My oldest child once came home carrying a copy of Jane Cowen-Fletcher’s It Takes A Village, based on an African proverb. She was 8 and we were living in Bangkok, our sixth expat posting at the time. I told her that she must telepathically possess the thoughts in my mind because it has taken me a little global village, from Kenya to the US, to Nepal and to the Philippines, to Ethiopia, to Thailand, and back to Kenya again, to raise her and her two younger brothers and sister for the last decade. I could never have kept my sanity intact without the critical support system of fellow global moms. Mothers like me, strangers-turned-family, who have continually loved my children as their own.
If all mothers of the world were to come together, there would be world peace- Anonymous.
During my family’s short-term stay as residents of various foreign countries, my eyes have been opened up to worlds once unknown, cultures unheard of and languages once unspoken. Being black African, I have attracted curious stares in places where I am often the racial minority yet felt at home among strangers with whom we share our common humanness. My conclusion is this: If you took the seeds of a fig tree, transported them in the bellies of migrating birds, who scatter them in far-flung fields of the world, some would make it, others would not. Some would grow enormous and stately. Others would shrivel and stunt. Yet all would be descendants of the original fig tree. Like the seeds, all cultures are interwoven into the same fabric, not a singular thread strung like another, some short, some long, but all strings of the same cloth, for we are all human.
We are all evolving in our ability to seek physical nourishment, intellectual advancement and spirituality. What distinguishes one culture from another and enables certain cultures to advance faster than others lies in our ability to adapt to change. But change happens when we allow ourselves the space to explore and question our world critically and independently.
All things are easier to understand, once they have been discovered- Galileo Galilei.
We can teach our children to embrace change as a human condition by listening to their questioning little hearts and providing them honest answers which teach them tolerance to overcome stereotypes. We can tell them what was told to us about ourselves, about others and allow them to question our knowledges that might conflict with what they now know. We can use technology to teach them about the worlds that border their little bubbles and come together as global parents, united in the quest to spread a legacy of peaceful coexistence, with others and with nature itself.
Nearly 10 years ago when my husband announced that he would be taking a job in Kathmandu, my initial reaction was, “Where on the map is Kathmandu?” To which he responded, “Nepal…you know, where Mt. Everest is?” As if that geographical fact alone was enough to convince me to move our then toddler and all our household goods from the US, where we had just recently relocated from my home country Kenya. When we told our family and friends that we were moving once again, there were mostly mixed reactions. All except from my mother.
“Where is Kathmandu?” She asked out of curiosity.
“The capital city of Nepal, where Mt. Everest is?” I replied back over a cracky long-distance call.
“You sound hesitant,” She instinctively picked up, her maternal senses on high alert.
“Well, I don’t actually know whether or not I want to move there,” I replied, echoing the mixed reactions of the majority of our friends and family.
No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be- Chuck Thompson.
“What do they eat in Nepal?” My mother asked.
Sensing my confusion, she explained further, “Well, I assume there are people who live in houses, their children go to school and they must have some spiritual beliefs, but what do they eat? Food is important,” She replied matter-of-factly.
According to my mother, if there was enough food to keep us alive, decent housing, access to basic education and friendly people to interact with who had a sense of spirituality, that was enough to survive a foreign land. By the time we left Kathmandu, I had learnt how to make ‘Dhaal bhat’ (lentils with rice) and ‘roti’, the traditional Nepali staple, which was similar to the ‘chapati’ (flat bread) and coconut bean soup that I had grown up eating. I also learnt to embrace Buddhism as a reflection of my inner consciousness, which ironically solidified the core principles on which my Christian upbringing were founded- compassion, empathy, love for all humanity and nature. The same exact values that I was teaching my children were being lived and breathed by their budding Nepali yogis.
If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home- James Michener.
“Go to Nepal, eat as a Nepali, learn the language too. That might be helpful, but don’t stress out.” My mother simplified our transcontinental move.
She was raised by a Maasai warrior, set in traditional African values, yet knowledgeable in the dynamism of culture. Unbeknownst to him, my grandfather embodied the traits of a global parent, navigating the current status quo with eyes set on an unknown future world. When others sold their daughters off for cows and goats and land in dowry, my grandfather sent all his girls to school in colonial Africa, because he saw education as a liberating ticket to an emergent world where gender parity would inevitably become the ticket to a free, fair and thriving economy.
“Those girls of yours will be too clever and turn to prostitution when they can’t find decent men to marry them!” Cried the villager elders, their customary bejewelled ear lobes dangling furiously at their disapproval as they gathered around the homestead.
But my grandfather, known for direct, few words retorted, “Don’t invite me to your dowry parties when you sell your girls.” As the story goes, he vanished off into the forest for days, spear and water gourd in hand, as he always did whenever he inched closer on the boundaries that separated the old generation from the young.
He would often stand up, not in rebellion, but in questioning the current belief system because he understood something profoundly liberating. The difference between tradition and modern culture. Tradition being the unquestioned right from wrong, the static values that mold a character, while modern culture is a dynamic set of values that change with the times and spaces of current trends and needs. To know where the axis lies between the two is to be gifted the freedom from mental slavery.
Having instilled a growth mindset in his children, my mother grew up approaching life as a political analyst would, navigating in and out of familiar and unfamiliar events with theories and concepts that challenged the social norms. This upbringing has enabled us, the five children that she raised, cope with life’s perpetual changes by allowing us to follow our callings, our destinies tied to lands far from each other. My mother, aged 67, now tops the charts as one of the world’s best traveled ‘cucu’ (grandmother). Even in retirement, she’s still pushing boundaries. Last year, on a visit to see her American grand-children in North America, she took a leap of faith and enrolled in a nursing course.
“I passed with flying colours!” She told me over another long-distance call. She also learnt how to drive on the left-hand side along with being a certified nursing aide. With a valid driving license in Massachusetts, she is prepared for a second career and a new life in a new country.
As long as you are free to move and to express yourself, your mind is also open to new learning and thinking- I can hear her echoing my grandfather’s wisdom.
One of UNESCO’s definition of illiteracy is the inability to express oneself. One can learn formal reading and writing, but to express oneself happens in that informal space called home. As global parents, we must begin to allow our children to tell us their stories by first understanding what they know and then providing them with the knowledge that we have. Our traditional values will have space in their future but to impose our present cultural practices, based on needs that are irrelevant to future times is to limit their ability to progress independently.
Storytelling is a powerful tool that is at our disposal that lies at the core of all of us. Everybody has a story to tell and it is in storytelling that learning happens. Everything that we are taught, formally or informally, begins as a story. While schools provide spaces for formal education, the root of all that learning is grounded in the knowledge that has been passed down simply as stories, at home.
Home is where your story begins…
That’s what is imprinted on a rusty metal clock that I bought in a busy night market in Bangkok. It wrapped up our expat experience there with the stunning realization that our family story had, for a decade, been centered around time differences. Stories were shared across time zones with grandparents, cousins and friends around the world. Stories were shared with other expat families.These stories transverse time and space. They become stories of our shared global home. In these stories lies our ability to increase our critical knowledge of others by tolerating varying opinions.
While my family has had the privilege of travel and of physically interacting with people from countries different from ours, this isn’t the only way to gain critical knowledge about the world. Internet search engines and social media have made that really easy. The greatest inhibitor we have lies in our inability to question what we were taught as children of a different generation. We cannot rise above stereotypes, prejudice, racism, gender inequality, post-colonialism and all other forms of social injustice if we are incapable of asking questions and genuinely seeking answers with hearts open to a peaceful coexistence.
The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only life you have- Anna Quindlen.
As global parents, we must first possess an ability to distinguish between what we know to be absolutely true and what we practice as convenient truth that helps us navigate our current world. We then must take a critical part in our children’s journey of knowledge-seeking and understanding of the greater world by recognizing that traditional values like the Ten Commandments of Christianity or Islam, the 10 commandments of Sanatana Dharma in Hinduism, the Hebrew version- Aseret Hadiberot or the 10 principles of Bhuddism exist as guiding principles of humanity’s journey towards a Oneness on this planet and it is our duty to teach this understanding to our children. However, our cultural values are ever-changing and dependent on current needs. A global parent must know the difference in order to embrace freedom of expression as a unifying catalyst of peace and not as a weapon to be used to destroy others.
With an unbiased, critical knowledge of others, global parents can halt the wheels of prejudice. We can mold our children into the peaceful, resilient, tolerant, global citizens we wish them to become, by telling them the stories that matter. Stories about our shared values and historical past, which form the backbone of humanity’s resilient survival over millions of years on earth. These stories live in all of us- shared around fireplaces in some cultures, under a tree in others, online and in books.
Every time I witness a preschooler begin to reader, I am amazed by how quickly they grasp the idea of spelling and the joy of being able to write their own stories. There is something electrifying about the moment your child reads a full sentence. It opens up a brand new way of experiencing life. All of a sudden, they can see the world that you see, without speaking of it. Bill boards become stories, car license plates roar about in meaning. Conversations about a bigger world begin to take shape. But therein lies danger when the power to interpret what they can merely read is in the hands of closed-minded adults, the ones who base their understanding of others on stereotypes that were passed down as stories in their own childhood homes. The ones whose status updates on social media feeds are laced with inappropriate innuendo about the ‘other’.
Yet it’s not difficult to cultivate the seed of critical thinking. At the click of a button, you can gain insight into the lives of others far from your time zone and virtually transport yourself into their space. Pretend that you are an expat living in your country of choice and begin to explore the local scene. Find out what they eat, where they live, learn the native language. Gather new knowledge there and take it back home, to your children, to your community. To your online forums. Question what you thought you knew.
Most expat parents will agree that by being uprooted from our comfort zones, we gravitate towards each other, coming together in spite of our language barriers, speaking the same body language that defies all the set stereotypes of our backgrounds because it is human nature to care. Our instincts are suddenly tuned to love another person’s child just as much as we love our own children because we are in this global parenting gig together. We rally behind other expat kids ready to take in someone else’s child as our own, no questions asked.
I love these little people, and it is not a slight thing when they who are so fresh from God love us- Charles Dickens.
To the expat moms mothering from country to country, the question isn’t ever where you are from but whether or not the door to your heart is open. We do not regard geographical backgrounds or cultural differences as indicators of our strength as mothers, but instead share a global motherhood sorority whose door sign reads, mi casa es su casa, which we loosely translate into, my home is your home; your children, my children.
These children, a vibrant patchwork of cultures, colours and languages, become the first generation of storytellers of a new global cultural narrative, genuinely interested in hearing each other’s stories because the desire to connect is instinctive. Without biased adults steering them in different directions on the socioeconomic, cultural or racial divide, children gain an acceptance of others based on their similarities and not their differences.
Global parenting has the power to provide those spaces where these connections can occur naturally. It is our obligation, whether connected geographically or virtually through social media spaces, to share with our children the stories that unite us. Once barriers have been broken and bridges have been formed, stories of our interconnectedness begin to unfold.
It takes a global village to raise a global child- Wakanyi Hoffman.