8 Ways to Raise Multicultural Kids with a Sense of Identity


Growing up, I never felt Chinese enough. At least, I could never be as Chinese as my family, the only standard of "enough" I had as a child. My family, having experienced the diaspora resulting from generations fleeing China from the Communist regime only to have subsequent generations flee their new homes in Vietnam from Communists again, probably has dealt with these fears of not being able to retain our heritage living in a place other than our homeland.

There's probably nothing that cemented this fear as profoundly as when I decided that the love of my life, father of my children, was not in the least bit Chinese or Vietnamese unless you count his deep love of rice. In fact, he wasn't even Asian. He was American with a line that dates back to the Mayflower. That's basically as American you can get without being, you know, a Native American.

As a kid, I had little interest in anything Chinese, or Vietnamese, for that matter. As a rebellious teen, I felt speaking the languages my parents spoke was needless in America: "Old fashioned" and "out of touch." After all, we were in America. Who needs to learn Chinese or Vietnamese? I was American and they didn't understand I wanted to fit in. 

Fast forward to my life as a mother, desperately trying to raise my children with a sense of  their multicultural identity, finally realizing that learning the ways of my culture was not a frivolous notion my parents were hanging onto but a gift of connection between me, my ancestors, my lineage, my blood. It was for my sense of identity so I could feel complete in understanding the parts of myself, the parts that stretch all the way back to the Cantonese countryside, a place I have never seen but carry with me through the little traditions and rituals that shaped my understanding of family. Turns out, my mother really is always right.

How do I teach my children what it means to be Chinese Vietnamese American? How do I connect these babies to a culture that I have a tenuous grasp on myself?

Here are a few ideas I'm using to connect my children to the overseas culture they are not exposed to regularly in the United States.

1. Food. Is there anything that connects us more acutely than home cooked meals? So much about a culture is imparted through mealtime traditions. This year, I started to cook a traditionally Chinese or Vietnamese meal every week so the kids have the same tastes and smells I remember in my mom's kitchen and my mom remember from my PoPo's kitchen.

My goal is for our family recipes to feel like their own. The way I feel connected and emotional ownership over my PoPo's fish maw soup. Like any good immigrant, I can thoroughly critique a dish based on it not ever being better than my grandma's version.

2. Holidays. While we celebrate the multitude of holidays the US has to offer, I have historically fallen short with Chinese holidays. From now on, however, I will be decorating for the two major holidays a year, Lunar New Year and Autumn Moon Festival, as well as attending community based celebrations and practicing the basic customs associated with both.

The symbols of red envelopes and mooncakes should be as familiar and expected as Santa and  turkey.

3. Language. This aspect is tough as I am not completely fluent in Chinese or Vietnamese but I plan on remedying this through Chinese school and language programs. I feel like if I can get the all of us to at least a conversational level where the kids can understand a full length movie, that would go a long way to carving out a sense of cultural identity. Nothing would make me happier than not needing the poorly worded subtitles to the latest Donnie Yen film.

4. Shopping in densely culturally populated cities. As a kid, my parents took us to Chinatown in LA every weekend. Later, as Little Saigon grew, our weekends would split between the two. Being exposed to markets that specialized in our food and stores with things that reminded my parents of home in a completely non-tchotchke way highlighted how different our culture was from the American culture that surrounded us and even moreso, the American understanding of our culture. I want my kids to feel at home in these places instead of like visiting tourists. I want them to see a culturally appropriating souvenir and instinctively know it is crap. 

5. Folk tales. While Grimm's tells a European and, in turn, a Western set of values through stories, other folk tales from around the world reflect each culture's priorities and values. Books about classic Chinese and Vietnamese stories can connect the children to cultural values every evening during bedtime story readings. For instance, instead of the horrors of chopping of toes to fit into glass slippers to win the heart of a prince, our leading ladies bind their feet to in order to land the spot of second wife to a noble in order to finagle her way to most powerful wife. 

Am I confusing Amy Tan novels with fairy tales? I don't even care if I am. My kids are reading Amy Tan when it's age appropriate. I'm going to call her the Chinese American Mother Goose.

6. Grandparent stories. For the same reason people become so obsessed with genealogy, stories from grandparents can keep kids feeling connected to the past and a family identity bigger than themselves. Especially important in our family was the journey over generations from China to Vietnam and then to the United States. I am currently compiling family pictures and starting a written history so that those who remember can share and the stories of our family will live on for future generations. 

7. Travel. My kids are a bit young for this but sometime before they head off to college and while my mom is still able to travel, I'd like to go back and see in person all the places mentioned by my parents and grandparents. There is a connection to the place you cannot feel until you have actually touched the soil. And there's something so sad about the way it feels when someone asks, "Have you ever been back to <insert name of homeland here>?" And having  to respond, "Unfortunately, no."

8. Movies and TV shows. Though this type of media is not my first choice, it really is the most easily accessible of all. I remember sitting down with my Cung Cung and PoPo to watch the movies they had rented from the video store in Little Saigon that somehow got copies of all the latest Chinese and Vietnamese soap operas. In the way that TV shows in America reflect everyday interests and experiences in the US, the same can be said of movies and shows from other countries. 

Plus, watching TV in another language is another way to learn a language through immersion. Turns out Elmo is pretty adorable in Cantonese. 

How do you impart a sense of cultural identity in your children?

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  1. I love reading about how your instilling multiculturalism in your children. My children come from a single cultural home (per say), but this is a good point to think and consider for raising my littles

  2. This is so good! It's important to educate our children on cultures. It allows them to understand that while we may have differences, its ok. Its also really fun for children to learn new things about other cultures and how there's a common thread between everyone.

  3. I love your plan for teaching multiculturalism with your kids. All of your ideas are educational, but also fun! I think food is my favorite way to experience different cultures and although my toddler does not fully understand her heritage, she sure loves taste testing!

  4. This is such a good plan for raising multicultural kids. I want to do something similar with my son, but I still have to research the best way to go about it. I am Irish, Native American, and Mexican, and the donor my wife and I used is Cuban, so my son is quite the mix lol I was also adopted as a baby so I was raised by an Italian father and Russian mother. Can you see my dilemma with what should be incorporated with my son's cultural identity?! haha This is such a good place to start though, thank you!

  5. My son was born in UK but we are from Poland. I will keep your post for future:) We don't know yet where we want to live but this is really lovely plan

  6. What an amazing post. I love the ideas for raising children this way. We are raising our children in a similar way. Cultural identity is so important. Thank you for sharing

  7. We have a lot of dutch, irish, swedish, and creek influence in our blood - I try to remember this and incorporate a lot of each into our daily lives, culture-wise

  8. I love this post. It hits home for me so much. Im a greek-american who never felt greek enough, now raising a half turkish half greek american in turkey but soon to be usa!!! The struggle is real!