Keeping kids connected to former homes.

23 June 2013

Editorial Note: Recently, I had the pleasure of writing another guest editorial for Your Expat Child -- a valuable online resource providing international relocation advice for parents. Moving from country to country brings about a series of questions and circumstances specific to the experience. As a parent of children raised overseas, one is faced with how to help your children define home. The task can be daunting and tricky as they may have a different perspective of the world than their peers. So, for the readers of that are tied into the expat world-- hello and I hope you enjoy this post! The article in its entirety, divided into three guest posts on the Your Expat Child site, follows below and covers easy ways to help expat children stay connected to former homes. Enjoy!

“I wish we could go home and have lunch at the chicken lady's place,” casually remarked my six year old son. A friend, who was in the room at the time of the comment, looked at me with a puzzled expression. I explained that the 'chicken lady' referred to a favorite food vendor stall in our former neighborhood in Bangkok, Thailand.

My son spent his formative years overseas. And, while he visited the States every summer, the majority of his childhood memories took place while living overseas. He recalls a much loved housekeeper in Thailand as a part of home. He recalls a beloved meal of Katchupuri, a specialty of the Eastern European country of Georgia, as a part of home. He also identifies Seattle (where he was born) as home. While this is perfectly natural for expat children, their home country peers may not understand the depth of connection an expat child has to their host country/countries.

So, when the inevitable happens and it is time for your family to move on-- either to another country where you'll continue to be an expat or to begin your repatriation experience in your home country-- you support your kids through the emotions of saying goodbye. But, then what? What can we, as parents and caregivers, do to honor and celebrate the connection that our children have to their former 'home' countries? Here are just a few ideas to get your thinking started:

  • Rather than talk about home in terms of types of dwellings or neighborhoods or cities, expat children will often recall home by unique cultural elements. Spend some time thinking about what makes the culture you live in memorable. A good place to start is by taking note of characteristics that are very different than your home country. Is the weather extremely different than your home country (tropical, very cold weather, extremely wet/dry, etc.)? Are there sounds that are unique or not heard in your home country (a daily call to prayer, different road/car/siren sounds, bird calls or other wildlife)? Is the architecture different (temples, spirit houses, stark/ornate)? Figure out a way to document these differences. For example, use a notebook* and work with your child to draw the items you've come up with together, take photos and put them in a place where they can be recalled when desired, print information from the internet on the differences you've noted.
  • Write a letter to your child. Use the format as an opportunity to tell them a story of something that happened to them while living in their host country. It doesn't need to be a momentous memory. In fact, sometimes a small, quiet, well detailed moment provides a better story when the child reads it years later. Perhaps they tried a new food and loved (or hated!) it. Maybe the child liked to play with neighbors who didn't speak their same language. Or, maybe the school that your child attended had a daily custom that was unique to the experience. Whatever your story, write it directly to your child, seal it and put it away for a later date.
  • Celebrate! Every culture has unique celebrations and at some point during your expat journey you're bound to celebrate a local custom. As you move on to another country, keep one of the favorite celebrations on your family calendar and celebrate it annually.
  • Stay in contact with friends made while overseas. In the age of social media, connection is easier than ever. As adults we already understand how to stay connected to the people we've met in life. Our kids may need some extra help in learning how to do this-- especially from afar. Introduce them, if you haven't already, not only to email but to the postal service. Provide them with the opportunity to write to their friends made while living in their former homes.
  • If you have the opportunity to collect newspapers from your host country, do so! This is especially useful for future understanding if you happen to live in a country during a major news making moment-- newly elected/appointed leadership, political upheaval, ground breaking architectural or city structural changes, debated art installations, etc. Pick up a copy of the paper (or go back and print off pages from an online news outlet or local blog) and put it away to show your kids when they get older.
  • Learn to cook a meal from your former home and involve your kids in the preparation. If you don't enjoy cooking, attempt to find a restaurant that can provide a memorable taste.
  • Keep up on news from the country(ies) you used to live in. Share appropriate news from the country or region with your child. This helps to provide an understanding of how their former homes fit into the world and how places change over time.
  • Find a store that sells product from the country you were living in. Take your kids, talk to the vendors, bring home an item that sparks a memory.
  • Make a time capsule. Find a small, sturdy container and place a few memory jogging items into it. You could add a coin from the local currency, a package of candy, a business card with your host country's language printed on it, a few photos, a thumb drive with some local music (or music that was popular at the time, in the country you were living in) and other small items.
  • Encourage your children to share their experiences. When your child's school gives them an opportunity to do a research project on a country, read a book about a different culture or create an oral presentation, encourage your child to consider using their experience as an expat as the basis for their work. Most teachers will be excited to see your child draw from their past and share it with others. And, likewise, if your child's classroom provides an opportunity for parents and caregivers to contribute, join in the discussion and help to share what life was like in a foreign culture.
  • Tell stories. Even if you've left the country, the experiences of your host culture will forever be a part of who your family is. Continue to reflect and tell stories of your life overseas. Incorporate it into your daily life just as you would share other moments that occur throughout time.

These suggestions can be done at any time. You can start them while still living in your host country or begin them years after moving on. The idea is to help your children forever remain connected to their unique childhood memories. As we allow our children to age and mature, without losing the small details of their former homes, they will continue to savor their former cultures and gain a full picture of their childhood experiences.

* The photo above displays a spread from my (now 9-year-old) daughter's journal chronically her former home of Thailand.


Nicole said...

I'm not one of your expat readers (I like your fashion and interior posts the best!), but I wanted to say thank you for writing this article. It gives me some ideas of how to introduce foreign culture to my own kid (who has never left the state!).

Sami said...

Great article! Congratulations!

Meghan said...

Great post! Thank you for sharing your experiences. I like the suggestion of keeping news clippings as a way to capture the specific time you were in the country. I also agree with Nicole's comment that these ideas could work to help connect kids to their current (non-expat) homes too!

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