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We don’t belong anywhere, actually, no we belong everywhere

By: Hanna Sworn Posted: November-16-2011 in
Hanna Sworn

When my parents told their average, middle class, British families they were moving themselves, their four-year-old (me), and their six month old to Cambodia, they received a range of responses.

None were pleased; most were confused. Cambodia was only recently emerging from the troubles caused by genocide and civil war and, lost in the past, was still considered dangerous, reinforced by cold war stereotypes of jungle warfare and bombing. On our visit prior to moving, my mother had the misfortune of experiencing the lead-up to a coup d’état alone with me, two-years-old, in our hotel room – complete with gunfire. Our relatives could not comprehend my parents desire to move to this godforsaken country – they were not blessed with the desire for change and challenge characteristic in many overseas expatriates.

One of the comments that always stood out to me when we visited ‘home’ or when the story of ‘The Great Move’ was told was the good natured but mistaken ‘But you’re depriving your children!’ As a ponderous eight year old, I could never understand how I was being deprived in the slightest. Of what? I still wonder – the hormone injected, artificial food? The violent, self-centred culture of materialism and consumerism? The risk of being average?

My version of this ‘deprivation’ was different.

Expatriate children grow up in an extremely rare anthropological situation, where race and nationality amount to very little, and people come and go with alarming speed. I like to think that because of this it’s very easy for expat kids and teens to make friends and love, although many relationships result in the heartbreak of separation, and most will experience a significantly higher number of mourning experiences than monocultural youth. However, children are highly adaptive, and I’ve found expat children display a stronger sense of resiliency.

The question ‘Where do you come from?’ and the issues surrounding it can be a tricky matter. One of my clearest childhood memories is of being seven, at Singapore Zoo, where I had been called up as a volunteer at one of the animal shows. The presenter asked me where I was from, and I stood on the stage, in confused silence until one of my parents mercifully reminded me ‘England sweetie’. The concept of attributing yourself to a group of people you had no personal relationship or connection with was understandably confusing. Being a fairly resolute child, I immediately dismissed all notions of being English, and christened myself international first, Cambodian second.

‘I’m an egg,’ I declared one day, many years later, at the age of sixteen. My friends looked at me with the amused confusion that would usually follow that kind of a comment, which presented itself unattached to present or previous conversation. ‘White on the outside, yellow on the inside.’ My explanation received a sea of smiles that come from that wonderful realisation of shared understanding.

An amazing thing about being an expatriate teen is that identity of being international. We are a mix of behaviours, languages and influences from both our passport country, overseas home and cultures of those around us, resulting in each person being completely unique - although a fairly common theme is being able to swear in multiple languages. We think and function completely differently from average teens in our ‘home country’, which makes camaraderie between expat kids and teens extremely strong and relating to teens back in passport countries difficult. But, as is with all things, you take the bad with the good, and it is common for expatriate children to be selfish and arrogant – we’re special and distinctive and are quite aware of that.

Because of this unique and often confusing identity, expat children and adolescents often have a hard time figuring out where they belong, this sometimes becoming quite a problem. I realised that the difference between this and being comfortable in an international community is just a matter of perception. During a conversation, a fellow expat teen presented the possibility that, being who we are, we don’t belong anywhere. After a few minutes of silence, he frowned and added ‘Actually, no; we belong everywhere’.

Muddled in with sunny memories of play dates in lush tropical gardens, bicycling down dusty side streets, having water fights with the neighbourhood boys and exploring hot sticky markets are moments like these that make me realise that, although far from perfect, my upbringing is something I should and will always be thankful for. Wherever the rest of my life takes me, I’ll bring with me these moments of clarity, my Cambodian roots and friends to visit all over the world.

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