So there I am, waiting by my bike, standing in a small sea of parents. School doors fly open. As soon as we’ve made eye contact, my children run toward me, shouting and waving. It can only be about one thing: the Dutch playdate.
“His house or ours?” I ask. A good Dutch parent allows her kids to determine location. “And where is his mother?”
I have never met my daughter’s classmate before today. I don’t know if his mother is the school librarian, a recovering drug addict, or a full-time business executive whose son forgot he goes to day care.
“Where’s his bike?” And we’re off.
A Dutch parent’s credibility depends on how flexibly and easily she responds to a spontaneous playdate proposal. If I, the immigrant parent, want my Dutch kids to remain among the happiest in the universe, then I have to love playdates as much as the Dutch do.
Well, I do not.
I grew up in the United States as the child of immigrants. My playdates were arranged by my Japanese tiger mother, a veritable playdate filter. She set the terms, screened the parents, and determined which kids were good for me. The kids who were good for me were a lot like me. We never talked back to our elders. If we didn’t like any part of the meal on the table, we still ate it – usually first, to get it over with. Rolling of the eyes was disrespectful, even at fifteen.
And we never biked home with our friends. We commuted, buckled up, in their cars.
Fast forward some thirty-odd years to the Netherlands.
“You mean it’s normal to just send your kid home with someone you don’t know?”
“Yep,” my Dutch husband nodded. “You trust them!”
“What about exchanging phone numbers?”
He shrugged. “Meh.”
“So you only get their address if you have to pick your kid up?”
My husband is nonchalant, but I see the faceless families of our kids’ classmates as strangers. When our kids go home with them, I ask for digits and write down addresses on the back of receipts.
Then sometimes, their friends come home with us.
The Dutch are known for being direct. Well, their kids are direct, too, and in such a way which my Japanese mother never encouraged me to be. Dutch kids regularly tell me if they don’t like the food we’ve put on the table. If I ask them not to prop their feet on my white wallpaper, they ask: “Why not?” If I ask whether they’ve washed their hands after using the bathroom, they roll their eyes before scuffling back.
Call it culture shock, but five years after the first playdate, I’m still struggling with these cultural differences. You know those kids who say: “Oh, we had friends over all the time. Extra kids were like furniture. My friends were always welcome at our house, because my mom was so cool and easy.”
I wish I could be that mom, but I’m not.
When my daughter turned five last month, ten children were stuck in the living room on a cold and wet winter afternoon. I was in charge of chicken nuggets while my husband, much kinder than me, supervised everything beyond the kitchen.
While listening to him charm our guests, asking them in the most creative and gentle ways not to walk all over the couch or fight about felt tip markers, I dipped chicken breasts into flour, eggs, and crushed cornflakes, over and over again. Then I deep-fried the chicken.
Standing over the Teflon sukiyaki pan that my mother had given me, I watched the chicken turn brown in a shallow lake of oil. I reached for a pair of chopsticks to flip them over.
Then I stopped.
I saw my mother’s own hand, holding chopsticks over a stove in California.
I saw the omelettes with faces she’d drawn in ketchup.
I saw the apples she’d peeled to look like ladybugs.
I saw the potato chips and soda pop she’d bought, because she knew this was what my American friends were used to having.
We turn into our parents in some way or another, whether we want this to happen or not. I had inherited my mother’s strict cultural standards of “good” behaviour. Her way of arranging playdates was still the way with which I felt most comfortable.
Yet staring down at the chicken, I realized that I also had this: her hospitality. I could feed the kids that came to our home with the same energy and effort she had once invested in my friends, for me. I could make these kids feel welcome by being “that mom” – the one who fed them well.
I could manage that much, I thought to myself, looking down at the sizzling pan.
I smiled, because I already had.
© 2015 Anastasia Hacopian