In the first few weeks here in Washington, DC, I have noticed that Sam is at a key moment in his cultural formation. Being in the US is a clear change for him, and he is conscious that things are different now. From the moment we arrived in DC, he identified the apartment buildings he saw out the car window as belonging to “Grandma Bonnie’s house”, which is what he calls Chicago. Something about the street layout, the architectural style, spoke to him of a clear identity in the US, clearly different from Colombia. Not only Sam’s age (almost 3), but also the hectic changes we've imposed on him over the past few months surely predispose him to major new developments in his acculturation. At the same time, perhaps the juxtaposition of Sam with so many contrasting environments and cultures makes me more aware of his learning and transitions at this particular moment. Namely, Sam is coming into contact with new aspects of violence, television, gender, language, and race.
I think Sam has a healthy aversion to violence, but given that both Colombian and US cultures at large are so violent, my son is often at an apparent disadvantage. The month he was away from Colombia this summer, plus the two weeks of the agrarian strike once he got back, made for a long time when Sam wasn't going to preschool. When he finally resumed contact with his preschool peers, he became a bit more aggressive than he had been in the intervening weeks. I assume the preschool jungle requires a more assertive stance on your personal space and your stuff, since you're with a bunch of other kids trying to clamor for everything. This was especially the case in his preschool in our small town, which was much less sweet and flowery than the alternative, progressive preschool he’d gone to in Bogota.
We thought his newfound aggression was normal, and somewhat welcome, since we don't want him getting pushed around. That said, when we first returned to Colombia this summer, Sam came back a few days from school with scratches on his face. Apparently his friend Daniel had had a naughty stretch, and indeed, even after he and Sam had made up, for a while we would pick up Sammy in the evening and always see Daniel sitting in a corner, being punished for some transgression or another. Also, for a few weeks in his Colombian preschool, Sam would always report at the end of the day on who was hitting whom that day. We would ask him how his day went, or what he did, and he’d limit himself to something like, “Aureliano hit Maria Paula”. I think in our small town in Colombia the kids were pretty aggressive with each other, and Sam really honed in on that.
We tell Sam that if someone hits him, he should tell them not to, and if they persist, he should hit back. But his teacher in Colombia doesn't have much hope for this approach from Sam. She says he's too calm and "noble" to hit the other kids. This makes me worry a bit, but I take heart in that Sam is physically bigger than most of his classmates, so I don't think they'll do him harm. And his equally laid-back cousin Manu says that he himself was the same way as a kid until one day, when he got tired of kids hitting him, he hit one back hard, and never had problems thereafter!
On the other hand, when we first arrived in DC, it was a new context in terms of aggression and force. In the bourgeois neighborhood we arrived to, Sam was often the more aggressive kid on the playground, pushing others out of the way on the slide or whatever. At the same time, Caro noticed that kids from certain cultures on the playground, and certain ages of kids, seemed to be more aggressive than others, or simply less aware of the other kids around them. I posited that especially in lower-income groups in the US, childrearing tends to be more harsh, and so kids in turn are more aggressive with each other. I think in the US in general, and especially among people and social groups that have a history of economic and social hardship, there is an idea that life is hard, and parents must prepare their kids to do battle with the world and not be crushed by it. I have seen such an attitude among the Western whites of my family and their neighbors, in many black communities in Chicago, and also in certain Latinos in the US—all groups that either are or have historically been poor and marginalized. Even among middle class people of all stripes in the US, it does seem to me that childrearing is harsher and more focused on building self-reliance than happens in other countries I’ve lived in.
We try to make sure that Sam doesn’t bully or isn’t mean to anyone else, though again, I think it’s normal for kids to be aggressive with each other as they learn to negotiate shared spaces. On the other hand, we have a zero-tolerance policy for representations of killing. We don’t do toy guns, and the one or two times when he’s been playing with a cousin and they’ve started simulating guns, we’ve clamped down hard. I’ve heard people say that it’s impossible to keep little boys from playing at guns, that if you take away their toy guns they’ll use sticks or their fingers. This has not been our experience; Sam has no natural impulse to play at guns. I’m pretty sure the main difference between him and other gun-inclined boys is that he doesn’t watch much TV, and certainly none of the gun-happy violent drivel that dominates commercial TV and film. In fact, I’ve recently been more sensitive to how prevalent firearms are in our popular culture. Actors like Denzel Washington or Mark Wahlberg, both of whom should know better given their inner-city upbringing, seem to think that the most productive use of their acting skills is peddling gun glamour and murder in film after film, script after thin, poorly-developed script. And it’s not just them. Even more progressive, “thinking-man’s actors” like Sean Penn or Matt Damon or Jake Gyllenhaal, seem unable to get away from the lure of gun-happy crap culture (or the money they can earn from contributing movies to said culture).
To this end we also made a drastic gesture shortly before leaving Colombia. Sam had been pestering his sister for weeks about getting a brown car (he is obsessed with cars which, though they’re not climate-friendly, we tolerate as less inherently harmful than guns). One day when he and Gabri were in our Bogota neighborhood’s local general store getting some paper, he pointed out a brown toy car that they had for sale there. Gabri was in a rush, so she just got him the car for a dollar or something. When they got home, she saw it was a military armored vehicle, with a machine gun mounted on the front, two small SAMs on the back, and machine guns on either side. She was very apologetic to me, and not just for my sake, because she shares our stance against toy guns. Anyway, I decided to neuter the car, and Sammy and I made a fun activity out of it. The rear missiles came off easily, but the machine guns we had to cut off with a scissors, working slowly through the thick plastic. When we were done, we had a gun-free car, and there was a hole in the hood that Sammy could put other toys to ride in. Problem solved!
When I was a kid, growing up surrounded by the gun-obsessed popular culture of the US, it seemed silly to me when a friend’s mother confiscated the Nintendo zapper because she didn’t want guns in the house. But now my stance has obviously changed, and I think even gun enthusiasts would agree with me. Many people say a firearm is simply a tool; I am not entirely convinced by this argument, because it is not a tool like any other. A gun is a tool specifically designed to kill. In this sense, it is not something to be toyed with, as you might give your child a toy hammer or screwdriver so they can get accustomed to using it. My son has seen plenty of real guns in his life, held by military personnel or police, and when he’s a bit older, I intend for him to learn how to use a firearm safely and correctly. But I want him to know very clearly the difference between real guns and the irresponsible fiction portrayed by popular culture.
Speaking of popular culture, TV and movies are another thing that Sammy has been increasingly exposed to. We’ve never had a TV in our house, but starting this summer he has been seeing occasional things on our computer. We’ve settled into a nice routine now in our new house near Washington, DC, whereby he only watches on weekends, when he doesn’t have school. Even then we limit it to two shows after lunch. One of them is invariably a short movie called the Mickey Mouse Road Rally, which he saw this summer in Chicago and has been his favorite ever since then. The show is pretty devoid of any real educational or otherwise edifying content; it’s mainly about fuzzy notions of having fun and friendship, which consists mainly in not rocking the boat or doing anything different from the group. But it seems to me socially innocuous at worst. There are no overtly violent or destructive messages, though it is full of incessant repetition of certain phrases that are clearly branding a high regard for Mickey Mouse and Disney in the viewer. Most of these repeated phrases are silly word alterations plugging in “mouse” in other, longer words or making magic words involving “mouse”, though the characters also occasionally call on a magic creature called Tootles. Sam’s Hispano-toddler accent renders “Oh Tootles!” as “Achurus!” and I never understood what he was saying until I actually saw the Mickey Mouse Road Rally for myself. The program is also full of poorly-written, sixties-ad-jingle-type songs that are probably preparing viewers for a life of avid, unthinking consumerism. At any rate, since Sam doesn’t have much exposure to ads or other commercial TV, Mickey’s proto-consumerist message seems to fall on deaf ears.
I see the effect of Sam’s not watching TV in his consumption habits. His teachers always marvel at how he actually listens to what others say, and I attribute this mainly to his not being exposed to TV. Sam doesn’t have much use for sugary cereal; if he’s ever confronted with it, he tries it and enjoys it, but doesn’t feel a pressing, addictive need for it. Characters like Toucan Sam or the AFLAC duck or Spongebob Squarepants are just funny-looking animals to him. They don’t inspire confidence or the urge to acquire whatever they’re pitching. Even characters from movies he’s seen are just characters. If he sees a toy or an ad with the Monsters Inc. crew (or any other remotely similar monster), he’ll say, “We saw that movie”, and that’s about it. He likes Buzz Lightyear and Mickey Mouse, but he only knows them from their movies, without all the marketing tie-ins. I don’t want to be complacent, because Sam’s increasing recognition and identification with these characters is what immoral marketers build on to peddle their wares, but at least up to now we’ve kept at bay the advertising onslaught.
I mentioned that Sam’s favorite Mickey Mouse show is pretty devoid of intellectual content. We let him watch it (over and over again), though for the most part we try to select only movies or shows that are well done in terms of plot and values. We like the old Disney programs based on fairy tales and folk tales (Peter and the Wolf, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc.), we like Sesame Street (especially the old episodes available on Netflix, which remind of a lot of things from my own youth), and occasional Disney movies. We stay away from TV series other than Sesame Street, and generally anything that holds him rapt and unresponsive while he’s watching it, but then unable to say what exactly the show was about afterwards. During Sesame Street or even the Mickey Mouse Road Rally, he does respond to questions the characters ask, and he interacts with us when we ask him what’s going on onscreen.
We have nixed this one stupid show about anthropomorphic trucks, where a “kid” dump truck named Chuck and his friends basically serve as an excuse for a computer animator to get his rocks off. I mean, the plot is thin, the only educational content is a few de rigueur lessons about friendship and getting along, and the only strong point is the animation. The program seems more like there were a bunch of animators who thought it would be pretty easy to put together some images of talking trucks, and then tried to peg on a plot and some seemingly kid-friendly content in order to get it on the air. Sam loves the show, but we’ve pushed it out of the rotation.
Another awful show is Curious George. In it, George is less curious than naughty and immoral, and most of the episodes focus on his being disobedient and then trying to cover it up. We have gradually decided to nix this one, as well, and stick to the classic Curious George text that my cousin gave Sam some years ago. Even the original book is sort of sociopathic. George’s “friend” is a man who captures and kidnaps him, presumably to sell off to a zoo, and George at one point smokes a pipe. Sam loves this book though, and lately he alternately self-identifies as either Curious George (in cat and dog iterations as well) or Mickey Mouse (often in a monkey form).
So TV and movies are now on Sam’s menu and his radar. We try to limit the damage they do to his brain, but they are still in my eyes pretty clearly detrimental, in however small a way. When Sam was out of school for a few weeks, he often wanted to watch TV; when he is in this mode, he doesn’t want to go outside or do other things, and he makes a big fuss when we turn the TV off. Now that we’ve cut way down again on TV-watching, he seems to have a more balanced, less addictive relationship to it, but the danger of TV addiction is always out there, lurking, especially in our new temporary home in the US. When a teacher recently commented on what a good, observant, thoughtful boy Sam is, we told her that it was likely because he didn’t watch TV. She looked at us like we were crazy. You know you’re hooked on something when you notice the positive effects of its absence, but you still aren’t able to fathom the idea of living without it!
Sam appears not yet to have internalized our society’s typical gender roles either, or even basic biological differences between men and women. Though most of his toys are cars, and he does very boy-like things with them (engine noises, crashes, etc.), he also exhibits a more tender, nurturing side that you usually see in girls’ play. He often plays house or school with his cars. They line up and listen to a teacher car, or one car is friends with another or gets in an argument with the other one. At night Sam tucks his cars under the covers so they can sleep, either in their box or in the bed with him. Often he’ll say that each car is either a member of a family (Mommy, Daddy, etc.), or that riding in each car is a different member of Sam’s family. Cars are sometimes Ernie and Bert, or Mickey Mouse, or a cat version of Curious George.
In short, since Sam doesn’t really have many dolls, he plays dolls with his cars. One time when he was just beginning to string words together into phrases, he had a line of cars on either side of a big bus, with their hoods just under the bus’s sides. He explained that the bus was the mother, and the cars were nursing, as he’d seen cats and dogs and pigs do many times at the farm. Sometimes his play pushes gender roles even further, as when he carries a car or a ball under his shirt and says he has a baby in his tummy. As Sam explores humor and irony, he’ll even jokingly say that his mother has a penis, or that he doesn’t have a penis. I don’t think this is indicative of any transgender identity on his part, but rather that he is starting to become aware of the differences between males and females, both physically endowed and socially created, and is playing with and challenging them. In the same way he sometimes says things that he knows are wrong, like pointing to a blue horse and saying it’s a red sheep. One day Sam went through a whole picture encyclopedia and say that every picture was of an astronaut, whether they were really chimpanzees or dentists or dinosaurs.
Another cultural aspect that Sammy is learning and mastering is language. For over a year now he has understood a large and increasing amount of what we say in both English and Spanish, until arriving at total comprehension perhaps earlier this year if not before. Sam has also said lone words in both languages since he was maybe one year old. But only since this summer has he really started to string together entire phrases, and he is getting increasingly adept at it. Though most of his first individual words were English monosyllables (“ball” and “car” as opposed to “pelota” and “carro”), Spanish has always been his more natural tongue, first in understanding and now in arming sentences together. This is normal, since he’s spent most of his life in Colombia, where I’m the only one who speaks to him in English, and even that was limited when we were living apart. Anyway, now that he’s in an English-speaking school, in an English-speaking city, and spending a lot of time with me, Sam has gotten better and better at talking in English. His first milestone this summer was consistently responding “yup” instead of “si” for the affirmative when I ask him something in English (we are now trying to transition this “yup” to “yes sir” and “yes ma’am”). Next he started parroting certain words in both languages as Caro and I would be talking to one another or with other people. When we got to the DC area Sam began really watching me intently if I was speaking or singing in English. He would fixate on my mouth and how it moved. Now he still initially says most things in Spanish, but if I sound out the words a few at a time, he repeats after me in English, and at times I can even just ask him how to say something in English, and he’ll do it. For a while I was worried that he would have a Latino accent when he spoke in English, but that fear has been assuaged as he expertly pronounces things like “doggie” and “that”, complete with nasal Chicago “a” sound. He even says “white” with my exaggerated aspirated “wh” sound. Now that he’s more comfortable in English, he sometimes mixes up the two languages, saying things like, “I want lanzar the doggie su pelota,” which is precisely what we’ve tried to avoid by having me speak exclusively in English and Caro only in Spanish, but he recognizes his errors when we call him out on it.
At this point Sam is not only flourishing in his two native languages, but I think he shares with me my enjoyment of the very process of language learning. I don’t intend for him to be some wunderkind polyglot, but somehow as we were practicing counting in English and Spanish, we also incorporated the numbers in French and German, and from there he wanted to learn other words like “dog” and “car” and different types of food in those languages. He has a lot of fun with it, with learning new words and sounds. We have even taught him the Marseillaise, which he loves to march around and sing. I think the Colombian national anthem is catchy enough for him to learn, too, though the Star-Spangled Banner is going to be a tough sell.
One last development on Sam’s cultural front is his exposure to race in the US. Colombia is a pretty multicultural place, though our particular geographical region doesn’t have many black Colombians living there. At any rate, Sam’s first forays into the playground in the central DC neighborhood we initially stayed in brought him into contact with kids from all sorts of different cultural and racial backgrounds. This coexistence all in the same place is rare in Colombia, and I thought that I noticed Sam to be quite interested in all the different colors and ages of the kids surrounding him. Now we have settled in Arlington, Virginia, which seems to be fairly ethnically diverse, though distinctively less black than Washington, DC proper. In Sam’s preschool there are both Anglo kids and lots of Latinos of different national origins and colors, but there are very few if any Afro-descended kids. I don’t particularly like living in an area where one ethnic group is absent or excluded, and I certainly don’t want Sam to grow up thinking that white neighborhoods are normal, and black folks are somehow a novelty.
Sam doesn’t seem to be particularly conscious of race as such. I don’t know if it’s because of the relatively fluid and inclusive definitions of race in Colombia, or what. More than in other countries in Latin America, I really feel that race is not that set in stone in Colombia, nor does it serve as a major basis for discrimination. It’s not that people are more open-minded or anything; it’s just that social class, the rural/urban divide, and a number of other factors serve to channel people’s discrimination, hatred, and even armed conflict. It’s hard to set up rigid race categories when everyone is a mix of a bit of everything. Sam’s family in Colombia has people of many different colors, some with more African-looking facial features, some more European-looking, and some that look more like indigenous Americans, and this is typical of many families. In our books and with his dolls, he sometimes identifies himself or his family with black characters, sometimes with white, sometimes with yellow or pinkish-red. Nevertheless, I’m not naïve enough to think that Sam doesn’t notice race, or at least that he won’t after a while here in the US. I don’t intend to raise him blissfully “color-blind”, especially because in his life as a multiracial, multi-ethnic kid, he is sure sometimes to be the butt of racial animosity, and sometimes to benefit from or even promote the racism that hurts or marginalizes other people. It reminds me of an article Iread about how to talk to your white kids about race.
As I marvel at and interpret Sam’s evolution as a cultural being, I also see Caro’s observation of her son’s acclimation to US culture. She has been tickled by Sam’s daily enjoyment of the bathtub, a standard feature in most US bathrooms that is practically unheard-of elsewhere. My wife has even put up a facebook album showing Sam doing new, typical US things like putting together mail-order furniture with his dad and making cookies with his Grandma. At the same time, Caro is blessedly tolerant of my own attempts to immerse myself in this, my native yet new culture. I have spent long hours reading up on hunting regulations and requirements so I can finally hunt a deer after a lifetime of seeing my cousins do so without myself participating. I have harvested apples and walnuts from street trees, and checked the internet to see how to process the nuts. I am reading up on dumpster diving and scouting out promising stores to scavenge behind. In short, I am trying to catch up on or try for the first time any number of cultural tendencies (mainly related of course to my passion for living off the land) that I have been cut off from after years living abroad. Culture is something you pursue actively, whether you know it or not. Sam and I are perhaps more conscious of this pursuit right now, [re]discovering as we are a cultural milieu that is at once alien and a visceral part of who we are.