For Immigrants in America, Every Play Date Is a Cultural Minefield

When you live abroad with children, not only do you become migrants who don’t know what a protractor is: Every play date is liable to become a cultural minefield.

By Naomi Darom

“Mom, I need a protractor, otherwise I can’t do my homework,” Uri said when we got home from school.

A protractor? What in the world is a protractor? Sounds like some kind of doctor, or maybe a farm vehicle, definitely not something that’s needed for homework. I googled it. Ah, a mahd zavit.

“Ah…,” I said. “I think we had one once. Maybe we left it back in Israel?”

Shortly afterward, George’s father knocked on the door. George, a friend of my middle child, Ben, had spent the afternoon with us. His parents are Korean. The first time he visited, his parents knocked on the door at pickup time with a container holding the largest apples I’d ever seen in my life. They insisted on giving them to us as a gift. When Ben visited George a week later, I went to pick him up empty-handed and came away with a package of frozen dumplings.

I protested, but to no avail. Anyway I was a bit pleased, because we love dumplings. But what will they bring us next – giant bananas? I’ll have to insist, assertively but politely, that we have enough food, thanks all the same. It was the same the first time that David, Uri’s Chinese friend, visited us: His mom brought me a bag of homemade brownies.

It goes without saying that I never returned these favors. I’m proud enough of myself if I manage to remember to pick up the kids from school and feed them all, so don’t even talk to me about providing food to other families. Besides which, each of these nice kids is an only child – let’s see their parents cope with three! Still, I feel bad about it.

When you live abroad with children, not only do you become migrants who don’t know what a protractor is: Every play date is liable to become a cultural minefield. Cambridge, Massachusetts, is like an international train station. People from all over the world come for a year or two to one of the many universities in the area, and then return home or stay on.

At the children’s school, which has a special program for those from non-English-speaking countries, dozens of languages are spoken. The kids, for their part, choose friends on the basis of common interests (say, the Minecraft video game) rather than nationality. A week ago, there was a school holiday and I hosted two girlfriends of 5-year-old Mika, and a friend of Uri, who’s 9. The house was jumping with six children who between them speak Hebrew, Swedish and Danish, all communicating in English. At lunch aawe found the one common denominator that could, in my opinion, become the basis for world peace: They all love schnitzel.

In Israel, communication with other parents was natural, instinctive and familiar; here, I sometimes have to interact with people who barely understand English. At other times, in interactions with American parents, I’m the one who doesn’t always pick up on the social cues, who smiles or talks too much, who doesn’t yet understand the art of pitch-perfect text messaging, which on the one hand conveys the message (“My kid has been nagging me for a week to tell you he wants to go to your house”), but also preserves the correct measure of nebulous American politeness (“Would it be convenient for you…? When it’s good for you… if it’s all right, of course”).

We’d been here only a few months when what I had feared most happened: We started to embarrass the children. Last year, Mika had a good friend in preschool named Catherine. “Mommy, you’re saying it wrong, you don’t say it like that, you say ‘Cathhherine,’” she corrected me one day after I’d volunteered at her school, her throat emitting a version of ‘th’ that I wasn’t able to imitate.

“Mommy, sometimes you have this kind of accent,” Ben told me on a different occasion, making doe eyes at me.

When the kids need help with their homework sometimes, I discover that I – an excellent student during most of my years at school – don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. In English grammar, the farthest I’ve got is the present progressive; when the kid has to circle something called a “conjunction” in a sentence, he’ll have to get along on his own.

Isn’t this the ultimate migrant experience – not being able to help your children do their homework? That, and discovering that they are eating unfamiliar food in the school cafeteria, like rolled pancakes on a stick.

I’m always making lists in my head: what my children are gaining from life here, and what they’re losing. They’re gaining a knowledge of English, horizons that have been opened and an opportunity to sit in the classroom next to children from Kuwait or Haiti and relate to them all as just plain kids.

When I was a high-school senior, I spent two years in Tokyo with my parents, and my biggest surprise was how easy it was to become the best friend of girls from Taiwan and Canada. It’s a great life lesson, especially for kids who grew up in a school in central Tel Aviv where everyone, with the exception of a few Filipino children who were bused in from the south of the city, were of the same religion and the same limited range of skin color. They gain great outings, snow, amazing museums, visits to New York City. They gain an excellent liberal education, too: They come home with pieces of information about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the American Civil War.

On the other hand they lose family, a natural and automatic sense of belonging, independence (Uri goes to school alone, but he doesn’t navigate by himself to friends’ houses after school the way he does in Israel). They lose language: It’s genuinely hard work to sustain Hebrew; the vocabulary related to school and games has migrated completely to English. Ben and Uri can read Hebrew, but Mika, who this year started to read in kindergarten, doesn’t even know the Hebrew alphabet and complains that she’s forgetting how to speak the language.

Also, they have no awareness of the existence of Jewish holidays beyond Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah and Pesach, because we – secular Israelis that we are – make no effort to celebrate them. Before Tu Bishvat, an Israeli girlfriend who’s been here 14 years invited me to a Tu Bishvat seder at her synagogue. It’s a bit odd for me to go to a synagogue all of a sudden, I told her. Just wait, she said, in another few years you’ll also understand how important it is.

The children themselves are constantly doing their own calculations, too, about whether they prefer to be here or in Israel. Sometimes they miss the sun and their cousins terribly, sometimes they really like snow and they think it’s cool to stay here. Because we ourselves don’t know exactly what our plans are yet, our little family is in limbo, floating in international waters.

Last night, after her shower, Mika asked, “Mommy, when I’ll be in fourth grade, will I go to school in America or in Tel Aviv?”

“I don’t know, honey,” I replied.

“Then it’s better for me to be in Tel Aviv, because you always want me not to speak English at home, and if I will be in Israel I will be able to learn Hebrew,” the little tyke said and made a clown face as she exclaimed, in English, “Thank you!”