"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I'm not my children, and my children will not be me (thank Goodness for them)

There is an interesting article from Kerrie Wiseman in the Expat Women Newsletter, this month, about the kind of conflicting feelings parents may experience as they watch their children grow up and integrate the ways of a culture different from their own. I can certainly relate to that !

Now, I will not dwell on the numerous and well documented positives of growing up a Third Culture Kid. Nor do I need to stress, again, the fact that I strive on being an expat (not saying it's not an arduous and lonely road to travel a lot of the time, just that I seem to strive on that road - or maybe I've followed it for so long, I can't even remember how to branch onto another one, but that would be the subject for another post). I do believe it would be very hard for me to have to return permanently to my birth country after spending half my life all over the place. I was never such a good French to begin with, anyway. My Spanish half was always a part of me that I nurtured and felt very proud of, even though it set me apart from most everyone else. And yet, I can be sooo very French at times (as I realized again this summer while visiting my newly expatriated brother in Madrid ; even as I basked in the feelings of familiarity, I also experienced some culture shock of my own, to my astonishment). So, not only do I truly love some aspects of the French culture, I confess that I would like to see my children embrace them.

Kerrie Wiseman mentions very accurately that in the excitement of preparing for an expatriation, a person does not, for one minute, imagine all the implications that this new adventure will have. We can all plan. We can think ahead. But we can never imagine how living in a culture different from our own will end up moulding our children. And yet, it is inevitable. The exposure to different ways of living, experiencing and doing things will have an impact on them.

I try to prepare myself for that eventuality. I do tell myself regularly that this comes with the whole package. There are always two sides to a coin, etc.

Of course, that's the rational, logical part of my brain talking. We could also call it wishful thinking. Because the other more emotional and spontaneous part of that same brain will sometimes make me act in ways that have my hair stand on end... retrospectively :

"Don't eat with your hands, only pigs eat like that." I won't even comment on the absurdity of such statement. I mean, since when do pigs eat with their "hands" ??? But yes, I confess that these words have escaped my mouth a couple of times, only to leave me sweating, wondering how I could utter such enormity after years of living in two different countries where eating with the right hand is just the norm, and not considered pig behavior at all, Madame ! My only excuse is that I heard these words as I was growing up, because in Europe, eating with your hand was and still is labelled pig behavior. And the first mother or father who does not sometimes catch themselves uttering sentences that make them feel as if their own parents just spoke through their mouth can just throw the first stone at me.

Or, I'll find myself giving philosophical lectures to my bewildered children :

A few months after we arrived in India, I once heard my not quite 5-year old say in a sing-song voice, as I was changing her baby sister : "Shame, shame, shame !" "What do you mean, shame ?" I asked. She proceeded to explain that at school, whenever a kid showed a naked butt (going to the bathroom, or such, these were Kindergarten children) someone would laugh at them and sing "Shame, shame, shame." Imagine me going out of my way to explain that NO BODY PART IS SHAMEFUL. We were all made the same, with arms and legs, and a head, and a nose, and a mouth, and YES, a butt, too, and that butt is mightily useful, so where is the shame, I ask you ? Right. As if all that ranting wasn't going to fly miles over my 4-year-old's head. And yet, I've also learned that kids living in between cultures do learn to act a certain way here, and another, there. Basic survival, most likely. So, who is to know for sure whether my discourse might have an impact in the long run ? I can only do what feels right at any given time, and hope for the best.

One last example, to follow the writing rule of three :

The French in me, who tends to like understated elegance, also finds it hard, sometimes, to remain silent when she sees the way her two kids just LOVE piling up colors, and glitter, and bangles, and anklets, and bindis, and beads on them until they can barely move (the way an Indian bride, however gorgeous, looks with all the jewelry and heavy saris).

These are obvious (and in the last case rather innocuous) ways in which our children will be influenced by another culture, but there are others, more insidious.

What to think, for instance, of the fact that both my daughters have now lived in places where women are constantly diminished and treated with utmost disdain - when not unbearable violence ? Or, what to think of the fact that Bolly and Tollywood movie posters lining the streets of Hyderabad always show men in macho situations, wielding weapons, guns, knives, sabers, and their women counterparts are either threatened, or looking all teary and suitably helpless ?

Should I voice my disapproval, as in the shame-shame case ? Or should I wait for the subject to come up naturally ? How does one broach such big subjects with children, in a way that will impact them, but without being too forceful ? What is the right age to do it ? There again, I can only rely on my gut instinct, and learn by trial.

I could also mention how they use the word "maid" in a way that I can never get used to (not to mention that I barely ever use that word myself). It's not that they're scornful or rude. But their assumption is clearly that a maid is someone you go to when you need something done that you'd rather not do yourself. Like picking up your toys. And it honestly doesn't matter that Mom has repeatedly asked her house help (or nanny when we had one) to NOT be at the beck and call of the little tyrants. If Mom turns her back, the children know they can get away with basically anything. Not to mention that there are "maids" at school, too, and the way that some local children treat them is not lost on our kids.

And on and on. I remember hearing an expat with roots in two West-African countries tell me that after a few years in New York, they had decided to take their children (who where entering their teenage years) back home. I'm always careful not to throw all African countries in the same pot, but in this case, home WAS Africa to these people, because they felt that the values they trusted and wanted their children to grow up with could only be found back on the continent. Said children have now gone on to have extremely successful international careers, by the way.

A lot of expatriates decide to go home when their children become teenagers. Because it's hard to move them around - they become vocal, and friendships being so important to them, they understandably don't want to be changing places every two or three years. Do their parents also feel that at such an important stage of their lives, their children ought to be in a place that will instill the kind of cultural values that they themselves are attached to (as in the case of our friends, above) ? What to do when the parents do not have the choice ? Or, as in our family, when the parents themselves are culturally mixed ? I have a few years left to ponder that question.

In the meantime, I try to prepare myself for the fact that my children will turn out to be their own selves. This is an evidence that all parents struggle with at one time or another, but the parents of Third Culture Kids have that extra dimension to deal with : our children will grow up to become their own person according to their talents, their personality, AND the way their diverse cultural experiences shaped their ways of thinking, and behaving, too.

So, what do we do when we see our children embrace ways that don't quite resonate with us ?

I, for one, try to make a distinction between knee-jerk reactions caused by simple habit or taste (as in my example about understated vs. over-the-top fashion taste) and core issues that may impact negatively my children's sense of themselves and their own value.

In the last case, my approach will continue to be a mixture of explaining, lecturing, and generally throwing my weight around in every way that will help me make my point - with a lot of fumbling in between.

When dealing with simple cultural differences like eating habits, there is what is done outside, and what we do at home. Indians often use their fingers to eat, and we, at home, eat with a fork and a knife. But I'm also aware of the need for me to broaden my comfort zone so as to include my children's experience as much as I possibly can. What if one of my daughters were to become a fashion designer or an artist whose creations would wear the stamp and influence of her years in India ? Guess where Mom would be sitting, clapping and bursting with pride ? First row, of course, understated chic clothes and all.

I may need to gather a collection of mantras about letting go (it always comes down to that, doesn't it? This should be integrated into every curriculum across the world : a course on the art of letting go) to help with said broadening of my own comfort zone (a never-ending endeavor for serial expats like me.)

I have also pasted a quote by Harry Truman where I can see it often : " I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it." This is a perfect example of a profoundly sound advice - if only it weren't so difficult to follow. So, I harbor the secret hope that by having the words around me, their full meaning will slowly penetrate my entire self until the day I wake up and discover I'm now able to implement its message.

Just don't hold your breath.


Emmanuelle said...

Thank you for writing this, Katia - this is the most nuanced and articulate post on the subject that I have read in a long time.

Many expat parents seem to worry about their children not being "French enough", "American enough", etc - that is, ultimately, similar enough to Mom or Dad.

It looks like you are giving your children plenty of room to grow up into their own person, with their own taste and their own multicultural influences. What a great gift you are giving them!

Robin said...

Katia, I love this piece! I love it because it's real and written by a real expert...that is to say, you, and all expat parents who simply must do what feels right for them, their children, and their circumstances. Well done, with lots to think about! Thanks for writing it.

Katia said...

Thanks, Robin. Coming from you, THE Expat Expert, this goes straight to my heart :)

Emmanuelle, merci aussi. I checked your blog. Great initiative. There is still so much to do and say on the subject of expatriation. I assume that you and Robin know each other... ?

Nandini said...

What an honest, touching post. Funny, I struggle with similar choices bringing up my kids in the U.S. So many children of immigrants are caught between the mainstream culture and their ancestral roots. Maybe between the TCK and them there will be a new global culture evolving that we may not be around to see. They are not us, like Khalil Gibran says in that beautiful poem you posted.
BTW--You name came yesterday in a tweet chat, did you sense people talking about you??

Katia said...

Nandini, so nice to get your input on this. Of course, you would have similar issues ! And yes, our children will have their own culture, and the fact that they have that "third" culture is what will somehow define them and make them feel closer to others like them, rather than people belonging to one or another single culture.
Rilla told me about the Tweet chat. How nice that you two connected. But no, chances are I was sleeping or rushing to get kids ready for school when you guys mentioned my name. Funny :)