Our three-year-old attends preschool five days a week now. I’m not sure if this is right; it’s more days than our first grader attended at age three. Still, I plan to student teach in a few months, have translations to draft, and will represent translators in a large children’s publishing organization. So I’ve rented an office near the preschool and determined to work from pickup to drop-off, to maximize the time (and minimize guilt).
The office sits above a muay thai gym, and I often thread through sweaty bodies that punch or kick as I head to the stairs.
Up at my desk recently I caught myself whistling “I Don’t Want to Live On the Moon,” a song from Sesame Street, in which Ernie croons that he wants to visit the moon but not live there. His song evokes the comforts of home.
I sometimes startle at how my surroundings now compare with my Ernie-viewing years. As a child, I never thought I would live abroad or in a multilingual home. I never expected to drop kids off with Australian and Filipino teachers, schedule playdates with Vietnamese Dutch and Indian moms, and then race to translate Japanese stories above a Thai boxing gym.
Have I come to the moon?
Do I need to go home?
Do I need to simplify, get back to basics, stop being complicated? Just be a mom, or just work? Focus on one place and language, or the other, and stop mixing?
I know I could never ignore my vocation, our polyglot neighborhood, or our adopted country. These urges to un-mix make no sense yet somehow recur, as I suspect they must for anyone who juggles complexity. Moms have a built-in urge to de-clutter.
And when it comes to piling on guilt about doing too much, the world helps.
Every mama has read screeds about how mothers should either mother more, or work more. With these sides entrenched in the mommy wars, we can never “win.” So it goes with less publicized, but pervasive, messages about expats. These may not take the form of best-selling books or op-ed campaigns, but they are common and equally contradictory.
On one hand, there’s the message that we should all travel, learn languages, and explore the cultures in our global village.
On the other hand, there’s the view that expats should stay home. Settling overseas by choice is senseless; one may as well move to the moon. Even diplomats overseas should not “go local” at their posts, but manage their foreign contacts and take short tours so as to stay home at heart. Corporate warriors abroad should separate themselves from local life.
And immigrants—well. Policies against them become so self-evident that they justify sending refugees to certain death, because at least they will be “home.”
There is a sense in which leaving home is seen as unnatural. A kind of betrayal.
And yet through living abroad I’ve grown to love much about home that I never noticed while living there. I have seen much abroad that I want to bring home. Barbara Kingsolver writes of poking at the insides of the US with her pen, and I sometimes feel I can prod from outside, working at translations that show children more of their planet. I believe this makes their patch greener.
To me the US is dear, sometimes dearer with distance. And in some ways I can give more to it here than anywhere.
Yet I still sometimes sense scorn toward us expats. Did we not get the memo? Did we not know that study abroad should have been a feather in our caps, a line to pad our resumes, and not a life change? That those foreign language classes, and culture camps, and socials with the exchange students, were never meant to make us live overseas. What were we thinking?
To have moved abroad makes us like those crazies who grew up on story times, author visits, Book It! and Reading Rainbow, who then decided they wanted to write. The horror!
Have you made a bold choice and struggled with something unexpected? Don’t complain! You chose this life!
Having trouble, Avery, with miscommunication in Japanese or insulation in the expat enclave, or lingering uncertainty in Thai politics? Feel marginalized by US-based colleagues? Sorry, you made your bed, so lie in it.
I do not believe this criticism is wholly self-imposed.
Of course, when I write it out and take a look at it, it implies that I have chosen something inferior, and that’s wrong. Take safety. Yes, Thailand has had two coups in our eight-plus years here. Since arrival we have seen flooding and urban violence.
During the same years, however, we watched my husband’s country suffer the 3.11 disasters, and the largest mass loss of life in Japan since World War II. America, meanwhile, suffered drought and historic storms. From Thailand I watched the Gulf flood New Orleans and the Atlantic rise in New York subways, and read of too-strong tornadoes; one erased 75 percent of Pilger, Nebraska, near Wisner which I wrote of here. No place is safe.
Of course. There is no perfect location, no perfect situation. No one right way to arrange preschool, passports, life. It’s impossible not to be countercultural when the culture mixes messages. The only option, really, is to be ourselves here now, wherever here is, as best we can. Right? Even on the moon?
This month my family hailed the harvest moon with Japanese rice-flour dumplings, Chinese-style mooncakes with Thai durian filling, and American pancakes. This meal was filling, fattening, and complicated, but it was delicious.
And the bright-white orb above it all so stunned me with its beauty, I think even Ernie could give it a try.