I am an American woman married to a Chinese man. My husband was born and raised in China, moving here as an adult to pursue a graduate degree. While he is now a U.S. citizen, his entire family still lives in China and his ties to the country of his birth will always be strong.
When we got married and planned to have a family, I knew we would have cute kids. Other than establishing that we wanted our kids to grow up speaking Mandarin, I didn’t think too much about what it would be like to be the “cultural outsider” in my family. However, as our children grow and learn about their father’s culture of origin and spend time with their Chinese family, I realize how important it is for them to truly know and embrace the culture, not simply the language.
If your children have a heritage that is different from yours and you do not share the same culture as your kids, here are some things you can do to help support them in staying connected to their family culture.
1. Learn about the culture yourself.
When you take an interest in your kids’ culture, it encourages their interest as well. If you show that learning about the culture is worthwhile, they will follow suit and grow to love and value this aspect of their heritage. This will also set you up for long-term connections with your kids through things that have significance in their lives. My kids are young now and don’t fully understand that their mom and all their American family do not share their Chinese heritage, but I want them to always know that I love this part of who they are. I try to read at least one book each year about some aspect of Chinese history or culture. Growing in my knowledge of Chinese culture and history is one way I can show them that I value and respect their heritage.
2. Talk about it positively and enthusiastically.
Along with learning about the culture, it is important to engage with your kids about it in positive and enthusiastic ways. Every culture is to be celebrated, and I want my kids to be proud of their Chinese heritage. Obviously, there are aspects of Chinese history and culture that are sad and to be mourned, and my husband and I will try to be truthful with our kids about the regrettable events and policies that have brought harm to many people. However, we will be sure to share the rich history and stories of the persevering people with them that will give them love for their family and for the place many of them call home.
3. Nurture relationships with family members or others who share that culture.
While this may seem obvious, it is still an important part of connecting kids to their heritage and something that requires intentional effort. We have been blessed to spend extended time with some of our extended family members who live on the other side of the world over the years, but there are others who have not been able to visit us. Technology allows us to make face-to-face connections despite the distance, and our daughters still have growing relationships with family that connect them meaningfully to Chinese culture. Aside from our own family, we try to maintain relationships with others within the Chinese culture — Chinese families, stand-in grandparents, etc.
4. Celebrate cultural holidays and rituals.
Kids love celebrations, and this is a great way to connect them to their family culture. It is especially made easy when those celebrations are easily accessible in your community. Fortunately for our family, there is a large Chinese population in the U.S. and it is not hard to find ways to celebrate major Chinese holidays like Spring Festival. Books and YouTube are also great resources for learning about customs and celebrations that can make kids feel a part of something special and proud of their heritage.
5. Encourage their language acquisition.
While culture encompasses much more than just language, language is such an important way to connect with a culture and with those who live in it. Fluency does not even have to be the goal; familiarity with a language will go so far in establishing a connection.
My husband and I agreed that we wanted our children to grow up speaking Mandarin, but I did not realize the work that would have to go into training them up in the language. I assumed because they were kids that they would just naturally absorb the language (they do) and speak it happily (that’s the challenging part). Because I do not speak Mandarin, my husband has borne the burden of teaching them. He has always spoken Mandarin to them and has been insistent that they respond to him likewise; he does not allow them to respond to him in English. I truly do admire and appreciate his commitment because it would certainly be easier to allow English into the conversation and move along.
We have had the benefit of extended family in our home to help with our kids’ Mandarin acquisition. Our daughters spoke only Mandarin with their grandparents during their months-long visit, and they spoke mostly Mandarin with their “big sister” during the years she lived with us. My husband reads some Chinese books with them, and we also allow them to watch Chinese cartoons most days. The cartoons have been one of their greatest teachers!
6. Encourage their taste in cuisine.
I genuinely enjoy Chinese food, but there are certain things I don’t think I will ever develop a taste for . . . pig ears, anyone? However, my kids have been eating these foods I deem undesirable since they can remember.
When we visited China this past fall, we took part in a banquet-style dinner hosted by my in-laws and attended by many of their closest friends. A lamb had been slaughtered for the occasion, and when we were seated for the meal, the plate with the lamb’s head on it was placed in front of me as a sign of honor. I was truly honored, but I still did not want to eat the face of the lamb. My five-year-old daughter, however, indulged and asked for seconds. I didn’t offend anyone by politely declining the juicy slices, but it would have been offensive if I had kept my kids from fully partaking in this rich feast and very cultural experience based on my own preferences. I [mostly] want my daughters to delight in their family’s cuisine.
7. Visit their family’s place of origin.
Traveling opens your mind and your heart in a unique way, and visiting a place that you have a connection to helps grow your understanding of and appreciation for your family. We took our kids to China for the first time this past fall for some family celebrations. Our kids had heard much about China from their father and they had spent a significant amount of time with their grandparents here in the United States, but being in China made such an impression on them. My oldest daughter turned five during our visit and may be the only one of our kids who truly remembers the experience, but even at a young age, I know our time there has deepened her love for her extended family and will help her understand so much more about her heritage. We will not be able to take trips like that on an annual basis, but we definitely will visit family throughout our kids’ childhoods. We look forward to seeing their love for China grow through these visits.
Even if this type of visit is not feasible for your family in the immediate future, it is a dream that can grow in a child’s heart and lead to wonderful adventures and a healthy perspective on their culture and on the world. Plant that seed of hope for future travels!
In our family, my husband will always be the primary source of Chinese history, language, and culture for our kids. However, I want to make sure that I am always doing my best to support his efforts to instill in them a love for Chinese culture and for their Chinese family. They may not embrace this knowledge as children or as teenagers, but one day they will realize the value of knowing the culture their father came from, which has shaped their own lives in such important ways.
If you are also trying to connect your kids to a culture different from your own, know that any effort you make is worthwhile and any cultural connection they have that helps them understand their heritage is meaningful.