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The lion within

A mother discovers her son has an aptitude for adaptation growing up in Zimbabwe.

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"Do you know what my totem is?" asks Fadzai, my son's 9-year-old Shona playmate. She and Sam are climbing in my pantry, legs splayed out to balance on the shelves that line the walls. It's not entirely permitted behavior but my mind was – until now – on the French toast I'm trying to prepare for our lunch.

"Mum, what's a totem?" Sam, 7, asks. I turn to Fadzai. "It's an animal that represents your family, isn't it?" She nods. These are the other things I know about totems: that they are passed on like an unbroken thread through the generations, that you never must eat meat from your family totem. President Robert Mugabe's totem is a crocodile.

"My totem is a porcupine," Fadzai tells us importantly. She must have been reminded when she saw our porcupine quills, collected when we were last in Zimbabwe's Lowveld. They're on a shelf next to the light bulbs and a grubby lump of molding clay.

Fadzai has already corrected me on my less-than-perfect housekeeping skills, taking the broom to sweep the floor earlier as I washed the dirty breakfast dishes hurriedly in cold water: "If my Gogo [Granny] could see this floor, she'd say: 'Do humans live here?' " she scolded.

"Porcupine is nungu in Shona," she says now.

"Mum, what's our totem?" asks Sam. Fadzai giggles. "White people don't have totems," she says with all the certainty of her extra two years.

Fadzai leaves for home at the end of the afternoon. But the totem question is most definitely not resolved.

"Ethan's totem is an elephant. He told the teacher at school," Sam announces at supper the next day. "He wants to belong," my husband says quietly. We face the challenge that ethnic minority parents throughout the world must have always faced: How do you help your child build a strong sense of identity while embracing the country – and culture – of his birth?

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