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Intercultural Family Values

It is generally taken for granted that parents and children resemble each other, and that, provided they stay together, they speak the same language and are of the same culture. Parents instinctively feel joy in hearing children start to speak their language. Also because beauty is rather arbitrary, parents are liable to find their own children more beautiful than other children, partly because their features resemble their own and those of their chosen spouse.

But the situation is very different when a father of a different race raises children with a Japanese wife, and they seldom travel abroad. This has been my experience, and it may be thought-provoking for others considering adventures away from the familiar monoculturalism.

Incidentally, the people of Japan have recently been confronted with the reality of abductees returning from North Korea and no longer having the same way of thinking as their parents, siblings and friends. Like it or not, they have become intercultural families for the time being.

In my case as a voluntary expatriate to Japan, there is friction but also much amusement and many lessons to draw about language and culture. Nothing seems to ever fit smoothly or as one would expect. An overjoyed academic who finally has children is called 'oya baka' (parent-crazy) and 'norokeru' (speaking fondly of one's beloved in a culture where it is taboo to praise oneself or anyone in one's own group).

Japanese spouses have generally had to have the same surname, except when marrying a foreigner, so my wife maintains her maiden name. Japanese do not have middle names, but our boys do, so the mailbox reads Steve McCarty, Chisato Ishikawa, Kiley Alan and Nikki Sean. The mailman asked if we were related. In East Asia the surname comes first, so our younger son has called himself Ishikawa Nikki Sean McCarty.

There have also been many amusing incidents about our appearance. Nikki has light brown hair like me, so some people have not suspected that Chisato was his mother when seeing only the two of them. Kiley looks less like me, and with the psychology mentioned above, I imagine that he has taken all the worst features from her side of the family. My wife perhaps correctly blames his absent-minded personality on me. If you would like to see them, a librarian at the University of Seville in Spain has posted our family photos from about five years ago at:

As in the above photo, as they approach 14 and 11, the boys are still happy as clams. One might think that the breadwinner's career would determine where the family lives, but in a culture where people are supposed to live for others, it would be selfish for the father to want everyone to move. So I accept more and more that they have a voice, and having a happy family is not so easy, especially when the children stand out as different. In contrast with my childhood of constantly moving around the U.S., I can only envy and support the stability my Japanese children have.

Again a similar phenomenon could be seen with the abductees from North Korea. While they seem to feel ambivalent about returning to Japan after 24 years spent with the fortunate few in Pyongyang, there is no linguistic or cultural reason why their own children would want to leave their roots and go to an unknown place. Japanese people should also look at their whole history before passing judgement on the abductees.

Moving on the language use of my sons, generally I speak to them in English and they answer in Japanese, which amuses people in supermarkets and everywhere we go. My wife does not speak English at all, which I accept as her right, so we are different from other Japanese-Western couples. Since I specialized in Japan in graduate school, I could speak Japanese to her from the beginning. Going abroad frequently or for long periods would activate the listening comprehension the boys have. Our not going abroad much is a combination of my wife's priorities and a genuine lack of the privileged background enjoyed by most academics. There is an elite bilingualism of choice, aided by wealth, which contrasts with the less successful folk bilingualism of immigrants and us folks.

Another relevant concept in bilingualism research is that of language shift. Even bilingualism supporters concede that ability in any language is in a volatile state that can change. The language use in immigrant families can change from their native language monolingualism to bilingualism in the second generation, and then monolingualism again in the third generation, this time speaking only the language of their adopted country.

For example, my grandparents moved from Italy to Boston and never were able to speak English, as there was an Italian-American community there. My mother had listening comprehension in Italian when she was young, but had little opportunity to speak it outside the home. Teachers encouraged her to go to college and become an English teacher, so the bilingual home was not particularly an obstacle. But when my mother finally made it to Italy in her old age, she could not even understand what people were saying. So within three generations there was language shift from Italian to English in the whole family.

But in my case, I moved to Japan after studying the language and culture in graduate school, so I am bilingual to some extent. I am also bicultural to an extent in that I can see some situations through both Japanese and Western eyes before forming my own judgement based on both viewpoints. Now my children have had very little chance to converse with English speakers. On two vacations to Hawaii they have immediately played with local kids. So their listening comprehension could be activated if they had more opportunity or necessity to speak English. But if not, by the time they have Japanese children, they could be in the same position as my mother was, and their children would have very little advantage in English in the home environment.

The volatility even of one's native language (and culture) has been demonstrated in Japan with the first visit by abductees who were isolated in North Korea for half their lives. Some were losing their native Japanese fluency, and friends wondered on vernacular TV whether their old friends had crossed over culturally as well. Yet the abductees denied that they had been brainwashed. This could be an opportunity to ask what it means to be Japanese. Rather than blood or superstitions, the answer has to be first the environment.

In the home environment, the values of the parents determine how the children are raised, how resources are allocated, and so forth. My wife and I agreed that our children's happiness was the most important thing. We also try to act on our values to encourage the boys to think, rather than losing themselves in every fad marketed to a culture that spoils children, at best so long as they just study. We do not know if it is right not to push the kids with English and computers, despite their value for the future. But we do know that the kids are happy.

Not having anywhere to stay for free abroad, we have focused resources on the home front without pushing the kids to an unnatural use of English and computers. They started using computers independently as early as age three, with Japanese and English CD-ROMs since 1995. Then my wife was one of the first among her acquaintances to start using the Internet. Recently she upgraded to broadband, and all four of us clamor to use her computer.

Nikki has voluntarily used the Benesse Corporation's BE-GO for Juniors to improve his English from age 9-10 so far. Kiley's English has improved remarkably since he started junior high school the year before last. His studying style at home is significantly different from most Japanese kids. Besides being able to activate much that he had heard, he has tended to naturally practice his homework while speaking the sentences aloud. This practice is much recommended by experts, but he does it spontaneously. It is because he can hear the sounds in his mind as he reads, and English is a sound-based language. To study English the way Japanese children memorize _kanji_ (Chinese characters) by sight turns English into an impenetrable code. The living language as a means of communication is in the sound structure of English.

So on top of a very alterable environment and inborn tendencies that resist change, the parents' values, everyday decisions, and regular behaviors form the model to which children respond in their own way. An intercultural family makes the dynamics more complex, but a positively wider outlook for the children has been demonstrated repeatedly by bilingualism research worldwide.

***** For further reading, here are some articles on current events:
"The Taliban's Twin Towers" (New York University, October 2002)

"Another Against the Other: Terrorism through Japanese Lenses" (January 2002)

"Japanese Perceptions and Reactions to Terrorism: Q & A" (July 2002)

Online Library: Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection
In English:
In Japanese:
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