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Sunday, June 01, 2014

My Mom is a Foreigner, But not to Me

My Mom is a Foreigner, But not to Me
by Julianne Moore
illustrated by Meilo So


Some books are quite off-beat thanks to their uncommon subject. They speak to a potentially small group. Not just speak, but rouse this small audience. And, therein lies the appeal of such odd books. But, if not executed well, they tend to be muddled, not to mention patronizing and disagreeable.

The parts about Mom looking different; Mom reverting to a different language at times-- especially quoting sayings from another language and giving unfamiliar nicknames to the kids; Mom making them follow unusual customs that are from another land; Mom feeding them a wildly different array of foods on certain occasions; these easily resonated with my kids; while some other parts left them quite confused about this book.

The text is simple, like a 6/7 year old talking, so it works without offering anything overtly profound or deep, yet is kid-relatable. With under 500 words, the book presents the likes of mommies who came here with just a suitcase and have managed to unpack and throw away the suitcase only to drop anchor and grow roots. Talk about mixed messages!

Having said that, I must admit there were a few aspects of the book that could have been different to be more appealing and less jarring.

1. The inconsistencies for one: Is the book for this generation? In which case, moms coming on boat is rather odd unless one is talking about specific immigrants, legal or otherwise, from nearby foreign islands. Incidentally, "foreign" is itself not easily understood by kids, nor is it a word frequently used by kids to describe their parent of a different heritage/ethnicity. For a permanent-resident/citizen of a country, regardless of their ancestry, it is rather inappropriate to be addressed as "foreigner", especially when the person has chosen to assimilate into the new country and embrace its culture wholeheartedly, while holding on to the memories of their own origins and ancestry.

2. The illustrations for another: Is the book talking mainly about mixed heritage kids? Bi-cultural kids who are reluctantly accepting the self-professed less-preferred side of themselves, whichever that might be? The pictures were all over the place and did not clearly show a mom and a child looking very much alike thanks to their genes, and accepting who they were while celebrating their own origins.

3. And, varying fonts were used extensively: perhaps to suggest different languages/heritages but that wasn't easy to discern while reading aloud, or reading to oneself for an eight year old. For example,

We eat funny kinds of food sometimes
I love it.
It tastes gross.
My Grandma made it, she taught my mom.
I put it on my toast!

4. Trying to encircle all manners of mixed heritage families, the book leaves kids (and adults like me) befuddled. Is it about adopted kids of varying ethnicity? Is it about a first or second generation American kid, whose mom is a quirky mix of mainstream-American with hints of her childhood cultural identity? Is it about a new immigrant mom who does not speak English? For instance,

Sometimes it's hard work
teaching my mom stuff
But she's learning more each day
She'll be done when I'm grown up.

There are some things I don't tell her
because she already knows
Like how she would take care of me
From my head down to my toes.

These statements sound so presumptuous and condescending at the same time. How old is this kid whose voice we read here? What kind of "stuff" is the kid teaching the mom - language or propriety?

5. A lot of "weird" and "funny" and "strange" are thrown around in the book, which I found distasteful in the context in which it was used; plus, the term "foreigner" itself was slightly offensive. Is this to appeal to an Americanized child who has a Tradition-loving parent? The book starts out by talking about a mom who came here as a child, in which case, wouldn't she be quite well acclimatized by the time her child is born?

In trying to be all-encompassing, the book ends up being neither here nor there. And, for kids like mine who do not think their mom as any less than any other mom they encounter, this book seems to suggest otherwise, even if well-intentioned.

Despite my list of execution-related peeves, the concept is a good one. We ought to embrace the various ethnicity and heritage and look past the differences to see what ties us together, especially in this increasingly global village where each generation is actively blurring the geographical boundaries. No matter how they look or where they came from, Moms love their kids unconditionally. That message is universal.

[image source: multcolib.org]

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