Globetrotters circle toward home
"MOM, Dad, where am I from?"
The 1992 Barcelona Olympics had sparked the question. Our oldest son, Travis, an American citizen born to us in the Philippines, had spent most of his life in Japan. Of course, we'd told him he was American but where was he really from? Who was he supposed to cheer for?
My husband and I had grown up in yawningly typical suburban America. Both having a serious case of wanderlust, we met as exchange students in Africa. We decided parenthood would not slow us down. When I was seven months pregnant with our first child, we moved to the Philippines for my husband's law firm.
Our first outing in Manila was to a shopping bazaar set up by the American Women's Club. I reasoned that where there were American women, there'd be American mothers with local obstetricians.
On the way, we were caught in a thundering tropical downpour. Our dilapidated taxi practically floated through flooded streets. Trying (despite my huge stomach) to keep my feet above the water, I suddenly realized why there were drainage holes in the taxi floor.
Since that taxi ride, I've given birth to three children in three countries. Raising them outside the United States has been an adventure.
Naturally, my husband and I wanted our kids to learn other languages, but their vocabulary wasn't always what we expected. An American neighbor in Tokyo told us, "Well, Travis is teaching Katie Japanese ... the only problem is, he's teaching her how to say 'stupid.' "
Once, his Aunt Helen found Travis threatening his little sister, Kelsey. Trying to distract him, she asked, "How would you say that in Japanese?" After pondering a moment, he responded, "Hasta la vista, baby!"
Enrolling Travis, Kelsey, and their little brother, Connor, in a Japanese preschool gave us an entree into Japanese life that business dinners and tea-ceremony lessons could never match. At New Year's, my husband took his turn with the Japanese fathers, flexing, laughing, and pounding rice with a huge wooden mallet.
The Japanese mothers solemnly dressed me in apron and headscarf and taught me to make octopus dumplings for the school festival. Less solemnly, they dressed me in a sailor suit and long pink socks to star in a "Sailor Moon" skit.
In many ways, living abroad has made us closer as a family. Certain words have followed us from place to place; they crop up in our conversations like an unintentional secret code. Who else would understand "That genki old lady is selling taka-taka"? (Translation, from the Japanese and Swahili: That spry old lady is selling viciously ugly tourist junk.)
In T.H. White's "The Sword and the Stone," Merlin changes young Arthur into a wild goose to teach him that boundaries are only imaginary lines drawn by mapmakers. "How can you have boundaries if you fly?" one goose asks Arthur. I like to think that being globetrotters erases some of the borders from our children's minds, and gives them a larger canvas on which to paint their futures.
But while restlessness is human, so is the yearning for place. I sometimes envy people who have a real hometown, a special place that stores their memories and encloses all their family and friends. My kids' childhoods have been so different from my own, at times it is difficult for me to understand their point of view.
I find myself doing the expatriate's version of the classic "I had to walk five miles in the snow to school, uphill both ways" speech: "I didn't fly in an airplane until I was 20! My family vacations were car trips to visit relatives in Illinois! So what if you don't like the movies on this flight!"
Only our little family is privy to all the same memories of sight, smell, sound, and taste: the smoky comfort of our favorite yakitori restaurant, the sweet smell of temple incense carried on the breeze, the sing-song Japanese of the sweet-potato vendor. The friends and neighbors we share these memories with are scattered from Paris to Singapore.
INCREASINGLY, my husband and I worried that our children would end up feeling weirdly out of place, neither fish nor fowl. An American who had grown up in India once told me, "I felt like a stranger in a strange land when I came to the US for college. I didn't get the jokes. I was terrible at Trivial Pursuit. Who in the world is Fred Flintstone, anyway?"
Not long after our son asked us the fateful question, "Where am I from?" we began to think seriously about returning to the States. After nearly eight years in Asia, we were ready to settle down (for a while) in our home country. The kids needed to feel "American."
As it turned out, all three children turned into garden-variety American kids about 53 seconds after landing in San Francisco. I suspect they were helped along by being ahead of the curve, culturally speaking. After all, Nintendo, Power Rangers, Sailor Moon, and Pokémon were popular in Japan long before they arrived here.
I did notice, however, that during the Salt Lake Olympics, Travis, Kelsey, and Connor clapped and cheered not just for the stars and stripes, but for any competitor wearing Japan's rising sun. It makes me feel great about that taxi ride through the drenched streets of Manila.