An Expat gets defined as one who has taken up residence in a foreign country. Many reading this are just that. And, many reading this didn’t even leave their homeland – they simply moved far away from their family and friends. But, the same challenges can be there as someone that moves 6000 miles away. Finances change. Your phone rarely goes on silent at night because you don’t want to miss ‘that’ call that people can be fearful of getting at 3a.m. from home. Roads change. Language changes. Culture changes. You miss stupid things from home that meant nothing then but really do now.
It all sounds depressing and hopeless. But hey, many expats (working overseas) get the luxury of being relatively tax free. I say this as my crazy wife goes into the US tax season with folders strewn across the desk, bed and receipts for things I have no idea what for and brandishing 3 different colors of highlighters – highlighting I don’t know what.
Now throw into the mix a kid or two.
Our girls have never lived in the country their passports say they are from. They were born in Qatar, live in Dubai and each have 2 different passports defining their identity and entitlements. (By the way, I am taking contributions from anyone for their future therapy that may be needed as they hit some identity crisis down the road and want to move to Greenland to ‘find themselves’.)
Herein lies the challenge that we are parents often fail to understand when we have a child abroad or pluck them out of their home and throw the family on a plane to some foreign land where they don’t speak the same language, eat the same food or wear the same clothes.
‘They’ tell us that children are resilient. ‘They’ tell us that children adjust. And while we are so busy ‘adjusting’ to our new jobs, lifestyle, friends, language and currency, these little ones get dropped into something that we assume they are going to be fine at because we are going through our own drama. ‘They’ don’t bother to tell us that kids really don’t care that you are making a tax free income right now. ‘They’ don’t bother to say that they have no one around them that is ‘home’.
I think we should find out who ‘They’ are and put them on a deserted island in the South Pacific.
This came about recently and what I have written the last 6 years is definitely shortened to this.
My closest friend, Hassen, who is my brother – not by blood – but should be, has been with me through my entire life. We grew up together. We lived in the same village in Egypt. We ended up the same country (Qatar) without even realising it later on in life. And this man has been there since both of our daughters birth and is the true meaning of ‘Omu’ (Uncle – in arabic). And, as luck would have it, he is one of only 3 people my wife allows in the house for longer than 6 hours.
He makes trips here every few months to Dubai from Qatar to be with us and to see ‘his girls’. Why? Are we that exciting of a family? Well, yes, we are cool. Especially if my wife ends up with a bottle of south african wine and decides she will do karaoke for all of us (without the karaoke machine!).
Anyway, he comes here because when we left, he felt like he lost his family. We felt the same. When we are together, its like everything is just where it should be – with family.
He was with us from the day our daughters were born. He stood by my side in troubled times. He was the one that cared for our oldest for 2 days straight while my wife and I were in the hospital bringing our youngest into the world.
There is love there.
And, while all of the love and karaoke is great – there comes a time when people need to go back where they are from. That can be whether they leave you, you return from holiday or friends finish their contract and go home.
This is the thing that kids don’t understand. What they understand is who is around them, who loves them, who sings to them and who adores the very ground they walk on and would even build toys that take nuclear scientists hours to figure out.
Even if they have lived with it their entire lives – human connection is what binds us. When connections are disrupted or severed, for a child, this becomes a fundamental change to how they view and cultivate relationships (‘big words’ courtesy of the crazy wife because I gave up trying to use hand gestures to explain my translation).
The picture you see at the top is a picture my wife took while Saffiya’s ‘Omu Hassen’ was headed to the airport to return ‘home’ and thought she would capture a lovely moment.
Instead, our headstrong little 6 year old had burst into tears asking him not to leave his ‘family’. He then did the same.
Here is where my failure was, at that moment, as a parent, that I had never properly prepared her for change with people.
I had dismissed her understanding of familial relationships. I just assumed she was too young to understand why we moved countries, why had to pack up our bags, why her kitties went into boxes under the plane.
I was too busy worrying about getting my drivers license and paying a fortune in upfront school fees to think that all of those things I thought were small to her were actually huge, big, momentous things.
I was thinking for her. I was assuming and dismissing.
That night, the change happened.
We sat, as a family and talked about family. We talked about why we moved. We talked about where they were from (as the 2 year old pulled the tail of those kitties). We looked at pictures of their family both here and far away. And, we called them. We talked to them. We even showed our oldest the constant Whatsapp messages we had back and forth with all of the family – sharing pictures, funny stories and saying we loved them.
Kids don’t care about tax free. They care about having parents around them that don’t negate their feelings. Knowing that people are around them that aren’t going anywhere and understanding that close connection between you and the family that is near or far doesn’t go away.
The next holiday you have, the next trip you make, the next boxes you pack for another move to a country or a different school, think about how big and huge and humongous that trip will be for them. They didn’t have the choice – but we do, as parents, to show them that connection never goes away.