In a few weeks’ time, we will be heading to the US for our much-anticipated annual home leave. Once a year, our organization covers the cost of flights to our “home on record.” Though our last physical address was in Oregon, our permanent address is my mom’s house, in a suburb near Seattle.
It’s the place where I grew up and where I usually say I’m from, even though I haven’t lived there in nearly two decades.
For our kids, home is here, in Dili. This is where their stuff is, where their beds are, and where their friends live. Although they don’t really remember our life before we moved to East Timor, they do know that they aren’t from here and will occasionally ask “Mommy, where am I from?”
I usually tell them that they are lucky enough to be from two places: England and America, just like one of their friends is from Sweden and Vietnam, and another friend is from Italy and Germany. Still, it’s a pretty abstract concept to a three-year old mind.
Both, my husband and I, grew up with a very stable sense of home. We spent the majority of our childhoods in one house, went to school with the same kids year after year, and grew up in a close community of neighbors. This stability rooted us both and gave us each a strong connection to the places we came from. However, our own kids will probably have a very different experience.
At this age, their sense of identity is more about self and less about place. And yet, this particular place and their future experiences in the world will likely have a big influence on their developing sense of self and identity. Because my husband and I are from different countries, I imagine that it will be an ongoing struggle to get the balance right—for the kids to feel equally at home in both places. Adding a third country into the mix only complicates things.
I believe that raising kids abroad can be a unique and wonderful experience, but I am also very aware of the challenges and sometimes wonder how it will affect our kids in the long run.
Will their somewhat rootless childhoods create a longing for a more settled future or will the opposite be true? Will the transient nature of this life foster adaptability or instability? It’s impossible to know.
Fortunately, there are numerous resources available for parents like us, including books about parenting global nomads, memoirs of growing up internationally, and guides for families who are returning home.
In browsing some of these titles I was struck by a term I hadn’t heard before: Third Culture Kid (TCK), or “someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.”
It is not a new idea but the experience does seem to becoming more and more common in our increasingly connected world. While this lifestyle can bring benefits like learning foreign languages and experiencing different ways of life, it can also have disadvantages. TCKs often have a sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time and tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with kids living in their home countries.
I have noticed this tendency among some of the older students at school here and in other contexts. In a small place like Dili, the tribe effect can be a good thing—difference is embraced, friendships are tight, and cultural fluency is encouraged. Faraway from mainstream marketing, most kids here are blissfully unaware of the latest toy, music or fashion trends.
There isn’t much to buy or much to do (in the over-scheduled Western sense), so the school-aged set tend to make their own fun. It’s almost idyllic, until these kids return home for a visit (or forever) and feel utterly out-of-place amongst their peers. It is one of the many trade-offs.
At this point, I can only theorize about how this lifestyle will shape our own children, especially since our path is not yet defined. But, it is something I think about a lot.
I often come back to a quote that was on the wall of my childhood home: There are two lasting things we give our children. One is roots and the other is wings. I figure that if we can pull this off as parents, regardless of where in the world we find ourselves, then we will be doing the very best job we can.
For at least another year or two, Dili will be our home. But after that, we have no idea where our next posting will be. We will weigh up the various decisions as we go along—and as long as the kids are happy and healthy, I’m okay with this flexible future plan. One day we’d like to have a home in the traditional sense of the word, in England or America. But right now, home is where we are.
This summer, when people ask our kids where they are from I will be smiling when I hear the proud twin chorus: “We’re from Dili!”
How has your family’s experience shaped your children’s sense of home or identity? If you are part of a multi-cultural family or have raised kids abroad – do you have any advice for others?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Shaula Bellour in East Timor. Shaula can also be found on her blog, Notes From a Small World.
Photo credit attributed woodleywonderworks via flickr (Creative Commons license).