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A global nomad’s answer to the question, 'Where are you from?' is now imprinted in a graffiti-illustrated children’s book

By Wakanyi Hoffman

One of the perks of being a global nomad is encountering stories so similar to yours, but are told differently by others whose cultural identity greatly differs from where you come from.

I recently interviewed Elisavet Arkolaki, founder of maltamum and author of the recently published children’s book titled, Where am I From?.

At a time of remarkably rapid integration of people from different cultural backgrounds in the last century, Elisavet uses a cleverly disguised idea to give a simplified answer to an increasingly complex question of identity.

This colourful picture book is also a first of its kind, illustrated in freehand graffiti by Platon, an award-winning artist from Greece. It also comes with a free guide filled with expert, peer-approved knowledge on how to raise confident, multicultural children.

Two mother-writers, parenting in between cultures

Elisavet and I are both writers at Multicultural Kid Blog, a global platform of like-minded parent-educators. We share our experiences of raising children through arts, activities, crafts, food, and language, through written stories that are often sprinkled with a little extra pinch of love and humor.

We are also mothers parenting in between cultures, with a shared mission of exploring the world through a nomadic lifestyle.

In an interview that extends well beyond the allocated hour, we discuss diverse issues ranging from feminism, patriarchy, and motherhood.

We also discover an instant connection through similar ideas on how best to teach cultural empathy to our children, and exchange ideas about the values that we wish for them to carry as they possibly become the first generation to explore life on other planets.

Elisavet Arkolaki, author of ‘Where am I From?’ and the parenting guide, ‘How to raise Confident, Multicultural Children’.

Bonding over our paralleled mobile lives

While sitting with her back towards a window, Elisavet adjusts her computer camera, giving me a glimpse of the snowflakes falling daintily upon the Scandinavian landscape outside her home in Norway.

‘Is it cold out there?’ I ask redundantly. It is an icebreaker that leads to the first of many laughs. 

We begin talking as two mothers often do, about our children. But halfway into the conversation, we uncover many similarities and begin bonding over our paralleled mobile lives.

We discover our love for the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand, and our mutual appreciation of gluggavedur, an Icelandic phrase that I recently read about in this book, which translates to ‘window-weather’. 

The Icelanders coined this word to express the untranslatable feeling that one gets on a sunny winter day that looks great as seen through a window, but unbearably cold when one ventures outdoors. On this particular day, it is the perfect backdrop for our interview.

I turn my screen towards the large window in my tiny living room to reveal tulips in a flower pot. Since they first appeared at our local farmers’ market, my husband has been commissioning the help of our 8-year-old daughter to pick the most colorful bouquet, during their daddy-and-me excursion in town after her weekly violin lesson.

A winter window scene depicting ‘gluggavedur’ in my living room in the Netherlands, where tulips are displayed in a flowerpot.

The flowers are a reminder that we have finally unpacked our nomadic home in the Netherlands, where our children have physically adjusted to continuous rainy days and embraced a carbon-free lifestyle on their bicycles, blending happily with the rest of their Dutch peers.

Where are you from?

To the global nomad kid, the answer to this question depends on who is asking. My 5-year-old will proudly declare that he is from Kenya because that’s where his friends are, and not Thailand, his country of birth. 

But when our 13-year-old was recently confronted with this question by a new friend at her new school, she said, ‘I hadn’t thought about this until she told me that she has never lived anywhere else but in the US.’

To our self-proclaimed kid nomad, who has over 10 years of experience as a TCK (Third Culture Kid), staying rooted in one country is simply unimaginable. She now identifies as a global citizen with strong Kenyan and American roots.

For Elisavet, the answer requires her to retrace her ancestral footsteps and to confront a harsh reality. She would never have been born, had her relatives not escaped a genocide during the Ottoman Empire.

‘It took the bravery of my great-great-grandmother to hatch an escape plan,’ she recalls.

Elisavet recounts the story told to her later, of a strong matriarch with heightened survival instincts, who wrapped her infant in a flimsy bed-sheet and hid a handful of gold coins inside the baby’s soiled clothes.

She traveled this way while clutching tightly onto an icon of the Virgin Mary for journey mercies and miraculously smuggled a Singer sewing machine when crossing the border from Turkey into Greece.

The unsuspecting baby was Elisavet’s great-grandmother. Her younger sister was born in Greece, and would later share these migrant stories with Elisavet as a child.

Elisavet later recommends that I watch this documentary, which details the events of Greek residents in Turkey 100 years ago. It is a historical account of past events, which eerily resonate with the present migration conflict in the Mediterranean region. 

Rejecting patriarchy to become a global nomad

Born in Greece, Elisavet recalls having a normal childhood and enjoyed occasional trips abroad with her parents. But at 22 years old, she won an Erasmus scholarship and moved to Paris on her own.

If she had never left her family in Greece, she would’ve been expected to find a boyfriend, get married, and have children, in that order.

‘Those months (in Paris) altered my way of thinking. My world grew bigger,’ she remembers.

We discuss yet another connection between us, in our continued rejection of the patriarchy, which contributed to our becoming global nomads.

I then share my story about how interviewing Catherine Ndereba (Kenya’s four-time Boston Marathon champion) as a young reporter fresh out of college, shaped my earliest views of feminism, motherhood and gender equality.

This leads to another similarity between our parallel lives. Elisavet also had a stint in journalism. She recalls her first interview which, incidentally, featured a graffiti artist.

By all accounts, Elisavet is a global nomad. She moved from Paris to Malta, where she met her now-husband while working as a customer representative. 

‘It now seems so irrelevant but that first move outside of Greece by myself is what inspired me to never stay rooted in one particular location,’ she says, smiling.

Having met her match, they moved to Spain, Greece, and Norway. In between, they also managed to squeeze in an adventurous half-year long backpacking trip in Asia, Australia, and the South Pacific. They then moved back to Malta, and a few years later their first child was born.

They are now settled in Norway, where their second child was born. They may be ‘rooted’ in one place for now, but all their winters since they had children have been spent in Thailand.

‘We have a Mediterranean kid and a Scandinavian kid. One conceived in the Maldives and the other one in Thailand,’ she muses.

As we laugh, I too recount my four children’s birth abroad tales, which include conceptions, pregnancies and births in Kenya, Nepal, Ethiopia, and Thailand.

A multilingual home

As in most intercultural marriages, Elisavet’s children are raised in a multilingual home. They are fluent in Norwegian and Greek and are still working their way through English and picking up Thai too. 

I am curious to know if her children identify strongly with their birth countries, or embrace a more compound global citizenship identity, as some of mine do.

My older children aged 13 and 11, wearing face masks that symbolize diversity in global citizenship.

‘They feel more connected to Norway, Greece, and Thailand because it is from these countries that they have the most vivid memories and where people they love still live,’ she says.

Elisavet and her husband firmly believe that the future belongs to those who will be ready to adapt to a new existence anywhere on the planet, and possibly even beyond.

‘Who knows where our children will live? It could be somewhere far beyond this planet!’ she exclaims.

There is no doubt that we are getting closer to discovering the potential for life on other planets. But while we are still exploring our shared blue planet, we agree that being able to speak more than one language is the logical move towards a more cooperative human experience. 

Defining ‘home’

In her book, Where Am I From?, Elisavet challenges young readers to define home.

She playfully takes us on a journey towards a fictitious playground, where children from all around the world have gathered to solve this riddle.

They unite on an art project to paint graffiti on a wall, each one determined to produce a colorful map of the world based on where they came from. 

Excitement builds up as each child attempts to outwit their friends by recounting dramatic stories of the nonconventional means that they used to arrive at this wall.

For instance, Osiobe from Nigeria arrives on a lion, while Chen from China boasts about his ride on a fiery yet tamed dragon. John from Australia arrives tucked inside the protective pouch of a kangaroo.

These adventurous journeys mimic every child’s dream, and the brilliant illustrations capture perfectly their wildest imagination. 

These ideas to relatable with children all around the world. It is the imaginary world of my 8-year-old too, where unicorns and mermaids dominate playgrounds.

We all come from the same home

Throughout this debut picture book is the resonating theme that ‘we all come from the same place’, a reference to the fact that we all share the same planet.

It is a timely keepsake available on major book retailers like Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and the Book Depository, in which Elisavet subtly challenges young readers to celebrate the multicultural diversity of our collective global citizenship.

Cover of the newly released book titled, ‘Where am I From’ by Elisavet Arkolaki

At the same time, she also encourages parents around the world to continue raising children with unconditional love and gentle kindness, which are universal values.

But it is her parting remark that I am left lingering on for the rest of the day when she says,

‘A child is like a garden, all gardens are made of soil but you do not get to choose the soil, you can only choose what to do with it.’

An image of my children as four colorful (multicultural) and organic seeds that were placed gently on the palms of my hand appears. It reminds me of a poem by Khalil Gibran that a friend once shared, in which he says in part,

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you, but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

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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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