My twins are seniors and our conversations have naturally turned toward university choices. For my family, of course, that includes conversations about America and culture, home and upbringing. We moved to Somalia when the twins were two and we’ve lived in the Horn of Africa ever since.
One evening, my daughter asked, “But what’s really so different about growing up here? How does my experience compare with that of a high school girl in Minnesota?”
How can I even begin to answer?
I read about parents horrified at the thought of sending a 12-year old down the block alone. I sent my 12-year olds to Kenya alone. I’ve read about families bemoaning the fact their children don’t have their own bathrooms, or extolling the incredible and surprising virtues of siblings being forced to share a sink. My children share a bathroom and the girls share a bedroom.
And so, when they say it is hard for them to understand what might be different about their life compared to an American teenager and I think about the so-called suffering of sharing a bathroom sink or the fear of sending a child to the corner alone, the answer is so big, so deep, I don’t know what to say.
On a practical level, I can describe the choices we’ve made that highlight our values – living within our means financially, indoor space that promotes family intimacy and shared experiences, an imperfect house with an incredible backyard perfect for a family more interested in being active than aesthetics, living in community.
But on a deeper level, how do I begin to talk about courage or risk or the power of that community? How do I address the ways living abroad impacts my kids’ experience of race (isn’t every president black? Every president they have lived under has been) or religion (aren’t all Muslims doctors, teachers, artists, shopkeepers, friends? Not terrorists) or wealth (does all that stuff make people content? Some of their friends are content in aluminum shacks)?
I can’t explain to my twins how their childhood has affected them. They’ll need to discover the answer to that question on their own. I couldn’t begin to articulate one. I have ideas, but sometimes the only way to answer our deep questions is to experience a contrast, to set our question and our experience against something new, opposing, different. Italo Calvino wrote, “Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes.”
This scares me. I want to have an answer for them the way I had an answer for diaper rash, the way M and M’s were the answer on long-haul flights, the way my kisses were the answer for scraped knees. Those answers provided, healed, protected. That’s what I want to give them now – protection, healing, and provision.
But I can’t any longer. They will move on from high school and I can’t go to that next place with them. I can watch and talk and process and pray and be their safe space as they wrestle with who they are, where they come from, and who they want to become. But I can’t answer the question of identity, which is really the core of what my daughter meant when she asked how her life experiences have been different.
I can only hope that as our family has chosen to do, my kids have learned to shift their attention, to be wise and thoughtful and to make good choices. Develop uplifting community, be curious and brave. Focus on gratitude, choose delight with intention and integrity. Live there, where you are, in all the richness and challenges of it.
How do you talk with your kids about their international upbringing?
What are some specific joys and specific pains they have experienced? How do you address those as a family?
[Read more essays about Third Culture Kids, in Finding Home: Third Culture Kids in the World, a compilation of more than twenty authors exploring the joys and challenges of being, raising, and loving TCKs.]