When I was a child, I grew up in a country other than my own and like many expatriate kids, I went to a French international school. Through this situation, I was exposed to three different cultures: the one of my country of birth, the one of the country where I had lived, and the one of the school that I was attending.
As a kid growing up in such a multicultural environment, I quickly learned to appreciate both the different and the new. Foreign languages, different shapes and colors have always been part of my life, so much so that it has turned out to be my definition of a normal world.
“Where do you come from?” People would innocently ask.
“I’m not sure anymore,” I felt like answering back.
This question, so often asked, had little meaning to me as a child.
Was I supposed to give the name of the country where I was born, even though I never got to grow up there?
Or was I supposed to instead provide the name of the country where I lived, where I knew every little corner, but that was very different to me from the perspective of language and traditions?
Or maybe the country that was providing me its education and culture, but that I had never yet had the chance to visit?
The lives of expatriate kids are filled with cultural confusions that make it difficult to fit them into one simple box. They don’t belong, or have difficulty identifying with one specific group, yet they are very rich culturally as they have been exposed to so much of everything.
That’s how I turned out as an expatriate kid, as well as an expatriate adult.
I have come to appreciate this lifestyle so much that I now live in my seventh country.
My nomadic life has taught me a few things that are worth sharing. There are naturally the things one would expect like discovering new places, foods, people and languages. I have lived in hot countries with deserts, in cold countries with snow and in tropical countries with rainy seasons. Some countries had clear and defined laws for everything while others were more “relaxed” – if I could call it that. Some considered religion as a secondary aspect of life, like something personal, private to each individual, while others put it upfront and worked all their rules around it. In some countries, relationships and social circles had a formal flare, while in others they were very casual and worked on a last minute approach.
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Living in all of these countries has given me the chance to experience these differences.
Concepts of right and wrong have taken a different dimension over the years. What constitutes an accepted and approved norm to some could be considered absurd, weird, funny, ridiculous or even unacceptable to others, because of what they have been accustomed to.
With this, I’ve asked myself several times, “but what is right, after all?”
I don’t know if it’s the experience of being exposed to so much newness, the maturity that comes with getting older, or motherhood that came recently to me – because with it, comes a whole new revision of principles and the way we perceive this world – though it took me over three decades to figure this out.
Being the mom of two kids, it was important for me to find an answer to this point, as I had to be ready to answer questions that my children would be asking me as they grew and discovered the world around them.
Even when we are new to a foreign place, it is absolutely possible to adapt to their customs, discover and appreciate the local habits and enjoy living in a new environment, which can eventually become home. The good news is that it is possible, and beneficial, to absorb and engage a new culture without trying to make ourselves into something different.
One thing I have learned in my nomadic life, and that I did not anticipate at first, is that having a certain freedom grants me the joy of doing what I truly want, without being influenced by external pressures. I learned to ignore the pollution of the mind that could lead me to taking decisions that I would not be happy with, simply because others expected me to behave about certain matters.
By always being a “welcomed outsider,” I have never felt like I had to absorb these social expectations.
This was partly possible because the people I met over the years did not expect me to do so as I was not exactly one of them, which made it acceptable for me to act differently, and partly because I was also not interested in alienating myself in this way.
It was an unspoken agreement that worked well in all of the countries where I lived, and that did not prevent me from meeting new people, making new friends and appreciating life with the best it had to offer.
An extended benefit of this freedom meant that I learned not to get overwhelmed or impressed with the shining polish that cultures and people tend to show. Instead, I learned to dig beneath the surface to gain a deeper understanding of my surroundings and new environment.
Experience has taught me that whatever lies beneath is much more precious as it conveys the true colors, the unfiltered version of what people truly are and how they function. Sometimes the results are very pleasant and at other times, not so flattering.
That’s where my freedom of will comes in handy.
What I would like for my kids to truly inherit and appreciate is the power of saying “no” to what they dislike. I want them to be able to dig beneath the surface, to connect with the inner strengths of each individual and culture, and if they appreciate what they find, I want them to hold on to it or else I would love for them to feel free to respectfully push it away.
The multiculturalism that I have been exposed to since my early years is what I consider to be my best inheritance for my kids. I want them to learn that decisions are made rationally, and that they have the free will to accept or decline what comes their way, and that no rules, policies or social norms could take away their happiness.
They are free individuals.
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