Raising British Children in Central Asia – Guest Post
I am married to a British man and our two children are British – they spent the first years of their lives in the UK and identify it as ‘their’ country of origin. We currently live in Kazakhstan and are moving to Malaysia in a few months time – they love their host countries, their home but they identify as British. I have always tried to help my Husband inculcate this sense of security in our children, I want them to know where they come from and to be able, when the time is right, to repatriate without difficulty. I found it very sad – on a trip back to the UK last year when some children in a local playground refused to believe our children were British. Their accents have moved around a little since expatriating and our son’s has definitely moved eastwards, with his blond hair the others thought he was Polish, of course why this should matter to little children is a whole other topic but it clearly does to some so we want our children to be confident of their background. This is sometimes a challenge for me, however, because although I sound English and lived there for many years of my life I am not from the UK and every now and then cultural differences creep in.
When the children were very little I, like many new parents, got to know other people with children of a similar age. We had so many shared experiences but certain things stuck out like a sore thumb – I did not know any English lullabys to sing to the children and had to learn them from the internet, at music play groups I would have to hum along until I knew the words. People were surprised at the food I fed my children – much richer tastes than UK children are generally weaned on and my friends were very shocked to come to my house and see a play pen (not acceptable in middle class Surrey) or even worse, walking reins- we ditched buggies at age 2 so they were very necessary. Some things in the UK surprised me, a ‘family friendly’ restaurant does not seem to be a place where children are welcome, rather a place where children are welcome to misbehave, we avoid them wherever possible but I could not understand why other restaurants did not want the children. I am used to them being welcome everywhere on the premiss that they will behave and that parents will remove a crying child. In fact I noticed that life as a parent in the UK can sometimes be divided into two – life that revolves completely around children and their needs, or life where the children are completely ignored and unwelcome. British friends were sometimes perplexed at our approach – integrating the children into our lives without being subsumed.
But these are all little things – unimportant in the grand sweep of life. When we moved out to Kazakhstan our children were 4 and 2 we decided it was important that they continued to feel connected to the UK – I grew up without a home country and, while it does not bother me, I can see that a sense of belonging must be lovely to have. We talk about the UK a lot, about their family and the British news. We celebrate British holidays in as British a way as we can and I try to take the lead from my Husband, he knows what is important and what is not and is a valuable source of advice. I have no interest in Mothering Sunday – I never sent my own mother a card and I do not expect one from the children – but I now understand how important it is for their granny and make sure that something gets to her every year. I also know that while my own daughter might take after me my son might marry an English woman for whom it is important – he will need to know not to forget to send her a card from the baby for her first Mothering Sunday after their own children are born.
When I was an older teenager living in the UK I was very conscious of the fact that I had not seen the TV programmes my friends had, I had not heard the same music. We don’t get British TV here (and rarely watched live TV when in the UK) but we do try to keep abreast of what is ‘trending’ in the UK so that we can expose our children to it. I have learned to cook English food in addition to my ordinary repertoire, after-all who can say no to Apple Crumble (my Dutch relatives go crazy for this when I make it for them, one took the recipe and ‘wows’ her friends with it at dinner parties) and I can make pies and roasts, Christmas pudding and mincemeat. Sadly I have never been able to master the Sunday lunch staple of Yorkshire Puddings. My mother in law cooks hers in an ancient tin with the patina of years, the tin providing a link to all the family lunches she cooked throughout her married life. I follow her exact recipe but with no luck – perhaps I need to keep trying, week on week, until my own tin is old enough to perform well. Every time we go back to the UK we try our best to fit in visits to museums, cathedrals, houses etc to make sure that the children grow up with an understanding and appreciation of history and Britain’s role in it. We want them to grow up with a sense of pride in their country – it seems to be working as our son’s greatest hero is Admiral Nelson (closely followed by Yuri Gagarin and Serik Sapaiev (a Kazakh Gold Medallist Boxer)).
Most importantly I try to look at what expats in the UK find confusing and difficult to deal with and what I struggled with when I first moved to England. It is probably the English tendency towards diffidence and understatement. We don’t necessarily want the children to be diffident towards their own achievement and success or to engage in competitive understatement but they do need to learn when it is necessary to use it so as not to offend and to understand the use of these traits in their future friends and colleagues. We are not naive enough to think that re-patriation will come without a struggle but we do hope that what we are doing will be enough to reduce it a little.
I am an Irish citizen born in the Netherlands to a Dutch/Irish family. I spent many of my early years with my Dutch grandparents. My family lived in The Netherlands (many times), Norway, the UK, Nigeria, Turkey and Venezuela. I schooled and went to Uni in the UK where I married and had kids. A few years ago we took our kids and dog to Astana, Kazakhstan and we will be moving to Sarawak in a few weeks time. I have no home and no home culture, my husband calls me a global soul. We want our kids to grow up with the skills to be global citizens while identifying with their home country. I publish under the name The Ersatz Expat, my blog is at ersatzexpat.blogspot.com