Updated: Jan 25, 2020
One of the things you don't really get taught when you become a refugee foster parent is that the gulf between your culture and your foster child's culture is probably going to be vast. (And by vast, I mean massive. Like, unfathomably huge!) You're going to unwittingly say and do things that your new kid will find offensive, or hurtful, or deeply confusing. And vice versa. Stuff that would never have occurred to you. Stuff that you couldn't possibly have imagined because cultures are so full of complexities and taboos and unspoken rules.
So until you do or say that one thing that freaks them out, you won't even realize it's an issue. And they might not even know how to tell you why they're so weirded out, which means you'll be left guessing at why they responded that way. Or wondering why they never do that one thing that everyone knows is the only appropriate response in certain situations. Because culture.
You'd be amazed at all the little things that are totally different in other people's cultures.
We ran into a lot of that stuff, especially in the first year. Our foster daughter comes from a culture where touching the top of a person's head is a major no-no. Especially a child's head. They believe the top of the head houses the soul, and so touching anyone's scalp is a major breach of etiquette. We had no idea. But because we're a relatively affectionate family, and we could tell she wasn't comfortable with hugging us, I fell into the habit of making what I thought were small gestures of affection intended to remind her that we cared about her.
I would touch her shoulder as I walked by, or run my hand gently across her hair. Things that were meant to convey the fact that I wanted her to feel included in the family's displays of affection, without putting myself into her personal bubble. It was months before my husband happened to read something about cultural practices in her country, and discovered the fact that touching her head was unacceptable.
We asked her about it and she explained that it was taboo in her country, but she hadn't known how to tell us. As you can imagine, we felt pretty terrible. We'd had no idea that was even a thing. So we stopped touching her head. Although every now and then she would sit and put her head in my lap and ask me to play with her hair, which I assume meant it was okay. Because it was an invited touch. But it was a significant learning curve for us.
Minding your P's and Q's isn't a universal concept.
Another cultural difference we ran into was the issue of expressing thanks. In her culture, saying 'thank you' isn't really something people do. (Not because they're rude, but simply because it isn't considered necessary.) So if you gave her something, or did something for her, she would just accept it in silence and walk away. And it really bothered me.
Why? Because I'd been raised in a British colony and if there's one thing the Brits put a lot of stock in (besides drinking tea and standing in queues and making great murder mystery TV shows) it's etiquette. I'd been raised to say thank you whenever someone did anything for you - even if it was something you didn't really want, you still expressed gratitude for the time and effort they expended on your behalf. And I'd raised my kids to do the same. So to suddenly have a kid who never said thank you for anything was both disconcerting and extremely frustrating.
It caused no end of friction for us, and I found myself chiding her regularly for not saying thank you (which she never complained about doing, but constantly had to be reminded of.) It wasn't until I had a conversation with a friend of mine who'd married a man raised in the same culture as my daughter, that I came to understand. My friend and I were talking about some of the challenges of living in a multi-cultural household, and she mentioned that one of her struggles had been addressing the 'thank you' issue, and suddenly it was like a light bulb went off in my head.
Ding ding! Turns out I was wrong. (Who knew?)
All this time I had thought she was just rude. Or badly raised. But as it turns out, she was simply operating the way everyone in her culture operated. She didn't say thank you because no one said thank you where she came from. Not unless what you'd done for them was massive, and they were thanking you for something life-changing. In which case it was considered appropriate. But for everyday stuff? Nope.
So I had a conversation with her about it. I told her what I'd found out, and - thank goodness - we laughed about how differently our cultures had conditioned us with regard to things like that. But it also provided me with an opportunity to explain that while it wasn't wrong to operate the way she'd be raised (with regard to expressing gratitude for small, everyday things) it was considered polite in western society to say thank you. And if she learned to do it, it would make life a little easier for her in the long run. People (like me) who didn't understand where she came from would be less likely to judge her, or assume that she was rude or impolite. She agreed that it made sense to make an effort to adopt the custom while she lived here.
And so she did. I had to remind her less as time went by, and she got into the habit of thanking people when they helped her, or bought her something, or did something for her. And now she doesn't think twice about it. But it was another valuable reminder for me to never assume anything about someone who was raised in a different culture.
A little education goes a long way!
If I had some advice for you on the issue of cultural differences (especially if you're planning to become a refugee foster parent) it would be this:
Educate yourself on your child' culture as early as possible (learn about taboos, cultural norms, daily practices in their tribe and country, so you can adjust your expectations accordingly)
Never assume anything. (You'd be amazed at how little you actually know about someone whose upbringing was utterly foreign to your own!)
The world is full of customs and practices that are super duper foreign to Americans. Like the fact that showing the soles of your feet is offensive in many Arab countries, not taking your shoes off when entering a home in Japan is considered extremely rude, and not declining an offered gift at least three times before excepting it in China is frowned upon. Wherever you go in the world, you're likely to unwittingly offend someone by doing something you thought was perfectly normal. Because to you it is. And to them it isn't. So keep that in mind when your kid arrives, freshly squeezed out of a culture that's totally different to yours, and likely to have no idea what's 'normal' to you. You'll end up saving yourself (and them) a lot of frustration in the long run.
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