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Dublin: -2 °C Thursday 27 November, 2014

Column: I want my son to feel at home in Ireland, too

Raising a child between two cultures is never easy – especially when you’re halfway round the world, writes Paul Garrigan.

Paul Garrigan

BECOMING A FATHER has given me a new appreciation of Irish culture.

I’ve never been overly patriotic, but I do understand how growing up in Ireland shaped my personality and outlook on the world. I’ve lived away from this country for almost a quarter of a century, but this has not meant that I’ve become any less Irish. Home is home as they say. My son is only half-Irish and he is growing up in Thailand, but it is important to me that he feels some connection with my home.

Raising Timmy to feel part of two cultures is harder than I expected it to be. He is being shaped by his environment just like I was shaped by mine. I do try to encourage him to develop an interest in his Irish heritage, but I struggle to find ways to do this.

Timmy has visited Dublin three times, but he is still too young to absorb much from these trips (I know that I can remember very little of my life before the age of seven).  I’ve tried reading stories of Cu Chullainn and other Irish fairy tales, but they are a bit above his reading level. He prefers stories about Ben 10. I considered using Gaelic (even though I’m clueless with this language) as a means to encourage his Irishness, but these days it is difficult enough to get him to speak English.

The language wars

I rarely argue with my wife, but since Timmy was born I do sometimes feel in competition with her (or to be more specific her culture). Now that he has started school my son is immersed in Thai culture. He wants to be accepted by his peers, and this means behaving the same way as they do. I feel upset when his teachers say that he doesn’t like to speak English. This is the language he speaks at home, and I never speak to him in Thai. We moved nearer to Bangkok so that he could attend a reasonably priced bilingual school, but the pressure to conform means that he feels almost ashamed of his ability to speak my language.

This unwillingness to speak English outside the home is just one symptom of a problem that is likely going to get worse as Timmy gets older. In Thailand my son is referred to as a ‘luuk krung’ – a half child. There is an unspoken assumption that he is not fully Thai. He is left with the option of embracing his ‘outsider’ status or trying to be more Thai than the Thais. It seems to be fairly standard for ‘luuk krung’ to at least go through a short period of the latter.

There is also the risk that he might go to the other extreme. Timmy could grow up with a sense of entitlement, and the idea that he is a cut above everyone else. A common stereotype of the luuk krung is that they are spoilt and lazy, and it is easy to understand how their sense of being special could encourage them to behave this way.

Raising a child in a foreign culture

I’ve lived in Thailand for 12 years, but I still feel like an outsider looking in. I speak reasonable Thai, but there are aspects of the culture that are impenetrable to me. I suspect that Thai people who move to Ireland feel the same way. Maybe it is just impossible to fully understand a culture unless you grow up with it. Learning a new language is relatively easy, but understanding the subtle meaning behind the words is much harder. It is this difficulty in fully grasping the shared assumptions in Thailand that ensures my outsider status.

It can sometimes feel like Timmy is becoming a member of a club that I can never join. I worry that as he gets older his Thainess will put a barrier between us. Not that he will love me any less, but that there will be parts of his life that he feels unable to share with me. This is something that I want to prevent from happening, but I’m not sure how.

My dream for Timmy is that he will grow up feeling like a citizen of the world. I want him to feel proud of his Irish as well as his Thai heritage, but I also want him to understand that deep down all humans are the same. He will probably never feel connected to Ireland in the same way I do, but maybe when he visits he will feel like he belongs there. He has an Irish passport so Timmy might decide that he wants to move there as an adult – that would make me happy.

I hope that it will get easier for me to share my culture with my son as he gets older, but I may have to just accept that this is going to be an uphill battle. I don’t really know what the right answer is here.

Paul Garrigan is a freelance writer living in Thailand. He has written two books – Dead Drunk and Muay Thai Fighter. Paul posts his random musings on life along with observations about being an expat in Thailand on his website paulgarrigan.com.

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