A few nights ago, during dinner, my four year old son was trying to name the Lebanese dish we were eating. It involved pronunciations of Arabic letters he wasn’t used to saying – pronunciations he had tried to master several meals before – and he was desperate to master them.
When he finally uttered his ‘Kh‘ sound after several attempts – imperfect I should add – he was delighted, and although I myself was happy, I again felt a pang of guilt.
A guilt that comes from not being able to share my mother tongue more frequently with my children, who are growing up mixed race among members of my extended family who are more fluent in Arabic, and sometimes, more strongly connected to our Lebanese culture.
For the most part, I don’t need to worry. My children proudly identify as half Lebanese. My daughter, who is seven years old, recently produced an A3 size artwork in which she drew and described Lebanese dishes, Lebanese attractions she had read about in Lebanese books and Lebanese instruments.
And despite his young age, my son insisted that his new daycare center change its ‘About Me’ poster in the classroom describing him as Australian (my children have their father’s Anglo-Australian surname) to Australian-Lebanese, as he noticed that the Lebanese flag was missing from his poster but present on those of other children, who did not have a non-Lebanese parent.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if that’s enough. Speaking one’s language can be a fundamental part of cultural identity. For me, this is the biggest barrier between being Lebanese and actually feel it.
How can I be the bridge between my heritage and my children’s experience of it, if I feel like I’m failing in my own cultural identity? And how had I let this happen?
Once upon a time, my mastery of my mother tongue and my connection to Lebanese culture was strong. Culture was inherent in our way of life when I was growing up: we socialized with predominantly Lebanese families whose language, customs and values were similar to ours; and my parents sent us to a Lebanese school where we learned our mother tongue.
Speaking one’s language can be a fundamental part of cultural identity
My parents recognized, I think, that they were basically outnumbered: by our English-speaking friends, the music we listened to on the radio, every show we watched on television. Reaffirming our culture through language classes and our accidental exposure to Arabic language television programs that echoed through our home was their way of preserving what they could of our heritage.
Although my mastery of my mother tongue was never acquired when I was young, I now understand that it was a cultivated skill: supported by the enduring presence of my mother in my life because we were a working household. unique ; enhanced by the steady stream of visitors who spoke it in lively voices in our living room most nights of the week; reinforced by the use my parents made of it for us and for each other.
Passing this on to my own children has been infinitely more difficult: they are not exposed to the language when I chat with their father, and our work schedules leave us with very little opportunity to attend feast days or village with the wider Lebanese community (in truth, sitting down to a family meal is quite the feat). Even attempts at Arabic language classes have been thwarted by the pandemic, and they have yet to start again.
Now I understand how much my parents would have struggled, and what an achievement it is on their part that I can still speak and understand my language. Of course, acknowledging that means acknowledging my own failure to convey it.
I will direct my energy towards building a village away from my own village
As I write this, I am thinking about concrete strategies I could employ to increase my children’s accidental exposure to Arabic. Brainstorming shows that they might be able to watch on YouTube, using the dinner table as an opportunity to practice language skills so their father can learn alongside them (thereby encouraging their own learning), and perhaps be making more of an effort to speak Arabic with other Lebanese families when we socialize, even though it may raise eyebrows (and perhaps anger) from non-Arabic speakers.
It’s hard enough being a second generation migrant who feels connected to my culture while living, working and socializing in Australia. As much as I appreciate the diversity of my circles, it also means that it limits my children’s exposure to their heritage culture.
Although I know that this culture is also found in the fleeting moments of everyday life, I am now incredibly aware of the role that the community plays in the preservation of culture and more particularly of language. So I guess that means I’m going to direct my energy towards building a village away from my own village, knowing that it’s the love of our people and our commonalities that can sustain us.