When you have visitors, it’s easy to show off the best parts of your adopted home abroad. The sights, the opportunities, your kick ass apartment a few blocks from the beach. It’s easy to wax poetic about the good stuff. After all, noone wants to hear you moan about the price of meat or the lack of Goya products or how difficult it is to obtain a travel card without submitting to a retina scan (today’s gripe). When you are sitting in the sun at the park behind your kick ass apartment and looking out toward the beach, it’s easy to gloss over the harder aspects of living outside your home country and culture.
One of the things I talked about with our recent visitors was the challenge of raising kids with a value system, be it moral, ethical or cultural, in a place where you don’t have a cultural safety net. No reinforcement, no village, no calling for backup.
When I was a girl, if I didn’t say please or thank you to an adult, that adult corrected my behavior. Whether it was a child friendly “What’s the magic word?” or an undiluted “Where are your manners?”, my mother knew that other adults were there to fill in for the times she wasn’t. Please and thank you and other manners are a small example, but they raise the question of what to do when your values, what you do and don’t find important, don’t quite mesh with those of your host culture?
The Danes don’t hesitate to tell my kids when they do something wrong. The problem is, what others consider—let’s call it shush worthy behavior—is not necessarily the same behavior I would or you would. And vice versa. Assimilation is one option, but not a valid one. For one, I’m stubborn. (American trait #1) More importantly, for expats, these foreign lands, these “over theres” are only temporary. If we were here forever, assimilation into the highly-stylized, uber-designed Danish machine would be the only way to go. But we’re not and so finding a balance is a struggle at times.
In these cases, the bigger differences may indeed be better to tackle in the sense they are easier to address. I’m guessing that most expats in Saudi Arabia aren’t raising their daughters with the assumption it’s not ok for women to drive, just like I’m guessing most expats in the U.S. aren’t going around rallying for gun rights. When cultural values are the polar opposite to your own, it is easy to overlook them completely. But what of the small things? The manners, the expectations, the lists of dos and don’ts and what’s expected and what’s rejected. The small paths and trails that make up the atlas of who you are.
Like it or not, I’m American. I may not be the blue-collar, bandanna pocketed Born in the U.S.A. American that Springsteen sang about or even a Johnny who used to work on the dock. But I’m still an American: by birth, by culture and by value system. I’m typical in a lot of ways, stereotypical in others and I buck the trend completely in many other ways. And believe it or not, there are actually American cultural traits I’d like to see my own children inherit. For all my complaints and rants and disappointments with my home country, there is an underlying spirit in the American culture that I want my children to embody and embrace.
If we were living in the U.S., it wouldn’t be a problem. The kids would be drinking a steady diet of soda infused with those values. With every thwack of a baseball and each slice of apple pie they’d be ingesting them. I wouldn’t have to think about it. It’s in the water. Like fluoride. But living outside of my home country, I do. Sometimes what I would call ‘spirit’ comes part and parcel with volume, with arrogance, with questioning authority; all quasi-American traits that abroad, are seen as things to be corrected, refined, or changed.
The upside to working without a society sized safety net is that it is far easier to jettison the traits you never liked in the first place. But figuring out how to remain true to the ones you want to pass down can be tricky. Sometimes you need to call for backup. You need a bunch of adults at the ready with “What’s the magic word?”
This is not a uniquely American problem of course, yet I can only write about it through the filter of my experience as American gal living abroad. As much as I may want my children to embody what I call American spirit, I imagine there is an expat counterpart living in the US who is horrified at the American arrogance her child is swimming in because it’s at odds with her own value system. The same must hold true for any expat– wondering how to make sure your child marinates long enough to take on the taste of home when the spices used in your temporary pot are of a completely different variety.