Our preschooler waves a hand-size U.S. flag to amuse our baby as I change a diaper. To the flag-waver, this flag means Mommy’s birthplace and the country where Grandma and Grandpa live, and the nation on one of her passports, but not her native land. It hits me that one day, she may view the Stars and Stripes a bit like I view the flag of Sweden — as the flag of some of my maternal ancestors, the emblem of a nation that is part of me yet not my home. I will, however, always associate Christmas with a custard-like Swedish dessert, slightly Americanized, whose name our four-year-old chanted all this month:
My daughters will grow up with plenty of American words and ways, and Americana, dessert recipes and otherwise. Today, on Kansas’ 151st birthday, they will both receive Kansas “Forever” stamps — depictions of a farmer’s windmill, like my grandparents had, superimposed on wind turbines. We will use these stamps forever.
And the girls may well live in America someday, due to either my husband’s or my work or matriculating for college. I can already imagine them moving into dorms and registering to vote, emailing me to ask why Americans elect insurance commissioners.
And yet, they were born and reside in Thailand, and have a Japanese father, and live surrounded by expats of many nationalities. Their days are lived under many flags.
Fortunately, here they are not alone in this. We attend “parade of nations” events at the international school where, if one looks closely, one sees many children with multiple affiliations: kids holding U.S. flags while dressed in clothing of Africa or Asia; students walking in different national groups in different years. I saw one youngster tape a second national flag to the pole of his assigned one, eager to show his identity more completely than regulations allowed.
Children here also enjoy many experiences where nationality disappears. Preschool, Sunday school, and playgroup require no passports. At a recent Little Gym class, my Japanese and American daughter and a New Zealand boy and a Vietnamese/American and Australian girl all bounced on a massive air mattress singing “One Little, Two Little, Three Little Fingers,” comically fumbling to display the right number of digits while whizzing through space, and in that moment they were only three kids having fun.
This joyful moving-beyond-flags state is one we aim for in our family too, though we carry our multiple backgrounds with us. My husband’s and my contrasting national heritages, in particular, require attention and adjustments: I ask him to eat oatmeal or breakfast cereal rather than rice on weekend mornings, American-style. He asks me to avoid writing people’s names in red ink and whistling after dark, respecting two Japanese etiquette norms. More labor-intensive and sensitive is our ongoing negotiation of how to treat each other as husband and wife, having grown up in two very different paradigms for gender and marriage.
Unlike the U.S., Japan did not have a civil rights movement that — to quote Kathleen Norris — got women to wear sensible shoes. Accustomed to a privileged position, the father in one of our Japanese chapter books addresses his wife in entitled tones. I told my husband before marriage that I could not abide one member of the family being above the rest. If he ever follows a brusque-husband script I make notes to discuss it: instead of saying action x is not good, could you suggest trying action y? Instead of saying you dislike phrase a, could you please request phrase b? He, in turn, must often remind me that action x or phrase a was in poor judgment and merits an apology.
Quite possibly, it is my American heritage that makes me notice male bluntness and his Japanese heritage that prompts it; and his background that requires apologizing (Japanese news regularly shows press conferences of apology), while my background discourages it (“apologies are for the weak,” “love means never having to say you’re sorry”). As we remember to go over these points, in order to avoid denying our differences, it’s important to keep our flags in mind.
Yet at the stage of addressing differences, it is less than helpful to refer to nation of origin. Like other labels, nationality can be a crutch or excuse: I have never done that because I’m Japanese. I get to do this because I’m American. Our daughters are both, and they need to see not dueling flags, but unity. To give them that, my husband explores new toppings for his oatmeal and listens to my notes, and I jot down our to-contact lists in blue or black ink and knock off the post-nightfall whistling.
When doing all this, it helps to remember that the flags that distinguish us are flags we chose. My husband married me on U.S. soil on July Fourth weekend, so he knew my American-ness was part of the package. For me, his Japanese-ness was part of what I signed up for; I savored Japanese culture and language as if it were chocolate. Before getting engaged, I clearly recall picturing a handle-less cup of green tea brewed from leaves and thinking I needed a partner who could appreciate this. Find me a non-Japanese man in whom this tea drinker is combined with a band director, a sports nut, a cop show fan and an on-call origamist, and I will treat you to a generous serving of homemade ostakaka north of Bangkok.
When buying equipment to launder cloth diapers several years ago, my husband and I considered both the Japanese setup of cold-water wash, line dry, and the American norm of hot-water wash, tumble dry; and chose a middle route of hot water wash, line dry. When discussing this column, we felt this exemplified how we operate on our best days: acknowledge differences based on nation, then improvise to move beyond. Yes, we are Japanese, and American, and Swedish and Thai in a way. But above all we are a couple, and we and the girls form a family, and we will move forward, chanting the words we love and fluttering all the colorful flags we have handy.