It's late Tuesday night after work and I'm elbow-deep in a bowl of pumpkin batter for my daughter's London preschool class. The children are encouraged to share with the class their Special Cultural Traditions. Last week was Dewali. Before that it was Black History Month, which in Britain is October and not February. Next month I will dress her in a red shirt and black pants so she can play Hunter #4 in their safely secular Christmas performance of "Peter and the Wolf."
This week, however, is Thanksgiving. We are Americans. Thus the mini-muffin tray and the can of Libby's I've been saving in the back of the cupboard for the last 11 months. No eggs, though. You can't bring treats with eggs. Or nuts. Some rules supersede special traditions.
I did not expect this, that my child would be the one in the class from someplace different. Not someplace exotic. There is nothing exotic about being an American in London, or in most of the world for that matter. Our culture precedes us like medieval minstrels, a garish parade of Miley Cyrus and KFC and "Friends" re-runs everywhere, always, in perpetuity.
We're not different in the interesting sense, but in the subtler, more awkward way of missed cultural references and a calendar of annual festivities that don't match with public holidays. She wore to school the Elmo t-shirt her grandmother sent from California and her teacher asked "Who's that?" At times like this I want to take the train to Brighton and hurl a bottle into the ocean with a message sealed inside: We are trapped on an island where the preschool teachers don't know who Elmo is. If you can see this, send help.
I think of "us" as outsiders together, "us" being the family of my husband, myself and our daughter, but it's increasingly clear that some of us are less different than others. Born in the US but transplanted to the UK just weeks after leaving the womb, my daughter is showing signs of growing up an English girl. She says "wha-tuh" for "water" and "yes PEASE" for "yes please" and she doesn't just call her bath a "baff" but a "bahhhh-ff." She is not yet two. She points to our flashlight and asks for the torch, and last night she tapped the mischievous gorilla in her picture book and said "Cheeky monkey!"
There have even been times when she's called me something that could have been Mummy, but I don't hear it. I don't hear it in the way that football dads don't see their sons twirling in front of the mirror in their mother's heels. In my heart I know that it's my problem, not hers. But I'm not ready.
My husband thinks it's adorable. It's not so strange to him. He spent most of his childhood in the US, and his American accent has no trace of his parents' melodic South African ones. He understands better than I do how a global family fits under one roof.
It's not the accent. It's how unbelievably quickly it starts, their taking of cues from the world outside the safe cocoon of your home. Already I can see how parenthood is the joy and heartbreak of endless releasing so that your child can unfold into the person they are meant to be, like a balloon that floats upward from an outstretched palm into the welcoming expanse of the sky. When she asks for her wha-tuh I hear the possibilities of how far she may go, of how many other voices she may turn to for guidance on the way. And I sense how very short is the part of that road where I may walk by her side.
So, the pumpkin muffins. I send them with her not as a symbol of a stubborn refusal to assimilate in a place that has so far embraced our family. They are a reminder that she may be a global baby, but she is not a rootless one. That is what families are, the people on the other shore who find your bottle and send back messages of their own: We love you. We're sending provisions. You are not alone.
The point is not that she comes from somewhere different. It is that she comes from somewhere. I can give her no truer compass.
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