When I was 4 years old my parents announced we were moving to Hong Kong. They may as well have said we were moving to the moon. I had never heard of Hong Kong and knew nothing at all about it. I worried about the idea of it for about 10 seconds before deciding to hunt for snails in the back garden.
We moved to Hong Kong from the North of England. Both of my parents are from large families and we were the only ones to ever leave the town so you can imagine the surprise when people heard we were going all the way to China! We stayed in Hong Kong for a long time, my parents being the last to leave, retiring to the UK after 30 years in Hong Kong.
As a child growing up in Hong Kong I absolutely loved it. It was all I ever knew so whilst my parents worried about us living in an apartment and not a house; eating Chinese food instead of English; playing in a concrete suburb instead of a pretty garden, I was completely oblivious and having a great time.
Parents are often plagued with guilt when they move their children to a different country, especially if there are grandparents and the like involved. Without doubt, the younger the child is when you move the easier the transition for the child, but children are resilient and they will adapt to the change. Some of the guilt that parents feel can come from comparing their own set of childhood experiences, or that of children from their home country, with those of their child. What is my child missing out on from home? The simple fact is that children won’t miss something that they never had, or will find an alternative experience for themselves. For example, in my day to day life as I child I never missed having a garden. I had secret spaces under the buildings, stairwells and hillsides to play on instead. It’s all I knew. I may have had the usual pang of sadness after each holiday to the UK but who wouldn’t? Our holidays were packed with family visits, tourist attractions, trips to the seaside and over indulgence. I didn’t really get it that if we actually lived in the UK we wouldn’t do all that every day. However, once we settled back into Hong Kong life again it soon became a distant memory and my life went on as ‘normal’.
The time that became known as the ‘identity crisis’ for my circle of friends actually came much later than our parents probably anticipated and was quite clearly tied to moving out of home and starting life on our own whether it be for university or finding a job. It was as adults that lots of friends started to wonder who they were and where they belonged. What also became clear was that those who had ‘roots’ fared much better during the crisis! Roots can be instilled in children from afar – you don’t need to be in your home country to do it. I was always very clear that I was from Middlesbrough. My parents talked about it, shared memories of it, showed photos of it and made sure we visited every year or two. We also had a house in Cheshire on the other side of the UK and we used to stay there on visits back to the UK as well. It’s reasonable that they may have made Cheshire my ‘roots’ instead, but they chose to use the place where they were from and where lots of family still lived. As an adult this knowledge and sense of belonging helped to keep me grounded and feel less like a rolling stone. I have spent most of my adult life in Oxford but still feel like I am from ‘Hong Kong and Middlesbrough’ and yet I have never actually lived in Middlesbrough but know it very well as a result of my ‘roots’ and make sure I visit during every trip back to the UK. Friends who found it harder to ‘belong’ had far less ‘roots’ instilled in them as children. Roots are about making sure that your children have a sense of belonging. The world is a big place and whilst it is great to be a global citizen we all need a place to call home. Most expats end up moving back to their home country at some point. If you are a mixed marriage then you may already know which of the two countries you are more likely to go to when expat life comes to an end. Whilst you should plant roots for both places, the one you are likely to relocate/retire to should be the more dominant root.
Now, many years later, as a parent myself with two small children I can appreciate better the worries and anxieties my parents had for me and my siblings. I also know that from my own experiences as a third culture child I should be planting ‘roots’ with my children which is exactly what I am doing. We moved to Beijing when my children were one and two years old so they can’t really remember living in England, but they both have clear roots to the North East of England and Oxford, the places where their families come from, where they were born and where we have a house. I hope this will instil a sense of belonging should the ‘identity crisis’ ever rear its head in the future.
I should reiterate that these conclusions I have reached are based on my own personal experience and those of my friends, who all found themselves growing up as expat kids in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Now, as a teacher and Deputy Headteacher at The British School of Beijing, Sanlitun, I find myself in the very privileged position of working with children from all over the world having their own international adventure. As a school and a company we champion global citizenship in a variety of ways, including through our Global Classroom education and networking website available to all our students around the world. However we also recognise that ‘roots’ are important so we recognise, embrace and celebrate the countries, nations and heritage that all our children call their ‘home’.
As a parent and a teacher I feel incredibly lucky to share the expat adventure with so many children.