Growing Up Expatriate
by Adriana T. Gomes
The laptop was open on top of the counter between the living room and the kitchen. Staring at us were more faces than could possibly fit on the screen. The in-laws—mother, father, brother and sister—aunts, uncles and cousins, first, second and thrice removed—a big, fat Greek family has nothing on my husband’s extended family—all squeezed together forming a jigsaw puzzle of love and attention we joyfully soaked in. It was our first Mothers’ Day since we moved to the US, and we were celebrating via Skype; a tradition we carry on to this day. That was particularly special though, not for being the first, but because that’s when my husband and I broke the news that we were expecting our first child.
On our side of the screen I could feel that my husband—same as me—wished we could be there receiving all the warmth in person. I felt his hand squeezing my shoulder as he rested his head against mine. Had we made the right choice?
When are you coming back? That was my mother in law’s first question after the compliments and well wishes. My husband didn’t have the heart to say we wouldn’t be going back any time soon, maybe never—except on vacation—so he reminded her we were only five months into a three year expatriate contract. That’s how he communicates with his family, in installments. He was thrilled when he was offered the position in the US, but kept telling his mother he was conflicted until we were fully packed to leave, two weeks before departure. Throughout the years I learned to read him, and he learned not to do that to me.
My parents understood immediately, if we were finally having a baby—after more than six years together, three as a married couple who were fully dedicated to our careers—it meant we had decided to lay down roots. They were happy for us. My family has a strong adventurous streak. My father was first generation Brazilian on both sides; the son of Spanish immigrants who left Europe in search of a better future during the famine that fueled WWI. My mother is the granddaughter of an Italian engineer who arrived in Brazil in the late eighteen hundreds to build a bridge over a river, and fell hopelessly in love with the daughter of a prosperous Italian merchant. The sixteen year old beauty had been disgraced by being kidnapped, raped and impregnated by a famous countryside bandit. So my great-grandfather struck a deal with my great-great-grandfather, married the girl, and visited her in Brazil for a couple of months every year—One day I’ll write their whole story. For now, please pardon the detour, which was to show you my husband with globetrotter aspirations certainly married the right woman. Anyway, as we closed the laptop for the day I felt as if we were closing a door to a part of us that we wouldn’t be living, as if we were turning our backs on the way we grew up by saying we didn’t want that for our kids, and that wasn’t it at all. We were choosing something different not because we didn’t love our family and their way of life, but because of the wonderment of exploring the world in all its possibilities. We had the opportunity to live differently, to experience something out of our ordinary lives, and we wanted to try. We knew that choice meant we would have raised our children alone, without the daily support of our families. But whatever we would have made out of it—right and wrong—would be our own. Excitement, and certainly fear, filled our thoughts—together with anticipation for our new baby—as we embarked on the parenthood adventure, initially as expatriates, and in time as immigrants in the US.
The first big barrier we faced was language, or my stubbornness, or both. Because of my insistence on exclusively speaking Portuguese at home, it took my older daughter three years to master understandable sentences in English—I’ll explore that further in a future post, suffice to say that finding a pediatrician I felt comfortable with wasn’t easy. My younger daughter was also late in her speech development, not as much as my older daughter, but probably because of having an older sister chatting with her non-stop since she started growing inside of me.
School was another big challenge. When we moved and the girls attended international schools, such as it happened in a two year assignment back in Brazil and a one year in China, it was easier. In international schools, teachers and staff are used to the idiosyncrasies of expat kids: they speak at least two languages—their parents’ one, and the one from the country where they lived the longest to date; they adapt easily—it’s common for families to need to relocate mid-school-year; on average they become independent early—they do their homework without being asked, they pack for school by themselves, they pack for trips by themselves—because dad is usually on some business trip and will be back on the moving day, and mom is busy either packing or unpacking the whole house—on the other hand, sometimes schools teach things in different grades, for example when it comes to social studies, expat children’s learned curriculum resembles a collection of mismatched parts, which teachers in international schools use to the advantage of the class by asking everyone to share what they’ve learned. But every time I move back to the US I’m called to meet the teachers in the first couple of weeks for very interesting reasons. Why didn’t my second grader memorize all days of the week and months of the year yet? Why didn’t my sixth grader learn about the American Civil War? To which I answered respectively: Well, she can count till one hundred in Mandarin, and she learned about the French Revolution. Teachers look at me puzzled and I always ask them to give my daughters some time. I explain the situation, and I promise them the girls will keep up, and every time, at the end of the first year, the teachers come to me saying how much my daughters surprised them. It’s the moving cycle. It takes us one year to get fully settled. When we repeat the rituals of going back to the same school for a second year in a row, it’s easier. The teachers know us, and there are no more askance looks. I’m all right.
But am I? When we moved to California back in 2013, my younger daughter, who was learning to write argumentative essays, created a masterpiece of self-pity with me as the reason for all her sorrows. How could I have allowed dad to change jobs again? Why didn’t I tell him that moving so much is bad for children? Didn’t I know that stability is important? She went on writing that she would never, ever allow herself to get close to anyone again and make real friends. Because she knew we would eventually move and she would suffer, all over, again. Best to keep a distance, she concluded. Her teacher called me for a meeting on the third week of school. She showed me the essay and asked if I would like for my daughter to meet with a counselor once a week. I thanked her very much. I promised it would be all right and that soon enough my daughter would have many friends. It’s been three years and she does have many friends. We did stop moving around though; I was tired. It was time for us all to quiet down. My husband and I bought a house, got ourselves into a mortgage, and became American citizens. So you’re never coming back, my mother-in-law said when my husband finally spilled all that to his family through Skype. Her voice betrayed her resignation, and reverberated from São Paulo all the way to our home in California. I felt it too; some choices are easy, chocolate or vanilla ice cream—chocolate for me, please—still, becoming an American citizen felt like assuming another identity, one I’m certainly proud of, but I will always carry the other version of me, the Brazilian woman, regardless, and she regrets all closed doors. My mother told my mother-in-law that they would always be part of my daughters’ lives though. My mother, who was also in that conference—all the way from a different state in Brazil—reminded us all how lucky we are to live in a day and age where we can be in touch as often as we like. Her mother—my Italian grandmother—didn’t see her father sometimes for a full year, even letters took months to arrive. My grandparents from Spain, who left a large extended family in a small village outside of Madrid, in time lost contact with them entirely. Through conference calls, emails, Facebook and WhatsApp, not to mention many summers spent in Brazil, my daughters developed a strong bond with their very large family. They also have many friends spread all over the world. Our extended family is global.
My older daughter is in high school now, and she’ll be leaving to attend college in one year. Junior year wasn’t as hard on her as it was on her friends because of the experiences she’s been through growing up as an expat. Applying to colleges isn’t easy, but she applied to so many schools and she’s been through so many tests and interviews, this is just one more application process. The attending a new school itself, which for most kids is a very big deal, will be just another one in her list. Adapting to a new environment, check. Being patient with the settling down cycle, check. Making new friends, check. These are the things that make me feel confident we made the right decision for them, but have my husband and I made the right decision for ourselves?
As I grow older, I think about my family back in Brazil. I’m not there to help my mother now that my father passed away. That’s my biggest regret. I give her tickets to visit often, but she doesn’t speak English and doesn’t feel comfortable enough to live with us permanently. My in-laws though, have an immense network of family and friends around them. Am I going to have that kind of support, or am I going to end up alone? I hope that together, the four of us, will support each other. Somehow, I hope we can live relatively close and expand the family. Oh no, I’m sounding like my mother in law. I hope I can be as strong as my mother who rebuilt her life after losing my father and lives comfortably with a few friends to visit, and the constant company of her books. I’m already missing my daughters, even though they are still here. That’s the real challenge for all parents, regardless of having perused through three continents, or lived in the same address all their lives. Our children leave us to embark on their own journeys. I can only expect that my choices have given them better tools to navigate the challenges they will face, than I had when I embarked on my journey through life.
My husband and I started in this adventure wishing to enjoy all the opportunities that would have come our way while the kids were young—we planned on having two kids regardless of gender—and we would have settled down when they reached their teen years. Maybe it’s been one of those self-fulfilling prophecies, because that’s exactly what we did, and notwithstanding the insane amount of challenges we had to face for that decision—and the probable hours of therapy that will certainly be blamed on us—our daughters are strong, independent young ladies, whom I’m extremely proud of.