Friday, September 25, 2015

Family Evolution: The Meaning of Multicultural

I grew up in a multicultural house. My mother was born in the Netherlands. My father, although also of Dutch heritage, was born in Indonesia and spent much of his early years split between those islands and Australia. He brought with him foods, languages, a love of large birds and a unique accent. I was born in New Jersey but my parents raised me Dutch. I learned the language before I learned English, lived the customs and ate traditional foods, which included a number of spicy Indonesian dishes. However, I felt uniquely American too.

I lived in the Netherlands in my early twenties. I loved it–the people, the bikes, the tulips–but as comfortable as I was living there, it wasn’t home to me as it is to my parents, in particular my mom. Home is the U. S. for me. When I married my Greek husband, I added another cultural dimension. As my unpolitically correct Oma (Dutch for grandmother) said when she found out we were getting married, “You know they are not like us.” I never asked for clarification. My husband was born in Thessaloniki, Greece and moved to the United States as an adult. He is an American citizen but like my folks, identifies with his original nationality.

My boys consider themselves Dutch (although they are one more step removed) and Greek but mostly American. That was until their little sister joined the family via Ethiopia. Now they also consider themselves Ethiopian. Adding this culture followed a different process than those we brought with us. Before our daughter completed our family, I knew few specifics about what is uniquely Ethiopian.

So we went about discovering what made up this new branch in our cultural family tree. Our culinary tastes expanded to include injera, wat and berbere. The children’s book author, Jane Kurtz, opened a window into the Ethiopian experience through her moving books. We brought back native music with a distinctive beat and souring vocals. Through YouTube, we even discovered an Ethiopian singer named Fasika Dimitri (two of our children’s names). Our celebrations expanded to include local Ethiopian events with shoulder shimmying dancing I hope my daughter will one day master.

Enjoying a family moment in beautiful Istanbul -- 2015
When I started blogging for, I needed a description for our blended family. I thought of “melting pot” to describe how different cultures come together. My husband preferred the term “salad bowl.” I had never heard this description so I did a little research. Because America may have more varied ethnic groups than any place else, the term melting pot was born to describe this unique multi-ethnicity. Our nation is a large pot with everyone thrown in. Over the years, cultural elements are blended together, or melted, to form the American culture. The expression my husband referenced identifies each culture as an ingredient that contributes to the whole, while retaining its original characteristics rather than blending.

Neither fully represents my experience. My childhood retained elements of Dutch culture. For example, we celebrated Sinterklaas on the eve of December 5th, with wooden shoes on the stairs that were filled with candy when we came down in the morning. We also observed Thanksgiving and July 4th, uniquely American traditions. Similarly, when I joined my life with my husband’s, I gained the concept of name days. Greeks don’t celebrate their birthdays. Rather, they celebrate the day of the saint they were named after. We now have both in our family. Each child has a saint’s name so they can participate. When our daughter came home, she brought new holidays with her too: Ethiopian New Year is September 11th and Christmas is January 7th.

Although both “melting pot” and “salad bowl” describe what it means to be multicultural, I wish there was a concept that captures how your culture becomes richer and deeper when you introduce others to it. I have come to better appreciate the unique aspects as well as the similarities of each culture because my life includes more than one. Each culture had added to our lives and we didn’t want adoption to rob our daughter of her heritage. Instead, we wanted to enrich our family through the inclusion of her culture. I choose to savor, retain and blend all the elements into a unique family culture that celebrates them all.

We have Dutch lullabies, Greek “Se Agapo“ (I love you), American football and soccer loyalties and Ethiopian coffee ceremonies. We have music and artwork representing each country in our home. Our lives are more vibrant for having strands of Dutch, Greek, American and Ethiopian cultures woven into the fabric of our celebrations, expressions and everyday life. And our hearts and minds are open to the many others around the globe.

A version of this post was previous published on InCulture Parent.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Adopting a Culture: Our Family’s Journey to Becoming Ethiopian

When we first decided to adopt, we initially considered China.  We chose that country, in large part, because it was familiar. We knew a number of families who adopted little girls from there.  When that comfortable choice was not an option because of changes to the program, we were faced with the uncertainty of choosing from those countries available to couples our age. A primary factor from the beginning was the health of the child. We knew any choice entailed risks, including having a biological child.  However, we wanted what we felt was best for our family, which included two active young boys.

As we progressed through the adoption process, a secondary, unforeseen priority emerged— the culture of our child’s birth country. When we were pursuing adoption with China, we discussed our limited knowledge and understanding of this culture and the need to educate ourselves and incorporate new customs and traditions into our family.  But we had no idea where to start or how to make that goal a reality.  We knew families where culture did not play much of a day-to-day role in their lives.  But that was not an approach we could embrace.  Culture brings such richness into the fabric of our lives.  And we knew our child’s birthright was an integral part of who they were and what they were bringing into our family.

When we began learning about the similarities between Greek and Ethiopian ways of life, I could instantly envision incorporating this rich, new culture into our mosaic.  It gave us comfort with our decision. I learned modern European scholars considered the name Ethiopia to be derived from the Greek words aitho “I burn” and ops “face”.  Greece and Ethiopia share ancient roots as well as ties to Orthodox Christianity.  A young Ethiopian woman once commented on my blog that she was welcomed into a Greek Orthodox church and community when she moved to a place with a limited Ethiopian footprint, and she remarked on all the parallels too.  I found the symmetry of her experience fascinating.

When we first visited our daughter’s East African birth country, our understanding of the similarities multiplied. Much of the foliage in this nation, we had also seen in the Mediterranean one, which struck me when I tried to understand why I felt so at home in Addis and our daughter’s native Bahir Dar.  Both countries share a focus on family and a fierce national loyalty to a land whose glory days had faded.  I also noticed a certain joyful embrace of the more light-hearted aspects, whether it be the lack of punctuality or certain common foibles.  A board member of Ethiopia Reads commented to my Greek husband, Michael, at a fundraising event, “You know ‘your people’ and ‘my people’ are very similar in neither are good at arriving somewhere at the appointed time.”  Both peoples maintain a belief that the key to solving the toughest national problems involves working together.

As we each experienced our own individual reactions to the adoption process, each family member made the connections between our previous family cultures and this new one in their own unique way. Ethiopia reminds my husband of the Greece in his youth with its challenged infrastructure.  My eldest son did not talk much about the impact his sister had on his own identify.  He liked the idea of having a diverse family and definitely was interested if students or fellow athletes shared his sister’s heritage. But as I was cleaning up one day, I came across his school ID from the first year Leyla was home.  He had taken an Ethiopian stamp and put it on the front of the card next to his picture.  I definitely understood in that moment the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

My middle son, Damian, was more direct.  He asked if he was Ethiopian now because of his sister.  I reasoned, “You are because her culture is part of our family but you might have to explain to people if you tell them so.” He has embraced going to the local Ethiopian Community
 Bahar Dar (Blue Nile Falls) Ethiopia 2014

Gondar Ethiopia 2014
Center. He is often the only non-Ethiopian child and seems oblivious to that fact.  He will enthusiastically create flags and decorations for a New Year or other celebration or just play with the kids.

I took an unorthodox step that demonstrated the extent of my evolution on taking on another culture.  I have an extensive LinkedIn network and join groups of my focus areas or interest.  I joined the Ethiopian Professionals Group.  I introduced myself as the mother of an Ethiopian child who wanted to connect with her culture for her and for our family.  I received the most amazingly warm welcome and truly felt I was a full member where I could both contribute and learn.

When I started this blog, the year after our daughter came home, my goal was to try to give back to this amazing land that gave us our daughter. I planned to raise awareness of both the need and the beauty and use it as a mechanism to learn more.  The name I chose summed up those goals so well.  I discovered a very different sojourn in the years since.  The connections I forged are not just educational in nature or for my child; they have tied our whole family to a diverse group of people involved in some way with her culture whether as their birth country or from their own love of it.

As I heard from an actress on Twitter, “Ethiopia has a way of bringing people together.”  So true, I found. I can now count an Ethiopian actress, artist and poet as important people in my life.  I now call a writer who grew up in Ethiopia and tirelessly advocates for literacy progress there both a friend and an inspiration.  When you bring a child that doesn’t share your biology into your heart, we call this “adopting a child.”  For us, that process also meant “adopting a culture.”  Our connection to Ethiopia continues to expand and grow, affirming our choice. 

A version of this post previously published on InCulture Parent.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What Do Doro Wat, Pannekoeken, Marsala, and Baklava Have in Common?

When I was growing up, cooking and baking were a way for me to escape the problems of the day and ultimately find a new vantage point.  I remember lonely Friday nights during middle school where I would get lost in baking cookies.  During the measuring and mixing, I would stop obsessing about my status at school or the day’s slights.  When the cookies were cooling, my perspective would have altered just enough so my world seemed a little brighter and my problems almost manageable.  Thinking back, I realize the act of food preparation helped me break negative circuits in my head as I allowed myself to enjoy the creativity and the creation inherent in the act.

Growing up, my sisters and I learned Dutch before English.  We attended school and church with people of similar origin.  We celebrated traditions from the land well known for its windmills.  We also traveled back to the Netherlands every five years or so to visit extended family.  My immigrant parents and I often found a gulf separated us from fully understanding each other.

Food became part of a bridge we built in my adult years.  I vividly recall making pofferjes at my Oom (uncle) Piet’s house as a child.  The small, puffy, round pancakes dusted with powdered sugar melted in my mouth in just one bite.  Now making them with my kids takes me back to those times.  On New Year’s Eve, my dad made oliebollen—fried dough with raisins and chunks of apples dipped in powdered sugar and eaten hot.  When I learned to make them, I felt a new connection form.  I share this experience with him although we prepare the dish at different times and miles apart.  My parents and I still have much we don’t understand about each other.  But when they see my kids scream for pannekoeken (thin Dutch pancakes) and witness me preparing them as they did for me and my sisters, I can show them their culture has become a part of ours too.

Offering an opinion while enjoying pannekoeken with friends in Holland

My first date with my Greek-born husband was at a restaurant called Greek Islands in Chicago.  It was my introduction to the taste of his food and coffee, which I found out the hard way had grounds in the bottom.  My initial visit to his homeland was ironically without him.  My mother-in-law cooked “eggplant shoes,” wonderfully unlike anything I had ever tasted before.  She was a food-is-love person and was always in the kitchen fixing something.  When I mastered the art of baklava and my husband complimented me by saying, “Wow, this is as good as my mother’s.  Just don’t tell her!” I felt a little Greek too.  And I paid homage to his mother, even though our lives have taken divergent paths.  She taught me to make a few of my favorite Hellenic foods before she passed away too soon.  She didn’t use recipes.  So my son Damian and I stayed in the kitchen for hours documenting every step.  I don’t think I felt closer to her than when she shared this gift—with minimal words spoken but much laughter and tasting.  Language was a challenging barrier for us but communication through food broke through it.  And she created a special bond with her grandchildren this way too.

Loving on Yaya at a Greek Restaurant

When we went to Addis Ababa to meet our daughter, we sampled Ethiopian cuisine for the first time.  Bringing a child into our family from another part of the world gave us the responsibility to connect her to her culture.  For me, learning to cook her food and seeing her natural affinity for it (quite unlike her brothers who are finding it an acquired taste), made me feel a little bit like an East African mama.  Preparing these dishes and stocking my shelves with spices I just discovered felt like an investment in her roots.  As the smells of lentils cooking with berbere or duro wat waft through the house, I imagine these are the same aromas as those in the kitchen of her first mother.  And I feel the expanse of half the globe disappear.

Celebrating a special birthday at a local Ethiopian Restaurant topped off with Baklava

When I traveled to India to celebrate two friends’ union, I witnessed that no other culture quite does weddings like Indians with a week long affair of parties and festivities.  I enjoyed marsala tea for the first time and many vegetarian and non-vegetarian specialties.  I continue to drink that spicy tea with milk and am transported to the beauty and chaos that was my Indian experience. I also learned to make some of my favorite dishes as a way to honor the amazing heritage my friends and their families opened up to me.

Food is a wonderful, accessible expression of culture and a way to connect.  There are no rules, boundaries or judgments.  I can mix, match and modify while learning and enjoying.  And you can share it too. I like creating cookbooks so my children can join me on this journey and add their own twists. Specifically, I found the preparation and the creativity of opening my mind to new tastes, flavors and combinations opens my internal dialogue to new paths and connects me with others whose cultures differ from mine.

One Friday night, I felt quite down after receiving disappointing work news.  I woke up Saturday still blue.  Without thinking, I headed to the kitchen.  I started cooking and baking.  My three kids joined in or passed through as the hours lapsed.  At the end of the day, the disappointment was less bitter and the possibilities more exciting.  I was transported back to those middle school baking sessions that had the same effect.  I realized my culinary exploits that led to this Zen feeling had broadened to include the cultures I embraced.  With no specific intention, my Saturday offerings included Greek zucchini, Ethiopian lentils, Indian curry cauliflower, as well as a few variations of cookies.  Maybe the connection to the individuals and cultures they represent was part of the genesis for the peaceful feeling I gained…at least I would like to think so.

A version previously published on InCulture Parent.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Happy Seventh Birthday Little Leyla Marie Fasika; Seeing the World Through Your Eyes Revealed A BIG Heart!

My youngest turned seven recently, the same age her closest brother was when she joined our family in 2008.  She is no longer the chubby faced baby with gigantic orbs taking in the world.  Those early years I was struck by her solemn study of the people whether familiar or stranger.  She seemed to be taking pictures in her mind; capturing each detail from head to toe.  I remember thinking this child is an observer of the world.  But for what purpose?  What does she see or think, I wondered?  Oh to be able to get inside and see out of those eyes too so I could share her view.   

Observing the world and getting used to a chillier winter
Over the years, I have gotten a glimpse of the world through her eyes in beautiful and unexpected ways.  And it revealed more about her heart than I could have imagined.

My little girl unwrapped many of her most wonderful qualities in beautiful ways.  One includes some interesting role reversal as she is frequently worried about me.  “I don’t want anything to happened to you, mama,” she will scold if I am not watching out carefully for cars as I cross the street or taking my medicine every night.  She is a “little mommy” and has the amazing gift of being completely certain she can help; whether it be a teenage brother who has a vexing challenge or her dad or me with our adult challenges or as we learned, for a little friend or even strangers half a world away. 

When we were living in Luxembourg, she started school as a four year old.  In Europe, school begins a year earlier.  She had a little boy in her class adopted from Korea.  He was rambunctious and she thoroughly enjoyed his company being quite high energy herself.  His father had been battling cancer for some time and about half way through the school year he died.  His mother was a beautiful women in all respects. She soldiered on gracefully raising her two sons alone.  We offered condolences and help but both seemed wholly inadequate in the face of such a huge and unimaginable loss.  And soon life went on for us. 

Later in the year, this mother sought me out.  She said, “I want you to thank Leyla for helping my son.”   I said, “I would be happy to do so but I don’t understand.  What did she do?”  She explained that her son was understandably having a hard time with his father’s death.  As a result, he was acting out in school.  She explained. “Leyla continually reaches out to him even though he is pushing people away. Many of the other kids just get upset.  She both supports him and lovingly gets him back on track.”  My eyes welled.  She had not said a word.  But she had observed and identified a way to make a real difference for this little boy and his mother. 
Saying a prayer for a friend in beautiful Greece
That summer, we were on a walk in Greece where my husband grew up.  Leyla saw a little blue and white small chapel by the side of the path which is a common sight.  She asked what it was and I explained, "People say a prayer or light a candle here for someone who has died".  She then asked me, “Can we say a prayer for my friend’s dad because he misses him a lot."  I said of course, my eyes again filling.  I was humbled by her beautiful gesture that seemed to be as natural as breathing to her.
I also a glimpse of her vantage point of the world as she became aware of opportunity inequities.  When she learned  kids in Ethiopia often don’t get the chance to learn to read or go to school, her reaction was swift and fierce, “That’s just not fair!”   

Good spot to read a book -- OHBD 2011
So each year since she was 4, she has spoken at our Open Hearts Big Dreams Event benefiting Ethiopia Reads in Seattle. (At 3 she just took the opportunity to find a quiet place to read.) The first year she spoke, her sweet voice quavered as I held her on my hip.  She had asked me what to say.  And she delivered the few words we worked on together with deep seriousness and sincerity.   

OHBD 2012 my turn before Leyla's
The next year she wanted to talk more specifically about the unfairness she saw and asked me to help her think through how to do that.  We worked out what she would say.  I again held her petite little body as she courageously spoke her words of truth to a large audience of supporters; those big eyes moving slowing reading the sea of faces in front of her.  

"It's not fair that all kids don't get the chance to go to school"  OHBD 2013
Last year, I asked her if she again wanted my help.  I was taken aback when she firmly told me, “No, I know what I want to say.  I just need you to be my coach to practice and I need you to hold my hand so I don’t get scared.”  She was growing up before my eyes.  

When we spoke together this last December (captured in this video), her tinker bell voice moved the audience with its clarity. 

Afterward she told me, “I felt like I might cry when I was talking and I felt like you might too, why is that?”  I explained to her that for me, and likely for her too, speaking about something I care deeply about triggers emotions and sometimes even tears (although they can stay inside).  And I (and she) need to be brave to put a vulnerable piece of ourselves out into the world and it can feel scary. She nodded seriously at my words.

As her birthday approached, she was so excited to be seven, a milestone she wouldn’t own until the actual day.  She wanted cinnamon rolls for breakfast, a special day with the family, a Tiana birthday cake and party with her friends.   But she also wanted to help kids in her birth-country so she asked her friends to make donations to Ethiopia Reads instead of more gifts for herself.

Birthday girl modeling some of her gifts
Happy Seventh Birthday, my little Leyla Marie Fasika Angelidis. Looking at the world through your eyes has shown me what a BIG heart you have!  You remind me everyday, "the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."  

And you already are . ..   as a kindergartner!