USA: Life of an Immigrant’s Child
“But mom, why can’t I do my homework in front of the TV??? I’m not watching it, I’m just listening to it!!”, says my 12-year-old girl, emphasizing the word ‘watching’ with a half roll of the eyes.
My daughter is a really cool human & a great child. She is a tween so craziness and challenges come with the territory. Still, she has sweet moments, and she “OKs” everything, whether she remembers later or not.
But, my life was very different growing up in Italy and then Tanzania…
By age 9 my older brother & I alternated daily chores. We had to do dishes & sweep daily. There was no dillydallying, no talk-back, no having to dry our hands to like a song on Pandora…. none of that. We did homework on the kitchen table, our beds, in the yard, and wherever else. After I was done with homework I’d have to use the house phone, speak to a parent with good phone manners, & find out if my friends could come play. There was no texting them.
Everyone knew our plans; at least initially (smile). Outside we used our imagination to play with nothing. We picnicked under a tree in this huge sunflower field. We rode our bikes in circles in the bus’ parking lot and made sure we were home when the lights came on.
When I was 11 we moved back to Tanzania. Life here was drastically different, yet, in some respects there was more access to things than we had in the small Italian town we lived in. However, constant electricity and running water were gone. We had a western toilet in our home, but often had to use toilets requiring squatting, be they a hole over a sceptic tank, or an Eastern latrine. Not having water & electricity all the time required planning.
Though there was hired help, we also had to fetch water. If you don’t like fetching water you learn to use it sparingly. You take a shower from a bucket that’s a quarter full and come out clean! You recycle water so that first you wash your hair by dipping it into the bucket, then use the same water as the first cycle of your laundry, which you wash by hand. Having city-wide rationed electricity, meant ensuring you have kerosene, wick for lamps, and match sticks. You actually needed plenty of match sticks in Tanzania, because there is this one brand that makes them and you’re lucky if one out of five matches actually lights up & stays lit. HAHA!
We must see these things as humorous. Lack of electricity and paying for it in advance, meant using it responsibly. The radio would be on, and so would the TV for some parts of the day. We knew to close the fridge fast and to unplug the iron as soon as the job was done. Ironing was not always done with an electrical iron, either. Some times we would use a charcoal iron. It sounds like it’s from an entire different era, right? It’s still being used. A charcoal cast iron had to be used carefully. You’d also plan how to get hot coals so instead of wasting charcoal, kerosene fuel, and good match sticks, you’d use the charcoal for cooking. That required planning as well. A lot of planning and patience for a youngster, and children had to consider all these things from toddlerhood!
I am so infinitely grateful we lived this kind of life in my teenage years. Though I am sure I threw crazy hormonal arrows (figuratively speaking) at my mom, I think that having to deal with these realities made me get myself together quickly, thus sparing her six years of teenage craze. As far as school goes…wow! We had mandatory knee-high socks & buffed black shoes, mandatory hair pleats that I never had, monitors & prefects who thrived on their power to make us kneel for ‘misbehavior’, and hit-happy, switch-carrying teachers in the hallways who would whack you for no good reason.
In elementary school we had to chant….slowly & loudly…..”GOOD MORNING TEACHER!” Then we’d answer & ask, “FINE THANK YOU TEACHER, AND HOW ARE YOU, TEACHER?”, then we’d be permitted to sit down. In boarding school we had exactly 30 minutes to eat. The first year we ate food we individually cooked the night before, hoping it was still good without refrigeration. As a senior, food was made for us, so we’d hope it was ready & that we didn’t have to scoop bugs out of our beans. We’d always wash our dishes before returning to class. All of this, in 30 minutes.
At this school there was no corporal punishment. However, if we were late or didn’t follow other rules, we’d have some agricultural work for at least one period.
We studied in the hall after we cleaned our dinner mess. After two hours of supervised solid studying, we’d return to our hostel rooms (mine had four bunk beds with three beds each), and lights were out by 10pm. Everyone took showers in the morning, which I found to be unnecessary as the water was very cold, so I would leave some water in the courtyard for the sun to heat , and take a shower after school.
When I came to the United States I didn’t think I had a different work ethic than anyone else. I thought we all work hard & have different struggles. As the years passed I began to see certain differences & felt extremely fortunate for my history as it was.
As a girl I was lucky that my mother (who is partially Afghani & Punjabi) didn’t believe that I was worthless, blessed that she believed in education and sent me to school. I was also fortunate that I wasn’t betrothed at a young age, or at all. As I was in college I understood that I was privileged and had to make other women proud.
I would have to get the best grades, be a well-rounded student & not take electricity and running water for granted. So when my daughter asks why she can’t do her homework in front of TV, I don’t know what to say! OK, I do answer her, trying to use logic she’ll understand. She visited Tanzania for a few months in 2010, but she cannot relate to my history.
When my daughter was round age four she always asked if she could help with chores, but as I tried to rush I’d ask her to draw or play instead. I thought the environment around us would do for her what it did for me at her age. I knew I wasn’t in Italy, or in Tanzania, but I still thought I wouldn’t be the only one pushing for a balanced human. I also didn’t anticipate technology advancing so incredibly fast & how much gadgetry she would have at her disposal. In retrospect I should have encouraged her willingness to help.
She is now 12, doesn’t like to do any chores other than the occasional Swiffer mopping. She wants to do homework while listening to TV, somehow ignoring the visuals, and she wants to spend her other homework time listening to pop songs. She does practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and has a unique passion for it. But when not doing her school work, she looks at photos with funny quotes, watches short videos, and messages her friends on her phone. Our lives are so different. How do I teach her what I’ve been taught?
Is it drive? Is it thirst? Can you relate? How do you teach your children how to work hard? Please share your findings with me!
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Sophia in Florida, USA. You can find her blogging at Think Say Be and on twitter @ThinkSayBeSNJ.
Photo credit to Trocaire. This photo has a creative commons attribution license.