MUM SAYS What I’ve learnt from raising a biracial child

Raising a child with two identities can come with some unique challenges, so it’s all about keeping an open mind!

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“One of the things I love most about living in Singapore is growing up in a melting pot of cultures. We are introduced to people of different races, religion and cultures from the get-go. To many of us, it’s more the norm rather than an exception to have friends and extended family members who are of a different ethnicity.

Mixed marriages in Singapore are at an all-time high these days as one out of five unions is an inter-racial one. Naturally, this has given rise to a slew of interracial children. So many in fact that in 2011 double-barrelled race options were introduced in birth certificates to correctly reflect a child’s mixed parentage.

I am married to man of a different race ― well, a different continent altogether! Together with my Norwegian Caucasian husband, we have a 3-year-old biracial child together. Unlike in some other countries where people do a double take when they see the three of us together, in Singapore, nobody so much as blinks an eye.

It’s great that the Lion City is so accepting and encouraging of mixed families, but parents still have a strong role to play in ensuring that their children are able to identify with their mixed parentage when they grow up. I think it’s especially important when a part of your child’s heritage doesn’t belong to any of Singapore’s four main races.

When our son was born, my husband I both decided we would incorporate the practices and traditions from both sides of our family in raising him. It was important to us that our child be aware of his biracial roots.

Little did we know that we were in for some lessons of our own! Here are a few things I’ve learnt so far from being a mum to a mixed-race child…

"I never knew how envious I could be of parents whose children are a carbon copy of them – until I had a mixed-race child who looks nothing like me."

YOUR CHILD WILL MOST PROBABLY NOT LOOK LIKE YOU
I never knew how envious I could be of parents who have children that are a carbon copy of them ― until I realised that my mixed-race child looks nothing like me. I would never change anything about my exotic half Norwegian, half south Indian kid. I am in constant awe of his olive skin and chocolate brown hair. That said, sometimes I do wish he looks more like me, so I wouldn’t have to correct strangers when they think I’m his nanny. Or try not to feel offended when family friends and relatives mention in passing that my son looks nothing like me.

MULTI-ETHNIC NAMES CAN GET CONFUSING
In a bid to truly reflect our child’s ‘NorIndian’ (Norwegian-Indian) heritage, my husband and I named him Andreas (Norwegian) Dhiraj (Indian). We use it interchangeably and thought it was going well so far until a few weeks back when my son blindsided me with this question. ‘Who is Dhiraj, mummy?’ he asked. ‘Errr…that’s you, darling. It’s your name,’ I answered puzzled. ‘No! My name is Andreas!’ my munchkin replied, getting all defensive. ‘Yes, your name is Andreas Dhiraj. You have a Norwegian name and an Indian name.’ I replied. He didn’t look convinced, although he didn’t probe any further. At that point, it dawned on me that my child was only identifying with one ethnic name. I certainly never saw that coming, which brings me to my third lesson…

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YOUR CHILD MIGHT SOMETIMES PREFER ONE RACE OVER THE OTHER
This is perfectly normal, say all the parenting-a-biracial-child articles I’ve been poring over lately. Biracial kids sometimes pick one race over the other for a variety of reasons. They may feel more comfortable with the language, the lifestyle, the people or just the food. As parents we are meant to encourage their choice and not feel offended, especially if it’s our heritage (SOB!) that they’re ignoring. Right now, my son hangs out more with his Indian grandparents and cousins. He watches Tamil shows on TV with grandpa, while grandma has been teaching him Tamil songs. So, if he prefers to be called Andreas instead of Dhiraj, I think I can live with that.

JUNIOR MIGHT OCCASIONALLY NEED A REFRESHER COURSE ON HIS HERITAGE
Just because junior shares your genes doesn’t mean that he’ll also automatically share your deep connection to your race. This is especially true when they are young and still learning about themselves. Therefore, as parents, you have to constantly keep them connected to their roots.

My husband and I are pretty good at this, if I do say so myself. For a start, Papa speaks and reads to him in Norwegian and I do the same with my mother tongue, Tamil. When the respective grandparents visit, we encourage them to speak to him in their native languages. Right now, Andreas is fluent in English, can say the odd Norwegian word in the right context and sings Tamil songs. He also enjoys eating prata as much as he does Norwegian waffles.

When it comes to celebrating festivals, the more the merrier. At home, the main festivals we celebrate are Easter and Christmas. But we also celebrate Norway’s Constitution Day. We’ve celebrated this in both Norway and in Singapore, thanks to a thriving Norwegian community here.

"The best part about growing up with a mixed race background is that you’re far more likely to relate to others who feel 'different'."

Every 17th May, Andreas wears a bunad (a traditional Norwegian costume) waves the country flag, sings Norwegian songs and eats Norwegian food. Similarly, for Racial Harmony Day in school this year, my son embraced his Indian roots wholeheartedly by wearing a kurta [a knee-length shirt and long trousers ensemble].

Since we live in Singapore permanently now, we also visit my husband’s country every year, so that our son will continue to keep in touch with his Norwegian family and their way of life. We will be spending a white Christmas in Scandinavia this year. Andreas is already excited to experience his first skiing expedition and build plenty of snowmen! Next year, we plan to head there in summer for some fishing and sailing.

BE THEIR GUIDE, DON’T FORCE THEM
While it’s been our main priority all this while to expose him to the best of both worlds, we realised recently that our child has started to grow up. Indeed, Andreas is trying to find himself amongst the multiculturalism he is discovering.

In playgroup, he’s the Eurasian kid amongst predominantly Asian peers. At his maternal grandparent’s house, he’s raised Indian and when he’s with his paternal grandparents, he gets a crash-course at being Norwegian. Understandably, this can get confusing for a little boy. Just like how he asked me about his Indian name, he has also questioned why mummy is brown and papa is ‘pink’. Be ready to tackle such questions!

So, we’ve decided to stop telling our son what to be or how to act based on his heritage, but to let him figure it out himself. Instead, we’re giving him all the love, support and answers he needs to grow up strong and confident in his own skin. Along the way, he will discover and “own” his identity.

BI-RACIAL KIDS ARE MORE EMPATHETIC
Watching my son grow up with two very different looking and sounding parents has made me realise that he’s completely oblivious to differences. He has never once pointed out a person or a child who looks or acts differently, because, hey, he doesn’t fit into the traditional mould either.

I think the best part about growing up with a mixed race background is that you’re far more likely to relate to others who feel ‘different’. In other words, interracial kids learn to be more empathetic earlier on than others, and I think we can all agree that the world can do more with such people!”

Jassmin Peter-Berntzen, 36, SmartParents assistant editor, is mum to Andreas Dhiraj, 3.

Photos: Jassmin Peter-Berntzen

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