A few months back I was chatting with a friend, a fellow expat who is moving home come June. She and her family are relocating from a fairly swank zip code here in Denmark (Copenhagen 90210) to a rural village in the north of Scotland. Narrow, windy roads and fertile fields. Small Beatrix Potter-esque woodland animals popping out from behind the hedgerows sort of stuff. She is excited, but a little worried about how her son will deal with settling back into what repatriating expats might call ‘real life’. While their new village lifestyle might be more along the lines of how she grew up, her son has grown up very differently.
The only real school her son knows is the private, international school my own boys attend. She’s worried that he’ll be lagging behind in a few subjects, sure. She’s concerned he’ll have to adjust to a more traditional, test based system. But the real core of her worries is that he’ll have trouble fitting in with kids who’ve gone to the local school with each other for the whole of their lives. That he’ll stand out as different. That he will, to paraphrase her concerns, get the shit kicked out of him for being soft.
“The other day he asked if he could have edamame for a snack!” She told me, slightly aghast.
In that one sentence, in that flummoxed, perplexed, ‘how on earth did a child that I raised grow up asking for edamame as a snack?’ look on her face, she summed up everything that many of us worry about when we enter into this cushy bubble of expat life. Because let’s face it: many of us wouldn’t be living the lives we live now if we were back home. Many of us won’t be living the lives we live now if and when we repatriate. And unless you had some sort of Asian connection growing up, most of us probably didn’t even know what edamame was until we were grown-ups.
I’ve been thinking about ‘the edamame problem’ since my friend and I spoke. I’ve teased her that I was going to write about it. Then it came up again, in relation to an article from earlier this year about ‘elite volunteerism’ at schools, which prompted a lively conversation on another friend’s FB page and the ‘edamame issue’ came up again.
I grew up in a blue-collar, working class house in Massachusetts. The most exotic we got in the way of food was the Ah-So sauce my mother used to smother the pork chops in every now and again. My first experiences with ‘ethnic’ food were not until long after I moved away from home. My friend’s son wants edamame for snack. My own son has, on more than one occasion, asked for sushi for lunch. These are kids who go out for sushi the same way we had take-out pizza when I was growing up. Sure, it’s healthier and yes, it’s great that they’re exposed to a variety of foods from across cultures, and admittedly it’s kind of cute to brag (just a little) about how much your toddler likes a good tuna roll…
As the article hints at, there’s something just a little elitist about sushi. And if I’m being honest, expat life for my family is a little like sushi. Or edamame. Sure, it’s healthy to expose ourselves and yes, it’s great that we are living in another culture and admittedly it’s kind of cute to brag (just a little) about the fantastic opportunities my children have….
The edamame problem.
My own family is living a life that, while not exactly false, is not exactly real either. Had we been back in NYC, our boys would likely be going to a zoned NYC public school. There would certainly be some kids eating sushi and edamame, but there would likely be many more who qualify for free hot lunch. Regardless of the income bracket fluctuations, there probably aren’t middle school ski trips to Germany or “away” sports matches in The Netherlands at P.S. 321.
Like my friend, I feel I often walk the fine line between gratefulness that my children get to experience this privilege (let’s call it what it is) and horror that their upbringing is so far removed from my own and that of my husband. There are times we have been left scratching our heads wondering how the hell we ended up here, immersed in this (admittedly lovely) lifestyle that is not very…us. My children are able to have this amazing experience of living abroad, but it’s not exactly like they’re immersed in the society we live in. Sure, the required language lessons give them just enough Danish to order a Danish and they ride their bikes everywhere, but they’re not exactly marinating in the special seasoning of Danish culture that churns out more Danes. Essentially, they’re privileged kids who are leading a privileged life due to the fact that their father was offered a position overseas.
And metaphorically, nothing screams privilege more than edamame and sushi.
So when my friend was fretting about how her son’s new classmates would react if he bandied about words like edamame, I understood exactly where she was coming from. Maybe your kids like sushi. Maybe they like to sit down and listen to This American Life with a bowl of steamed edamame. But while it might be de rigueur in the expat world, outside of it, there’s a fairly narrow demographic band that is going to say “Oh, my kid too!” If you know you’re going back to a place where it’s more Ah-So than sashimi, these niggling thoughts can keep you up at night.
It’s a champagne problem, of course, this act of fitting into a lifestyle you weren’t expecting. This life, beyond anything I could have imagined, is as foreign to me as the land I’m living in. There are some who approach this life of privilege from a more familiar place. Perhaps they grew up with edamame too. Others, like me, find this alternate reality of Friday night sushi slightly jarring.
When I was growing up, if someone had a heated pool, it was a good sign they were rich. There was one family in my neighborhood who not only had a heated pool, but above the mantelpiece in their living room, there was an oil portrait of the family matriarch. At ten, I thought it was the classiest thing ever. A sign of true wealth. Who else but the very rich would have an oil portrait hanging over their fireplace? Sometimes now, walking through this life that feels as if it doesn’t really belong to me, I feel the same way I did when I was ten. Looking at the things around me and thinking: who else but the truly privileged would have these things? Things like sushi for lunch.
Things like edamame.