When I enrolled our older daughter in preschool, I wrote on the form:
Mother: American. Translator and editor.
Father: Japanese. Music teacher.
Applicant: American and Japanese. Born in Thailand.
I printed our address north of Bangkok and affixed a photo of a smiling pre-pre-kindergartener, whose fine, light brown hair just brushes a sky-blue collar. I color-copied the form for our scrapbook.
To think, I’ve never been a fiction writer.
The photo belies the many takes needed to get the subject not to squint, blink, or jump from her stool to check the camera’s viewing screen. The fields about me obscure that I have been her main caregiver, working around the edges, and that I write, and have lived outside of the U.S. for about ten years. My husband has lived in Japan for only about six years of his life. Our two daughters–one nearly four, the other two-and-a-half months–have never lived in their countries of citizenship. Our home is in the teacher apartments for an international school, in a development home to many expatriates, in Thailand but also its own world.
Introductions tend to be lengthy with us, often starting with where we are not from, or not from completely.
We are not, for example, from Thailand, although it is here that my husband conducts middle school bands, I mother and wordsmith, and our daughters (this week) practice reading and smiling, respectively. We coach the preschooler to bring her hands together and say sawat dee kha, hello, many times a day. We feast (this week) on pomelo, stand for King Bhumibol’s anthem at concerts and movie theaters, and reflexively add the deferent kha or kap to our sentences, even in English: “bye bye kha.”
We are not from America, although I grew up in Kansas, went to college in Minnesota, and met my husband there while playing in concert band. We have stayed with my parents in Wichita half of most summers; I vote and pay taxes to Uncle Sam and listen to NPR online. My husband teaches in English on a U.S. license, in a band program that could have been imported from the Midwest or the High Plains, minus marching season. Our household earworms include “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
And we are not from Japan, although my husband is Japanese and attended Japanese schools through the eighth grade, either in Japan or abroad. Our older daughter speaks with him in Japanese and absorbed the hiragana along with her ABCs. I drilled the same characters with flash cards in college and studied in Japan for three years after graduation. When I married and joined my husband in the Middle Eastern sultanate of Oman, his first teaching post, I translated Japanese fiction in the desert. We’ve spent the other half of summer leaves in my husband’s parents’ home of Kamakura, Japan.
And we are not from where we live: a gated, grounds-kept housing area that attracts foreign businesspeople and diplomats. Teacher housing sits on separate land overlooking a local neighborhood: front-stoop restaurants, itinerant broom sellers, motorbike taxis. But we reach our apartment through the gated development’s leafy streets, bike its lake, and shop its import-stocked supermarket. I supervise playtimes with expatriate housewives in executive homes, and with Thai and migrant nannies at work in teacher households from three continents. Our preschooler plays with pint-sized passport-holders of New Zealand, Japan, Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., as well as Thailand. The school at the heart of our neighborhood draws 1,800 students of sixty nationalities.
Our family’s jumble of identities means I spend a lot of time jumping from one to the next: I may greet my husband in Japanese in the morning, rouse my daughters in English, and use learner’s Thai to arrange a household repair. Or, I may wrack my brain for an American pop culture reference at a playdate, fumble to read a Bangkok license plate outside, and then clumsily draft an email to Tokyo at naptime. The mishmash of languages and cultures makes it tricky to honor all simultaneously, as when we chose red for our wedding color because it appears in the U.S., Japanese, and Omani flags. (It also represented one side in Thailand’s political clashes last year, so is exiled from our neutral wardrobe.)
If we cannot carefully tend all of our roots at once, however, we also cannot cap or thin them for simplicity’s sake, because the combination constitutes our children’s world. Even when we go “home” (Japan for my husband, America for me), we must tote our other worlds with us–for in Japan our preschooler tries out “I’m hungry” in Thai to see if the words still work; in Kansas she misses Japanese TV characters. In Thailand she dearly misses Grandma, Grandpa, Obaachan, and Ojiichan. By virtue of her upbringing she will always know the pull of places and people not nearby, of ideas not in the air. Yet we commit to keeping her loves close, to showing that many parts can make a whole.
We take heart that raising children among worlds is hardly unusual these days. Our burg bulges with bicultural households: Japanese-Canadian, Chilean Australian-Colombian, U.S.-Russian–all transplanting here in Thailand. Intercultural marriage and parenting abroad have grown more mainstream, as have multicultural and multilingual education. And parents everywhere labor to yoke disparate worlds of work and home, past and present, reality and hope. The daily push to understand and blend worlds provides rich material for mothers who write.
In my column Four Worlds, I would like to sketch mother-writerhood at the junction of my family’s four cultures–America, Japan, Thailand, and the expat world–in a way that affirms the world-mingling all writer-moms engage in and record. The snapshots I present of life here will, I hope, appear both new and familiar. The Four in Four Worlds can stand for any large number, but I enjoy its proximity in the dictionary to four-square, four-in-hand, and four-dimensional.
In the belief that sharing stories from our worlds helps us to meld them, I invite you to follow the column and post your comments. When you introduce yourself, please feel free to take as much space as you need.
And in closing, to clarify (because I do write nonfiction): I have yet to compile a scrapbook. Here’s to starting, and to an imperfect first page.