On parenting my children between world cultures

By Wakanyi Hoffman

This little blog was recently picked up by Feedspot for entry into the Top 100 Parenting Blogs of 2020. When I received the email, I was slightly conflicted about the award title. I wanted to write back and say that this is not a parenting blog. That my writing is not an instructional manual for other parents, but my children’s anecdotal reference to their childhood memories.

Silencing the inner parenting critic

But that self-defeating inner voice that often permeates through the minds of creative artists suffering from impostor syndrome needed silencing. It is not unlike the inner parenting critic that mothers around the world will admit to carrying in their hearts too.

I wrote back, ‘What an honor, thank you.’ Then I evaluated my role in the global parenting sphere- after all, I write about my family’s adventures, which would not be complete without the four children that I birthed. Thus admittedly, I am writing about motherhood as much as I am influencing 21st century parenting.

However, my individual parenting style, if it is one, falls outside the normal realms of most mothers’ trusted methods of raising children around the world. For it is often lost in the clouded haze of navigating cultural barriers with each move to a new country. It constantly demands new ways of adapting to new cultural expectations while holding onto my instincts, which I can say, is all I have in the way of parental advice.

Defining my parenting style in a new country

It has been more than ten years since our first major global move. I arrived in Nepal with a toddler on a cool September afternoon, without having given a single thought as to what effect the Himalayan tribes would have on my parenting style.

As soon as the suitcase full of baby supplies of diapers and wipes had been unpacked, I went out into the city, weaving my way through the narrow paths ready to face a new grocery experience.

Narrow street in Kathmandu. photo credit: Pixabay

With my toddler in one hand and a small note of handwritten Nepali phrases on the other, I navigated unfamiliar territory. I learnt quickly with each item ticked off my poor translation of Sanskrit to English grocery list, that being a mother in a new country also meant having to define my parenting style.

As soon as I put my little girl down to reach out for a clay pot of fresh yogurt, she wandered off and out of my sight. Frantic, I left the curiously packaged yogurt and ran in search of her, wondering how it is that a tiny human standing just below my waistline can run faster than world record breaking marathoner, Eliud Kipchoge. Then I heard her giggling in the next aisle.

I walked there to find her with a newfound friend, a little blonde girl about the same age, whose mother appeared there just as I did, having been looking for her daughter too. She was French and our girls, not at all bothered by the gaping language barrier between them, had found an easy way to non-verbally communicate inside jokes and seemed to be secretly laughing at the scolding looks on their mothers’ faces.

This encounter led to an invitation to join the local playgroup of other expat and local moms and from there, new friendships were made.

Learning to trust my instincts

Whenever I look back on that first day as a new mother in a new country, I think of how easily it was to trust this stranger, who went on to become one of the most influential mother friends in my parenting journey. I could not, therefore, teach the concept of ‘stranger danger’ to my children without adding a finely printed disclaimer that says to: trust your instincts to say ‘I feel safeor ‘I feel unsafe’.

It takes practice to know the difference and I am glad I trusted my instincts that day. The French mom would become a confidant with whom I shared our second pregnancies. We would spend many days at a friend’s house in the middle of Kathmandu, feasting on decadent little sweet treats and endless cups of tea while we breastfed our rambunctious newborn baby boys.

This mutual friend from Northern India had taken on the role of big sister, intent on fattening us and ensuring a healthy supply of breast milk. This tradition that can also be traced to my home culture too, where aunties are charged with making fermented porridge for lactating mothers.

Whenever we exchanged parenting advice, there were more parallels between my African ways, the French ways and Indian ways, all of which were aligned in the ways of a Nepali mother too.

Learning that parenting is an ongoing cultural experimentation

Parenting, as I continue to discover, is an ongoing cultural experimentation, a test of how well one can adapt to a changing environment, while listening keenly to that inside voice. But it takes a lot of guts to go with one’s instinct, and not with what’s current or what one is used to.

For instance, when my oldest girl turned 3, I deliberated over whether or not to send her to preschool, a Western practice that had started permeating through Nepali modern parenting.

But with limited options, and doubtful of the whole concept of ‘school’ for a child barely out of training diapers and still stringing short words to form sentences, I decided to join yet another group of non-schooling parents. We were all unified in our instinctive desire to extend this organic childhood experience for a few more years.

We formed structured weekly play dates that involved singing classes, a story time that I pioneered at a local library, cooking lessons that were rotated in each other’s kitchens and a Montessori-inspired session led by a Buddhist monk that one of the other moms had secured.

We called our preschoolers Little Yetis, an ode to our environment, befitting of our Buddhist Montessori school overlooking the Himalayas. Not once did my Catholic upbringing tug at my guilt conscious, beckoning me to find a Christian preschool. Her faith, I told myself, was rooted firmly in a much wider belief in universal oneness.

Finding my guiding principles when parenting in between cultures

In all my parenting years, and that’s 13 going on 14 now, I could not point a finger at one overarching philosophy, whether secular or religious, that has been applied towards my children’s upbringing.

As our physical environment tends to change quickly, so do my tried and tested ways of modeling good values alongside learning a new language, new manners, or new skills. But the one rule of thumb that I could say is a guiding principle is information gathering.

I tend to lean closely towards older mothers whose children have already hit major childhood developmental milestones such as: crawling, walking, going to school, teenage, and so on, to learn about what they have already experienced.

It is that mom standing calmly beside her toddler throwing a tantrum without losing it herself because she has already experienced that with her older children. Her self assurance is a sign that she has developed a set of tools to manage this latest brand of parental testing.

Or that mom smiling dismissively at the snappy retort from her teenager. Her lighthearted demeanor tells me to resist the urge to press the panic button, as she leans closer to whisper her secret to surviving that phase and successfully raising wonderful teenagers.

I meet these moms at school pick ups, at the store, at the playground and other such places where stories can be shared freely, and knowledge dispensed far more candidly than any parenting instructional manual.

These expert mothers provide a first-hand experience and are a great balance to information gathered from my stack of parenting books, filled with scientific, research-based advice.

From there, I make a judgement call, based on what feels good, sensible and ‘normal’, the latter stretching the lengths and depths of what is considered as statistically acceptable in most cultures of the world.

Defining my normal when learning new rules

But when rules keep on changing, one must also define what feels normal. For instance, a rite of passage such as teaching my children how to ride a bike, happened in four different countries, with four different sets of rules.

Throughout these experiences, I stuck to the ‘No helmet, No Bike’ policy while liberally adapting to the ways in which other kids in those countries had learnt to ride their bikes.

With my firstborn, I let her loose on a deserted, suburban street outside of Manila city. It was a typical hot day with 100% humidity and she was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, but padded in a heavy, pink helmet, knee pads, and hand gloves.

I was a new mom and new to this risky business of certifying a preschooler as a cyclist. With a ‘safety first’ attitude, I watched her zoom down the road and followed her closely with my heart thumping heavily inside my throat. 

The second time I did this was with my oldest son who was quite possibly born with wheels under his tiny jaundiced feet. We had just moved to Bangkok and I was heavily pregnant with his little sister. To keep him occupied, I had packed his skuut, a little wooden bike with two wheels and no pedals, with which he could scoot around.

But he didn’t just scoot around. He sped past the driveway in our rental apartment block, causing the management to install speed bumps just for his safety.

When I asked what the rules were for teaching children to cycle in Thailand, I got mixed advice. There was the unofficial guidelines ranging from letting them race alongside the speedy tuk tuks on the road and hope for the best, or padding them up from head to toe with the latest biking gear and pushing them with kid-gloves along an empty parking lot.

Tuk tuk parked along a busy street in Bangkok. Photo credit: Pixabay

But my son had pushed the boundaries of his limited driveway and was ready to take on the tuk-tuks and the Kenyan mom in me felt that this particular kijana was always going to test the limits of my heart rate with each new risky adventure

I remembered how his sister had suffered near heat exhaustion back in the Philippines on her maiden-trip on two wheels and decided against extra armor. With only a helmet, I gave my little guy a push and turned the other way as the whole neighborhood watched him go down, out of the gate and onto the road, alongside a smiley tuk-tuk driver.

My Thai neighbor had assured me that he was perfectly safe because the guard at the gate would most assuredly follow him, which he did. It was a calculated parenting risk and an excellent attempt at blending in with your rules still intact.

Taking a step back to accept help from others

I was prepared to teach my third child to ride the bike using a self-composed manual, a hybrid mix of Thai and Kenyan parenting. But on a summer break to visit grandparents in Ohio, she took it upon herself to get on a bike, armored in a helmet and knee pads, attempting to go down an alleyway.

With her aunt and grandmother by her side, I realized that they were much better equipped to teach her the ways of American bicycling. I tossed the metal manual to the summer skies, and took a step back, trusting that they would instinctively know how to interpret the rules around child safety better than I would, as I stood on unfamiliar parenting ground.

Revisiting familiar ground rules back at home

But when we moved to Kenya later that summer, there was only a grassy field upon which the children could ride their bikes. They needed to adapt to new territory and I needed to revisit old and familiar ground rules back in my home country.

When the kids raced down a slope that led all the way down to an electric fence that provided security to our compound, I was less concerned about potential injuries from not wearing helmets and more worried about the potential for falling onto the fence.

Even though the fence was turned off during the daytime, it would cause the alarm to go off later in the evening if I turned it on without checking to see if all the wires were still intact. 

Learning new ways of parenting all over again

When our stay in Kenya ended last summer, we moved to the Netherlands with only one non-cycling child. In a country where it would seem that children learn to cycle as they crawl, I needed to get our 4-year-old son on two wheels fast. At the same time, I needed to learn new ways of parenting all over again.

As soon as we arrived, I was surprised to see little ones without helmets whizzing past their parents and vanishing onto four-way streets filled with cars and more bicycles. But the neighbor next door to our rental summer Airbnb assured me that this was normal here. She said, “He will just go with the flow”. Which is exactly what he did.

My youngest child learning to ride a bicycle in the Netherlands. Photo credit: Wakanyi Hoffman

I watched my little boy, who had suddenly grown taller sitting upright on the lowest setting of his small bike, as he swiftly glided alongside his dad, joining much more experienced cyclists in the province of Groningen, which is the labeled the top cycling city in Europe. But he had a bright orange helmet on his bobbing head, which gave me a little peace of mind and a reminder that my ‘No Helmet, No Bike’ rule had withstood the test of time.

An ‘adaptive’ parenting style

If my parenting style could be described in one word, then it would be ‘adaptive’. I don’t stick around in one place long enough to know what truly constitutes great parenting or not.

This style is often formed through intensive cultural orientation, layered with a great dusting of local housewives’ lore and balanced with bits of my upbringing.

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A winter road trip that revealed who we are as global nomads

By Wakanyi Hoffman

On a cold day in December, we drove from the Netherlands to Austria. We had left the house at 6.30 am with the children still in their pajamas. The plan was to be in our rental cottage before dusk. So I packed thin, Dutch-style pancakes and a jar of strawberry jam, which would be easy to eat in the car.

It wasn’t long before strips of daylight begun peeking through the dark skies above us, signaling breakfast-time. But before I could witness the full colourful display of a rarely seen sunrise, the pancakes vanished, leaving only a trace of sticky red syrup dripping in between my fingers.

A winter sunrise behind a windmill in the Netherlands. Photo credit: Pixabay

An epiphany

The children were playing a game of ‘spot my name’- this involves counting the number of times the first letter of their names appear on a license plate. Whenever a Dutch license plate was spotted, there would be an excited squeal, made simultaneously by all four children.

The familiarity of those NL plates brought a comfortable warmth in between us. It spread out evenly, like the surround system that amplified the Pentatonix Christmas playlist.

As the children’s excited chatter faded into the background, I adjusted my seat a few inches backwards and uncurled my toes to fit snugly beside a wicker basket. It was packed with mandarins, grapes and apples, which would later need to be replenished halfway through the long road trip. I closed my eyes, hoping to take a small nap.

But a few seconds later, a small finger poked my shoulder, beckoning me to turn sideways. “Mommy, look at that mountain!” To the 5 year old, who by now was accustomed to the monotonous, flat landscape in the Netherlands, it was a mountain. He was as sure about that as he was about accurately identifying letter ‘A’ for Austria.

It may not have been Mt. Kenya, or Mt. Kilimanjaro, both of which our little boy who, having spent 4 years in Kenya, could also accurately identify on a map of Africa. But it was a gently, sloping hill that sat above a little postcard German village.

At this point, the playlist had switched to Bing Cosby, belting out ‘Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas’. He was the curtain-raiser for an epiphany that I was about to experience, which happened shortly afterwards, when I overheard my oldest daughter translating German road signs into Dutch.

I realized then, that the Netherlands is finally beginning to feel a lot like home.

A rental bike parked against a canal bridge in Amsterdam. Photo credit: Pixabay

Crossing country borders

Joining a fleet of other Dutch-plated vans with families in search of snow and slopes, we were crossing country borders in a too-small 7-seater. It had taken the precision of a practicing Kon-Mari folding apprentice, to pack our ski gear in the crack between the back bench and the door.

Squeezed into the remaining small spaces between the bags, a sudden vibration shifted our vehicle slightly off-road. It was the powerful engine of a German-plated Lamborghini zooming past at a terrific speed along the autobahn.

My husband remarked, “We look really Dutch here on the far right lane.” I knew that he secretly wished to test the limits of our Peugeot, and maybe he did, when I finally got to take a nap.

A few hours later, the landscape begun changing again. As I passed around ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch, I noticed how the mountains had begun revealing shiny specs of snow that glistened in between tall, evergreen pine trees.

The evening sunset descended beyond the snow-capped mountains, marking our arrival on the Austrian Alps. As fully-fledged Dutch residents, we had just enjoyed one of the key benefits of our new status- the freedom of driving through the EU without needing different visa stamps on our passports.

A winter sunset over the Central Alps in Austria. Photo credit: Wakanyi Hoffman

Traveling through foreign lands

Much like the biblical magi, who are said to have traveled through foreign lands in search of a particular manger, we were also determined to find our rusty rental cottage. But by 4.00 pm, dark clouds had begun descending upon us. We struggled to keep our eyes peeled on the dimly-lit roads, looking out for Zillertal, the sign that would direct us to Stumm, a little village on a valley below the Alps.

I imagined how the magi must’ve kept trudging along a treacherous path through frozen mountain ranges, relying only on their impeccable astrological powers and a bright star on the horizon. It was warm inside the car and I appreciated our trusty GPS, which could accurately lead us to the cottage.

The kindness of strangers

However, we arrived an hour later than scheduled, having made one wrong turn up a steep hill. We found our host standing on the icy car park holding out a bottle of homemade schnapps for the parents, and a berry juice syrup for the children.

In her smiling eyes was a familiar kindness of strangers. She gathered the children into the warm house, while we brought in the luggage. Inside was a freshly trimmed Christmas tree in the middle of the kitchen, a request that had been emailed the day before our trip.

She had painstakingly strung tiny fairy lights that sparkled daintily in between the delicate branches, and hung straw handmade ornaments, which smelled of freshly packed hay.

Having fulfilled one Christmas wish, she would hop unsteadily over language and cultural barriers, to extend us an invitation on her dining table, inside the farm house that she shared with her husband and children.

Taking in the bare details of our lifestyle

Before going to bed, I looked around the cottage, taking in the details of our lives. The naturally-stained and bare wooden walls, the sparsely furnished spaces and the simplicity of the décor was representative of our version of a minimalist, nomadic home.

Interior of our holiday cottage in Austria. Photo credit: Wakanyi Hoffman

I sat at the kitchen bench with my feet tucked under a woolen blanket, its red and black tartan pattern similar to the Maasai shawl that I had packed for the car ride.

A collage of vivid memories of the four years that we had spent living next to a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, appeared in full colour.

The end of our expat lifestyle

It had only been five months ago when a 40-foot container had arrived at our home, signaling the end of our expat lifestyle.

Within hours, the shippers would skillfully dismantle our household and pack our down-scaled belongings into labeled cardboard boxes. They fit compactly in half of the truck, which was a lot less than what we had originally arrived with from Thailand, four years prior.

In the days that followed, we would give up the privilege of witnessing a glorious African sunrise over the Nairobi National Park, which beckoned the start of each morning through our bedroom windows. Or the resident warthogs that greeted us along the driveway and a family of tree hyraxes that signaled bedtime with their nocturnal high-pitched call every night.

We would need to find new homes for the menagerie of farm animals that frolicked the 3-acre wilderness, in which stood our rustic A-framed house that overlooked Karen Blixen’s famed Ngong Hills.

All 17 chickens, 2 cats, 2 rabbits, a dog, and a small tortoise that we had rescued days before our departure, had become essential members of our family.

Chickens frolicking in our wild garden in Kenya. Photo credit: Wakanyi Hoffman

We would also be walking away from a handful of deep friendships and a close-knit community, a village that had helped to raise our children. Weekend family barbecues and children’s birthday parties had all become colorfully pin-tucked onto the kitchen board to mark our day-to-day activities.

When family members escorted us to the airport for a final goodbye, the children had all bravely concealed their tears, preoccupied with our rescue dog. He too would have to say goodbye to the only life that he had known, and travel for 7 hours nonstop from Nairobi to Schiphol, in a cage inside the aircraft’s underbelly.

We would arrive in the Netherlands on a sunny July morning, just in time for Noorderzon, Groningen’s famous summer festival.

A tribe of global nomads

There is a term spared for this extraordinary phenomenon by expats around the world. It is known as the ‘Summer Exodus‘. It occurs at the end of the last school term when most expatriate families relocate to new postings, or repatriate back to their home countries.

We have experienced both- the familiarity of being new expats and the uncertainties of going back home as repats. But this move signaled a whole new path.

To the Dutch government, we were labeled as ‘highly skilled migrants’. But I felt strongly that this new profile excluded major aspects of our perpetual nomadic lifestyle.

Somewhere across the ocean on that night flight, I battled with a list of descriptions to find a less ambiguous way of defining our mission. By the time we exited the aircraft, I had pledged my multicultural clan allegiance, to a tribe of global nomads.

The ability to embrace difference

Looking back, we have always been nomads. We do not have a permanent address and our tribe includes different folk scattered in countries all around the world.

This global village does not require its citizens to present a specific passport or to speak a common language. It also does not discriminate against age, colour, gender identification, or social, intellectual and financial mobility.

But the ability to embrace difference is the invisible code, written underneath the varied skin tones of its global citizens. This requires an intentional desire to read your world by challenging individualized norms and values and the source of any internalized biases.

This mysterious, symbiotic nature of our coexistence with difference is better clarified in a quote by John Hume when he says that,

‘All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace- Respect for diversity’.

Like tulips in a flower pot

I finally opened up the discussion with our children about why we are global nomads and not migrants, immigrants or expats. I said, “We are explorers of a world filled with beautiful discoveries.” Pointing to a flower vase by the window, our 8 year old daughter said, “Like those tulips in the flower pot!”

Tulips blooming in a flower pot on a windowsill. Photo credit: Wakanyi Hoffman

She is right about that. The world is a gigantic vessel filled with beautiful experiences- in language, in food, in cultural traditions, in song, in art, in technology and in all the stories that we tell.

As self-proclaimed global nomads, we like to expand our experiences by exploring new geographical landscapes that remind us of just how much bigger our global home really is. And even more humbling is the discovery of just how small we are as its inhabitants.

So far, our journey has revealed self-evident proof that no matter where in the world one was born, the human experience is tied to a common goal. We are all members of a rare species with the peculiar habit of continual self-improvement and adaptation, in the audacious hope of improving our survival rate on this planet.

Who we are as global nomads

On our last night in the cottage in Austria, I sat on the balcony overlooking a lit-up ski slope. It was my first time to see a night skier. I turned to my husband and asked, “Can you really ski at night?” He replied, “That’s how I learnt to ski.”

I could picture him as a fearless, young boy, whizzing down a slippery and icy Appalachian hill in the darkness. “Were you scared?” I asked. He couldn’t remember. But his blue eyes dazzled with vivid memories detailing the joy of gliding down without experiencing a major fall, all the way to the bottom, where his friends waited to trade their own versions of the same story.

This is who we are as global nomads. We trade versions of the same human adventure stories with those whose paths we cross. Some of these stories can sound frightening, like uprooting our four children’s lives out of 7 countries so far.

But as citizens of a culturally-diverse and global world, we relentlessly reject the toxic fear of ‘the other’ by accepting, and adapting to different ways of living at peace with everyone.

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