We were on the minibus the other morning for our first day back at work since the Holiday break, before the flooding. The school provides transport each day to and from NJIS and our apartment complex for the teachers and their kids who attend the school. The kids sit together in the front along a bench seat facing the rest of us in the bus. Canadians Sophia, grade 2 and Sarah, grade 1 were born in Honduras during one of their parents’ previous international jobs. Tyla, also grade 2, is from New Zealand. The adults talked about their adventures during the vacation, while the kids were discussing their nationalities, probably as a result of their previous Holiday visits with family. As I eavesdropped on the conversation, I could hear Cian, the youngest of the bunch, confidently chime in, “I’m from Tolland”.
“No, Buddy, you’re American,” I said from the back of the bus. “Tolland is the town we used to live in.”
“I’m American,” he said to the girls in the exact same voice he had said Tolland.
Our experience abroad with young kids has put a whole new set of playing cards into our parenting poker game. Living as a bule (Indonesian for Caucasian- pronounced boo-lay) expatriate in Asia, attending an international school, and spending his day with friends from all over the world, the question of where he’s from comes up often for Cian. It’s a question he can’t quite figure out how to answer. How can you live in Tolland, Connecticut, and America at the same time? It doesn’t really make sense. We even throw around “New England” occasionally for people who have never heard of Connecticut (everybody), making it worse. Being an American was never really explained to Cian back in the States, but he knows his old house was in Tolland- and that has become his default answer.
After all, “country” is a complex idea. When we were in Bali, for example, Cian would occasionally ask what day we were going back to Indonesia. In his eyes, Jakarta and Indonesia were the same thing. Being an archipelago didn’t make the concept of Indonesia being a country any easier. If we flew across the ocean to reach a different country this past July, how could Bali be part of the same country as Jakarta? He just couldn’t wrap his head around it. Bali was Bali. Duh.
I tried to tackle this unsuccessfully a few times on our recent plane rides. In the back of the flight magazines where they show airline routes on a map, I pointed out oceans, land, islands, and countries. Cian would listen, but couldn’t see how strange white shapes on a blue background could ever be a picture of Indonesia surrounded by water. He would just smile and go back to his Leapster. However, he has learned to identify Indonesia on a map. Its a start on a daunting but essential skill for an international four year old. We will work on finding America next.
“Third culture kids” is the expatriate term for children raised internationally. The experience comes with some amazing opportunities as well as some challenges. During these past six months of being abroad (to the day, in fact), we have already begun to see a few third culture kid characteristics emerge in both Cian and Áine, such as Cian developing this interesting sense of identity and place. It’s amazing to see how adaptable the kids have been to their new home, the way they have handled what our new life has handed them, and what unexpected situations, such as Cian’s unknown nationality, living abroad presents.