I was somewhere above the North Pole when my last column, about struggling to put expat privilege into perspective, went live. I was trekking back from Newark, N.J., to Beijing with my sons (my wife and daughter stayed another week) and it struck me midflight that I had missed an important point. While I was worrying about my kids being spoiled by fancy private schools, household help and five-star Asian vacations, they were sitting by my side longing for good ol' Essex County, N.J.
They were mercifully distracted on the 13.5 hour overnight flight by a souped-up Continental 777 with electrical outlets -- unlimited Nintendo DS playing! -- and personal DVD players with 250 viewer options. That kept them from looking back too much, but my kids would gladly trade in our current, more glamorous life for aging public schools, cleaning up after themselves and vacations at the Jersey Shore. All the other benefits of being an expat are really for us, not for them.
My kids miss home and with each visit back to the U.S. it is becoming more difficult for them to accept the fact that they live in China and we have no plans to move back soon. The first two years here it wasn't an issue -- we had nice, extended visits back to the U.S. and then returned, with no drama. But coming back last summer was tough on them and the most recent trip only served to reinforce their feelings. It is, I assume, our new paradigm.
Last August, we left immediately after my nephew's bar mitzvah, with all the families still gathered in New Jersey, and they wanted to stay. Jacob cried hard the night before our departure. His cousins Sarah and Emma (18 months and two and a half years older than him, respectively) tried to comfort him with reassuring words and encouragement about his present life. The whole conversation was sweet.
'It's so cool you live in China.'
'Only when we go on vacation. The rest of the time it's just school and homework.'
When this job opportunity came up for Rebecca in 2005, we both understood that the timing was perfect to make an international move and that it would only get more difficult as our kids got older and approached adolescence. Now nearing 10, Jacob is a veritable tween. His younger brother Eli follows his lead and in any case, as our most sensitive soul, has always been the most affected by our move, even though he wasn't yet five when we came to Beijing.
Both boys have complained more about living here since that summer visit. They have become aware of what they're missing, that life elsewhere doesn't stop while we're on our little adventure. We have avoided talk about next summer, when we won't be able to go back because of the Olympics, but it came up repeatedly during this recent visit, and Jacob took the news hard. He was outraged initially, and complained bitterly, trying to change our minds. After realizing the futility, he just kept giving everyone big weepy hugs and saying, 'See you in a year.'
At least he didn't write a story called 'The Day My Parents Ruined My Life: A Novel,' as 10-year-old Xiaolei McLean did five years ago when her parents told her they were moving back to China (where she was adopted) after two years in Portland, Ore.
'It was written on elementary-school paper -- the kind with lines on the bottom and room for a picture on the top,' recalls Xiaolei's mom, Shelby McLean. 'There's always a point where kids experience moving as a loss and my [three] kids go through it every time they have to say goodbye to their cousins to return to China.'
That sounded familiar; Jacob was literally pained every time he said goodbye to a beloved cousin, often developing a toothache whenever such a parting loomed. Whether the pain was psychosomatic, or whether anxiety was making him grind his teeth and hurt a recently-filled cavity (which his dentist suggested was possible), it was definitely caused by saying goodbye to people he loves.
His mental state continued to affect his senses upon our return. We were staggering through the passport line in Beijing, when Jacob started complaining about extreme thirst. He walked to the water cooler, only to return spitting and gasping. 'The water in China tastes horrible!' he said. We bought a Diet Coke on our way out the door and he reacted the same way. It was obvious to me that he felt sick to be in China and everything he put in his mouth reinforced the feeling. On the way home, he claimed he had to throw up twice and got out of the car, where he spit on the ground. All the while, he was muttering to me about 'living on a different continent than everyone else.'
Still, it didn't take long for the boys to settle back into their old routines. Their friend across the street got a new puppy, which has provided endless excitement for them, and a reminder just how young they still are, for me. As Mrs. McLean said to me, 'When kids are younger, the things they notice that are different between the two places are very superficial. If they have parents who love them and a place to sleep and eat and play they don't really care where they are.'
Our kids are just nearing the end of this stage and I think they are in an interesting position: We have gone back frequently enough to allow them to maintain close relationships with their nine first cousins and several dear friends, and for them to maintain strongly American identities. And yet, of course, we live in China.
The ultimate guide to raising children overseas is 'Third Culture Kids,' by David C. Pollock & Ruth E. Van Reken, which many readers have recommended to me. The title phrase refers to children who aren't fully of their parents' home culture or of the culture of their current home, but rather create a hybrid 'third culture,' in which they relate to one another more than they do to natives of either their current or original home.
'The Third Culture Kid (TCK) builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any,' the late Mr. Pollock explained in a 2004 interview in the Relocation Today newsletter with Beverly Roman, BR Anchor Publishing. 'Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.'
What intrigues me is that our kids may be a bit betwixt and between -- not overseas long enough, or quite old enough, to fully become TCKs, and yet too removed from daily life back home to be fully American. I was, however, encouraged by Mr. Pollock's thoughts on how best to get a kid through difficult transitions.
'The greatest help can be an understanding and patient parent who listens well and empathizes,' he said in the same interview. Some things are the same wherever you live.
As I was finishing off this column, Jacob walked downstairs and said he was thirsty and asked if we still had 'that Diet Coke from the airport.' Happy to learn it was still in the refrigerator, he went over, poured himself a glass and took a long drink. I never thought it could feel so good to watch one of my kids drink soda.
不过，至少他没有像小蕾?麦克林(Xiaolei McLean)那样为此写上篇小说。小蕾是被麦克林夫妇从中国领养的，五年前，在与父母一起在俄勒冈州波特兰市生活了两年后，父母告诉她，全家要搬回中国，10岁的小蕾于是写了篇故事，名字是《这一天我的父母毁了我的生活》(The Day My Parents Ruined My Life: A Novel)。
有关在海外抚养孩子方面有一本权威著作──大卫?波洛克(David C. Pollock)和鲁思?范雷肯(Ruth E. Van Reken)合写的《第三文化小孩》(Third Culture Kids, 简称TCK)，有许多读者向我推荐过。书名指的是成长环境既不完全是父母祖国的文化、又不完全是目前所在国的文化下成长、而是混合的“第三文化”环境的孩子们。在这种文化下，他们与其他人的关系要比仅仅同目前所在国家的人或祖国的人打交道更为复杂。
波洛克2004年曾就此问题接受过BR Anchor Publishing的比佛利?罗曼(Beverly Roman)的采访。这个采访发表在Relocation Today通讯中。波洛克在采访中表示，TCK同所有文化都建立了关系，但又没有完全融入任何一种文化。尽管TCK的生活体验融合了各种文化的要素，但归属感取决于与具有类似背景的其他人的关系。