June 8th, 2007

This thought process started here.
International adoptive parents’ desire to bring as much birth culture as possible into the life of their children is nobel and respectful, but no matter how much you strive to duplicate native foods, celebrate important holidays or practice ancient dance in traditional dress, you can’t help but be missing most of the basic of basics your kids would be have been experiencing.

Although I can’t pass on subtle differences between Cambodian parenting and the more American way of doing things, I can point out some things I’ve noticed over the years I’ve lived in Seychelles to illustrate the wide range of variation in attitudes, styles and methods that parenting takes in different places.


For example, babies here are always fully dressed and never without a hat and booties. Most often the entire ensemble is made from synthetic fibers and has all the breathability of a plastic sack. With the temperature always hovering around 90F I break out in prickly heat just looking at the poor little tykes. Their mothers, however, are convinced that the kid will catch a dangerous chill if any one of the rare cooling breezes that occasionally waft over the island should happen to find them unbundled, hatless and with bare feet.

(I have wondered if this isn’t at least part of the reason that grown Seychellois react to the heat so differently from transplants. When tourists are sweating their mascara into a full Tammy Faye, my friends and neighbors are looking dry and fresh.)

I know for a fact that many Seychelloise mothers are appalled by some aspects of my parenting … just taking my babies out of the house hat- and shoe-less always brought comments when Sam and Cj were little, and slings are considered way weird. Many don’t understand at all why I bother talking to babies … kids here are seriously under-stimulated because conversations with infants are thought to be a waste of time … and think I’ve denied Cj an automatic right of the girl child because she doesn’t have pierced ears.

Note the red thing on Rocky’s forehead in the photo? That’s his mother’s cure for hiccups … any handy piece of string gets plucked, then stuck in her mouth, chewed and slobbered on, then stuck on the baby like a Third Eye. Wonder of wonders, ten, maybe fifteen minutes later the hiccups stop.

You know the white gunk that sometimes coats an infant’s tongue? Mothers in Seychelles don’t like that stuff and have a standard cure — they scrape the baby’s tongue with the tail of a dead fish. I kid you not. They’ll do that daily until the coating is gone … or they run out of fish tails.

And … if a baby is suffering with teething, all swollen gums and no eruptions, a mom will take the child to the nearest marsh, catch a small fish called a makanbale, take the living fish off the hook, rub it all over the kid’s gums, then release it to swim away with the pain and the problem.

(Both these ‘cures’ always put me in mind of the phrase, “baited breath”. Sorry about that.)

Tea is considered a proper drink for babies … regular strong black, caffeine-ladened tea … and all kids get at least one cup per day as a matter of course. Heavily sweetened with condensed milk, it takes over where breast milk leaves off.

Stewed fish heads are a popular first finger food, and babies get very good at sucking out the yummy eyes first thing to make a finger-hold through the sockets.

Babies are also rarely seen in public without their full complement of jewelry. Necklaces that have me envisioning strangulation, earrings and bracelets with dangling bits that scream, to me, “choking hazard”, are de rigueur.

Unlike kids raised in America by American parents, my kids have are subject to my style, the local style … although I’ve managed to keep Mark’s grandmother from coming at their mouths with any live fish … and vestiges of British parenting. What they don’t have is anything Cambodian in their day-to-day, so even though we’ll be visiting their birth country every few years as they grow up, it will always be strange to them, and they will always be strangers there.

Is this sad? Yes, it’s a loss. Through no choice or fault of their own, they’ve lost their chance to grow up in the country of their birth, and even if they move back to Cambodia later in life they will not live or parent like Khmers.

Is it tragic? No. It’s life, and although international adopted kids miss out on much, the fabric of their lives becomes richer for the layers of experience they enjoy when influences come from many directions.

4 Responses to “You’re gonna do WHAT to that kid?”

  1. karig2 says:

    Great post Sandra. I love all the details of parenting Seychelles style. Okay, the fish -eye sucking part is gross, but if you’ve been doing it since babyhood…

    While the point you make is accurate, our kids won’t experience Cambodian as part and parcel of their being, they do get to experience and learn bits of all sorts of cultures all around the world that most people in Cambodia can’t even fathom. So what is better a one dimension cultural experience, or a multi-dimensional one? Why judge it? They’re just different with equal depth and richness.

    You know, Cambodian Americans who grow up in Cambodian families feel the same strange outsiderness in Cambodia. Raised on the American diet they grow much bigger as well. Our kids are not Cambodian, they are Cambodian American (or, as we like to say American Cambodian) As such, our main focus is attaining a level of comfort with the Cambodian American community. That’s where our kids can truly fit in with the people they look like. I have found the Cam-AM community very welcoming, because you know what, they are trying to fit in with us too!

  2. s says:

    What an entertaining and thought-provoking post. When we were in Ethiopia, a couple of ladies were just beside themselves when they saw our baby in the sling. I think they thought he would fall out or something (after mothering 3 sling babies, I have had 0 baby drops!) Also, a lady on the plane on the way home kept after me to keep our poor little guy completely smothered in blankets. She told me that I had him wrapped in the American way, but this was not an American baby and he needed to be wrapped in the African way. I did not agree, as he cried when wrapped so tightly, but I wasn’t about to make an issue of it. So we found ourselves sneaking little openings into his blankets when the ladies weren’t looking just to try to keep him happy.

  3. Sunbonnet Sue says:

    Sounds like Catherina is on her way to being a great mom, chewed string and all.

  4. Deb Donatti says:

    Spit-ball to the head huh? I am gonna have to try that.
    Very interesting the parenting pracices of other cultures. Sandra you should put them all togther in a book!

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