my family.

I have lived in three continents, four countries, five cities and have had eight addresses. You would think I might be confused by now. I am.

I could land almost anywhere on the planet, and thanks to nondescript features and colouring, easily pass as a local. On the other hand, the only place I could lose my husband in a crowd - and have - is in Scotland. His sunset red hair is a wonderful beacon during the Christmas shopping season.

When I go to visit my parents, I am going “back home”. When I return: “It is good to be home.” If I go overseas, the minute I open my mouth people nod their heads knowingly: Australian huh! When I am in Australia, people ask: So what nationality are you? Never mind that I have been here nineteen years. The “twang” sets me apart. Nationality? I am Australian. Oh, you mean ancestry? That is not easy to answer either. There are at least three ethnic bloodlines running through my veins. My daughter – poor kid - has five.

She is blissfully ignorant of that fact (she can afford to be at three years old) and runs around pretending to speak Spanish when in reality she sounds like she is speaking Cantonese. She probably is; her best friend at preschool speaks it. A friend was horrified; don’t you speak to her in Spanish? She asked. Well, I try. Really, I do. But the only times I think of doing it is when I am telling her off and I do not think it is a good association.

She did learn some Spanish when we visited my parents last year. The drawback was that she happily mixed Spanish and English even halfway through a word. So in the end the only person who could understand her was me and even then it was touch and go for a while. There have been some permanent changes as a consequence. The Spanish word “popi”, for example, has now been officially adopted in our household as the word for bum.

The most illuminated will ask me: “Where were you born?”
I smile enigmatically: “Have a guess”.
“Hmm, Ireland?”
I shake my head.
“Eastern Europe?”
“Oh, I know,”
one says triumphantly, “South Africa.”
“All right, we give up. Tell us.”
Blank looks greet the statement. I sigh. “South America.”
“Ah yes, of course.”
They say happily, as if they had known all along.

Sometimes I think the confusion and mix ups are OK. I could make a home anywhere and languages are fun to learn. Once you are fluent in a couple of languages you can usually order the right meals in another two or three. I find humour in inconsistencies such as: “on a boat” but “in a car.” (The mind boggles with the image of “in a chair”.) But I have got into trouble by mixing the “ch” and “sh” sounds up.

I think my daughter will also benefit. She will see differences as “just the way it is” and she will be aware that she also has an accent: Australian.

Other times I feel lost as if I need to claim some kinship that eludes me. It is easy to get caught up in the fantasy of yesteryear and dream of childhood favourite foods, only to find them no longer to my taste. And what about those charming Latin traits, like being so laid back (late for appointments) and friendly (nosy), that grate on my nerves after a while.

To add insult to injury, my true blue husband can turn out Chilean delicacies far better than I can.

During the Olympics I cheered every time Australia scored a goal and even had tears in my eyes when Cathy Freeman crossed the line. I also boasted at work when Chile won the bronze medal for soccer.

I am a child of humanity, I tell myself. A reminder that there need not be boundaries, that tolerance comes from understanding and that you can have kinship with all.

Oops! I’d better go. I’ve got to get those pies out of the oven… or is it empanadas?