What is it that motivates us to pick up everything we can and firmly plant ourselves in countries and cultures that are very foreign to us? It might be due to our professions, or it might be the need for adventure, but regardless of these experiences, they can change us and our understanding of the world.
Often I think about why I wish to stay in China, when I could quickly return to America with my family to a small idyllic suburb, where it’s immaculately clean, warm most of the year, only an hour drive from the beach, and there’s an above average public school system. On paper, it all sounds great!
If we did make the move back, I feel there’s an essential piece of my child’s identity that would be missing. From me, he gets his usual mix of European ancestry that many Americans share, but from his mother, he gets his Mongolian and Chinese characteristics. Here he is complex, but if we moved back to the States, he would simply be American. It’s an easy and not very complicated distinction. But in China, his existence will be heaps more challenging for him.
I am not trying to go out of my way to make my child’s life more complicated, even if it may seem like that’s exactly what we are doing. There are other motives at work. It’s kind of like that Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue,” but without the whole part about the father abandoning his son for his drifter lifestyle.
I feel that giving my son an easy and convenient life, where his identity is clearly defined, isn’t necessarily the best for him. Beijing is by no means rife with discrimination for people like my son, but I want him to be challenged culturally so that he’ll not only be bilingual (or trilingual) but also decide who and what he wants to be. To do this, he must remain connected with his Mongolian Chinese heritage and hopefully feel as passionate about this part of himself as his mother does. It’s a beautiful thing to be proud of where you come from, and in all likelihood, he won’t quite understand why it’s so special until he’s older.
This issue is filled with people who have journeyed down similar paths of discovery to those my son will need to eventually start along, together with some of the resources they have gathered to guide them along the way.
We talked to some third culture kids who grew up in Beijing and eventually came back, to find out what it was about their experiences here that led to their return (p48). In Schooled (p38), we talked to Beijing international schools about how they strive to not only help children discover a balance between being globally minded and maintaining their identity, but also some of the tools they use to make these formative years more fruitful. And on page 54, we explain how cultural intelligence can help both us and our children to navigate these complex issues.
All in all, there was a lot of fun had in the making of this issue, and we learned a lot about how kids are not only susceptible to their environments but also very adaptable and strong when it comes to figuring out who they are and who they eventually want to become.
This article appeared in the beijingkids May 2019 Identity issue.
Photo: Dave’s Studio