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Living As an Immigrant Family

May 13, 2021 ● By Jamie O’Donnell

Just a few weeks after my twenty-fourth birthday, I boarded a plane with my husband of two years and my nearly one-year-old son to move to a foreign country. Now as a mother of four kids ages six to fourteen, I can hardly believe the bravery and naivete of that young girl. While I was acutely aware of the American family milestones I was leaving behind—themed kid birthday parties, weekends at grandma’s, trick-or-treating—I really had no idea how much my motherhood would be shaped by the next twelve years in Japan.

Learning to Live Like Others

We moved in partnership with a non-profit, and a specific aspect of our job description was cultural adaptation and integration. For the purpose of understanding our Japanese neighbors, we spoke their language and adopted their customs as much as possible: I gave birth in the home of a Japanese midwife, we cooked rice almost daily, and our kids attended Japanese public schools. As a white American in a 98.8% homogeneous culture, I was painfully aware that I would never fully be part of the group, but I channeled my rural midwestern work ethic to give it my best shot.

Though mothers across cultures worry about diet, sleep, and education, there are aspects of parenting in Japan that I observed as demonstrably different than those in America. For instance, mothers co-sleep with their young children well into elementary school, which is known to foster “skinship” and a sense of security for both parties. Along these same lines of intimate closeness, family bathing is a regular occurrence, with moms and dads often describing relaxing naked together in the bath as the only scenario in which their kids will discuss important life events. After entering first grade at age six (and they all do, there is no flexibility around starting ages in Japan), young students begin walking to school by themselves and are given classroom responsibilities, such as cleaning floors each day and serving lunch to their peers.

While there is no way to do justice to these topics in just a few sentences (I could probably write a book just about the fascinating Japanese elementary experience), the point is that each is a distinct example of how American and Japanese sensibilities differ. And if I wanted to culturally survive my time in Japan, learning how to tolerate, accept, and celebrate ideas that were contrary to how I grew up was a necessity. Our whole family misses the Japanese bathing culture—public baths were a frequent family outing that even our six-year-old talks about with nostalgia. We co-slept with all our babies and still feel slightly uncomfortable if we aren’t able to share walls or be near each other when it’s time to say goodnight. And each of our kids who were able to attend elementary school walked there and home each day alone.

Understanding the Immigrant Family

Though the plans had been in the works for over a year, our family’s move to Lincoln in March 2020 just happened to coincide with the beginning of the pandemic. As we’ve spent the past year relearning another culture and language (literally, as one child had never read books in English!), I’ve thought often about the families around me who are attempting the same. Lincoln has a continued reputation as a refugee resettlement city, with people from Vietnam, Sudan, Myanmar and more taking the frightening leap to make this new place their home. Whatever our first language or culture, how can we teach kids to value those who are different to them, those whose customs or family practices are unfamiliar? 

I believe an important initial step is to first do the work as parents. As someone who was regularly the out-of-place foreigner in the school pick-up line or the PTA meeting, I remember the feelings of inadequacy and apprehension that followed me into those spaces. Let’s educate ourselves about the cultures that are represented in our children’s classrooms or within our neighborhoods. Next time you’re standing outside the school or waiting for a meeting to begin, be present with the people around you. If the opportunity arises, be brave enough to introduce yourself to someone new. 

Just last week, I exchanged a few sentences with a man from Thailand whose son is in my daughter’s grade. With simple English and gestures, we shared about our kids and laughed for a minute or two before going our separate ways; I was reminded that before we learn languages and develop customs, we are simply humans learning to live. If we engage people we consider to be different—whether that’s a cultural distinction or otherwise—we open ourselves to a wealth of human connection. And if we have the eyes to see it and the bravery to approach it, I believe connecting with someone in that way will be greatly rewarding.


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