My boy was made in Italy, took his first breath in the UK, cut teeth in Hong Kong, was pre-schooled in Australia and primary schooled back in the UK. His sister’s birth certificate bears a picture of the Sydney Harbour Bridge but her passport’s a very regal British burgundy, which was issued in New Zealand.
Confused? Strangely my kids are not.
My husband’s career in construction disputes, combined with a chronic wanderlust has meant we’ve called six different countries home. Since having children we’ve slowed down a little, adjusting locations and timing in-line with parental priorities. For instance, smoggy Hong Kong lost its shine when we became responsible for a pair of newborn lungs. Our kids’ time as expats though, (I’ll avoid using ‘immigrants’ as it seems like a dirty word right now), has gifted them with a worldliness and cultural empathy beyond their five and nine years.
My son will talk at length about the persecution of Aboriginal Australians and the plight of the Calais jungle residents. My daughter’s breakfast read of choice (jointly tied with the Argos catalogue), is an atlas. Before they knew their alphabets they could each name all the continents. They’ve penned lengthy and fairly random travel bucket lists, mostly centered around food – the accessibility of maki rolls and fresh mango dictating a country’s ranking.
This sense of excitement about the world, common among their little expat friends, hasn’t happened by accident, it’s something we’ve tried to cultivate. At a time when borders are tightening, lives are shrunk by walls (physical and figurative) and 52% of Brits felt the future lay in looking inward, we want our children to look outward.
Our journey hasn’t been without turbulence though, which has come in the form of culture shocks. When we brought our boy back from the very urban Hong Kong at 6 months, his first time sitting on grass in a park caused an epic melt-down. On another visit home five years later, at the same park, much amusement ensued when he referred to how Mummy liked a ‘slippery dip’ – the Aussie word for a slide. It took his Grandma 45 minutes to decipher the term ‘flip-flops’ from his frustrated pleas to wear “thongs”. The single biggest source confusion for him about the UK though was: “who turned off the sun?”
A common assumption about expat children is that they’ll either become over-privileged brats or friendless loners, with poor academic results and no roots. In the more old school destinations where domestic help is commonplace, there may be a danger of over-pampering. At my baby group in Hong Kong, the amahs (maids) held the babies while the expat mothers sat in another room drinking coffee. In Dubai, pass the parcel prizes at some kids’ parties came from the Apple store and several canine expats on my complex had their own dedicated maid.
However, conscientious expat parents are mindful of the risk of creating monsters and strive to keep their feet on the ground. A millionaire friend of mine in Hong Kong, owner of investment banks in London and Moscow, employed just a single live-out cleaner and happily shopped alongside me for baby grows in the H&M sale bin.
In terms of education, stats show that living abroad can actually be of benefit. A survey by Denizen, a publication for former expat or ‘third culture kids’, found that the majority had degrees, 30% had a post graduate qualification and 85% spoke two or more languages. Furthermore, 33% had since started their own companies, supporting the notion that people who grow up overseas may be more open to opportunity and less risk averse.
Examples of famous third culture kids are: Barack Obama, John Kerry, Audrey Hepburn, JRR Tolkien, Yoko Ono, Spike Milligan and Freddie Mercury. A list made up of some dynamic trailblazing types and some plain bonkers ones, either way it’s quite possible that spending their formative years as cultural chameleons paved the way for adulthood success.
There’s no doubt that dragging your children away from family, friendship groups and everything they’ve known comes at a risk but choose timings and locations carefully and it can be a wholly worthwhile one. So if another damp, grey UK winter has gotten you down or the small town xenophobia sweeping the country has made you claustrophobic, consider taking your family and staging your own Brexit. You may condemn your kids to a weird hybrid accent for life, but what a life they will have.