The 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.
What 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.