“A moment of love, a dream, a laugh, a kiss, a smile, our rights, our wrongs…”
– Sweet Disposition, The Temper Trap
The past fortnight we’ve spent hours, days, and weeks crossing borders, rekindling old friendships and forging new ones, sleeping in different beds in different countries and calculating costs into three, sometimes four different currencies before ordering a kebab.
Sometimes I’d wake up in the morning feeling confused. My first thought is always, ‘Where am I?’
The next question that would run through my mind as I move the blanket to (reluctantly) get out of bed every morning is, ‘How freezing is it gonna be today?’ Yes, winter hath come.
As always, when traveling, it is always the unexpected encounters — with people, things — that bring the greatest joy. One such thing is this image of a Hungarian toddler I encountered in Budapest’s Ethnographic Museum (Néprajzi Múzeum). The expression on her face was one of such joy I can’t even —
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the face of the child who is troubled by no worries, commitments, deadlines, exams, vivas, financial constraints, five-year plans, future career or marriage prospects, you name it. This is actually an enormous privilege as elsewhere in the world there are children who don’t even get the chance to experience childhood as we know it.
My brothers and I were fortunate to have grown up in the early era of the modern PC, which meant that we spent a significant portion of our childhood playing Age of Empires, Command and Conquer, and The Sims, especially when we lived in Accra. Nevertheless, I think gadget-less childhoods I hear so much about from adults who were once Third Culture Kids like ourselves were so much more adventurous — playing in the streets of Lisbon, chillin’ out on the rooftop in Baghdad at sunset while watching the birds fly home (or elsewhere) and listening to the muezzin making the adhan (call to prayer), visits to the museums or theaters, thanks to free tickets from daddy.
We weren’t granted as much freedom as above, mostly because we lived in places where such opportunities were absolutely impossible to exist. Going to the theater in Conakry? Er, I think not. A theater doesn’t even exist in the first place in that fine city. Still, ours was a fantastic childhood, as I’m sure other children’s were. The constant moving was a bit of a challenge, but as children we knew no better, and our father always operated on the assumption that “The kids will be alright.”
Looking back on this aspect of our childhood retrospectively though, I know I wouldn’t want things to be any different. One of my good friends told me that her father was once offered to join the Diplomatic Mission abroad, but declined because he was concerned about how the children would cope with the moving. I wonder if she wonders how things would be had he accepted the offer.
The first time she told me about this, something hit me: Did our parents think about how the moves would affect us children? Answer: Perhaps. Maybe they didn’t discuss it with us openly but my parents certainly saw the value of educating us in international schools, doesn’t matter where. Moving, with all the packing and unpacking and the hundreds of baggages it entails, was simply part of the deal, an unavoidable risk they had to take.
The beautiful thing about being children is that we are always receptive to new experiences, which means that we cope well in, and are very adaptive to new situations. Perhaps there may be exceptions in certain areas (and for certain children), but trust me, just give us time. At that age, we know nothing about the concept of home, comfort zones, what’s normal and what isn’t, what’s good parenting or the contrary; all we had to care about was to wake up in the morning in time to catch the school van because coming to class three times late means detention which in turn means missing that afternoon’s episode of Powerpuff Girls and Scooby Doo on Cartoon Network, and making sure we do our homework because the Parent-Teacher Meeting is just next week. We get on the plane when our parents tell us to, we know nothing about the process of applying for a resident permit or working/student visa, and we think it’s normal to have lunch with a representative from every continent in this world at the school cafeteria. Seriously, this is why being children is awesome.
Sometimes I feel like my childhood ended slightly too soon. But in a way it was a huge relief — I hated school, so the less time I spend in it the better. I was thrilled, more than anything, to have gotten my IB Diploma at sixteen and a half, which gave me an early opportunity to actually get out of the classroom and rush to my first encounter with Real Life. Well Real Life gave me what I asked for alright. Perhaps a little more than I expected, but it’s all good.
Many Malaysians abroad that we knew made the mistake of taking their children’s education in international schools as only ‘temporary’, because in their children’s future they see them enrolled in local secondary schools in Malaysia, waiting for the day they will sit for their SPM — the Malaysian equivalent of WA’s TEE or A-Levels. They would take month-long vacations in the middle of the school year, fool around in ESL, and didn’t mind being downgraded from sixth to fifth grade (perhaps due to language incompetencies). But increasingly more parents are taking things a bit more seriously these days, and nothing swells me up with pride more than when I hear parents making an appeal to postpone their next posting until after their children have completed their IB Diploma. Been there, done that.
I know I always keep droning on and on and on (and on) about childhood, but seriously, after looking at the photograph above, how can I not? Childhood = great times.