Strangers among us: the expat parent experience
It’s a sad day.
It’s a sad day, my friends, when your eight year old son fixes you with a look of impending doom and says, “Mamma, I have to tell you something. But you’re not going to like it.” And your eyes sweep over the china cabinet, which shows no signs of a soccer ball having been kicked through it, your nose sniffs the air, which does not reveal the acrid odor of legos being baked to see if they will stay stuck together, your hand touches the throat of his younger brother, in which a vital pulse is still beating. So how bad can it be?
“Mamma, I don’t, um, really, you know, like peanut butter.”
And in that instant the universe shifts just a smidgen, the light seems to dim, your heartbeat slows in dismay, and what you have suspected for the past eight years is suddenly proven without a doubt.
Your children are not, and never will be, American. No amount of Green card applications will make them American.
I mean, I have had other clues of this over the years. My sons were scandalized by their American cousins wearing un-ironed t-shirts on a recent trip to the States, they are convinced that eating cherries and drinking water in the same sitting will somehow land them in the hospital, and they have vowed they will never move out of my home (they are in for a big surprise come age 18). They prefer prosciutto and bread to pancakes for breakfast, say that they are annoyed when bored or nervous when stressed out, and are constantly urging me to pass on the right. However, until their rejection of the national childhood dish of the USA, I had harbored a hope that I could still, somehow, claim them as mine.
There is a famous adage which says that parenting is essentially a process of slowly letting go of your child from the minute he is born, and this process is even more poignant when part of that letting go is not only of your child but of your childhood. Let’s face it, one of the best parts of parenting is reliving your own youth…the one you really had (I got my kids into Star Wars, early and hard) and the one you wish you had (I took them to Disneyland, where I always dreamed of going as a kid.). But when they are growing up in a country and culture different from yours, it’s hard to engage them in your passions, your aspirations, your expectations. You want them to fit in (and, coincidentally, not be ashamed of you—their foreign parent. Their foreign parent who is still concerned with her cool quotient 39 years into the game.) but not go native.
The irony here (because ain’t life ironical?) is that I lived the flip side of this same situation growing up in an immigrant Greek family in the 1970s. I think now about how dismayed Yaya must have been to watch as subsequent generations gradually gave up the Orthodox faith, shunned the language, married non-Greeks, (“Honey,” she would say to me, “You find nice Greek boy to marry. You make your Yaya happy, koukla.”) and finally ended up considering the gyros and yelling “Opa!” as the saganaki was set alight by a Mexican waiter the pinnacle of Greek culture.
My children are not growing up Cub fans, don’t recognize the Good Humor ice cream truck, have never read the Sunday funny pages. They will not have memories of fireworks on the 4th, of a day with cheese blintzes for breakfast/burritos for lunch/spanakopita for dinner, of trick-or-treating. My children are living a life infinitely different from the one I did and in some ways this makes them less mine. My children are putting down roots and flourishing in a different land and I am, bit by bit, letting go of their future.
I am, bit by bit, letting go of my past.
I am, bit by bit, letting go.