Multiples and Age Hierarchy

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My ex-husband and I decided early on not to tell the girls who was born first, because we thought that introducing an older-younger sibling dynamic to our twins’ relationship wouldn’t be healthy. Reanbean has written on this topic on HDYDI before.

Bangladesh is so tiny as to be nearly invisible on the world map.My family hails from Bangladesh, a tiny country in South Asia, surrounded on three sides by India, and on the other by the Indian Ocean. The culture is a very hierarchical one, and birth order is of great significance. Our having twins seriously messes with that hierarchy. I have a cousin living in Missouri who 9-year-old son is constantly perplexed by how to fit his twin cousins into the family hierarchy. He pesters me relentlessly to tell him who is older, to which I consistently respond, “They’re the same age.”

His question is a practical one. Kinship terms in Bengali hang on birth order. A paternal uncle who is older than your father is your Chacha; one who is younger is a Kaka. A younger sibling calls an older brother or male cousin Bhaiya, while the older sibling just uses the younger’s name. The female older sibling term is Apa. I recently learned that I’ve been committing a major faux pas by calling my brother-in-law Dula Bhai. Since he’s married to my younger sister, I should refer to him by name even though I’m younger than he is.

My refusal to label my daughters as older and younger has really messed with the family order on the Bangladeshi side. I feel for my cousin’s son and his confusion. I’ve been calling my brother-in-law the wrong thing for 3 years now.

Not long ago, I found myself unable to deflect the birth order question. I’ll tell you how it went another day. The result wasn’t the one I’d expected.

 

Sadia is a single mom of 6-year-old monozygotic girls living in Central Texas.

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The Soda Culture

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The first graders at my daughters’ school took a field trip to see Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. I’m all for field trips. If this one got kids excited about Dr. Seuss and reading, so much the better.

There was one thing about the field trip announcement that bothered me, though. The movie snack pack would include popcorn, soda and a treat.

This note describes a school field trip to see The Lorax.

Am I alone in the universe in thinking that giving 5- to 7-year-old children soda to drink crosses a line? The popcorn, and even the candy, don’t bother me much. We eat both these things at home, in moderation. Adding soda to that, though, seemed like too much. All the more astonishing to me was that my girls weren’t even offered water, even though I’d jotted a note on both their permission slips requesting water for them. At lunch, too, they told me that they were only offered sodas.

J and M’s first exposure to sugary sodas was soon after we moved to El Paso. They were given it at daycare. They then stopped going to daycare, and fast. Once they’d had a taste, I didn’t think that forbidding sugary drinks would accomplish the goal of good decision-making. Instead, we struck a deal. When I drank soda, they could drink soda. This has been keeping us all honest. We limit ourselves to a sweet drink, other than juice or milk, once a month, just as we limit chocolate and other candy to once or twice a week.

Obviously, kids drinking soda is part of the culture here, but is it any surprise that we have an obesity problem? How can I encourage the kids to choose healthy options when their peers often don’t?

How do you go about bucking trends or local culture when you want your kids to choose differently?

Sadia, her husband, and their twin 5-year-old daughters, M and J, are still learning about the culture of the Borderlands, following a move to El Paso from Central Texas in August 2011.

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MLK Day Is More Than a Day Off

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Growing up in the UK and Bangladesh, I was raised on Mahatma Gandhi’s life story and words as the embodiment of a worldwide move towards civil rights and mutual respect between people and between peoples. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied those same values, and today’s US-wide commemoration of his achievements is a reminder to discuss his legacy with our daughters, now aged 5.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t taking full advantage on an extra day off work and school. We let J and M stay up an hour past bedtime last night to watch The Empire Strikes Back for the first time. Do you remember the first time you heard the line, “Luke, I am your father.”? It was quite something to see the looks on our girls’ faces! We’re showing the Star Wars films to the girls in the order in which they were released. We’re old-school nerds like that.

Before I read Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, I hadn’t given much thought to talking to the girls about diversity. I figured that our multicultural, interracial, international, interfaith marriage would speak for itself. Bronson and Merryman’s chapter on talking about race influenced me deeply, however, and I committed to discussing these issues with our daughters.

M was the one to bring up MLK at dinner last night. “We watched a movie about King Martin Junior at school,” she told us.

Dr. King

We clarified Dr. King’s name, and talked about his accomplishments. We boiled it down to something pretty simple: Dr. King helped people understand that everyone could be friends, regardless of the colour of their skin. “Oh!” observed M, “Like we’re a family, but you have dark brown skin and me and Sissy and Daddy is peach?” She has previously described her very fair-skinned White grandmother as “pink.”

Sadia and family

That seemed like a decent enough introduction to the lessons of MLK Day, so we left it that for dinner time. Later, however, J brought up MLK, and I had a burst of inspiration.

Me: You’ve always had a sister, right! And that’s pretty special. Does that mean you can’t have friends who don’t have sisters?
J: No. [Classmate] has no sister, and he is my friend. I don’t know very much about having no sister and brother except you have to play by yourself and that is sad.
Me: You and [Classmate] are different when it comes to having brothers or sisters, but you can learn from each other.
J: I love [Former neighbour] and she has no brother or sister.
Me: I love her too. It would be pretty sad if you only had friends who were exactly like you.
J: I would miss [Former neighbour].
Me: What Martin Luther King, Jr. and his friends taught us was to be friends with people who are different in all kinds of ways.

I could use that reminder myself. It’s time for me to stop complaining about how rude and insular people are in our new town, and make a real effort at understanding the culture here. It’s time for me to embrace differences. As is so often the case, teaching my children reminds me to a better person.

In what ways has raising your children reminded you of your values? Are you a better person for being a parent?

Sadia is working US army wife and mother of 5-year-old twin girls. She and her family recently moved to El Paso, Texas.

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Ask the Readers: Happy Halloween

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My cousin Cynthia posed a question: What is the real meaning of Halloween?

She lives in Bangladesh, where we don’t celebrate Halloween at all. I was tempted to point her to the old Celtic festivals that seem to have birthed Halloween, but who really thinks about that as they’re handing out candy to miniature goblins and witches?

So, here’s a question for the readers:

What does Halloween mean to you?

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"Afu ge ge", "Leila mei mei"

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“Which twin is older?” The question is absurd. In China, I get it all the time. And it works me up.
“They are twins. They are the same age.” I reply, irritated.
“Yes, but they didn’t both come out at the same time, did they? One had to have been born first.”
They insist, “Is she the older sister or is he the older brother?”
“But they were born minutes apart. What’s the big deal?!”

In Chinese there are no words for sister or brother; only for older brother “ge ge”, younger brother “di di”, older sister “jie jie”, and younger sister “mei mei.”

I don’t want to impose birth-order stereotypes on L and R; they are born 7 minutes apart. When L joined us at home, 3 weeks after R, Maher and I both unintentionally spoke to Rahul referring to Leila as his little sister. It was more in the sense of endearment and physical size than of age. But we quickly realized that it was untrue, and imagined implications of such labeling. We stopped.

When we returned to Chengdu from Hong Kong 5 months after the birth, our ayi (nanny) would tell R, “Look, Leila mei mei is sleeping. Why don’t you sleep as well?” I was upset. Drop the comparison, that issue is for another post. I firmly asked the people close to us – ayi’s (nannies), Chinese friends – not to use ge ge and mei mei; but to refer to Rahul and Leila as Rahul and Leila. Initially, they considered my request strange. I was interfering with cultural norms and habits. I insisted. They complied, at first with an uncomfortable smile, and probably a thought of how the lao wai (foreigners) always do things strangely. Now, they don’t hesitate. I’ve heard our ayi herself telling people in the street – “How can one be older? They are twins.” And if pushed she says, “I don’t know who was born first,” and then she looks at me to save her from the situation!

From what I remember of my Social Psychology 101 class, and various family talks, the oldest child is more responsible, self-motivated, and more dutiful, the middle child struggles for attention, and the youngest child is light-hearted, sometimes babied. It’s not as “straightforward” as that in reality, and certainly not in our household. I hope R doesn’t turn around one day and say a silly thing like, “That’s the way it goes because I am your older brother,” or someone guilt trips him with, “but she’s your little sister.”

When we go downstairs to play with the other kids in the complex, mums often tell their children, “You are her older brother. Let her play with your toy.” In China today, it’s rare that a child has a brother or a sister; so mum is usually referring to her child’s playmate. L and R may not know any of their friend’s names, but they know who is older and who is younger than them.

About half a year ago, R surprised me when he pointed at himself and said, “Afu, ge ge”. (R calls himself Afu. It’s his Sichuanese name.)  In another incident, a mum of a two year old girl asked me if L is a jie jie or a mei mei. Before I could say anything, L pointed at herself and replied proudly, “Leila, mei mei.”

L and R were obviously beginning to understand what people say. I realized that unless they use the words describing their relationships, they won’t be able to refer to their friends or themselves in an understandable, and respectable manner.

I am impressed that they know the words, and maybe the meaning. I don’t think they understand what the words imply in relation to each other, but they know that’s who they are.

A few weeks ago, a pair of 22 year old identical Chinese twin girls automatically introduced themselves to me as older sister and younger sister. When I dug deeper, probed them on whether they actually feel like one is older and if they live by that, “not really,” older sister replied, “At home we call each other by name. It is just for others that we use mei mei and jie jie.”

Other than it being a naming issue, it is a cultural one. We live in China, L and R were born in HK, and speak Chinese, so it only makes sense that they follow the social and cultural norms when engaging in society here. Now, when people in the street ask me the question, I answer straight up, R ge ge and L mei mei. Still some days, when I am in a feisty mood, I refuse to answer.

At home, with ayi’s and friends, we stick to L and R.

How do you answer the question, “Which twin is older?” If you have older twins or multiples, what are their thoughts on this?

 

Natasha, mum of Leila and Rahul was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until her little yogis became the teachers. You can find more of her thoughts and stories at Our Little Yogis.

 

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