Tag: expat children

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I Belong

A few weekends ago, on a Sunday evening, my daughter was preparing her schoolbag for the next day, when I
noticed a sheet of paper on her desk. It was a drawing of a square with several layers, like concentric…squares. I asked her what this was and she explained that, as an assignment for one of the subjects, she had to draw a diagram showing all the communities to which she belongs.
When I looked at what she came up with, I couldn’t help but smile. This was a very rich diagram, if one can call it that. My girl feels that she belongs to one continent, three
countries, four cities and two towns. This, beyond her family, friends and, of course, sports affiliations (should I be worried that she also “belongs” to Lionel Messi?). Even though I would not call our children seasoned expats, at least not yet – having been through a grand total of one international move –, this diagram pointed out (literally) how many layers make up their identity already, at such an early stage in their lives. It doesn’t take much, does it.
I asked her if this means that she feels at home in each one of these places. Without hesitation, she said that she could imagine herself living in any of them, but then quickly added the caveat – in case I got any ideas – that she has a preference for Zurich now
(our current home) and that she’d rather not have to go through another move and leave her friends behind once more. Feeling equally at home in Athens, Vienna, Zurich or even the small town in the south of Austria where her father’s family comes from, was something completely natural for her. She didn’t seem to be concerned with the practicalities of living in each place. More important considerations were familiarity with her surroundings and the presence of people with whom she belonged. Oh yes, and knowing the language.
And this is just what a bicultural child with a relatively stable upbringing perceives and experiences. As we all know, it gets much more complicated. Is this complication a disadvantage? Are we doing our kids a disservice by imposing our itinerant lifestyle on them? Are we condemning them to a life of foreignness and confused identity? I suspect that often we, as parents, agonize more over these questions than they do.
Having multiple homes and multiple allegiances does not seem strange to my daughter because it’s what she has always known. She and most of her friends – children who have multicultural backgrounds or come from families that are leading a globally nomadic life – are born with several affiliations already. The multiplicity of belonging is a fact of life for them. It is something that comes naturally and often goes unquestioned. It is part of who they are. The number of layers is not important here. It doesn’t matter how many homes or communities they are part of. What matters is that there is belonging, that our children (and we, their families) feel grounded, comfortable and at home in each of these communities. As many as these may be, there is space in our heart for all of them.
Besides, if we, as adults, can handle having many homes without feeling like split personalities (well, most of the time), then it should be easier for them, who essentially come into this world “programmed” to be this way – right?

Closing doors

 

When one door closes, another opens…right? I hadn’t known that the famous quote from Alexander Graham Bell goes on to add: “…but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
Being able to close some doors and open others, to look ahead and not back should be key skills to have when one leads the nomadic life. Isn’t that a large part of what we do when we move constantly from one place to the next – dismantle our existence and
rebuild it, in a slightly different way, somewhere else; close one door and open another?
Does this mean that all of us who choose the mobile life have what it takes – namely the ability to let go and move on in absolute smoothness? Is there hope for those of us who are not naturals and find it extremely difficult to close doors – despite being excited about the ones that open? Even though we do get better at it with every move, it is always hard. And painful. Sometimes heart-breaking.
It helps not to see it in absolute terms. Yes, we should be getting better at closing doors, but we don’t need to close them all the way. We should be developing our proficiency to
bravely and skilfully move on to a new life, but there are elements of our previous life that have become part of our identity and make us who we are. We don’t close the door to those the same way that we don’t close the door to the people from our various past lives. That makes it easier – at least when you are an adult and can reason that way.
It’s different for kids. They see things in much more absolute terms. They don’t think in terms of the big picture.
When we left Vienna last summer, we were not sure how long we would be away, so we asked the schools to “reserve” spots for our children for
another year, in case we came back. That year has passed and yesterday we had to officially give up those places. As happy as I am with our new life here and all the new doors that it has opened, it still felt strange to close the last “old” door that was still open.
I’m not sure how the children will react when we tell them. They could see this as a sign of stability in their new life; less uncertainty. But it could also be that, in the back of their mind, those reserved spots were a silent promise that they could always go back; a secret outlet for when they were not too happy with their life here. Do we take away that outlet? Or do we wait until the excitement about the new doors becomes more powerful than the regret about the ones that are now closed? Even if, in the grand scheme of things, they are not really closed.

Counting blessings

Although today’s post is not technically about crossing cultures or the expat life, essentially it is. To start, I am writing it from a place halfway around the world from where I call home; a place that has become home for a loved one, a member of my family. Though this was the main reason for visiting Vancouver, the city is also home to some other very special people in our life, so how could I be surprised when I felt an immediate connection to this city – its landscape, its vibe and most of all, its people. Besides all the personal reasons, I should have guessed this would happen from the pure fact that Vancouver is built on the shores of an ocean. I was bound to feel at home here. What I did not guess was that the main reason I would feel so welcome from day one would be the people. I have been to a few places – my current home included – where people are pleasant, polite and welcoming, but not yet to a place where all that is overlaid by an air of unambiguous authenticity and warmth. This is not your typical North American friendliness – there is a sincerity and kindness to it that makes it unique.

On our second day here, even though we had not slept well the night before and were still being brutally assaulted by jet lag, we decided to walk to the waterfront. Unfortunately, we overestimated our energy levels and after a couple of hours, the kids were tired and needy. No wonder. Their bodies must have felt confused. Schedules, mealtimes and nap times were all still a jumble. I was running out of patience, being exhausted myself. Just as we had finally managed to find a taxi to get back to our hotel (since nobody was up for walking), my youngest insisted on getting in the car by himself and, in his attempt, fell into a puddle of dirty rainwater.

That was probably the last straw for me, because I lost it. As I started fussing about how I’d had enough of all this and all I wanted was to go back home to Switzerland, an elderly lady who was passing by, overheard me and stopped. She took my hand and told me to calm down. She looked in my eyes and said: “As long as the sun is shining [which it was], you cannot be upset.” She pointed to my children and said that I should be thankful for such a beautiful and healthy family. “Besides,” she concluded, “how can you be unhappy when you are in Canada – the best country in the world?”

She said all that in such a gentle, non-judgmental manner that I felt embarrassed for having made a fuss. Her English had a barely detectable accent, which made me think that she might not have grown up in Vancouver, but had felt happy and comfortable enough there to make it her home – the best place in the world. Her kindness and wisdom left their mark on me. I really do feel thankful for everything I’ve got.
Leading a nomadic life is not always easy. It is rewarding, but it is also challenging. Not everything runs smoothly all the time. There is loneliness, exhaustion, frustration, even anger sometimes. When I feel that way, it helps me to remember the words of the wise lady who stopped me on the street that day in Vancouver. Stop and smell the flowers. Take a deep breath. Count your blessings. We tend to forget to do that, but it really works.