“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…”
For the five hundredth time, I sing “Simple Gifts” to our kindergartner at bedtime. This song anchors my lullaby line-up along with “Lord of the Dance,” a hymn with the same melody, which I hope might yoke a sleepy child’s interest in ballet with the Gospel.
Our children do not learn songs of faith the same way I did. In a country with few Christians, at our high-turnover, DIY expat church, we have no Wednesday afternoon kids’ choir where tykes rehearse Psalty musicals or two-part Natalie Sleeth anthems. Volunteers teach Sunday School during part of Sunday worship, so the children hear just a few hymns or praise songs each week before heading to class.
So I sing a Shaker tune into the dark. (Still mainly to our older child; with the younger I do “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “Baby Beluga,” which are worship music in their own way.)
Sometimes I wonder how my faith—especially a strain that says we must be “simple”—will affect our daughter. She is American and Japanese but has only lived in Thailand, speaks two-plus languages, and has no single home in the world. Her life is anything but simple.
Pico Iyer gives a polished TED talk about how cross-cultural children like my daughter will construct identities like stained glass windows, taking beautiful bits from all over. Yet in his book The Global Soul he notes that they may also face identity crises.
Prominent global soul Barack Obama told his mother’s biographer that after growing up a mixed child in Indonesia and Hawaii, he rooted himself in Chicago partly to reject “being a citizen of the world, but without any real anchor.”
He was seeking the simple.
In his memoirs, Obama embraces his mixed background more fully than perhaps one can in interviews or short sound bytes. I use his example to show my children (and myself) that someone with multi-everything background can go far. But my Kenyan friend married to an American worries that Obama accepts the label “black,” not black plus white, while she hopes her children will embrace all of who they are. She loves that they claim roots in Nairobi and Ohio and Bangkok, and places where they spent babyhood, on UN postings: Nepal, the Philippines, Ethiopia.
Earlier this month, I had our daughter wear US-inspired red, white, and blue to Worldwide Communion Sunday at church for balance, since she would wear a Japanese yukata to International Day at school the same week. I was voting for and, also.
I have spoken with a longtime expat teacher whose children diverged in their choices of Asia- or US-leaning identities as adults. It is the child’s right to choose, she believes. I agree. But what if my children choose away from complexity? Or away from me?
As I type that, I know it is given: as my identity differs from my parents’, so will my children’s depart from mine. Reinvention of self features in each life as globalization touches even people who stand still; Iyer notes that “as fast as we are moving around the world, the world is moving around us.” Children, growing up in several cultures at once, must take disjunct chords from their backgrounds and, to use words from Obama’s first memoir, “make music that wasn’t there before.”
How to equip a child for this task?
As a writer-mom I hope first to help my children articulate their experiences. To say how it feels to miss Bible school in the US, or crave candy from Japan, or know Thai words for an action everyone in a room performs except Mommy, who doesn’t understand. To describe having a Spanish friend for a playdate and not following her version of hide-and-seek.
Words can absorb all of this—all of the global soul’s disjointed experience. And when we write the words down, the narrative holds it all for us.
I hope also to help my children share their narratives, to find community. Last summer in an education course, I learned that cross-cultural kids can suffer a sense of “terminal uniqueness,” believing that no one shares their background or struggles. My classmates and I then wrote and shared self-intros, and I saw that I, as an American married to a Japanese living in Thailand, had nothing on a Chinese Canadian who raises his family in Japan, or a Sri Lankan who met her Zimbabwean husband in Japan, or a British man who wedded a Japanese and teaches in Vietnam.
Each story was unique, but by sharing stories we found points in common. We felt part of a larger whole.
That whole—the über whole, the combined stories of all people, places, times—is one way I perceive the kingdom of God. That may be why I sing hymns at bedtime: I want, beyond helping the girls tell and share stories, to point to a Story of which we are all part. One we can hear when we grow reverent and look beyond ourselves.
I am not alone: Obama writes of worship giving him the “audacity of hope.” Iyer, though not religious, speaks of retreats at a monastery as keeping him sane as a global soul—an Indian raised in the UK and US now based also in Japan.
I think of such examples as I sing “Simple Gifts.” I want our daughters to value their lives, share them, and finally see them joined to “one great fellowship of love, throughout the whole wide earth”—to quote another hymn. I parent on faith that this miracle is possible.