There is no shortage of writing about ex-pat kids. The normal fare is about third culture adjustment, “reentry” problems, or encouraging your children to become bilingual. Of course these are all valid, even interesting, topics. As Father’s Day approaches and I think of my daughters, I reflect on the the wise counsel from my wife that gave my daughters the opportunity to benefit from growing up on the other side of the world.
It has been almost 13 years since I came home from with the offer from my boss that we move to Japan for “three to five years”. I asked my bride of 15 years what she thought. In her typical decisive style, she pondered the issue for less time than it took to prepare dinner and replied “sure, it will be good for the girls BUT I am not going on a house hunt because you know I hate to fly”. No hand wringing, no analysis paralysis, just a simple quick internal run through of the pros and cons and the answer. Unless the question is about buying a big ticket item, my wife can be relied on to provide sound counsel in a short period of time. This makes my life easy; so unless we are buying a house or picking a stock, I can normally just ask her and have a clear well thought out decision in a matter of minutes.
After getting the OK from the family oracle about a move to the east; we had to see how the kids would react. Our daughters, aged 7 and 10 at the time were used to their mom coming up with impromptu adventures so I guess this seemed like another in the series only with jet lag. Our elder daughter had already made Japan her destination of choice when offered a trip anywhere in the world with Dad the year before. She had a great time (except for her first run-in with a Japanese squatter toilet) so that night between dinner and an episode of “Rug Rats” she gave the move a thumbs up. Our younger daughter was somewhat of a super computer of decision making in those days. Like me, she had a well tested decision making algorithm. She asked: “what does sissy think?”. When we told her sissy approved the move, the response was a quick “ok” - typical of her economy with words. The next day, as our daughters donned their plaid jumpers on the way to the small catholic school they attended, they had no idea how much their lives were about to change.
Several months later we were living in Kobe. Our house had always been a hub of activity in the US and our apartment in Kobe was similar. Southern drawls were replaced by a plethora of Asian and European accents consistent with the international community we lived in. We were lucky, our kids adapted well. They liked the school, new friends were abundant and all the differences that came with living in Japan were most often seen in a positive or at least humorous light.
Years passed, our calendar adapted to where we were. Only Christmas and Easter remained anchor holidays - we had Golden Week in May and Obon in August instead of things like Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day. We enjoyed the trip to the US each summer for a few weeks but were always ready to return. The first time we came back to the US was 16 months after we left. As we changed planes in Dallas, my younger daughter looked at me in awe as we walked across the terminal; “Dad” she said in a loud whisper, “Americans are so fat”. I said “actually, they were fat when we left, you just didn’t notice it then”. After a few weeks in the US, it was interesting to hear the kids perspective on America. They commented on everything - the size of portions in restaurants, how loud people talked, the world view of relatives. In less than a year and a half their view of the world had changed so much. I was back and forth to the US every couple of months on business, my world view changed but not nearly to the extent that my daughter’s did.
The family life revolved around school and seeing interesting sights in Japan and around Asia. We didn’t go home for Christmas as many ex-pats did. We traveled to places like Hokkaido, Thailand, Singapore, Bali, Australia, and New Zealand.
We didn’t get satellite TV until we had lived in Japan for 4 years and even after we did, we didn’t watch it very often. After over five years, my company wanted me to move to China and I wasn’t very interested. In the end, I decided we would “go home” but the girls had different ideas. They wanted to stay in Asia until it was time for college. Both expressed to me that going back to small town North Carolina would be boring without sufficient diversity to make life interesting. In the end, although my “decision” was to return to the US; it was not hard to persuade me to consider staying. I didn’t want to leave Japan but I wasn’t sure life in China would be good for the family. When in doubt, I did what I normally did - I asked my wife. Feedback was quick, she said staying in Asia was the best for everyone including me. Knowing if I stayed in Asia, I would still spend a lot of time in Japan, sealed the matter for me.
Life in Shanghai was much different and in many ways much harder. Both girls had some adjustment issues but that was temporary and life moved on. We watched the kids adapt to a much less “family like” school environment. There were many new ex-pats from the US. Many of these families wanted to recreate the US environment in Shanghai. In the end, the years in Shanghai were good for the kids. Both graduated for high school in Shanghai and returned to the US for college.
Our children are making their own way in the world - one in New York, the other in Los Angeles. Their experience growing up overseas has made them think much differently than their parents and the friends they left in the US so many years ago. Both sought out environments where they have access to international cultures and people who can appreciate their way of thinking.
The time overseas served our kids well. Their experience living in and traveling around Asia has made their lives back in the US richer than it otherwise would have been. That is all the Father’s Day present I need.