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Saturday, December 3, 2022

Handed Down

How far up your family tree do you need to go to find cultural heritage?  What’s the story behind the lullaby your grandmother sang to your father?  Why does your roast chicken need a certain side dish  just like your mother made it — or the meal doesn’t seem complete?  Even if your last name has no apparent “flavor” to it, if you do a little shaking, you just might find some fruit worth savoring in that family tree.

Children benefit from identifying with a cultural group.  From this base they can feel a connection to others beyond their immediate family, and from the past to the future.  Cross-cultural connections are good for them, too.  In our shrinking global village, we can help children to respect and enjoy cultural diversity.  Here are some ideas for exploring cultural heritage.

Historical Backdrop

According to the Ellis Island website, nearly half the current population of the United States can be traced to ancestors coming through its portal. Each cultural group has its story — the Irish potato famine of 1846, the persecution of Russian Jews in 1882, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the war brides from Australia, Germany, France, the Philippines, or Japan, refugees from Vietnam, the civil war in El Salvador, and so on.  And there are stories to tell from families with long lines of local history  — Native Americans, indentured servants, and gentried farmers.  African-Americans are largely descended from the 10 – 12 million men, women, and children who survived the harrowing “middle passage” across the Atlantic as cargo only to endure the bitterness of slavery.

History continues. The Washington, D.C. area has one of the largest immigrant populations in the U.S. from African countries.  Many are students or political refugees.  Hispanics are riding a wave of immigration today, largely due to economic and educational opportunities lacking in their home countries.  At your next extended family gathering, or when you have your new neighbors over, seek out those personal stories of tribulation and triumph.  Whatever the tale, ancestral footprints provide a personal link to history.

The Stew Pot

Looking for a way to share traditions with your family through food?  Heritage is passed on in the ingredients and cooking methods, and in the traditions around foods for special occasions.  A cook in your family or circle of friends may treasure a long-held recipe for its ability to gather folk around the table.  Whether it’s kimchi, gumbo, chowder, goulash, succotash, ratatouille, or three- alarm chili, the dish has the power to draw people together in the present and link them to the past.  
Cultural dishes add vibrancy to holidays, weddings, and other festive occasions.  The distinct aroma of cheese kugel (noodle pudding) always puts me in mind of my mother’s relatives, who learned to cook the dish from Old Country elders.  It is easy to imagine the smell of traditional foods beckoning the spirits of celebrants beyond. A Polynesian spread for a neighbor’s christening — with a whole fish adorned with mango and papaya — conjured up an image for me of the new mother having attended similar feasts in other Polynesian households.  On this day, those faraway friends and absent relatives were with her.

I Didn’t Get Out of Bed With You This Morning

If you know the meaning of the above sentence, you probably have an African-American in your family tree. The remark is used sarcastically (usually in a good-natured way) to say “Good morning” to a family member or co-worker. In other words, if we had gotten out of bed together, we would have greeted each other before now. This phrase reflects the cultural value of acknowledging others with a respectful greeting. Proving the African origin of this value, a student of mine — a grandmother from Nigeria, routinely greeted me with “How are you and all the members of your family?”  And she expected a complete answer.

My Russian-born grandmother had a custom of taking both my hands to literally “hold” me in conversation.  It was in this position that she would ask how I was doing in school. There is no way to dodge the questions. I have since passed on the tradition with my children, particularly for those difficult discussions neither one of us wanted to have.

If your linguistic heritage includes a language other than English, you might want to add some phrases to your children’s vocabulary.  This will not only impress your elders, it will give your children a connection to more people in the world.  In that vein, take your family to ethnic festivals to not only enjoy the music and food, but to pick up phrases from people eager to share their heritage with you.

Chesapeake Family serves the parents and families in Annapolis, Baltimore, Anne Arundel County, Baltimore, Bowie, Calvert and Prince George’s counties and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Deborah Wood coordinates children’s activities at the annual Kunta Kinte Festival of African Heritage in Annapolis and has twice chaired the children’s activities for the Annapolis Jewish Festival.


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