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Maybe being different isn't so bad

By Abigail Green / January 23, 2007



When I was growing up, my family was different. And as any kid knows, different is bad. We called my father "Papa" rather than "Dad." My mother cooked pungent ethnic dishes instead of tuna noodle casseroles. We spent our vacations traipsing around Europe and getting stranded in airports. My father's favorite picture of me is my first passport photo. We weren't "normal."

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But it took me awhile to figure that out – and even longer to be OK with it.

When my brother and I were young, my family lived in a small town in Germany while my father was on sabbatical from his college teaching job. (Hence the moniker "Papa.") We lived in an old stone house ringed with grapevines. We slept under fluffy feather beds, and you had to pull a chain to flush the toilet. The local butcher and baker would sometimes slip me slices of bratwurst or tiny, exquisite animals made from marzipan.

I'm told I picked up the language quickly, as children do. My father likes to tell the story of the first time I taught him a German phrase. On the walk to kindergarten one day, I pointed at a splat on the sidewalk and said, "Look, Papa, Voge lah-ah!" Roughly translated, that means "bird doo-doo."

I don't remember that. However, I do recall an incident with a street vendor in our neighborhood. One afternoon, my mother handed me a few coins and told me to run outside and buy a loaf of bread. Together, we rehearsed my lines several times until I had them down pat. I approached the man alone, with hands that shook only slightly. "I would like to buy one loaf of pumpernickel bread, please," I said in my childish German.

His reply was along the lines of, "Kid, I don't have any bread. I sell fish!" Hot tears snaked from my eyes as I turned and fled home, furious with my mother for embarrassing me.

Maybe that's when I started to think my multicultural upbringing wasn't so great.

But when we returned home to the United States, my parents were determined to retain some vestiges of our life abroad. A new rule was implemented: On Saturdays, only German would be spoken at our house.

It didn't work. Now that we were back home, my brother and I were loath to do anything different from what our friends' families did.

So my father tricked us. He invited over a colleague who pretended that she spoke only German. I'm not sure how long my parents kept up this ruse before we figured it out.

Still, my father never gave up trying to impose a global perspective on his American offspring. When we were teenagers, he regularly invited foreign exchange students to dinner at our house.

One student, Patrick, was from Moldova, a country I'd never heard of, let alone could place on a map. Patrick was bright, enthusiastic, and articulate. I was convinced my father liked him better than my brother and me. The two of them would energetically discuss politics, economics, and religion, while my brother and I slumped silently over our plates and counted the minutes until we could go back to watching TV and talking on the phone.

But during the summer, I still had to spend vacations living in cramped faculty housing in Amsterdam, Berlin, or Cambridge, England, when I'd rather have been hanging out at the beach with my friends back home.

For a long time, I blamed my parents for breaking up my budding romance with a neighbor boy. While I was dragged off to some country where they'd never heard of MTV or flavored lip gloss, he got back together with his old girlfriend.

It wasn't just the constant travel that put me off my parents' lifestyle. It was also that we were poor.

Or, at least, I thought we were.

Our modest house was furnished with brick-and-board bookcases and hand-me-down furniture. Our cars were older-model sedans with cracked vinyl interiors. Of course, I didn't particularly notice – or care – until I got to high school and made friends with kids who got new Jeeps for their 16th birthdays and lived in sleek, white-carpeted condos.

When I was applying to college, I had to ask my parents how much they earned. I was shocked at their response, which was more than I thought teachers made. My mother explained that it wasn't that we couldn't afford nice furniture and new cars, it was just that she and my father preferred to spend their money on travel and education.

That was cold comfort to a teenager who'd rather have had her own wheels than spend a month being dragged through every museum in London.

In retrospect, I should have appreciated the experiences my parents provided our family, not to mention the time they spent with us. Instead, I wished for the thrilling liberty of my latchkey friends.

But somewhere along the line, my parents' views rubbed off on me. I majored in French in college and spent time abroad – even though it wasn't required for graduation. When I got married, my husband and I didn't go to some luxury Caribbean resort on our honeymoon – we went hiking in Costa Rica. And I admit, I'd rather save up for a vacation than buy a new coffee table.

We welcomed our first child a few months ago. For the nursery theme, I passed up Mickey Mouse in favor of the worldly French pachyderm, Babar. I registered for some multilingual "Baby Einstein" DVDs and a special German baby carrier.

Papa's thrilled about being a grandfather. I hope we'll teach this child that in our family, different is OK. And I promise not to trick him into speaking a foreign language on weekends.

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