The Elephant in the Room

>> Wednesday, 18 May 2016

I've agonised over writing this post.

When you return to your country of origin after a time living abroad, most people don't want to hear about any problems that you encounter; not the friends and family you've returned to (you've come home, after all!  How hard can that be?), or those that you've left behind you who are still living internationally (because they will be going home at some point, too, and no-one needs yet another worry to add to the list).  Part of me thinks that perhaps it's best to keep any issues to myself, but having discussed them with other friends who've recently moved their families from one country to another and found that we are not alone in our situation, I've decided that perhaps none of us are helping anyone by keeping silent about the elephant in the room.

Which, in this case, is assimilating expat kids into an environment where their new peers don't have similar experiences.  It's about the difficulties of bringing them home - and making them feel like it is Home.

Over the last months since we've returned to the UK I have frequently been reminded of Philip Larkin's famous poem 'This Be The Verse' (first line: 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad.'), and realised that in oh so many ways, it's true.

Because expat kids are different - and we did that to them, with our emphasis on making the most of our opportunities.  I wouldn't change a thing about our six years away, and I know that it was the right thing for our family at the time - but it comes at a price.  We returning parents might not like to dwell on that as we congratulate ourselves on finding the right house, in the right location, close to the right school, and put all the pieces of the jigsaw in place to try and facilitate a smooth re-entry, but it's true.

Children who have lived in a culture not their own have had a wealth of experiences that - for all their richness and diversity - set them apart from their new classmates who have attended the same school all their lives.  The passing references that our kids make to trips to this place or that, to this winter activity or that summer camp, to the parties in the sun with live tigers and bears as entertainment (no, really), or climbing walls in friends' back gardens, none of that resonates with the children that we - their parents - are hoping they will make friends with now they are Back Home.

Some kids pick up on this quickly and learn to keep their past history to themselves.  They drop the accent, get with the programme, only ever refer to their previous lives when they are with people who will 'understand'.  I hate to see it happen, but that's how it works - if you want to make friends.  They can share their stories later, once the foundations of these new relationships are established and the pressure's off.

Other children?  They find the whole thing more complicated.  Why should they not talk about that sailing trip on blue seas, or the overnight train journey across frozen wastes?  Why can they not share their tales of flying to the other side of the world to catch up with best friends, and the volcanoes and natural wonders they encountered there?  They can't understand it - these are fascinating stories, don't their new friends want to hear about them?

No.  Actually, they don't.  The child who doesn't toe the party line on accepting oft-parroted truisms about other countries, or who professes too much knowledge of business class seating (even if it's only gleaned from walking past it on their way to the back of the plane, as in our case), or the child who excitedly chips in that yes, they have been to that once-in-lifetime holiday destination - twice - and isn't it amazing, did you swim on the reef whilst you were there, and how about the horrible porridge that they served for breakfast... they are labelled as show-offs.  Different.  Weird.  They don't fit.

So as a parent, when you hear your child starting to regale their new friends with another of the 'Greatest Hits of My Expat Life' you find yourself desperately signalling to them with your eyebrows to keep that story for another time, or butting in and changing the subject, or serving dinner earlier than you planned, or - heaven forbid - switching on the X-box to provide a distraction.  You're trying to throw them a life-belt, even if they don't see that.

And then there are times you find yourself pulling your child out from underneath their bed in the morning because they don't want to go into school (at least at home, they reason, they won't have to think before they speak).  Or sitting outside the loo that your child has locked themselves in because they can't face whatever activity it is that you've lined up for them to help them meet new friends and which you just know they're going to enjoy, if they would only undo that bolt and come outside...

Not all returning expat kids go through this, of course.  And for those that do, I'm told that it gets better, with time. But whilst they're in the thick of it, it can be - well, difficult.  For them, and everyone else in the family.

Yes, these are problems grounded in what I know are First World issues.  And unfortunately, other than being there to provide support and a listening ear - and all the other coping strategies the literature on this recommends - I don't have an easy answer on how to handle it.  But when your child is hurting, sometimes it helps to know that other families have been through it too. Which is why, against my better instincts (of course we're fine!  Everything's going swimmingly!), I'm sharing this here.

We're not all fine.  But we're managing.  And we're getting there.


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