By Katie Rendon Kahn
My family is pieced together from previous marriages and other countries. We don’t all look like perfect reflections of one another, to see our similarities you must look much deeper than eye color or skin tone. Like many mixed families, sometimes we blend about as well as oil and vinegar, but
that just means that we have to be constantly aware of our differences so that we can celebrate our diversity instead of being distanced by it.
My two oldest children have the benefit of having a grandmother nearby to share her Thai culture with them. They grew up hearing another language, eating sticky rice with their fingers, and paying their respects at a Buddhist temple. From the other side of their father’s family, they memorized Motown albums and were dancing to James Brown before they were three. They sat on their grandfather’s knee and heard stories about segregation and civil rights from someone they loved and admired. My son is a blue-eyed anomaly but was only aware of how much he loved his grandfather from Detroit, not that their skin didn’t match.
They learned from a very early age that we are all essentially the same. We speak different languages, come from different places, listen to different music, and don’t look a whole lot alike. What I learned from them is that asking about the things that make us different, connects us.
I can’t imagine what it would be like if my kids had never tasted their Thai culture, heard the stories about the elephant farms their aunt owned or the palace that their grandmother worked in. My daughter is amazed that her 70 year-old grandmother still climbs the trees in her backyard to pick papayas and goes to work every day cleaning condos. But grandma just laughs, “This is normal in Thailand.” She tells the kids how the money she sends home allows her family to live like royalty. I hope that they can visit Thailand one day and see the amazing culture in its entirety, but also appreciate the things that we tend to take for granted as Americans.
I am remarried now, to a Peruvian. He carefully tries to hide his accent and assimilate because where we live, people are chided for speaking multiple languages and for seeing more of the world. While he may not feel comfortable opening his mouth in public, I am so proud that he learned to speak multiple languages and I hate that he feels ashamed of it. I hate that he has a valid reason to minimalize his advantages. While I can’t change the world, I can influence how my children see it.
We took our other blue-eyed anomaly to Peru when he was one. While I gained ten pounds inhaling buttafarras and cerviche, our son Diego decided the only safe things to eat were Lucama fruit and churros. But when his great-grandmother chanted songs from the highlands, he danced instinctively. He was even baptized in the same 15th century cathedral my husband was christened in.
My husband had tried his best to brace me for culture shock. He talked about safety, inconveniences we might face, and anything else that he thought might send me running for the hills. The only thing that shocked me was the absolute acceptance and inclusion I experienced with his family. In Latin America, family means something. I was hugged and kissed more within ten minutes of arrival than in the last few years of my life. I knew immediately that this is the kind of family I wanted to create for my children.
I’ve considered myself to be a poet since I was eight years old. I still remember the day I decided that was what I was going to become when I grew up. I was sitting in Mrs. Michaela’s reading class and she had just introduced us to rhyme schemes. In hindsight, she probably knew my clown poem wasn’t going to win a Pulitzer but she pretended that it might. It was the first time someone called me a poet and I just loved the way it sounded. So much so, that I have attempted to turn each of my children into poets too.
My daughter told me she didn’t know what she could write a poem about for school. Reflecting back, she probably thought I would write it for her. Since she loves turtles so much, I suggested that she start there. Once she discovered that the largest turtles (tortoises) in the world were in the Galapagos Islands, she decided that’s not only what she would write about, but where she wanted to live when she grew up.The research went on for days. I remember her asking me excitedly if I had ever heard of a man named Charles Darwin. I would always respond to her question and ask another. What other animals are on the islands? What language do the people speak? Do they have a religion? What countries are closest? We used all that information to write her poem. It may have started out about turtles, but it became about this amazing place she couldn’t wait to see with her own eyes. She joked to me that she knew so much about the Galapagos Islands that she could write a book. So, that’s exactly what we did.
“Take Me to the Galapagos Islands” was the first book in The World Adventures Series that
my daughter and I wrote when she was just ten years old (it was published just after her 11th
birthday). She said, “Ya know what? We could write about ALL the places I want to go when I
grow up!” Naturally, she chose Thailand for her next book. Together, we immersed ourselves in
her grandmother’s culture. We cooked Pad Thai and Thai Beef Salad, we visited the Buddhist
temple together and she taught me how to pray, what to do, and laughed at me when I tried to
shake hands with a monk, “You can’t touch the monks, Mom, they’re holy!” She thought it was
hysterical and I was proud that she understood so much.
She has since decided that co-authoring two books at the age of ten is impressive enough. She now sticks with sports, typical pre-teen stuff, but still volunteers once a week at the temple. I went on to write a book about Peru for my husband and have continued to write the series for other children looking to find a connection to their heritage. Each book mentions landmarks, food, religion, music, animals, dances, and other culturally significant details.
Even though my daughter is no longer co-writing with me, she and her younger brother both help me look for pictures of the countries I’m researching. We always listen to original music and find recipes to cook together to celebrate the other cultures. I have just recently started adding these recipes to our website for other families to enjoy.
I hope that this project of ours not only helps them feel connected to their extended family and various cultures but allows them to accept other forms of diversity with a sense of curiosity and appreciation rather than fear, judgment, or arrogance. Finding the beauty in diversity has helped our family remain close and appreciate each other, especially in these changing times. All any of us seem to see and hear is hate, differences, and oppression. With so many families being mixed, like us, I am worried how children will observe our behaviors and how they will identify with members of their family and community.
Family has always been the cornerstone of society. Everyone seems to agree that society has changed but many fail to see the connection to home. It saddens me that in a time where we have more blended families than ever before, we are seeing more discrimination than we have in decades.
The ideas and actions we show our children will be what they carry with them. We can arm
them with fear or acceptance.
You can see the children’s book series she co-authored with 11 year-old Autumn Smith on their website, worldadventuresseries.com, which now also publishes their kid-friendly recipes from around the world in a blog titled, “A Taste of Culture.”
Katie Rendon Kahn lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where she chases adventure and
poetry prompts with her children. Her poems have appeared in Blackwater Review, Broken
Publications, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Barefoot Review, Rising Phoenix Press, Poetry Breakfast, The Panhandle Focus, and various blogs. Kahn won the Blackwater Review’s Editor’s Prize in 2012
and 2014. She and her 11-year-old daughter have written a children's book series called,
World Adventures, focusing on the acceptance of other cultures. Kahn also self-published
her first poetry collection titled, “Phantom Limbs,” in 2014.