Children of many languages

I envy my kids. Having grown up in a monolingual family, I’m green-eyed when I hear my daughters speaking Bosnian. Jealous of their double-barrelled identity – how they slip between worlds and curl their tongues around words that, for me, still have a foreign feel.

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‘Ja sam tvoja učiteljica,’ says my six-year-old, with a strong hint of Sarajevo in her voice. When it’s a question of pronunciation, I couldn’t have a better teacher. Her grammar also flows more smoothly than mine. She mightn’t always get it right, but her inflections seem the product of osmosis. No brainpower wasted deliberating over whether the case-ending is dative or instrumental. Her Bosnian sounds instinctive… sometimes she even uses it in her sleep.

Her ease with her two languages isn’t surprising. Children tend to learn more implicitly than adults. Thus, they appear to acquire second language words and phrases quicker than many older learners. However, the context of learning is also important. The extent to which children are exposed to two (or more) languages and the situations in which they use them can influence the nature of their linguistic development. Growing up in a bilingual environment, communication (with parents, teachers, friends, siblings and other relatives) is likely to draw on both languages in ways that are directly relevant to the child’s experience. As children develop, their knowledge of two languages should gradually become more complex… if their use of each is supported and allowed to diversify in an age-appropriate manner. Second language acquisition in such ‘natural’ contexts is generally more successful than ‘instructed’ learning, typically confined to lessons of limited duration held outside the region in which the language is spoken.

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Children from immigrant backgrounds should, therefore, be in a good position to develop bilingual skills. They’re often immersed in an environment in which the dominant language and/or cultural traditions are different to those of their families. Linguistically and socially, they may feel more ‘at home’ in this milieu than parents who grew up abroad. But at what cost…? ‘Minority’ languages and cultures can be rendered inaudible under the volume of the ‘majority’ voice. Certainly, to reach their full potential, children require a thorough knowledge of the language and cultural codes of the society in which they live. However, this should complement – not conflict with – their learning from extra-curricular sources, such as home, extended family and community. Integration must be a two-way process, one that fosters intercultural understanding. Shameful cases of racial profiling, involving Roma children in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, have recently highlighted the need to respect families’ home cultures and languages. These can contribute to and challenge prevailing discourse. Negotiation may be necessary, but this can be enriching… for everyone.

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Let’s take a look, then, at practical ways to support children’s home languages. This is an issue central to my research field so I ought to have a few answers! There are many experts in this area whose work I’d recommend to anyone who might be interested in reading further (please see the websites mentioned at the end of this post). But, for now, I want to keep things jargon-free. As throughout my blog, I’ll also illustrate some points from my own experience. The ideas I’m offering here are written more from the perspective of a parent than a postdoc.

Much advice exists as to ‘best practice’ in the raising of bilingual children. Sometimes, though, I find it can sound a bit too prescriptive. Or it gives the impression that bilingualism is state of perfect fluency which can be seamlessly achieved. This can risk demotivating parents, especially when progress doesn’t seem as steady as they may hope. Plus the literature often focusses on internationally ‘prestigious’ languages – ones that have an economic value. Unlike, for example, Bosnian, which – despite its alluring musicality – couldn’t be described as ‘lucrative’. On-line suggestions can consequently appear ‘ivory towerish’ or read with the saccharine ring of the ‘model parent’ who believes that Mandarin lessons are just what his/her toddler needs as a head-start en route to Harvard. Nevertheless, studies across the world, conducted in diverse social contexts, have proven the merit of approaches to learning which activate children’s plurilingual repertoires.

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Efforts that bring together family, school and community, have been found effective in sustaining the home languages of children from immigrant backgrounds. Indeed, in such cases, they can be particularly necessary, since mother tongue attrition is high when kids are being educated primarily through the society’s ‘majority’ language. Home language maintenance initiatives can thus combat the risk of linguistic loss and allow the children of immigrant parents to avail of the many advantages of bilingualism. These include:

  • Enhanced capacity to learn other languages.
  • Better problem-solving skills, due to more flexible thinking. This can be very useful when learning school subjects such as maths.
  • Greater ease in overall literacy development – reading and writing skills can transfer between the child’s two languages. Children who are literate in their home language have shown to be more adept at developing ‘biliteracy’.

I’ll end with a few tips for parents whose kids are growing up with two languages, especially when this dynamic results from immigration. These thoughts are followed by a short and ‘scary’ movie! Here, I’ll use the terms ‘home’, ‘heritage’ and ‘minority’ languages interchangeably and the ideas I’ll outline are as applicable to multilingual as to bilingual families. For additional research on this theme, check out the web-links below.

1. Use home languages!

If you’re a native-speaker of the ‘minority’ language, always use your mother ​tongue with your child. Our native language comes most naturally to us. It enables us to express affection in ways that might be language-specific. For example, Slavic diminutives to indicate fondness, such as the Bosnian -ica and -ić suffixes, lose some of their feeling when translated into English. Our native language also conveys cultural concepts. From the names of festivals and practices associated with them, to proverbs, abstract values and words for family members. In Bosnian, for instance, an intricate network of terms is used for the identification of aunts, uncles and cousins.

If you grew up bilingual – for example as a ‘second generation’ immigrant – try to use your ‘heritage’ language (that of your parents) as much you can with your child. As a formative language for you, it can be part of your child’s linguistic and cultural inheritance.

Also, if you’re a native-speaker of the ‘majority’ language, support your partner’s attempts to raise your child bilingually. Learn his/her language yourself and use it, to the best of your abilities, with your child. It doesn’t matter if your proficiency isn’t at ‘native-speaker’ level – don’t let grammatical worries get in the way of talking. You can play a vital role in preserving the ‘minority’ language by making it a channel of communication. From my family’s experience, this is particularly important if the father is the native-speaker of the ‘minority’ language and there isn’t much chance to use it in the immediate community.

2. Don’t expect perfection!

Globally, bilingualism is prevalent over monolingualism, but most people aren’t ‘balanced bilinguals’ who are equally proficient in two languages. The degree to which languages develop depends on contextual factors. In bilingual societies, both languages are prominent in everyday life, education and media. However, when one language is dominant – as English is in a lot of anglophone countries – parents may have to enhance the child’s environment by creating opportunities for bilingualism. But how?

  • Buy or borrow children’s books in the ‘minority’/home language and read these to your child. Help him/her learn to read and write in the language of the home.
  • Songs and DVDs in the home language are fun ways of increasing your child’s exposure to it.
  • Internet games and resources are also very engaging and children can use technology to research school topics through their home languages. Skype provides a handy link to relatives in other countries and, as an audio-visual means of communication, it may be easier for children than telephone calls.
  • Visits to family in places where the home language is spoken. Even if relatives abroad are themselves bilingual, ask them to use their native language with your child.
  • Contact with the home language community within the child’s country of residence can be significant too, although access to this may depend on where families live.
  • If possible, enrol your child in a complementary school. These schools, which offer weekend or evening classes, have been established to support children’s home languages in many states. In Ireland, the Polish community is particularly active in this regard, with over twenty weekend schools teaching Polish language and culture to children across the country. For smaller, more scattered communities, it can be difficult to set up such schools – parental involvement and commitment are the key to their existence. Complementary schools can provide kids with opportunities to use/learn the home language alongside other children, as well as to develop biliteracy and understand more about aspects of their culture.

3. Make home-school links with languages!

Talk to your child in the home language about what they did at school. Help them with school-related words that mightn’t normally enter into ordinary conversation (e.g. subject-specific terms). When children are doing homework, use the home language as a medium for discussion. My kids, with some support, explain maths exercises in both Bosnian and English. They also translate Irish reading passages and spellings into Bosnian.

Encourage teachers and schools to become more aware of children’s home languages and cultures. Schools, in Ireland at least, may differ in the emphasis they place on intercultural education, despite the fact that it’s essential for all children (see my previous post ‘Back to intercultural school’). However, many welcome the involvement of immigrant parents and value their role as representatives of children’s diverse languages. This can enable parents to participate in activities with a home language focus, such as storytelling, which some schools already facilitate. Making connections between complementary and mainstream schools further recognises this fundamental dimension of children’s learning which can otherwise go under the official radar.

4. Don’t give up!

Kids are kids… They learn at different rates. They vary in their learning styles and their personalities. Their motivation fluctuates. From my own family, I’m all too conscious of the problems… Answering their dad in English, when they know the reply in Bosnian, not wanting to ‘stand out’ by speaking a ‘foreign’ language in public, sibling rivalry, accommodating different age and interest levels, living far from other Bosnian children, trying to make the most of our short trips to Sarajevo. The obstacles are many. Yet the benefits are huge – not just the linguistic or general educational advantages of being bilingual, but the cultural and emotional attachments that kids develop through two languages. It requires perseverance… though even the smallest steps forward are positive. So parents – bon courage, good luck, sretno!

SCARY MOVIE in Bosnian (za djecu / for kids)

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Coming up to Halloween, my three daughters wrote and performed a short horror film in Bosnian… Please enjoy!

https://vimeo.com/78005461

If you have any problems opening this link (unfortunately I’m on freebie WordPress without video uploads) I’ve also sent it via Twitter… follow the tweets! Please turn off the HD function if watching on a PC – it should work fine on a smartphone or a tablet.

© Noć Vještica Filmovi

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Also, some useful websites:

Multilingual Learning – Goldsmiths University of London: http://www.gold.ac.uk/clcl/multilingual-learning/

Bilingual Forum Ireland: http://www.bilingualforumireland.com/index.html

Website of Jim Cummins – international expert in bilingual education: http://iteachilearn.org/cummins/
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The rocky road to Rio, via Sarajevo

Sport has never been my forte. Swimming I can manage, but only in the serenity of the Adriatic Sea. My ten-year-old outclasses me at tennis and I can hardly run to save my life. Nor am I a great spectator. I lack the patience. Or is it passion? In football terms, anyhow, I wouldn’t be what Bosnians call a ‘fantico’. Although I’ll scream at TV screens when national pride is at stake. And, to my shame, Ireland versus England brings out the raving bigot in me… Sorry!

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Yes, sometimes nerds can share the adrenalin high of dedicated sports fans. Often it’s found in the buzz of rooting for the underdog… particularly if that lowly side comes from somewhere special. So count me among the supporters of the soccer team from Bosnia and Herzegovina! As reported by the global media, their qualification for World Cup 2014 made history. More importantly, on the domestic front, it brought huge joy to our house. Perfect timing too – hours after Ireland had been hit by yet another austere budget.

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Ostrich-like, our heads were stuck in sand dunes of avoidance at any mention of economic news. However, even before the match started, there were plenty of welcome distractions. As well as football D-Day, it happened to be Bajram, as the Muslim festival of Eid is known in Bosnia. True to my tradition of cooking for cultural occasions (and not much else) I was preparing a typical Bosnian spread. Well… a slightly lower-cal version of it – to reduce the risk of fatal cholesterol overdose. Burek and sirnica had just gone into the oven when we heard it was 1:0 in Lithuania. Or so the tweets suggested as, scrolling down my phone with greasy fingers, I noticed word-long messages simply declaring: ‘GOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLL!’ Fear not, this isn’t as ghastly as it may sound in English. Au contraire, when followed by a string of blue and yellow emoji, it’s profoundly positive. Things got better still – my husband burst into the kitchen to tell me the guy who’d scored was one of his friend’s (approximately seven billion) cousins. Seems we have an eternal claim to fame!

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Tense minutes dragged – for the person glued to the internet. As I was having a culinary melt-down… Bosnian food is delicious but very labour-intensive. Finally, though, our Bajram meal was ready to be served. However, at about the same moment, a whistle blew in a distant Baltic city. Victory! Fortunately, my precious pita wasn’t incinerated amid the subsequent exultation. Bosnia and Herzegovina were heading to Brazil! The kids immediately asked if we could go too. Sadly, the latest round of Irish fiscal adjustment has quashed all hope of Rio, unless we get lucky in the EuroMillions lotto. But, at least, we’ve got one of the family’s teams to cheer. While Ireland might’ve salvaged credibility with a win over Kazakhstan, its Brazilian quest had already proven vain. Yet Irish disappointment was suddenly irrelevant. The night belonged to Bosnia. Through every form of social media, photos, songs and fireworks whizzed across the diaspora. Sarajevo erupted into jubilance. Celebration went viral. Bosnia was trending with a rare shimmer of success.

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Maybe that’s the beauty of the game – its power to generate euphoria, no matter how ephemeral. A football match can’t heal post-war divisions. It won’t make life, for most Bosnians, any less of a struggle. But, for one evening in October, past scars and future uncertainty were forgotten. It felt like Ireland’s trail to Italia ’90. That virginal delight of qualifying for our first World Cup… especially as it came when horizons still seemed bleak. Then, Ireland’s reputation was defined by violence in the North, economic stagnation, corruption and emigration. As a nation, we were minnows – a poor, peripheral member of Europe’s clan. Perhaps our status now isn’t that different. Though surely, in the late 1980s, our FIFA rankings were higher.

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Soccer gave us a boost. Long reviled as a ‘foreign’ rival to native Gaelic (all-limbs-allowed) football, it helped us to restore faith in ourselves. Everything stemmed from Stuttgart… The European Championships in 1988 saw the epic defeat of our former colonial masters by a team that couldn’t be described as quintessentially ‘Irish’. Lads from mixed backgrounds joined the squad. Red hair and a thick brogue weren’t exclusive criteria for selection. Once a chap could trace his granny’s roots to somewhere between Dingle and Donegal, all he needed was the skill and the will to win. And the country got behind this motley bunch. Singing tributes to our English manager, we became ‘part of Jackie’s army’. Houses were re-painted in the Irish colours. Babies were taught how to chant ‘olé!’ Flags were draped from windows until their edges frayed. Years were spent paying off that pilgrimage to Italy.

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But, as the expression goes, ‘the craic was ninety’. Even if – in retrospect – it was quite over-the-top. Sport is no panacea for the trials of reality. The diversion it provides is akin to bread and circuses. Or beer and football, in many Irish cases…  And soccer itself is tarnished. Racism on the field and in the stands, fans with neo-Nazi links, and hooliganism are some of its corollaries. Allegations of match-fixing, bribes and seedy deals, the exploitation of workers building stadia for major tournaments further undermine its ethos of ‘fair play’. Exorbitant salaries paid to players who are seized by a celebrity culture that turns them into idols, then ogles their fall from grace, also attract bad press. Nor is football the automatic leveller of fraught pitches. Ireland, for instance, is home to two ‘international’ teams, both of which have their own distinct fan-bases. In its northern counties, the Scottish Premier League gets harnessed for sectarian purposes. Identities are gauged from Glaswegian club preferences – are you for Celtic or Rangers? Bosnian soccer is plagued with similar problems. More complicated, as the potential split is threefold. Still, nothing can detract from the achievement of a team that, whatever cynics and propagandists say, is multi-ethnic. So, in our hearts, we’re with the Zmajevi

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All the way to Brazil! An amazing country – I had the sheer good fortune to visit it in 1990. On a holiday I’d won, at the age of sixteen, as first prize in a national competition for poetry. Back when I’d the guts to enter contests… The week I spent there, accompanied by my rather overwhelmed dad, was unforgettable. It’s a place that rightly revels in its diversity. Yet, although I had no previous travel experience, I was struck by the starkness of its inequality. Dual faced Rio de Janeiro – a city of hills, where favela-covered slopes plunged down upon the opulent Copacabana coast.

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On our last day in the city, we took a tour by taxi around its centre. In a battered VW Beetle which, fuelled with ‘alcool’ (a cheaper, ethanol substitute for petrol) reeked of booze. We passed the famous Maracanã stadium and another striking example of modern architecture, the cone-shaped cathedral. Naturally, my devout father wanted to drop in to say a prayer. Possibly to beg God to grant us safe passage home, after our numerous adventures. The driver, however, advised against any such show of piety. His unequivocal Portuguese – ‘drogas!’ – as he mimed a point-blank shot to the head, was enough to convince us to stay inside the car.

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Brazil has made substantial progress in the decades since. Today, with its economy at a ‘newly advanced’ stage of development, it’s added its initial to the BRICS. But it’s been the scene of popular unrest. And many of the issues prompting recent protests relate to the extravagant hosting of next year’s Mundial and the 2016 Olympics, when poverty remains rampant. Sporting glory, it appears, can’t eradicate suffering in a country of two halves.

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A glimpse of Brazil… it’ll always brighten my mind with vivid snapshots, such as those from our brief trip to Amazonia. There, among other escapades, I got my heel clamped between the jaws of a jaguar (it may have been crippled, but its teeth were sharp as sabres). We also journeyed by boat through a confluence called the ‘Meeting of the Waters’. Where, due to a temperature difference, the dark Rio Negro and the silt-rich Rio Solimões flow in separate shades for several kilometres. Until, mingling, they become the largest river in the world. And so, perhaps, with football…

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My dreams of returning to Brazil aren’t likely to get much further than a café of that name in Sarajevo. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance again to sample its chocolate-oozing palačinke (scrumptious crêpes). As for soccer, thanks to a testosterone deficiency, I’ll never understand the offside rule. But when it comes to shouting at the TV, you’ll hear my roars – and those of my ‘dragons’ in Ireland – right to the very top of the Corcovado.

‘Hajmo Bosno! Hajmo Hercegovino!’

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Of war and waves

Shortly after our wedding in 1998, my Bosnian husband and I decided we’d had enough of Europe for a while. I’d been offered a job as an English teacher in Japan and – knowing that, on our budget, we’d never have such a travel opportunity again – we seized the chance. So, instead of settling down, we embarked on an odyssey. We spent two years in what we affectionately called our ‘safe third country’. Where, unlike in either Ireland or Bosnia, both of us enjoyed equal status as aliens. From the furthest galaxies, it seemed.

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Telling people I was from Ireland was often met with an enthusiastic response: ‘Ah… Iceland!’ Initially I was miffed that much less populous outcrop could be mistaken for the Emerald Isle. However, I soon discovered that whenever Japan’s TV channels had any ‘global’ focus it tended towards themes of national relevance – a shared geographical phenomenon, for instance. Hence numerous re-runs of documentaries about plate tectonics in the vicinity of Reykjavik. Lacking active volcanoes, my homeland barely featured on the Japanese world-map. Ireland was an unknown entity to all but a handful of music buffs who’d heard of U2 and, weirdly, the Nolan Sisters. And as for Bosnia… ‘Boston?’ was the typical reaction. A whole country, with a poignant recent past, relegated in the fame stakes to below the rank of a provincial city!

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We put the misunderstanding down to American influence. From baseball to fast-food, we saw how this permeates Japan. From its conurbations right into rural regions like Aomori, the prefecture in which we lived. On the cusp of the new millennium, foreigners were still a rarity in this northernmost district of the main island, Honshu. Off the tourist trail, Aomori was a pastoral place, renowned for gigantic apples and harsh winters. Its most prominent non-natives belonged to the US military base in the town of Misawa – one of the largest of those established after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Civilians of other backgrounds were frequently presumed to be GI Joes or Janes. ‘Amerikajin ja nai,’ became our catchphrase as we clarified our European origins. Coming from such mysterious parts of our quaint patchwork of a continent, we proved intriguing. And, perhaps due to this strangeness, we made many Japanese friends.

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The welcome extended to us was genuine and warm-hearted. Our friends clearly relished their ambassadorial role as they explained their culture to us in diverse ways. Hospitality appeared to be a matter of immense pride and the stories they told brimmed with resolute spirit. Among older people, this could often be traced back to memories of wartime. We listened to recollections of those who’d survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the lethal incendiary raids on Tokyo. These were tales of bare existence, near-starvation, long-term consequences. But they were generally crowned with a patriotic ending – reminding us of Japan’s post-war success. Despite the fact that its economy was floundering by the 1990s, determination to achieve prevailed as a motto. Even my high-school students vowed: ‘ganbarimasu’ – ‘we’ll do our best’.

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However, some elders worried that the youth had grown pampered. Too westernised… in a country which had built its modern image on technology and material wealth, emulating its Euro-Atlantic rivals. ‘A nation of imitation’ my boss used to call it. Yet Japan was also a place of contradiction. Its Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples blended into an environment full of pachinko gambling parlours and ‘love hotels’ for privacy-seeking paramours. Tradition spanned the donning of ceremonial kimono and skinny dipping in sulphuric onsens (risqué for a former convent-schoolgirl but the ultimate in relaxation bliss). Trains ran fast and strictly to their schedules, life around hectic business hours had to be ‘convenient’… though the making of tea remained a timeless ritual. This land of Nikkei stock-brokers and paddy field farmers enchanted us. And gave us our first child.

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Meanwhile, back in the Balkans, conflict was breaking out again. The Japanese broadcasting networks, whose interests, we’d noted, were predominantly insular, began to report on atrocities occurring there. Things were bad when Kosovo was, news-wise, ‘big in Japan’. We watched with a terrible sense of déjà vu. This was just a couple of years after the Bosnian war. From the eastern edge of Asia we wondered what we could do – surely we could participate in the relief effort. But, being foreign and ignorant of the system, it was difficult to get started. Our city was somewhat less than cosmopolitan and public awareness of world affairs seemed limited. Also, the concept of fundraising for NGOs – especially those dealing with international disasters – wasn’t widespread. Japan’s contribution in overseas aid, drawn from its tax-payers, was regarded as sufficient. In Bosnia, we later saw evidence of this state-level support – it helped to restock Sarajevo’s bus fleet. Nonetheless, we managed to find two agencies which were running appeals for Kosovo – the Japanese Red Cross and the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan. Following a few phone-calls, we realised we could take action. Along with some dedicated friends, we launched into our campaign in Aomori.

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In spring 1999, we sold lapel badges that we’d made from silk cherry blossom. Attached to each flower was a paper leaf on which we printed the word Kosobo (the Japanese language has no phoneme ‘v’) in katakana script: コソボ. Next, we organised a ‘Balkan dinner’ in Aomori city’s cultural centre. This was indeed a gastronomic novelty. Nerve-wrecking too, as I had to instruct a group of far more proficient cooks on how to make burek from specially ordered filo pastry. It was all a bit surreal… though, according to our guests, very tasty. The historic town of Hirosaki then hosted our monster jumble sale. We weren’t sure if this idea would wash in a country where the sparkling new seemed so highly prized, but we were amazed at the positive response. Bargain hunting must be an innate human trait. For soon our stalls were empty and our collection boxes full. We talked at length about Balkan issues throughout this time, in particular, with my students at their school festival that summer. From their reactions, it was obvious that we’d taught them something of the world beyond the curriculum, something they might remember in future years. Finally, in December, we held a children’s Christmas party, with gifts from a beanpole Santa Claus who spoke with a suspiciously Bosnian lilt. Fortunately, he didn’t scare the kids!

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Altogether, we raised the equivalent of several thousand Irish pounds, or euro, guessing at the current exchange rate. The figure in yen – almost a million – was even more impressive. But the purpose of the venture couldn’t be measured in money. We were motivated simply by a responsibility to act, irrespective of distance, in relation to events that had personal significance. For us, the most valuable outcome was that so many people became aware of a situation about which they’d have otherwise known little.

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No-one involved in our Kosovo campaign could’ve envisaged that, twelve years later, Japan would be on the receiving end of international aid. On 11 March, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook the country – its epicentre at sea, only 130 km from the city of Sendai. Worse, it generated a devastating tsunami which inundated an extensive stretch of populated coastline. Aomori was badly hit. Although our city was sheltered by a peninsula, other parts of the prefecture were less lucky. Along its Pacific fringe, a wall of water slammed down upon towns like Hachinohe. Boats were tossed onto land, cars swept away. Homes vanished and their occupants were drowned. All this destruction near the sandy beach where our baby daughter had once splashed her feet in the ocean…

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Over the years, we’d lost contact with Aomori – moving and the demands of work and kids meant our links went neglected. But after hearing news of this catastrophe, we had to get in touch. Trying old-email addresses, most no longer valid, I got a reply from one of the teachers from my school. Then we found another friend on Facebook. While the enormity of the disaster, exacerbated by damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant, continued to emerge. Though better equipped for a crisis of this scale than the majority of nations and with a proud record of self-reliance, Japan requested outside assistance. The Ireland Japan Association (IJA) issued an appeal on behalf of the victims. From our village on the shores of the Irish Sea, where spring-tides are a warning of the savage force of water, we knew we had to respond.

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Our Aomori-born daughter turned eleven that April, so we used the occasion to make a contribution. She invited her schoolmates to a Japanese-themed birthday party held in the local community centre and, in lieu of presents, asked for donations to the IJA appeal. With karaoke, origami and an Irish attempt at sushi, the kids had lots of fun. There were games like a ’round Japan treasure hunt’ and a ‘chopsticks challenge’ – which required great dexterity to progress from picking up crisps and marshmallows to much trickier small sweets. For the adults, we also organised a pub-quiz which surprised competing teams with its Japanese twist! But the mental exertion was worthwhile, given the fine range of prizes we’d received from shops and businesses in the area. Their support was particularly generous as it came when trade was suffering as a result of the recession. Between these two events, we raised over €1800 – in cash donated to the Ireland Japan Association and a sterling draft made payable to the UK branch of the Red Cross. Again, it was just a tiny gesture – the only sign of solidarity we could offer the Japanese people from far-off Ireland. An arigatō for the concern they’d shown for refugees fleeing Kosovo.

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Two and a half years on, the legacy of the Tōhoku Earthquake still haunts Japan. The thousands of lives lost can’t be reclaimed. The chunks of coast swallowed by the killer wave can’t be restored. The north-east littoral is forever scarred. To this day, the Fukushima reactors remain unstable, leaking toxins in a radioactive nightmare that will likely last for decades. Yet our Japanese friends, in messages they sent us after the tragedy, emphasised their refusal to ‘give up’. Maybe it was a knee-jerk means of coping with collective trauma. Some might say it was merely echoing an official narrative readily absorbed in a place where group-think often stifles the individual voice. Possibly, to an extent, although there have been protests at the state’s handling of the nuclear fiasco and citizens are prepared to express their dissatisfaction.

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We read our friends’ comments as those of pure resilience. That strength in the face of adversity which we’d heard repeatedly when we were in Japan. Their words spoke their desire to reconstruct a broken country. Of course, it’s too soon to determine whether the Japanese authorities will honour their wish. And, no doubt, many people already feel disillusioned. But that attitude of striving together for the common good is one we Europeans should consider. It may sound naïve to cynical ears, including my own, though perhaps we could adopt a similar philosophy – telling ourselves: ‘let’s do our best’ to make things better. Ganbarimashō!

Guess who’s meeting the parents…

It started in a Dublin pub. Two odd bods, not your typical punters, huddled over a table. One spoke with a Slavic accent – unusual for Ireland in 1995. The other dressed in a flamboyant ensemble, hot off the Oxfam rails.

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We must’ve looked nervous. Sipping pineapple juice and Coca Cola, our drinks gave no Dutch courage for the task ahead. But, at least, the place was quiet. It was early enough in the evening – May or June, so barely dusk. And the phone was tucked away in a snug corner. We shoved a few coins into it. I grabbed the receiver, waited… until my mother answered. Here’s the gist of the conversation that followed:

‘I’m coming up at the weekend.’

At that announcement, Mum expressed surprise. During my college years, my visits home were infrequent. Female students – unlike their male peers – generally do their own laundry. And I enjoyed my independence, beyond the radar of ever-anxious parents. Still, there comes a point when generations must merge in a new way. But dealing with this, for the first time, wasn’t easy.

‘And eh… is it OK if I take someone with me?’

‘Who?’ I sensed apprehension at the other end.

‘Eh… like… a fella?’

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Maternal palpitations pulsed down the line, along with implorations to divine powers. This was unchartered territory for my mother – hearing from her eldest about what, she’d immediately guess, was a serious relationship. Never before had a boyfriend been brought home… No ‘passing interest’ would’ve been worth the effort and, in truth, I’d steered clear of amorous attachments. There’d been offers, but I’d tended to fob them off – the last thing I needed to impede my youthful dreams was a man. Or so I believed, until I met a certain Bosnian… and discovered I might be the world’s only ‘romantic feminist’. Naturally, Mum was curious about my obviously ‘special’ companion. Interrogations began. And I remember saying:

‘Well, he’s not exactly Irish.’

A second or two of silence… my mother paused for deduction. At moments like these, I think she’s possessed of an uncannily strong sixth sense. Although sussing out the secret lives of daughters is a skill I’m trying to cultivate myself. Anyhow, she suspected a Balkan connection. She hadn’t approved of me spending the previous two summers in refugee camps in that conflict-torn region. Apparently I was ‘mad in the head’ for going there. Yet she knew the experience had left its imprint, even if I hadn’t filled her in on my subsequent involvement with newly-arrived Bosnians in Ireland. As far she was concerned, I was supposed to have buckled back down to my studies. Nevertheless, presuming an old beau from my travels, she asked:

‘What, is he from Croatia?’

‘No, but close… Bosnia.’

Mum’s response was muted – a whispered litany pleading for heavenly intercession. I blithely told her the name of my beloved and, no doubt, sang his praises. Then the pips… I’d run out of ten pence pieces. A blessing, really. My mother could digest the facts, before we resumed with Part II of ‘telling the parents’. Meanwhile, we sauntered across inner-city Dublin. After stopping at a shop for some spare change, we finally found a phone-box that hadn’t been wrecked by vandals.

G1

‘Hi, it’s me again…’ On the far side, Mum still sounded out breath, so I breezed on: ‘There’s just one thing I forgot to tell you. Don’t cook ham – or any kind of pork – for dinner.’

‘Why?’

‘’Cause he’s a Muslim…’

My mother might’ve already worked this out. The mid-nineties were pre-Google days but, from years of war reports, the ethnicities of Bosnia and Herzegovina were infamous. Whether or not she’d figured, panic crept into her tone. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were invoked, as I recall. It wasn’t prejudice, just the shock of confronting the unforeseen. And information overload… I’d thrown a lot of stuff at her in less than an hour. Getting over the concept of ‘boyfriend’ was the greatest hurdle. Now, with three girls of my own, I can understand her turmoil. When the first of my daughters tells me about her ‘Chosen One’, how will I react? It must be a seismic jolt to the parent-child dynamic. The differences of nationality and religion were further tremors. Significant, though, on the worry scale of a woman who’d always lived in rural Ireland. I reassured her that everything would be fine. Then, I asked if she’d break the news to my father…

G6

Our visit to my homestead ‘passed off peacefully’, as they say of tension-charged events in the north of Ireland. There were some isolated faux pas… My dearest had to learn that taking photos of British army helicopters was not a good idea, while my Dad’s questions about life in the ‘former Czechoslovakia’ had me cringing with embarrassment. Reading Aleksandar Hemon’s wonderful ‘The Book of My Lives’, in which he traces his displacement from Sarajevo to Chicago, I laughed at similar queries he received from clueless Americans. Nowadays, though, my parents often get on better with their Bosnian son-in-law than with his wayward wife. To claim that they’ve embraced interculturalism is, perhaps, an exaggeration. But they’ve had their eyes opened to ‘otherness’ over the years.

Likewise, in Sarajevo, it took time to get used to the ‘blow-in’ addition to the family. Ironically, compared to Ireland, I found less fuss was made about religion, despite how it’d been exploited to stoke hatred during the war. Although Bosnian society was becoming segregated, people still had friends of different faiths. Occasionally, while living there, I said, ‘it’d be easier to be a Protestant’ – a ‘neutral’ denomination in the ex-Yugoslav states. But overall, I was accepted, especially by those who cherished Bosnia’s multi-ethnic heritage.

G5

For my other half, being a Muslim in Ireland was somewhat ‘exotic’ back in the 1990s. In certain parts of the country, where religion and politics fuse, our relationship was preferable to one between a Catholic and a post-Reformation Christian. Foreigners also escaped some of the internecine censure which native ‘mixed’ couples often faced. However, after 9/11, it’s become a bit tougher… Thankfully, Islamophobic incidents are relatively rare here. But public attitudes towards Islam sometimes appear more negative, particularly as Ireland’s Muslim population increases.

Intolerance stems from preconceptions based on narrow stereotypes. And these are best overcome by meeting people. In our case, for both families, getting to know us as individuals tempered assumptions derived from raw indicators of identity. Of course, there’ll be instances of contention – integration demands negotiation. But it’s a worthwhile process, for the commonality among humankind, whatever our diverse backgrounds or beliefs, is so extensive.