For these international families, being multicultural brings benefits well worth the effort. While children find their footing in their adopted land, parents help keep them connected to their culture of origin while encouraging them to stitch their own identities.
By Michael Bernstein & Benjamin Wolf
The Morozov Family
“Lilly and I know that our parents aren’t really good at German,” said Jan, “so when we want to keep secrets we must speak it very quickly.”
Even ethnologists would find it difficult to define the Morozov family. Leo left the Soviet Union during Glasnost in 1991 to study in the U.S. and eventually became a British citizen. During the Lebanese civil war, Joy’s family moved to Saudi Arabia, where she attended the Lycée Français, and later moved to London, where the couple met. They married and moved to Zürich, where their son Jan was born.
In his day nursery, Jan picked up some French, but was learning Russian and Arabic from his respective parents, as well as English – the only common language his parents spoke.
Nearly 10 years ago, the Morozovs settled in Vienna, where Leo works in international banking and Joy for an international NGO, Light for the World. When Jan was still a toddler, “other kids couldn’t understand him no matter what language he tried to speak, so he became unhappy and felt excluded.”
It was important to both parents that Jan and his younger sister Lilly not be “stared at for sticking out,” said Joy, who has painful memories of having to read Dickens aloud even though she barely knew the language. The children now attend the Theresianum, a selective Gymnasium where language diversity is encouraged. German is their “native” language, but they take private lessons in Russian and Arabic – Lilly proudly displayed her neat Arabic penmanship
in her workbook.
Leo speaks only Russian to them, but they usually answer in German. Going back ‘home’ is visiting Joy’s family in the UK; it’s her British passport, she says, that gives her “an identity of freedom, total respect and mobility,” that her Lebanese one does not. The children take it for granted.
And Brexit? “A devastating blow.”
The Peranteau Family
“We want to embrace the culture while we are here. That’s why I would love my children to grow up bilingual. Vienna is our home now.”
Moving with a six-month-old toddler to a country where you don’t understand the language, much less know anybody, is a challenge not everybody would take on. However Americans Christine Benally Peranteau and her husband David did just that, when he was offered a job at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
Two years on, their son Gabriel, turning three this June, comes home from
the German-language Kinderkrippe babbling “meiner” (mine!), “Auto” (car) or “Weg, Mama, weg” (Mom, leave me alone!). “Sometimes he also mixes words, like ‘motorride’,” recounts Christine while plying her sunny eight-month-old daughter Zoe with strawberries.
The transition has had its share of obstacles, especially with the Austrian bureaucracy. Christine struggled with MA 10, Vienna’s Kindergarten authority, to secure a place for Gabriel. “It’s arduous, until you figure out what to do,” she admitted. Still, she praises Vienna for its free public kindergartens, its accessibility of transportation and its many playgrounds.
A native American (Navajo/Chocktaw) with a fondness for the German language, Christine welcomed the chance to go to Austria, but also steeled herself against potential difficulties. Now, she is beginning to feel at home here, establishing herself professionally as a documentary family photographer and watching her children grow up bilingual.
“If we could stay longer, we probably would,” Christine says. “Although my parents in New Mexico would not be so thrilled!”
The Friesacher Family
“I’m not just Austrian or Japanese,” said Akio, “but something more precious than either one alone or both together.”
Though Japanese, German and English are spoken interchangeably in the Friesacher home, the language of art, especially music, lies at the heart of this family’s identity.
Born in Carinthia the youngest of nine children, Herbert plays the trumpet. He met his Japanese wife, Ruiko, in the U.S. A hobby pianist, she’s the youngest of 10, but the only one to leave the country.
“It was my childhood dream to travel abroad,” she said. Ruiko found it difficult to raise her four boys in Vienna and give them all enough exposure to Japanese language and culture. All four were in the Vienna Boys Choir and music has continued to shape their lives.
Aseo (19) now studies jazz piano at the conservatory while Akio (22) plays bass guitar and studies math, biology and art. Kento (24) plays guitar for the Banana Joe Trio, which won first place at Austria’s Local Heroes band contest last year. After first studying information technology, the oldest brother Rene (26) decided to become a professional dancer.
Ruiko and Herbert, who works for the Korean Business Center in Vienna, have raised their boys to find their own way.
East Asian parents stereotypically “put a lot of pressure on their children,” Herbert asserted. “Children from mixed Euro-Asian parents have much more self-determination.”
The kids have inherited Ruiko’s Wanderlust. Akio studied in South Africa for six months and Kento spent years busking his way through Asia, including several months in Japan, where he at last became fluent in his mother’s native tongue.
“I feel like a foreigner in both Japan and Austria,” he observed, “but having a national identity – Austrian or Japanese – is just not important to us. We are citizens of the world.”
The Ghazarian Family
“For my relatives in Peru I am ‘the cousin from Europe,’” said Nathalie. “Austria is just too small a country for them, but they love it when I show them pictures of snow.”
If the Ghazarian family were a dinner recipe, it might be some sort of Armenian-Peruvian stew, seasoned with a pinch of Turkish spices, served over Austrian Knödel. An unlikely combination, that over three decades has blended into a particularly rich international casserole.
Victoria first came to Vienna from Lima as an au pair and fell in love with Gazar, an Armenian who grew up in Istanbul, where he attended the Austrian school. Their two daughters Nathalie (24) and Melanie (19) have been raised in Vienna. “When Nathalie was born,” Victoria recalls, “my husband told me: Don’t speak German to her, you may teach her something wrong,” so she would speak only her native Spanish. Now, they mix Austro-German with Latin-American Spanish freely.
At elementary school it was not always easy for Nathalie, who was picked on for being “different.” There was a time when Melanie would admonish her mother for speaking Spanish: “We are in Austria and here one speaks German!”
Such troubles subsided with time. What remains is the asset of a second language and the enriching experiences won from the mixing of cultures. “Santa Claus would bring my Christmas presents,” said Nathalie. New Year’s Eve, too, was celebrated in the Peruvian way: “We would go to church to burn a puppet, symbolizing the outgoing year.” She feels little connection to her Armenian heritage; no strong family ties and no command of the language. Refusing to take sides in a battle of identity, she smiles and simply says, “I feel both – Austrian and Peruvian.”