I have been typing up my mother’s letters from the 1950’s when my family moved to Burma. In 1953 my parents took a trip to India:
“Once again it seems almost impossible that I can be here in India – but here we are! We had a pleasant flight over Sat. Aft. and Eve. – arrived here at 10 and dragged through customs (actually we went rather quickly for our Country Director was along and helped “rush” us thru). Then, instead of staying in hotel as we had supposed, they put us up in private homes! It turned out it has been very wonderful. Especially since they bundled Bill off on Sun. eve with a bedroll and sack lunch and he was gone until 7 this morning (Wed.)! We are staying with a couple who own a farm near Washington, Missouri and who are lovely people. They have taken me shopping and sightseeing, and a friend took us on a picnic among some 700 year old tombs (an experience I had never dreamed of) and it has been lots of fun.
Sunday we all went sightseeing and saw the famous Red Fort here in Delhi. The simply gorgeous government bldgs., and other interesting places. New Delhi is a beautiful, clean city with many trees, gardens, open lawn spaces and smooth unclogged roads! Old Delhi is more like Rangoon, but it is positively cold here except at midday. So different from Rangoon – we about perished waiting for the plane to leave Rangoon it was so hot and humid.
Last night went to see an Indian dancer and his program. It was positively enchanting! And then we went to a Chinese restaurant for delicious (and safe!) Chinese dinner. I so thoroughly enjoyed it and the entire evening.
Shopping has been loads of fun, but I see so many pretty and interesting things that it is hard to decide which I would like for the money I have. So many many things which are colorful and so typically Indian. naturally, I’m most interested in woven things – tablecloths, bedspreads, saries, (the things Indian women wear, you know) scarves, and just materials by the yard! I have tried to choose things especially for Jean – I sure which you were here to choose for yourself. But you’ll just have to accept my poor taste till you get to the Orient, I fear!
Bill had a glorious, if not altogether luxurious, experience on his field trip by Indian train and truck but I haven’t heard the details yet myself. We leave at 4 this aft. for Agra. Will add some later.
Feb 27 – Agra – We are in a nice English hotel which looks and is exactly like motels at home. I has a fancy dining room, swimming pool, expensive shops and hundred of servants with kaki coats and red turbans! There are about 50 people here for Bill’s conference , I guess, some from India.
FROM THE DIARY
Feb 22 – New Delhi and Lucknow. Sight seeing and shopping in New Delhi. Bill left about 6:30 pm with bed roll, sack lunch and water on night train to Lucknow to visit agricultural projects. Train quite different from U.S. Had a compartment (first class) with other person. Found that you can’t go from one car to another on the train except in station and can only get food at station. Some trains have dining cars but you have to enter and leave train while in station.
Feb 23 – Lucknow/Fyzabad. Hot and dusty – night cool. Lucknow was a city that showed a strong Mogul influence in the architecture of many buildings. Visited villages around Lucknow and then drove to Fyzebad after dinner. A very hot, dusty trip over very bad road. Stayed in Fyzebad at guest house and visited villages the following day. Returned Lucknow by car and again was a dusty ride in open jeep. Saw thousands of wild monkeys and every means of transportation – car, bus, train, water buffalo, elephants, donkeys, camels and oxcarts.
Feb 24 – Lucknow/Delhi. Took overnight train from Lucknow to Delhi. Had a better compartment this time and a good supply of food and water.
Feb 25/28 – New Delhi/Agra – Hot with cool evenings. By car to Agra. About 4 hour trip from New Delhi. We ate lots of oranges and bananas on the way. Saw all sorts of transportation as well as many monkeys. Drove through several villages and waited for what seemed like hours at train crossings. Arrive Agra about 9 pm. Ate dinner in Lauries Hotel and retire for night in our 3 room suite with fireplace. Very comfortable. Visited Taj on 26th but Bill in workshop most of time 26th and 27th.
Feb 28 – Agra/NewDelhi – After delightful time in Agra (Virginia saw Taj Mahal 4 times in one day and evening) we returned to Delhi. Our plane was TWO DAYS late leaving Delhi so we had much time for sightseeing, shopping and resting.
March 2 – New Delhi/Rangoon – Arrived Rangoon via British Overseas Airways Corp (BOAC) about midnight. Good trip with afternoon tea and dinner aboard. Quickly through Immigration and Customs and friends met us at airport. Tom had been bitten by their pet monkey but no problem and both boys were fine.”
“Our trip to India was most interesting. The people with whom we stayed in New Delhi were just wonderful and enlightened us so much about India in so many ways. They took us sightseeing besides explaining so much about the people and the country. Then Bill took his field trip which we mentioned before and he saw the villages firsthand, also the trains which is an experience in itself! We had planned to come home on Sunday on the British airlines, but the plane was delayed until Monday afternoon, so Bill and I did more sightseeing, more shopping, and visited an honest-to-goodness ice cream parlor and had real banana splits and chocolate nut sundaes just like you have at home. Boy! were they good! We have ice cream made in our refrig. with powdered milk, but there is very little resemblance to good American ice cream. I attended a delightful Indian dance program and had dinner in a Chinese restaurant while in Delhi. Then in Agra we had a pleasant time altho were rushed for time, for the conference consumed so much of Bill’s time that even had to skip a meeting so that he could get a picture of the Taj Mahal by sunlight. We also visited it by moonlight, and even though there was a ground fog that night it was most inspiring and a little magical. The building is just beautiful – so white and clean (compared to other monuments) and so perfect. The formal gardens are lovely – and the way to really enjoy the whole place is to have lots of time to just sit and meditate midst all the beauty or room at leisure thru the gardens. There is an atmosphere of peace and rest that I have encountered very few other places in the world. as you can tell, we were much impressed.”
I painted my “accent” cupboards in my kitchen this week. They were just so dull and boring, I felt the need to liven them up a bit. The first photo looks kind of like a Dali painting with the weird perspective.
The days are starting to get longer and the sun is showing up more often. Lifts the mood. Still sorting out retirement paperwork, insurance nightmares, it’s a process.
I was wandering around the National Gallery of Art the other day and stumbled across the exhibit “Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860.” Since I was born in Burma was immediately interested. I walked right in without reading any of the preamble and just started looking around. Many of the photographs were from Amarapura, the capital from 1842 to 1859 under King Tharrawaddy which is now part of Mandalay.
After the Anglo-Burmese war of 1852, the British annexed a part of Burma. This was the second of three wars. The third war in 1885 resulted in the British taking over the entire country. In 1855 Lord Dalhausie, the governor general of India, went on a political visit to Burma.
Several years ago my niece married into a Bengali family. She had a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony in the USA. This of course, could not have taken place without her family, including her sister with blue hair and Freitag bag.
She and her new husband and all the parents left for India a few months after her wedding and spent a month meeting all the relatives in India. She even had another ceremony over there.
She embraced her new family and their traditions. She was curious to learn all about them and incorporate their beliefs and rituals into her life.
Annaprashan is the Hindu ceremony celebrating a baby’s first solid food. It is also known as the Rice Eating Ceremony as baby’s first food is usually rice. The ceremony takes place when the baby is about 6 months. For girls it takes place in odd months – the 5th or 7th, while for boys it is even months the 6th or 8th.
The child is very dressed up reminiscent of a bride or groom. It is not only about the food but also serves as an introduction to society. Friends and relatives are invited to join in the celebration. A game is usually played after the ceremony where certain symbolic items are laid out in front of the child. Books symbolize learning; jewels symbolize wealth, a pen symbolizes wisdom, clay symbolizes property, and food symbolizing a love for food. The first item the child reaches for indicates their future.
Baby with her uncle at Rice Eating Ceremony
My niece rented a hall for her baby’s Annaprashan. They invited all their friends and relatives. She wanted to wear traditional clothing and she wanted her baby to also wear a beautiful sari. Living in the middle of the USA, it was difficult for her to find a sari for her baby so she made one herself.
That got her thinking. If she had so much trouble finding something beautiful for her child to wear to the ceremony, other people might have the same problem. There is a large Indian community in this country. Wouldn’t there be a market for baby saris?
My great niece
Well, she is about to find out. She just launched her Sari Baby website. My great niece is the very cute model for these beautiful silk saris.
Flying home from my winter wonderland visit with the family I thought about a conversation my mother had with one of my nieces as they were saying good-bye.
Mother: We really do have an odd family
Niece: Should we take offense at that?
Mother: Well, no, you are all very interesting.
Niece: Interesting? Now I know we are being insulted.
Mother: But interesting is good. I can’t think of anything worse than a bunch of boring people.
Niece: Well, we certainly are not boring.
Mother: No, none of you are boring!
It was all in good fun but it made me think of what makes up my non-boring family. There were sixteen of us. We are scattered across 5 states.
The patriarch grew up on a farm in Iowa and ended up spending over forty years as an expat. He met many Heads of State and he had been to 90 countries by the time he was 90. The matriarch, kept up with him all the way also starting out in a small town in Iowa. My brothers and I are third culture kids who grew up all over the world.
I married Nicholas, a Russian American whose parents were refugees after World War II. Nicholas’ father never learned to speak English so Nicholas was his translator from a young age. Nicholas used to tell me that coming home from school every day he felt like he was crossing a border into another country. Most of his family still live in Russia. Our son spent the first six years of his life in Russia and has traveled to many places around Europe.
My brother moved to Australia after college and met and married a woman from New Zealand. She also came from a cross cultural family with roots in England and Australia. Their children carry dual passports – New Zealand and USA. They visit their relatives half way around the world whenever they can.
My niece married a first generation American with Indian roots. She is now immersed in the traditions and culture of an extended Indian family. One tradition included a rice eating ceremony for their baby daughter. For this ceremony they needed a baby sari. Not just any sari but a beautiful, fancy sari. They found it was difficult to find one the USA and so another sister-in-law of mine and my niece are starting a baby sari business. They have an Indian woman lined up to make the saris and they are working on a website to market their goods. You will be hearing more about this as things progress.
So we are a cross cultural conglomeration. And we all get along beautifully.
When I was little I lived in Burma and had an Indian nanny. She was a Catholic and her name was Mary. She spoiled me. One of my favorite foods was dahl soup. I could eat it every day. When the rest of the family was eating something I didn’t like, she make me dahl soup. I have no idea what her recipe was but here is mine.
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, diced
Put a tablespoon of oil into a pot and add onion and garlic
Cut up half a potato, skinned and add to the pot (or you can use a carrot)
Once the onion is soft add
4 cups broth
1.5 cups dahl (lentils)
Add 1 tsp diced fresh ginger
2 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cumin
Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes
Allow to cool a bit and pour soup into a blender or use a hand blender until smooth
Return to the pot and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste
I have updated my TCK/Expat page to include films as well as some additional books. Check it out.
I recently watched The Road Home. It is a short film – 24 minutes. I watched it twice. It is about a boy with Indian roots who has lived around the world. His father sends him to boarding school in India and everybody thinks he is Indian but he only speaks English and says he is English. So, confused about who he is, where he is from, not feeling Indian but looking Indian. Sound familiar to anybody?
The director is currently working on expanding the film into a longer version with plot twists and adventure. I think it might lose some of its intimate charm, but we will have to see. In the meantime, have a look. You can rent this film and watch it on-line here.
Another one that is currently airing at Film Festivals around the country is Shanghai Calling. I have watched the trailer and it looks like a good comedy. A man with Chinese roots who grew up in New York City finds himself sent to live in China for work. He knows nothing about Chinese culture or language but people think he does because he looks Chinese. I look forward to seeing it. You can see the trailer here.
Harriet wrote her memoirs when she was in her late 70’s. She was a Victorian woman and represented her class and period well.
Her grandfather and uncle were prisoner’s of war in France under Napoleon. Her grandmother and mother lived nearby for 15 years so the family could be together. After the battle of Waterloo, they were released and returned to England. That is where her mother met her father while he was on furlough from India.
Harriet was born in 1828 to a British military family in India. At 11 years old, as was common practice at the time, she was shipped off to England with two younger siblings to continue her education. When they landing in England their clothes were so outdated everybody laughed at them. Her brother was immediately sent on to boarding school where two older brothers were waiting for him. She and her sister lived with a family they had never met before for about a year, until her aunt came to collect them. Her aunt was strict and cruel and Harriet hated every minute of her time there.
At seventeen she started her journey back to India to be reunited with her parents who she had not seen for 6 years. She traveled by steamer and by land until she reached Aden just off the Red Sea. The group traveling with her were friendly and she had a happy time. At Aden she received a letter from her brother-in-law in India and feared her sister was sick. It was worse, her father was dead. When she finally reached Calcutta, there was nobody to meet her. She saw her mother two weeks later only to discover that she was on her way back to England with the younger children. Harriet was to stay with another aunt and uncle who was serving the in Punjab Campaign.
At 19, she met and married Robert Tytler, a Captain in the British Army who was also a widower with two children.
This woman did not have an easy life.
On May 11, 1857, she was living in Delhi, eight months pregnant with two small children at home. That was the day of the Great Sepoy Mutiny. The “Sepoy” was the Indian soldier serving in the British Army.
“It is wonderful to think how unanimous they were, Hindus and Mohammedans, in the one object of exterminating the hateful Christian in India. On this occasion the Mohammedans and Hindus were one, their bitter antagonism to each other, which had always been our safeguard so far, was for the time overcome. The gullible Hindus, two to one in each regiment, firmly believed Prithee Rai’s raj would return and then they would be masters of India. The wily Mohammedans, who were using these poor deluded men as a cat’s paw, encouraged the belief, knowing all along that they would soon find their mistake, for the Mohammedan meant to reign by the edge of his sword, which would also be used to proselytize the poor idol worshippers.”
However Philip Mason notes in the Introduction: “Harriet, of course, like everyone else, has heard of the cartridges (smeared with pork and beef fat) but does not seem to have known that the original offensive cartridges were withdrawn (therefore confirming that the rumor was true). Like every other young wife in India at the time, she thinks that the Mutiny was a deep-laid plot, instigated by the sons of the king and spread by wicked Muslims who played on the fears of the simple gullible Hindus.”
Harriet ran for her life that day. She, pregnant, with her two children, 2 and 4 years old, eventually loaded themselves onto an already overloaded carriage and rode hard out of town. Her husband riding back and forth checking on other people. The carriage broke to pieces. They found another one, it also broke down. They ended up walking to the next outpost where luckily there was no uprising.
Eventually the British took back Delhi. Harriet bore 10 children, 8 of whom lived, and spent the rest of her life an expat in India. She died in 1907 at the age of 79.
Kodaikanal International School was established in 1901 as an American residential school for the children of missionaries. It was in Tamil Nadu State at the southern tip of India. Located high in the mountains, the weather could be very cool. On a clear day you could see across to Celyon (Sri Lanka). Lake Kodaikanal covered 60 acres and was good for boating while the surrounding areas were good hiking territory.
In 1957 my two brothers went there for boarding school. By that time there were more than missionaries in the region. My father was working in Burma establishing an agricultural school funded by the Ford Foundation.
My brothers traveled about 2,000 miles. There was no flight from Kodai at that time so they took the bus to the train station, a train to Madras, a flight to Calcutta where they boarded another plane for Rangoon, and then went by either train or car to Pyinmana where we lived. They were 9 and 11 years old. There were several other children who went there from Pyinmana so they usually had people to travel with.
One year only one of my brothers showed up in Rangoon. My other brother had the mumps and had to stay behind along with a friend of his who also had the mumps. As soon as he was well enough to travel, his housemother took him to her home in Madras. Once he was fully recovered he flew to Calcutta where some friends of the family met him and saw him off on the plane to Rangoon.
My mother was to meet him and take the train home but the train was cancelled that day and she and my other brother went by car. This meant they had to stay the night in Rangoon. They all finally made it home okay. A few days later my other brother complained of a sore jaw. Now he had the mumps!
Getting sick in Pyinmana could be a problem. There was a good hospital and doctors in Rangoon but it was 250 miles away and was about a 10 hour trip by road. There was a good Indian doctor in Toungoo which was about 75 miles away. He could easily make it to us in a day but the problem was getting a hold of him. There were 3 or 4 telephones in Pyinmana and we had access to one of them but it almost never worked. There were times when we had to send somebody to ask him to come.
Otherwise my parents relied on Dr Spock’s book: The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. Also referred to as their medical bible. When I moved to Russia many many years later, it was one of the books I took with me.
“Change is the essential process of all existence.”
–SPOCK, Star Trek: The Original Series, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”
When I was living with my son and husband in Moscow, I discovered a group called Global Nomads. I was cruising the Internet and came across an article written by Norma McCaig about being a Global Nomad. I had spent my whole life thinking there was something wrong with me and this article described me in a detail nobody could have known. I didn’t think there was another person on earth who understood how I felt. It was truly my “ah ha” moment. This is what I had been looking for.
This is that article. It is kind of long and it took me a couple of times to absorb it all but if you have the time, it might be worth a read or re-read.
GROWING UP WITH A WORLD VIEW
Nomad Children Develop Multicultural Skills
By Norma M. McCaig
(As appeared in Foreign Service Journal, September 1994, pp. 32-41.)
I can still hear the wind from the dust storm that hit Delhi during the waning days of my trip this May. Powerful images of Tamul Nadu, further south, are equally vivid of 70 picnicking street children from the Madurai and Bethabia orphanage striking unsteady dancing positions and then collapsing in delight around me. Memories of this chance two-hour encounter near my childhood school in Kodaikanal five weeks and a world away from my Virginia home are a source of both pain and wonder. Pain at having said yet another goodbye and wonder at the circumstance that brought me to that moment.
I am acutely aware that had I not been given a childhood overseas, this melange of memories from the old and recent past would likely not exist. But they are indelibly part of my heritage as a “global nomad,” someone who has lived abroad as a child because of a parent’s job. These include the children of diplomats; other government workers, including the armed forces; business people and missionaries.
These children often live a privileged lifestyle, with exotic vacations, servants, large homes and private schooling, but the long-term benefits of this upbringing are unique and more far-reaching. In an era when global vision is imperative, where skills in intercultural communication, linguistic ability, mediation, diplomacy, and the ability to manage diversity are critical, global nomads are probably better equipped than others. A tendency to view the United States from the perspective of a foreigner is a trait common to many nomads. A nomad who spent much of his childhood in Africa recently commented, “I feel I am an American, but not to the exclusion of other countries, cultures and peoples.”
Carolyn D. Smith, in her 1991 book, The Absentee American: Repatriates’ Perspectives on America, reports that for many adult nomads, living and working overseas is a lifelong goal. “A study of 150 repatriates enrolled in college who had spent at least one teenage year abroad found that none wished to pursue a career exclusively in the United States,” she wrote in the book. More than 50 percent wanted work exclusively or periodically abroad, 12 percent wanted job-related foreign travel, and 74 percent reported that they feel most comfortable with people who are internationally oriented.
Sociologist David Pollock, director of intercultural programming at Houghton College in New York, has studied the personality and psychological adjustment of what he calls “third-culture kids.” He defines them as “individuals who, having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than the parents’ culture, develop a sense of relationship to all the cultures while not having a full ownership in any.”
These children become “cultural chameleons” early in life keen observers who modify their behavior so they fit in wherever they are. Many actually appreciate diversity, and seek it out as adults. The ease with which young global nomads roam the world can create for them an enhanced world view, a concept validated by the recent research team including sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, who pioneered research on third-culture kids in the early 1960s. Her study-in-progress documents that “About half (47 percent) of those who report volunteer activities include an international dimension.” Global nomads often serve as cultural liaisons and interpreters between U.S. culture and the rest of the world. They are the “prototype citizens of the 21st century,” according to Ted Ward, author of the 1984 book, Living Overseas.
Brian Lev, a Foreign Service child and now a computer network security analyst at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, spent five years in Chile and three years in Belgium with his parents. Although based in Washington, Lev works in an international community and travels abroad frequently. “I sometimes think everyone around me view the world in a terribly simplistic way,” he said. “Even my best friends often shake their heads and change the subject when I find their viewpoint too ethno-or Ameri-centric.” This sense of having the world as a learning ground is very common. Few global nomads interviewed said that they would opt to have been reared in Hometown, U.S.A.
And yet, anyone who has been either a child or a parent overseas knows that it is not uncommon for a global nomad children to feel rootless and out-of-step or marginalized. They sometimes appear indecisive and noncommittal or have difficulty establishing and maintaining long-term relationships. Occasionally these feelings are played out in the form of alcohol or drug abuse, eating disorders, depression or other dysfunctional behavior. Problems may appear during overseas postings, but are more likely to show up in the years between moving from a life abroad to a life at “home” in the United States. Many parents are surprised at the metamorphosis of their compliant, pleasant teenager into a rebellious, petulant, angry, withdrawn and irresponsible adolescent. Even more astonishing, but not necessarily uncommon, is this delayed adolescence in the twentysomething-year-old who is supposed to be beyond that age.
Usually, the Foreign Service or business career family abroad is better educated than the average U.S. family. Useem’s research findings show that 81 percent of grown global nomads earned, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree (vs. 21 percent of the general U.S. population) with fully half completing master’s and doctorate programs. Today only 40 percent of Foreign Service families consist of a married couple with children. Last year a random sampling of Community Liaison Office (CLO) reports suggested that more than three percent of the Foreign Service are single parents and many more are dual-career couples.
Parents go abroad feeling somewhat prepared for duty in a specific place, but many are less prepared to deal with multiple moves on two or more continents and the birth of one, two or four children, perhaps each in a different corner of the globe. Like many globe-trotting parents, their upbringing was probably geographically stable, a relatively monocultural upbringing. Global parents roam the world rearing children without a road map. Extended families and long-trusted friends are often inaccessible. To complicate things further, the children’s grandparents may actively disapprove of the routine uprooting of their grandchildren, spoiling them with an unrealistically privileged lifestyle, and exposing them to constant danger from microbes and terrorists. Other support systems need to be developed to supplant family and friends, such as the networks and resources from the embassy committee.
A unique characteristic of the global-nomad family is the high degree of interdependence of family members. Because the nuclear family is the only consistent social unit through all moves, family members are psychologically thrown back on one another in a way that is not typical in geographically stable families. Close family bonds are common. Siblings and parents may become each other’s best friends. Patterns formed overseas fly in the face of conventional theory about when children leave home, emotionally and physically. Kay Eakin, education counselor at State’s Family Liaison Office, writes, “Many [expatriate] children have gotten used to an international lifestyle and hate to give that up.” These “boomerang kids” have a need for a strong continuing relationship with parents, the only “home” they know.
The strength of this family bond works to the benefit of children when parent-child communication is good and the overall family dynamic is healthy. It can be devastating when it is not. Compared to the geographically stable child, the global-nomad child is inordinately reliant on the nuclear family for affirmation, behavior-modeling, support and above all, a place of safety. The impact, therefore, of dysfunction in this most basic of units in exacerbated by the mobile lifestyle.
Constant unresolved family tension can become chronically debilitating. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse, sometimes prompted by adult alcohol abuse or depression, may go unnoticed or unacknowledged by others for a variety of reasons, such as misguided notions about “respecting privacy,” or fear of repatriation or family disgrace with colleagues. Finally, parents may be unaware of abuse of a child by a household employee, sometimes prompted by different ideas of discipline and affection than those of the U.S. family. Good communication between parent and children is key.
When parents step on the plane with their children for a life abroad they become a bicultural family, one which may well be on its way to becoming a multicultural family even when each member holds the same national passport. Why? Because the context of the parents’ upbringing and that of their children may vary vastly. A first child may teethe in Uganda, tie a first shoelace in Belgium and come of age in Thailand. In the process, of course, the child is observing human interaction in a variety of cultural contexts, of which the parents’ is only one.
Cultural influences include schools, the caregiver’s culture, host cultures, the parents’ cultures of origin, the expatriate community culture, and the culture of the sponsoring community, in this case the Foreign Service. Considering the variety of cultural influences on a child at just one post and multiplying these by the three-plus posts, indicates how the children’s hearts, souls, minds and identities are shaped by a multitude of factors.
Brian Lev, now in his mid-thirties, recalls home as “made up of those memories and emotions I have collected over time from which I draw comfort and strength as needed. In effect, home is the place where I can go in my mind where culture is a mix from many places and belonging can be taken for granted. … It’s as if we [global nomads] have replaced the physical home of non-nomads … with an internal home we can go to when we need a respite from the world. I think of us as looking out at the world from a place inside that we share with other nomads.”
Schooling demands close attention from parents. Curricula designed to meet the needs of a specific national school system reflect different academic standards, cultural norms, languages, learning styles and patterns of thinking. Thus children who move from one education system to another need time to adjust and may require tutoring and extra classes. But the adventure-child who is innately more flexible may respond well to, and indeed benefit from, experiencing more than one educational system during a childhood abroad.
However, choosing one system and maintaining it from post to post is of particular importance to a child who finds adapting to new situations and contexts difficult. This includes the learning-disabled child for whom resources at many international schools are limited. In this case, a U.S. boarding school with special facilities is an option to be considered.
The degree to which a child is affected by the host culture depends on the length of stay, the degree of contact with the local culture, and most importantly, the parents’ attitude toward host nationals. Perhaps the strongest connection a child can have to a host country is through a caregiver. Often it is this person who shares the culture’s language, behavior, and, to some degree, values. Of greatest influence on the [expatriate] child is the impact of the [expatriate] community itself . . .
In general, parents can adopt a four-tier strategy for coping with the challenges of raising global nomads. Communication: Keeping the lines of communication open is important, not only between parent and child, but also between spouses. Get the issues out there and work them through. Children are like lightning rods for parental discord and family tension. A 1993 study by State’s Office of Medical Services showed that children who allowed to fully express their feelings and concerns make a better adjustment to moves.
Encourage children to talk about their lives, reactions, feelings, and observations. Learn to accept or challenge what they say in the spirit of developing their skills in critical thinking rather than as a means of judging or controlling them. Gently get them accustomed to communicating with you when times are good, so they will do the same during bad times. Keep reminding yourself about the difference between discipline (guidance) and punishment (power) and the effects of each on parent-child communication.
Collaboration: Give your child as many real choices as you can. Many global nomad children, as do some spouses, feel that they have little control over their lives. For example, withholding knowledge of an impending transfer from children until shortly before the packers come does not spare them pain, it magnifies it. There is no time to adjust to the thought of moving; what should be a normal international move feels more like an evacuation.
Transfers can, in fact, make the global nomad child feel like a piece of luggage carried on and off planes at regular intervals. Whatever life has built up, whatever feelings of attachment have been formed, can seem devalued and considered expendable by parents. Eating disorders, particularly anorexia, are for some global nomads a manifestation of the need to control something in their lives when the stress and ambiguities of an international lifestyle are too overwhelming. Unwillingness or inability to commit or set goals in later adolescence and beyond may be related to early feelings of powerlessness. One way to deal with that is to include the child as much as possible and as early as possible in a family decision-making process at an age-appropriate level.
Continuity: Three elements come to mind, in a addition to the family itself, in considering continuity during a life abroad. These include things (furniture, favorite possessions and toys), photographs and family rituals. Hang on to the first as much as possible from post to post, take lots of the second, and create and maintain a good number of the third. Rituals are the visible signs of your family’s heritage, the glue holding the pieces of former lives together with those found in new places. In our family, we could always count on having waffles on Sunday night, wherever we were. Three decades later, each time we use the little syrup pitchers we each had I am taken back to a different home.
Single parents and tandem couples should tenaciously guard their time with their children. Relying too heavily on a nanny can heighten a child’s sense of abandonment. Although a number of social events may seem to be “mandatory,” take a good look at missing some.
Friendships in a highly-mobile lifestyle sometimes seem short-lived, yet many adults report that the renewal of old friendships is a source of unexpected joy and continuity. To reinforce the notion of maintaining friendships over time and space, on birthdays some parents give their children the gift of a free telephone call to a friend anywhere in the world. Such efforts encourage children to view their life using other than conventional constructs: they are not rootless, they are rooted in a different way through people rather than places.
Global nomads recognize each other. Regardless of passport held, countries lived in, sponsoring agency differences or age, nomads have a sudden recognition of kinship, a sense of homecoming that underlines the powerful bond of shared culture. Universities and colleges, such as George Mason University, Duke University, the university of Virginia and at least 10 others in the United States encourage the forming of global nomad clubs on campus to reinforce this community.
Closure: This is a critical part of the journey. With as many uprootings and replantings as internationally mobile families experience, many parents are either unaware of, unwilling or afraid to address the need for closure good goodbyes before moving on. Yet the reality is that many global nomads go through more grief experiences before the age of 18 than others do in a lifetime.
Sometimes parents struggling with their own feelings of grief find it difficult to address similar feelings in children. But when one’s sense of loss is unacknowledged, a natural emotion process is thwarted. Repeated often enough, it can kick back in the form of diffused depression, anger or another dysfunctional expression.
Well before leaving, parents are urged to talk about the new destination to get them used to the idea of leaving. Giving children permission to express their sadness at leaving their caregivers, treasured friends, pets and places is key, as is sharing your own feelings with them.
Small wonder also, then, that the global nomad child often finds transition to the country of passport to be a startling experience at best. It is at this point that differences in cultures and expectations between parent and child become most apparent. Parents returning to their country of origin are coming home; their children are leaving home. No doubt parents are changed by international travel and experience the impact of reentry, but they are usually on more familiar cultural and geographical ground than their offspring. Children step off the plane “riding on their parents’ mythology,” as global nomad Timothy Dean, now a TV-producer, remarked. Noted another mother, the spouse of a World Bank executive: “For my children, home is just another somewhere.”
Children often feel and function like hidden immigrants when they reach home shores. Because they look and talk as if they should belong, their outlook, actions, and lack of knowledge of local cultural trivia are often bewildering to others who either don’t know they have lived abroad or don’t care. The child is left on the outside looking in, skirting the margins of the group along with the druggies and geeks.
In terms of timing, research indicates that transitions during the early adolescent years from age 12 to 14 can be particularly tough for children. Their re-entry can be made easier by parents and extended family who can accept that these children are really of another culture and who are realistic about how long it will take the children to adapt.
The long-term cultural identity of children presents perhaps the greatest challenge and potential conflict between generations. Foreign Service life dictates that U.S. diplomats maintain their “Americanness” for properly representing the United States. On the other hand, their children are absorbing a wider environment, one that emphasizes cultural flexibility and an expanded world view. Other cultures may fit children’s personalities and values more than does the U.S. culture. Children may also continue to identify with the mobile expatriate life and seek that in adulthood or conversely, they may rebel against such rootlessness and seek a stable stateside life.
“Even now I find myself reacting to the world as a nomad,” says Lev. “I have no room in my basement because I can’t make myself throw away all those perfectly good packing boxes. I still get a really bad case of wanderlust every four years or so, and the dirtiest word I know is ‘goodbye.'”
On a cultural continuum with total identification with the United States at one extreme and total identification as a world citizen at the other, each child may choose to alight at a different point. To name a few: a dual-culture marriage with a partner of a different passport, different race or different religion; a different country of residence (children may not be going “native,” they may be going home); staying in the United States but not feeling fully at home.
Parents having chosen their children’s childhood lifestyle, need to provide affirmation and support as they try to make the pieces fit. As one established adult global nomad put it, “I don’t feel different, I am different.” For global nomads, these feelings are not a phase, they represent a state of being. Provided an environment that acknowledges and values their global background, [expatriate] children can and many will make positive changes in the world.
I watched Out of Africa last night for the umpteenth time and it got me thinking about all the amazing expat women through the ages. Here are a few of my favorites.
Karen Blixen was Danish. She married Baron Bror von Blixen and they moved to Kenya in 1914. He was kind enough to give her syphilis and she returned to Denmark after one year for arsenic treatment. She lived through it and returned to Kenya for another 16 years. She ran a successful coffee farm for a while but always struggled with it and eventually was forced to sell the land. Her lover, Denys Finch Hatton, was a big game hunter who died in a plane crash just as she was dealing with the loss of her farm. She returned to Denmark and lived there for the rest of her life. She wrote under the name Isak Dineson as well as a few others and a couple of her more famous books are:
Out of Africa (1937)
Anexdotes of Destiny (1958) – includes Babette’s Feast which was made into a movie
Letters from Africa 1914-1931 (1981 – posthumous)
Beryl Markam was English. Her family moved to Kenya when she was 4 years old in 1906. She became friends with Karen Blixen even though there was an 18 year gap in age. Beryl also had a brief affair with Denys Finch Hatton and was due to fly with him the day he crashed. She had some kind of premonition and did not go. However she did go on to fly extensively in the African bush and was the first women to fly across the Atlantic from East to West. She briefly lived in California married to an avocado farmer but eventually retuned to Kenya and became a well known horse trainer. Her memoir (a very good read) is:
West with the Night (1942, re-released in 1983)
Alexandra David-Neel was French. She became an explorer at a young age running away from home at the age of 18 to ride her bicycle to Spain and back. In 1904 at the age of 36 she was traveling in Tunis and married a railway engineer. That didn’t last long since she immediately had itchy feet and set off for India. She told her husband she would be back in 18 months but did not return for 14 years. Her goal was Sikkim in the northern mountains. She spent years studying with the hermits and monks of the region and eventually, dressed as a man, snuck into the forbidden city of Lhasa. Her travels were extensive and you can read more about her here:
Gertrude Stein was an American Jewish lesbian writer who moved to Paris in 1904. She held “Salons” promoting modern unknown artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne. During World War 1 she learned to drive a car and drove a supply truck for the American Fund for French Wounded supplying hospitals in France with her life long companion Alice B Toklas. Her writing was revolutionary and influenced many modern writers including Hemmingway. She was a strong minded woman with strong opinions and a copious writer with a great sense of humor. She was a real character as all these women were. One of the easiest books of hers to read is: