The author's daughter aged four. (photo supplied)

Two parents, two cultures, two languages: raising an Asian-Pākehā under-five

Rebecca Inoue-Palmer writes about raising her daughter in a Japanese-Pākehā family, and why she and her husband are dedicated to maintaining their child’s link to her Asian heritage.

Two mornings a week, my daughter carries two bags to her Wellington primary school. One is a lightweight backpack, carrying her lunchbox, drink bottle and the usual stuff primary school kids carry around – pebbles and twigs, scrunched-up bits of paper and residual mandarin peel.

The other is a classic Japanese randoseru, an impressive, firm-sided pack bearing the weight of several text and exercise books (you might have seen one before – it became an international fashion item a couple of years back when actor Zooey Deschanel was seen wearing one).

On her double backpack days, she spends six hours in her liberal New Zealand classroom, and then wanders across the courtyard to her Japanese immersion school for a couple of extra hours.

My daughter is eight. She was one of 35,898 “Asian under-fives” counted in the 2013 census, a cohort studied for the Asia New Zealand Foundation report Starting Strong: Nurturing the potential of our Asian under-fives. Her picture is on page 24 – she’s the kid on the floor whose Pākehā mum had pushed her to spend five minutes practising her hiragana characters.

She’s also one of a rapidly growing number of New Zealand children who identify with more than one ethnicity. More than one in four babies born in 2016 had multiple ethnicities.

The photo used in the Asia New Zealand Foundation report Starting Strong: Nurturing the potential of our Asian under-fives, showing Rebecca’s daughter learning her Japanese kanji (photo supplied)

In many respects, her experience of growing up in New Zealand has been similar to mine. But there are distinctions – Skyping with the grandparents in Yokohama, trips to Japan, familiarity with cartoon characters like Anpanman and Doraemon, an appetite for red bean paste…

Starting Strong features interviews with early childhood educators and the parents of Asian children. Many of findings and comments resonate with our experience as a Japanese-Pākehā family. For instance, the report notes “the centrality of mothers in cultural transmission and maintenance”. In other words, the phrase “mother tongue” exists for a reason.

My daughter’s fluency in Japanese has been hampered by my own significant limitations in the language. We spend plenty of time socially with Japanese speakers, but English is dominant in our house. The year I spent at home with her, and the hours spent in part-time childcare in later years, have left her behind her peers with Japanese mothers.

My husband did his best to speak to her in Japanese in her early years, but she quickly developed a preference for English.

You might ask, why do we bother with Japanese, since we have no plans to live there? I want my daughter to be able to navigate a Japanese setting with ease, and to have the option of living, studying or working in or with Japan when she finishes school. I also want her to feel comfortable with her own identity.

My husband, meanwhile, is pretty relaxed about the language issue. “I want her to learn another language so she’ll have a chance to learn from other cultures, but it doesn’t have to be Japanese. As long as she’s interested in something from the Japanese culture — anime, sweets, toys — she’ll probably want to learn the language voluntarily.”

There’s no way early childhood providers or schools can teach all the “heritage” languages in their communities – and te reo should naturally take precedence. Indeed, most Asian parents interviewed for the Starting Strong report saw heritage languages as a parental responsibility.

But childcare centres and schools can (and do) help children to recognise the value of their heritage languages, to take pride in their cultures, and encourage curiosity and respect for others.

Rebecca and her daughter, with Totoro (photo supplied)

Unlike most Asian families in New Zealand, we’re extremely fortunate in our access to heritage language maintenance. My daughter’s public primary school is a five-minute drive from our house. It has a longstanding relationship with the Japanese immersion school and the two share the same school grounds.

Her primary school also offers Japanese learning to all its students, as part of a cluster receiving Asian Language Learning in Schools (ALLiS) funding from the Ministry of Education.

My daughter is one of the classroom “helpers” for these mainstream Japanese lessons, giving her the chance to share what she knows with non-Japanese peers. This has been a source of pride for her (particularly when she was asked to demonstrate the special features of her randoseru bag).

Her non-Japanese classmates benefit from that environment too – from exposure to another language, learning about the traditions of another culture, and knowing that they have the skills to learn and adapt about new ones in the future. The school also invites parents to contribute informally to the students’ international learning.

Nearly one in five New Zealand pre-schoolers now identify with at least one Asian ethnicity – a demographic change that has happened relatively quickly. Speaking from experience, that doesn’t mean that as they grow up they’re going to be overjoyed about doing homework in two languages. But they are adept at navigating more than one cultural world – skills that New Zealand will need as its interactions with Asia increase. It would be a shame if we failed to nurture their potential.

Rebecca Inoue-Palmer is the media centre manager for the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

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