I just watched a Ted Talk by Tan Le, a technologist who spoke about her immigration from Vietnam as a young child. She speaks of being on a boat disguised as a fishing vessel, of the adults keeping poison available for all of them to escape from the rape and torture of pirates if they were captured. She tells the harrowing tale of their escape, and the courage of her mother and grandmother, and by extension shows her own bravery, as they establish a new life in Australia. She speaks at the end about her desire for children. She says, “I wonder about the boat. Who could ever wish it on their own? Yet I am afraid of privilege, of ease, of entitlement. Can I give them a bow in their lives, dipping bravely into each wave? The unperturbed and steady beat of the engine? The vast horizon that guarantees nothing?” The confident assurance of her mother and grandmother that failure was not an option carried Tan through her childhood, through law school and international recognition, through greater achievements after that.
Now I turn my thoughts to my own children. We live in a strange paradox, our family. To the western observer, we have given up a life of privilege, cut our income to a tenth of what it once was, immersed ourselves in a foreign language and culture, different not only in appearances but also in its deep philosophical roots. We live in an apartment a fraction of the size of the house we left behind. We depend on public transportation after being a two-car family. We have to go to great lengths to make macaroni and cheese. But to our Chinese friends, we are the privileged class. We take taxis often. We have coffee at Starbucks occasionally. Our income is more than three times the local average. We make this expensive food called macaroni and cheese.
Our children are treated like rock stars when we go out, with their blond hair and big blue eyes. Everyone wants a picture with them. If we charged a small fee we would be millionaires. They are given candy without even batting a eye in our direction to ask for permission. My children have to be sternly reminded that they are not to ask for things from strangers because, no matter what it is, the stranger is likely to hand it over…an iPhone with a cool game, ice cream, the lot.
In this limbo land, I have decided to remove my son from public school. Though I’m fairly certain his sister will do well in the school, he has special needs that the school can’t address. The decision was difficult, because I have often felt I don’t have the patience or the organizational skills to home-school effectively. My husband and I struggled with how to address our son’s growing sense of isolation and frustration by hoping the problem would go away. It didn’t. By the end of last term, he had stopped doing any kind of work in class, and he was, without a doubt the loneliest child I knew. His self-talk was (and still is) very negative and even frightening, with occasional suicidal statements. This is terrifying to hear from an eight-year-old. Sometimes, he had upswings that would give us hope. But those had recently all but gone the way of the dodo. Finally, I purchased an ebook that discussed how to home-school a child with his needs. The first section of the book records anecdotes from other parents who also decided to home-school their child. There was such a resonance. I realized that my fears and inadequacies are not enough to keep torturing this poor kid, and torture is what his school had become – a mixture of bullying, and being alternately ignored and belittled by a teacher who doesn’t understand him.
So he is now at home with me every morning. And we are trying to figure out this homeschooling business. We’ve hired a tutor to continue his Chinese studies in language and math, plus provide child care during the afternoons while I work. So far so good. This is day two.
I keep coming back to that image of Tan Le on the boat. She went the other way, from the East to the West, from a difficult life to a life of increasing ease. And she fears privilege, ease and entitlement. Are our children benefiting from our challenges? Who knows? They speak fluent Chinese, and will be fully literate in the language much sooner than I will be. Does that increase their ease? They will grow up as third culture kids, and that brings its own challenges and blessings.
This world is changing so quickly. One thing I am certain of is that China has an important place in the future of our planet. Our children’s bilingual/multiculturalism will probably benefit them. But it is a vast horizon, and there are no guarantees. I have friends whose children, though they grew up in China, have rejected their language and experience here as useless. How can I help my children avoid that rejection?
That boat. I keep wondering about that boat, too. “Can I give them a bow in their lives, dipping bravely into each wave? The unperturbed and steady beat of the engine? The vast horizon that guarantees nothing?” This is such powerful image. It implies something under the surface, invisible and guiding, moving into an unknown future, driven by a profound purpose. Maybe the best I can do is provide a consistent message to my children about the purpose of life, and then provide them with skills to follow their own path of service. That’s really what this blog is about. As an exploration of purpose, it is a constant reminder that I am here to be of service to the world. My immediate concern is the part of the world that is closest at hand: my family. Let’s hope I don’t sink that boat.
How do you help ensure that your children don’t become accustomed to privilege and ease? How do you cultivate gratitude in your children? Or perseverance in the face of difficulty? What’s your perspective on these issues?