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Deputy global economics editor at the Wall Street Journal, S. Mitra Kalita, talks to South Asian Parent about raising children in different cultures. Kalita writes a column for WSJ India titled New Global Indian, and is past president of the South Asian Journalists Association.
SAP: You recently moved from the US to India for a two-year period. What were your motivations for moving?
Primarily, I got a great job opportunity and after watching a father who pursued opportunity, no matter the geography, it felt a right time. Personally, my husband and I both felt it would be wonderful for our daughter (Naya, 5) to develop her own ties and relationship to India. Our time there was wonderful because she got to know our families and learned the language. It also helped us answer that eternal question that vexes the kids of immigrants: Why did our parents leave?
SAP: How did your daughter react to the new city?
At first she wanted to go home to her friends. But then she started to find joy in the little moments of the day that make up India: morning banter with the dhobi (washerwoman), the monkey dances outside our window, the visits from family who love you even if they don’t know you. When we returned to the U.S., she was a wreck over saying goodbye to the maids, her dog and family (in that order!).
SAP: What were the positive aspects of your move?
Naya learned two languages and formed (hopefully) lifelong relationships with family, which are really a connection to herself. For me, I understood better why my parents made some of the decisions they made. My Hindi improved. I returned to the U.S. feeling invigorated, innovative and more awake and aware about globalization.
SAP: Is raising children in different cultures and lifestyles a sign of our time? Is it something parents should be more open to, if they are not?
Globalization has allowed us to be in many places at once. It also will be a reality of our children’s workplaces when they grow up so to keep children sheltered is a great disservice.
SAP: What would you say to parents who fear uprooting their children to a different place and/or culture? Is there an age window for moving a child to a new location?
I think it’s potentially harmful during high school but even then, my elder brother – who was moved—got into an Ivy League school just because his test scores and extracurriculars and grades showed his abilities well enough. I know it is so hard on kids to move but I really think it is a great way to show them other parts of the world and also to develop their curiosity, ability to adapt and even make them more outgoing.
SAP: How can parents adequately balance their children’s need for stability while still exposing them to different cultures?
Stability for us comes from home (meaning us) and some semblance of routine. I’m somewhat grateful, too, for parents who made exposure more important than a 7 p.m. bedtime. That’s not the answer for everyone but it’s worked for us. Also different cultures don’t mean different geographies. I have to be careful of presenting some warped version of the world as South Asian to Naya. Thankfully, my husband takes her to African music concerts and Latino museums at a pretty regular clip.
SAP: South Asian parents often hold their children to live up to certain cultural expectations. As families move around, how do, or should, these expectations change?
In our case, I don’t think the fundamentals have changed. While I’d love her to attend Harvard and be a doctor, in the grand scheme that doesn’t matter as much as my child’s health and happiness.
SAP: Your daughter has lived in Washington, New Delhi, and New York City—all within five years. How do you explain the concept of ‘home’ to her?
I have told her it’s wherever we are, wherever she feels comfortable and that it can be many places. She doesn’t seem confused anymore although if we move one more time, she might be!
SAP: What are some things you had to take into consideration before moving?
We wanted to make sure Naya would be safe and healthy, so we talked to the doctor about vaccinations. Somehow in her two years there, she rarely got sick. We were careful with water and unwashed vegetables. HOWEVER, we also slowly exposed her to the elements (filtered versus bottled water) and I will never forget the time we took her to the village wedding of a longtime domestic worker and she asked for third helpings of the dinner. It was hot, delicious food so I gladly obliged.
One thing I wish we had given more thought to was schools. She was just 2 when we moved and we had no idea Indians started jockeying for admissions quite so early. We didn’t see the point of moving to India to send her to the American school so we tried to navigate the very confusing, somewhat corrupt, exasperatingly crony-ish Indian system.
SAP: What were some of the challenges you faced when you were there?
I mentioned the school issue and I think that really was my single biggest frustration. I also had a very hard time with the reality of live-in household help. In the U.S., part of what keeps us engaged with our children and their daily needs (besides love) is that child care is so expensive. In India, it is possible to get a little lazy and have the maid handle those chores that induce whining, such as brushing teeth, bathing, even feeding. I grappled all the time with when to take over versus when to let them be.
SAP: You lived in various cities growing up. How did this affect you?
While I protested every move my parents made, I look back and am so grateful that they strived to make citizens of the world above everything else. Most immigrants’ kids go through an identity crisis between their parents’ homes and their adopted lands. By moving around so much—and living in Puerto Rico—we were exposed to the idea that identity could be a very fluid thing, that there were common traits of cultures, say, from Latin America to Asia.