Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fitting into a Third Culture Life

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Many articles and books have been written in the past several years about “third culture kids”. Or rather, I have just discovered this literature as of the past few years. I am a parent of two of these kids and married to a man who was brought up as one. Consequently, I feel like I am at the very least a third, if not more, culture mother and wife.

When I met my husband, I thought it was exciting to learn about the world via his experiences of living in different countries and with parents of two different nationalities. His mother is French and his father is British. (We still hear plenty of “frog” jokes – all in good fun, of course). He was born in Georgia, USA, went to kindergarten in England, grade school in Brittany and attended an international high school and engineering university just outside of Paris. Considering the most exciting place my family ever lived was Hershey, Pennsylvania before moving to a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio (where I attended kindergarten through 12th grade in the same school system), I thought, “Wow!”.

Having ventured to France with my high school teacher the summer after graduation, I fell in love with this romantic culture and language. In the end, I majored in French and spent a few “séjours” as a student and a nanny. So, you could say I was already open to new experiences. Open, however, does not always mean prepared.
No concrete preparation precedes falling in love with a man from another culture, starting a bi-lingual family, fitting our family's culture into an American neighborhood and then moving us to Belgium. “C'est la vie, tout simplement.” So I have just learned to go with the flow, which usually is a tail wind from one continent to the next.

The initial and most noticeable difference in our lives compared to that of my friends in my home town is language. My daughters speak mainly French to each other. This fact surprised me as they spend most of their time with me and I only speak English to them. But, influenced by playgroups and eventually school (we've been in Belgium since my oldest was one year old), French became their language of play. It makes sense. In a third culture environment, one needs to realize that what would make sense in one place does not always in another.

What makes my children fit the definition of “Third Culture Kids” is that they are raised by parents of two different nationalities in a country that does not correspond to either one. The clearest example arises every winter: I have to special order a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner served with a side of Brussels sprouts, St. Nicolas arrives on December 6, Father Christmas comes along on the 25th right after enjoying a bûche de noël – no sooner is that digested that it is time for Christmas pudding. As soon as Spring starts to brighten up the long Belgian winter, we await the Easter Bunny on Sunday and listen for “Les Cloches de Pâques” (Easter bells) on Monday. It literally rains chocolate eggs. Holidays tend to spoil our children more than I ever intended. As parents we do not want our children to feel left out of the traditions their friends will inevitably talk about at school nor of the fun their cousins are having back in the States.

The notion of third culture sinks in on a daily basis, so subtlety, that the children grow up thinking it is all normal. And yet, I feel myself morphing into someone who will speak three languages in a given day just by doing the school run, stopping at the grocery store, taking the car in for repair, or having coffee with friends. This is my new normal. My shopping lists do not look anything like they used to in the U.S. My agenda pad does not just say, “Grocery, bank, post office...”. I was once on the phone with my mother but was in a rush to get my errands done. I heard myself say, “Sorry, but I really need to get to the butcher's, the baker's,...and maybe even the candlestick maker's!” My market lists include ingredients such as pâté, goat cheese, mussels and rabbit, all of which my children eat voluntarily. One Sunday afternoon while taking a family walk (a very common activity since no shops are open this day), I pointed out to my then 2 year-old, “Look, a duck!” to which she replied, “Yum!”

Our third-plus culture life is an adventure with ups, downs, misunderstandings and quite a few laughs. I would not trade it for the world. What I am doing is trading any previous ideas of what my life would be for the world...and it is worth every faux pas.

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