Culture Club

vintage-flags-set-america-17228557The boys’ school held their annual Cultures Day festivities the other day. Cultures Day, in case you’re wondering, is a day for the school to come together as a global community, to feast on culinary creations from Perth to Poughkeepsie, and to celebrate the melting pot of diversity that is the International School. In theory. In reality, Cultures Day is a day to lament the lack of a cool national costume (as a friend pointed out, India always wins), to stress over whether you can get the mac n’ cheese there while it’s still warm (score one for American cuisine) and trying to recall the colors of the Estonian flag for the inevitable moment a third grader asks you to paint it on her face (it’s blue, black and white, for what it’s worth).

But long after the pizza and the schnitzel, when the aebleskiver has finally stopped repeating and you’re left scrubbing cheese sauce that has set like cement on your casserole dish, you are often left with the inevitable aftertaste of life abroad. You know what I’m talking about: the unanswerable questions you can taste on your tongue. The bitter uncertainty, the sweet second guessing, the back of your mind worry that taking your children out of the familiar, away from their people, is going to screw them well and truly.

My ten year-old asked me once if I had a best friend growing up. Sure, I answered him, her name was Kristen. Where was she from, my son wanted to know. Err…..I said, she was from down the street. Yes, he persisted, but where did she come from? He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that I had a friend of the same nationality who grew up in the same town, the same state, the same country that I did. Cultures Day would have been a breeze for Kristen or me. One flag, one anthem, some sort of super-sized, preservative laden, color-doesn’t-exist-in-nature-culinary creation (see: mac n cheese above). Done and dusted.

It isn’t always so easy or straight forward for expat kids. Last year I did flag face painting and had kids coming to me with a laundry list of nationalities.

“Well, my mom is Cuban and my dad is German and I was born in Qatar but I lived in Scotland before we came to Denmark….so can I have five flags?”

Never mind the fact that I had to bring my son’s atlas with me for reference, that there were kids asking for flags belonging to nations that didn’t exist when I was in school, there was simply not enough time to grant the muddled nationalistic face painting preferences of all these kids. I would have still been there, looking up the Croatian flag (red, white and blue with a checkerboard crest).


It begs the question, however. What was an easy question for me, for my husband, for Kristen and the vast majority of folks I know is a perplexing one for my own sons and their schoolmates.

Where do you come from?

On the expat circuit, the standard answer is “How long have you got?”

The question of identity is a big one. There is a sense of comfort and belonging that comes with cultural identification. Not only the colors of a flag or a fondness for a certain spicy dish of course, but the very notion of a people, a tribe: a group with identifiable and recognizable expectations and traditions. Your tribe is who you turn to for answers, for support, for understanding. For backup. When I try to explain the simple beauty of a peanut butter and Fluff sandwich to non US parents they look at me in confusion…and a little bit of disgust. And to be fair, I feel the same about Marmite. There is a lot more at stake than sandwich spread preference though. How much of our sense of self, our identity, comes from where you come from vs. where you live –because for almost every kid attending an international school, those two things are different.

Many of these kids have parents that hail from two different countries and are growing up in another. Attending an international school should be a way for them to feel at ease, at home in any or all of those cultures. But does it work? To an extent. Though my sons’ school hosts students from more than 70 nations, the biggest, loudest contingent is from the US, with the UK running second. Watching the primary school’s parade of flags the other day, I was reminded of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games; a sole athlete representing Burkina Faso and later, a 400 strong Team USA. Just because the numbers are bigger and the voices are louder doesn’t mean American culture is more important than that of Burkina Faso, but I would be lying to you and myself if I pretended that a lot of rich cultural traditions don’t get swallowed up in the American machine, even abroad.

Because my own kids are (half) American it works in my favor. I imagine if you hail from one of the 68 other nations that are under-represented, it poses a bigger challenge. Not only are you living in a culture outside of your own, away from your tribe, but the international community that forms your new tribe must seem awfully westernized.

Flag_salute_rachel_reynolds_dunedin_kindergartenWhat does that mean for the kids from India or the ones from Gabon or the ones from Ukraine? Will they retain enough of their home culture to feel that they have a people, a tribe? Where will their sense of identity and community come from? Will the expectations they are taught at home or in smaller pockets within the international community at large be enough to form a sense of self? Which sandwich spread will they gravitate toward??

Perhaps in the end these expat kids, growing up in this bizarre soup of nations, will eventually form their own global culture made up of a little bit of this and a little bit of that. A true melting pot of tradition and expectation. Perhaps they will feel equally at home within two tribes, or even three.

Questions to ponder when you are digging out the lederhosen and paging through the Atlas trying to find out what the flag for Moldova looks like (blue, yellow, red with an eagle holding a shield) next Cultures Day. Perhaps by then, I’ll have soaked off enough of the cheese sauce to use my casserole pan again.






22 thoughts on “Culture Club

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  1. This brought back memories of U.N. Day in Karachi, 1981 for me. Identity is a big question. Lisa Liang has been touring the international school circuit with her show Alien Citizen that speaks to that dilemma. Being a cultural mishmash can be complicated- I consider myself a mix of my parents home cultures and the cultures that I lived in- until you just surrender and embrace that is exactly what you are.


  2. This is a fantastic entry. Not only do I love how it is written but I think it speaks to so many of us who find ourselves asking the questions “what is my tradition”? And “how do I merge my multi-layered heritage?” Or who are the people in tribe? It is an interesting topic to ponder. Thank you for beginning to explore this and I hope many others continue to explore their own thoughts and traditons.


    1. Thanks. I admit that sometimes it is a selfish thing (Who is going to back me up when I’m trying to teach my children to do X??), a lot of times it is a practical thing (are my kids going to know Y if we move ‘home’) and a lot of it is guess work and pondering. I like the idea of making new traditions, but the older I get, the more I understand the need to keep older ones alive. Maybe these crazy kids we are raising will be the ones who figure out how to balance it.


  3. Hi Dina, After two years back home, my kids have slotted into Aussie life but are still considered different. It took some work to help them to understand that it is ok to be different and to emphasise how blessed they have been to live in different countries and experience different cultures. I have even used the analogy of goats and sheep with my daughter. I told her she is a goat. Goats can hang out with sheep and sheep can be fun to be around. However, a goat can never be a sheep.

    I still feel like a goat even though I generally give a good impression of being a sheep. There is a disconnect I feel although it is diminishing. Every now I and then I throw in “When we were in …” because it makes me feel better to acknowledge who I am. I refuse to give up my references to my past even if they grate on other people. I tend to do that anyway and my past is an essential part of my being as much as anyone else’s is to them. I now work with people with disabilities and I find them the most accepting and the most interested in me as a whole person. It’s interesting.

    Back to culture and your kids. Our family has adopted aspects of Australian culture as we did aspects of Danish culture when we lived there. Our family’s mish mash of tradition is unique and helps us to remember all the experiences we have shared together.

    Having said that, my daughter told me the other day that yes we have travelled to other countries and seen lots of things kids at school haven’t but the other kids have seen more of Australia than they have. To which my son added, “yeah, nearly everyone has been to Canberra and we haven’t.” I can’t think of a US equivalent off the top of my head (or even a Danish one) … Canberra is like a vacant Washington DC. Hubby and I rolled our eyes at each other. In what world does Canberra beat Paris, London, New York, anywhere!

    P.S. Love reading your blog and knowing that we share a circle of friends. It’s as if I know you while never having met.


    1. I love this whole comment. Thank you. Sometimes I think that by choosing to have an expat experience, you are choosing to separate yourself from the herd a bit (to keep up with your excellent goat and sheep analogy). Sometimes this is fine, other times it doesn’t go down so well with the ones you’ve left behind. And like you say, as they change, we change, but in very different ways. I would never deny the effect that living abroad has on anyone, and I think for the most part, it’s a positive effect–but it does mark you as ‘different’. I wrote once about my kids having seen the pyramids but never having been to Disney World–not quite the same as Canberra, but I get it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really enjoyed this piece. I especially liked your reference to the “Where do you come from?” question.

    Our third culture kids definitely have a different life than we did growing up but, when I sit and fret about it, wondering if we are damaging our 4 boys (a frequent occurrence), I end up focusing on the positives. Rather than dwell on the fact that they won’t have that special friend they grew up with, today I am grateful for social media so they can easily stay in contact with the many friends they encounter all over the world, and maybe visit that “best friend” in another country some day. Currently, my boys attend an American school in southeast Asia where 95% of the kids are not American. My 10 year old is the only child in his class who is not a native Mandarin speaker! The boys are adapting and are finding the positives to this life we lead.

    In 2 years, we will move on and the kids will attend an International school, where, ironically, there are more Americans than they’ve encountered at their American school.

    I look forward to reading more from you.



    1. Thanks, Erin! How ironic that at the American school he is the in the minority yet at the International school, he’ll be surrounded. I too think that the positives outweigh the negatives, but as a parent, it’s the negatives that keep you awake at night sometimes I think. It is difficult as well when you compare your own experiences. I can look back fondly on my high school memories now, but that is through the lens of 25 years. At the time it was pretty horrific. I think it’s human nature to gravitate toward what we know and are familiar with. What we are doing goes against the grain in a way and it’s always the unknown that makes it a little scary, but also more delicious. Thanks for taking the time to leave such an insightful comment. I hope you stick around!


  5. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I think one of the best ways to help people understand other cultures is this exposure. Yes, there will always be people who fit the stereotypes. But there will also be people who don’t, who might make your boys pause over violence against another country when they’re grown, who might make them see a thing differently when they have greater perspective. As people, we’re too slotted/categorized/isolated/comfortable to really get to know people who differ from us, and as a result, we might have a lot more intolerance. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.


    1. No, you’re not wrong, Andra. That is one side of it for sure, and a big, positive side of living abroad. But there are other sides. It is important to feel a sense of belonging, and as much as I would like to say “Can’t we all just get along and have a big global hug”, there are cultural aspects of different places that are part of having grown up within that culture. Sometimes these are things you are happy to let go of (for me it’s the gun culture in the US), but sometimes there are other things that you are more reluctant to release (for me, it’s the notion that it is ok to stand out, to go over and above–another American trait). As with most things in life, it’s a balance. But sometimes when you’re longing for a Fluffenutter sandwich, you forget to keep your arms out to your sides to balance yourself ;-).


  6. Well written as always, I have goosebumps reading it. While watching the parade I was hoping that you would be writing something interesting about this – thanks.
    India had a few girls walking in the parade for them 🙂 There was only one for Thailand as it seems that there is only equivalent to ONE Thai in school, half is mine and another half in the primary bldg 🙂 !


    1. Thanks, Cherry. Imagine my surprise when my half American/half British son came out draped in the Union Jack, not only marching with the UK contingent, but the flag bearer! Traitorous little boy ;-).

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Nice one, Dina (I had to rewrite this after the German autocorrect completely messed up the first three words. That’s about constantly switching languages/keyboards)! I had a similar conversation with my mother last week. People at “home” often don’t even understand the implications of spending your life overseas and bringing up mixed kids. As a mixed culture family (Germany & Singapore Chinese) it’s a big challenge to maintain any kind of national identity with the children. Going back to Singapore now, time will show wether they will be culturally isolated over there, adapt, or just go their own way.


    1. I don’t think you can understand it, not fully, unless you’re in the midst of it. It’s hard enough knowing going in that your children are going to be from a mixed culture background, let alone plonking them into one that might well be wholly different from either. Maybe it’s better in the long run because they can, as you say, go their own way. I guess the fear is that it won’t be better–but like you say, only time will tell. Gulp.


  8. Yeah, this piece totally confirms my desire to see the advent of a global monoculture (flag: solid grey background btw). And only one dish should be recognized also, namely re-hydrogenated soya pellets). The time of independent nation states and localized cultures is a relic of backward tribalism, surely. All should be ruled by a benevolent dictator. Just sayin’ 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My family is just at the very bare beginning of considering an expat experience. It’s so barely beginning that it’s only whispered at in our house. And of course nobody outside our house knows yet! But of course I’m thinking about it constantly and drawing things out to all the inevitable conclusions! I’m so grateful to have found this space… and this post in particular! I think about my son, a teen, A LOT. He’s not just ready, he’s raring to go. But what things feel like in abstract are rarely true in actuality, so as his mother, seeing things in concrete form (like understanding the ramifications of “Where do you come from?”) are very helpful to me.


    1. Hi Lauren,
      First of all, how exciting!! I think that the fact that you are all excited by the prospect means that you’re two steps ahead of the game. There are lots of resources out there to help with the transition that you and your family are going to be facing over the next few months (and years)–take advantage of them. I think the single most important thing to remember is that there are NO hard and fast rules. Everyone experiences life abroad in a unique way, it really is up to you what you make of it. There will be ups and there will be downs, but for the vast majority of expats I know, at the end of the day, the ups win. Good luck and I hope you can find some more here to relate to on your journey! D


  10. This really hits home with me. We’re Americans, living in Germany – on what was supposed to be a two-year expat package that has turned into a seven-years-and-counting experience. I feel like this decision has both enriched our lives in so many ways, but also made us neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat. We don’t fit in in either country. At “home” in the US we’re oddballs – our kids speak German, are allowed to do unspeakable things like walk alone to their friends’ homes, and we have seen that “socialized” medicine can work. Here in Germany, we’re treated as well-meaning oddities – no one understands why we’re still here when both parents are American! They give us credit for learning the language and trying to fit in, but we don’t fit in perfectly – never will – and frankly, I don’t want to give up everything American about me to fit in. But it’s a struggle, and I do think I’ve given my kids loads to talk about on the therapist’s couch later in life ….


    1. Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this. You’ve summed up everything in your comment. I’m not sure you can ever truly fit in, not without giving up almost every cultural characteristic of your upbringing. I’m sure there are some that are more than happy to do that, but I, like you, am not. As much fault as I find with the US (and I find a lot of fault with the US), it is home, and I have a deep, abiding love and respect for my home. There is no right or wrong answer, except that all children should be allowed to walk alone to their friend’s homes :-).


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D.E. Haggerty

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