People keep saying to me, “Oh your little girl must be loving the normality of being back home in Australia.”
I smile, nodding meekly, not wanting to seem ungrateful for this amazing life Down Under. Sure, she is loving all that being “home” has to offer. Who wouldn’t!
But then I politely interject with “But for her, this is not normal.” That piercing blue sky creating a vibrant rooftop above us, that’s seriously quite remarkable, but I’ve gotta be honest, all these bugs…they’re really doing her head in…and she hasn’t quite figured out how to cross the road, sensibly.
My small person was born in the oriental kingdom of Hong Kong six years ago! Despite her Australian citizenship, blonde hair and blue eyes, she will proudly announce to all and sundry, she’s a Honky, through and through. Her preference for rice and dim sum is yet to be surpassed by pizza.
Living the expat life meant that when she was just three and a half, with a mix of reluctance and anticipation, we upped stumps and left the glittering fragrant harbour of Hong Kong for more rugged (in every way) pastures in Xi’an, north west China.
Wearing a mask for much of winter, even in the playground, the frenetic crowds that never seem to quiet, the neon signs brandishing bold Chinese characters that never seem to dim; the notorious traffic jams that have cars riding mere centimetres from one another… and the random strangers who hoist her up onto their shoulders in the street (without asking) for a prized photo…these are all things, to her, that until now, have been utterly normal. Not to mention, despite our best efforts, it’s impossible to understand what most people are saying to you, much of the time.
Living Down Under, in a westernised world, for her, is a first.
So far, the continuous stream of fresh air and never ending carpet of green grass to roll in (without wondering what’s in it), driving our own car from place to place wherever and whenever we may choose and strolling through the quaint neighbourhood to school… is all a joyous novelty. (As are the toy aisles in K Mart.)
But what does it really mean to be an expat kid… or as they like to call you a Third Culture Kid?
As with just about anything in life, there are pros and cons to growing up in a foreign country and as an expat parent you are constantly asking yourself if you’re doing the right thing.
Missing out on family back home is clearly the number one drawback… and is one of the major reasons, we are… ‘back’ after seven years abroad.
Now we’re here and have come through the initial teething stages, I asked my small person, what she thinks she’s learned living in these countries, now she’s had time to absorb the Aussie life.
I think you’ll agree, her answers, though simple and unguarded are truly indicative of what it means to be an expat kid.
HAVING FRIENDS FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD
When you’re an expat child, often you’ll go to an international school, rather than a local school. Obviously it depends on the country you’re living in but if their native language is not English, the language barrier at a local school can be difficult and the education system is often not what your child is used to, particularly in China where a local school for Ava would’ve meant around the clock tuition, seven, long, days a week.
An international school will still have a mix of local kids – in our case, many who couldn’t speak English – and then a handful of people from all corners of the world.
Ava’s mix of friends spanned the globe from American to English, Canadian, Welsh, German, French, Korean, Irish, Italian and of course Chinese…and that was just the kids. Her expat teachers were also from all walks of life giving her their own taste of the world.
Having few expats in Xi’an meant the pond from which to choose friends was small…but it meant Ava wasn’t just friends with expat kids in her year but kids from every grade and you can bet, they always had each other’s back.
Thats not to say she wasn’t friends with the locals too. When I asked Ava if it was difficult when they couldn’t speak much English, she said (in her words) “While it was frustrating on both sides not being able to always talk to all your classmates, you could still play together, Mum!”
Language is no barrier when you’re on the slide or doing arts and crafts, right? How do you communicate? Simple, “You just show them or use your hands,” she says.
In Australia, Ava is still getting used to having such a wide circle of friends – and mostly they all look like her! Not to mention their mums look just like me! Say it isn’t so! And they’re not arriving at school on the back of a scooter or in a Tuk Tuk.
When I asked her what she remembers most about her international school, apart from her friends of course… she says, “celebrating different traditions from all over the world.”
From Halloween, to Chinese New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Lantern Festival and Thanksgiving, she’s seen it all and understands that “everybody is different” and we all come from different backgrounds in this diverse land.
LEARNING TO ADAPT
Do kids adapt easily? I often hear people say children are resilient but sometimes I’m not convinced. I won’t sugar coat it, some days have been tough for Ava. Beneath the smiles and the giggles, there are tears as she gets used to a new life, a new school, a new teacher, new friends, new rules and a new routine. But as she says, when we first went to China, she would cover her ears, the incessant honking of car horns was so loud! Two years later, she barely noticed the noise. Driving to school was always a nightmare in the bumper to bumper traffic and walking into a new school was terrifying, let alone trying to navigate the zig zagging cars, just to get to the front gate.
Now she can laugh about those times our driver dropped us at school and actually stuck his hand out like superman to stop the traffic so we could cross. What school zone?
No one’s uninvitingly touching her hair and pushing little XiaoWu into her side for a picture, which in those early days had the potential to send Miss Three into a right tiz. By the time she left, while she perhaps never got used to it, she learned to accept it for the harmless curiosity it was. Does she miss the attention? Apparently that’s a big, fat NO, mum, with a screwed up face! (And here I was thinking I could get use to the paparazzi.)
Of course there’s adapting and adopting! Regularly seeing other kids relieve themselves on the side of the road, doesn’t mean she follows suit.. she still chuckles at the time(s) her and daddy saw a lady squatting on the toilet with her pants down.
APPRECIATING THE LUCKY COUNTRY
What’s different about being back? I ask. “Well mum we don’t get things done for us… no one brings our food or cleans our house.” Um, tell me something I don’t know! “We don’t have big heavenly hotel beds or a big balcony,” she says (covered in desert dust, I might add) and now we have to learn to do things for ourselves. Ahhh. Yeh! We do, I say through gritted teeth. But how about not having to brush our teeth with bottled water anymore!
Despite being privileged with all the pleasures of a hotel at our beck and call, Ava also realises not every country is the so called “lucky country”.
Life is more simple here, she says…”Mum you have more friends and they all have pets!”
“And there are so many more trees, less pollution and people don’t throw their rubbish or spit!”
We can go to a doctor whenever we need to and speak English to him or her and get medicine with relative ease. “Mummy doesn’t fly into a complete meltdown when I get a cold… and run around checking and re-checking medicine supplies.” (Just in case.)
“Driving our own car is exciting because there’s English music on the radio and I can learn the words….” But being in a car seat is still a little constricting.
And much to her dismay, she still has to learn mandarin! 😉
“You can’t help where you’re born though,” she says and perhaps that’s a fact so many of us forget.