Debunking the Myth that Global Citizenship is Privileged

By Wakanyi Hoffman

My 11 year old daughter and her father have just returned from a trip to England and Scotland to scout and feel out potential school options for her upcoming secondary school education. These are boarding schools, whose names are laced with prestige, privilege and elitism at their hems. They are situated in idyllic countryside settings that date back to the origin of the English empire, where English roses, daintily sculpted with nostalgic delicate fragrances, frame their manicured lawns against the views of the famed rolling hills. It is also where Harry-Potter’s Hogwarts-themed boarding houses have been graced by the footsteps of generations of royalty both current and old.

And yet we are not royalty. Or wealthy. Just an ordinary, millennial middle class-family that has chosen an  intentional nomadic lifestyle while working in the humanitarian sector. We consider ourselves global nomads, not distanced from my maternal Maasai grandfather, who hailed from Kenya’s famed pastoral tribe. If he were living in our modern world today, he would fit the mold of a true global citizen, solving today’s problems for future generations to come, having himself pioneered girls’ education in a remote village in colonial Africa as was dedicated in his eulogy more than four decades ago.

Given his status in society, my grandfather was an elite. He came from a wealthy family whose livestock could only be counted in herds of cows and goats and the expanse of his family land could not be marked by a spear thrown with the stamina of the greatest Maasai warrior, no matter how mighty. If these educational opportunities had been within his reach during his parenting times, he too would have similarly explored these schools for my mother. He was always well ahead of his time, a futurist who saw the impending new world and ensured that his vision was aligned with it, for himself and for his offspring.

However, his remaining relatives form the diminishing indigenous communities being threatened to extinction by our modern technology. They are neither wealthy nor educated. At least not in the way that the modern society would perceive wealth or education. Not in goats and cows or spiritual wisdom. They may never see the inside of a formal classroom in a Scottish castle. But their distant relation, my 11 year old, just might.

Like many other jet-setting expats, our chosen family lifestyle is considered elitist- such a relative description considering that it is the nature of our work that facilitates this lifestyle choice. But given that my daughter and her father were retracing the steps that the Duchess of Cambridge took in her preppy boarding house, we would fit the image of the elites of our world, a world that is completely the opposite of the Duchess and nowhere close to that of my ethnic warrior tribe.

Elitism, Prestige, Privilege- are all the terms we have used to describe the likes of the Duchess on a global arena, but not a Maasai warrior chief amongst villagers in colonial Africa.

As an expat family that is also intercultural and interracial, we are aware of the box into which our seemingly privileged Third Culture Kids, also known as TCKs, are thrown into. They are privately educated amongst top society’s privately educated, they live in the upper ends of the housing catchment area in different countries, thus by default, their friends are the elites of their society. This budding future generation of global citizens is largely unaware of the connotation of such words as privilege when they play together in the school’s playground.

For privilege, as advised by James Baldwin to Margo Jefferson- the best-selling author of Negroland, is provisional. In their revelatory conversation on power and privilege, Baldwin, a renowned social critic of America’s racial discourse explained further to Margo, an African-American and also a renown cultural critic, that ‘Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn.’ Thus privilege is somewhat a social misconstruction. Like the concept of power, it is a kind of goal that the human race is hard wired to achieve. In our modern world, we give it noble definitions such as enlightenment, but fail to see that those considered as enlightened- the revered leaders, priests and philosophers of our history also strangely live a privileged lifestyle. So why do we frown upon privilege as the mighty fall of the wealthy elite, if privilege is not necessarily measured in wealth?

Baldwin sheds the light upon this by explaining that it is entitlement that we should be against. Entitlement is the evil opposite of privilege that is ‘impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege.’ It divides rather than unifies and reduces the wealthiest to a despicable level. His advice, whether you feel privileged or not is that, you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. And if you happen to be at the top of the food chain, accept your social duty of elevating those steps below the same ladder that another above helped you climb.

I have struggled throughout our decade-long expatriate lifestyle to come to terms with what is readily within our reach. I have wined and dined with royalty in Nepal and the Philippines, lived in nice homes that are peculiarly always adjacent to a slum, like in Addis or in Nairobi, my current city- a constant reminder of the wealth gap. In Thailand I found myself attracting friends from the highest ranking members of the Thai royal family by default because their children and mine sat eating pad thai noodles in the same tables at their school lunch cafeteria. Unlike the out-of-pocket paying families high up on that social class ladder, the prestigious international school that my children attended was paid for by our employers. Once inside, the khaki school skorts and pants that our children wore unified and diminished their status and those of their royal friends to students. The teachers could not tell them apart and this was one of the draws for sending the wealthy kids to this particular school- that they were treated as ordinary. Outside of the equalizing school fence, our gross income was never revealed and we shopped for milk, cheese and cereal in the same organic shops, often times complaining about the prohibitive cost of feeding our children pesticide-free food.

I have had the same conversation with my housekeeper in Kenya, our current home, with whom I am divided by that road between my high income rental property and her low-income rental property. We complain about rent. All the time. We complain about school fees. All the time. It is all relative and it is all based on a commodity that we are all in perpetual search for- more cash to pay off our ever increasing bills. We are united in our middle class status. Hers in the slums, mine in the posh estate. A dirty river runs between the two.

When I explained to her how scared I was to send my daughter to a boarding school in the UK, she asked, “Do you have to pay for it?” I told her that she might get a scholarship. She looked at me, dead-pan faced and said, “But you know that the scholarship is a privilege you cannot buy, something she will have to earn.” There once again, she reminded me, without even knowing those words had been spoken by an individual far wiser and more intellectual than both of us combined that privilege IS provisional. It can be earned. And everyone has a right to earn it. It is when the privileged become entitled, demanding to be treated better than others because they are North and you are South, or they are rich and you are poor that then privilege becomes a divisive evil.

As a self-proclaimed global citizen, I have gained an increasing awareness of what both my privileged nomadic expat lifestyle and my limiting black African heritage present as my outward identity. The line that divides the two is where my provisional privilege is earned- where I am judged by who I am on the inside. It is where I place the axis that marks my human connection to another, that allows the other to grant me privilege to be a friend, a comrade who can occupy any amount of space in another person’s life. I am not entitled to that privilege and indeed I too grant it selectively.

The decision to grant another person access into your world is determined by your level of understanding of the other. Depending upon how your life’s journey interconnects with another’s, you can both mark E for Empathy where your paths intersect. For Empathy is what grants you freedom to understand that you are both equally privileged to have met, whether in a classroom inside a Scottish castle, or under an acacia tree in Africa’s vast savannah.

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If I was ever so unfortunate as to be forced to describe Kathmandu in one word, it would have to be “still”. In the midst of the chaos of daily life, the gaping beggars that decorate the streets, the rickshaws domineering Thamel, the market district, the gemstones kiosks lined along tourist terrain and our old house nestled smack in the midst of the mixture of city life-meets-would-be-suburb, a little oasis that appears from utter blues on a half acre plot, complete with pomegranate trees heavily pregnant with fruit begging to be picked, “still” is what comes to mind.

I think back to my first Nepali encounter. As the plane finally touched down on the dusty airport, I managed my way out onto an awaiting bus on the runway. On one arm was two carry-on bags. On the other was a toddler, 18 months old to be exact. She had impressively endured 17 straight hours from Dulles to Doha, and another 6 from Doha to Kathmandu. My belly rumbled with butterflies, anxious about this new unknown world that was to become my home for two solid years. When my husband confirmed that we would definitely be moving there, the most I had heard of Nepal was with the remote reference to Mt. Everest. Even then, I was unsure of the exact proximity of the world’s highest peak to this magical place. Google informed me that they were one and the same thing. I made a mental note to peak Everest but I never did. But I did trek up thousands of steps along the Anuparnas, circling the Himalayas with a 5 month baby in a baby Bjorn, taking nursing breaks with breathtaking views of the most magnificent mountains one can ever be as fortunate to see in a lifetime. Then waking up to the imposing sight of the mystical Machapuchre.

The butterflies filled my empty belly. An empty uterus, to be exact, for I had just lost our second baby to a miscarriage. I was still dealing with the after effects of the procedure that I had endured two days prior to boarding the plane with my toddler. My husband was waiting for us on the other side.

Nepal provided the stillness that I needed to get past that dark cloud of having lost a baby.

“Are you coming to visit?” Asked a kind, young, carefree backpacker.

“I’m here to stay.” Was my simple reply.

While I couldn’t say for certain what that meant- here to stay- it offered some strange sense of comfort, knowing that I was going “home”. This would be our first official expat posting as a family of three. Prior to this we had lived in Nairobi, Ohio and Maryland, but never in a country foreign to both my husband and I. Nepal provided an urgent new beginning.

With our few belongings and young marriage packed up in an air freight that would arrive just three short days after our touch down, I was excited to start a new life in a house that came fully furnished in someone else’s taste. A built-in tv cabinet on the wrong side of the living room meant modifying our set-up. A fireplace that let out more smoke than fire meant relying on gas heaters and hot water bottles as our main source of warmth during those harsh winter months, with the fireplace lit for pure aesthetics. It gave the illusion of a warm house, which, when my mother visited, she would ever dangerously close to the source of the smoke, keeping one side of her body warm while the other faced the cold living room.

Yet in spite of the hardship posting that it was, Kathmandu was the best place that we have ever lived in.

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Imagining a global village

It is tough to imagine, but I can still remember a time when I never owned a phone. Not a mobile phone, but a landline.

A few years ago, we took our then 7 year old daughter to a meeting with an accelerated learning specialist at her school in Thailand. She asked her a few questions, two of which were, if you were to go back in time, which period would that be, and if there was an old technological gadget you would like to learn how to use, what would it be? Our daughter answered the dinosaur era for the first question and an old-fashioned telephone with “the circle thing with the numbers in the middle that you have to turn around to dial”.  Apparently to her, the dinosaur age is at par with the usage of the oldfashioned corded telephones.

Still, I did not grow up with a phone in the house. There are no vivid childhood memories of sitting by the sofa waiting longingly for the phone to ring. Not because those were relic times in which I grew up but because a phone, a landline, was not a necessity. It was a toy that I marveled at and played with in my mother’s office on the rare chance that I found myself visiting her there. My mom worked all her life as the secretary to the Chief Medical Officer at the University of Nairobi’s Health Services. Her phone etiquate was something which to this day, I chuckle about. It is in the way she tends to speak in perfectly polished English to a stranger on the other end, belying her ethnicity as a postcolonial African senior citizen.

Whenever she would leave me in her seat unattended, I used to dial 1 and continue to speak, in my most intellectual and polished way to her boss. He would ask me simple stuff like my age, my name, the name of my school, my grade and whether or not I was working hard. I would jovially answer, “Of course!” to the last one, slightly offended that he would doubt my work ethic. Didn’t he see how hard my mom worked? Surely he must know that a product of such a hard-working woman was nothing short of earning ‘Most Hardworking Student’ title. Then my mom would show up and tap my little hand and proceed to apologize to her boss for my inappropriate behavior. He would always say that he didn’t mind. I didn’t mind it either. Infact I welcomed the audience very much. It was the opportunity to be listened to by a real and very important adult, for I held him high on that pedestal that is designated to enigmatic characters such as principles and priests, the sort one never imagines eating juicy mangoes with their bare hands with the pulp dripping down their arms (the way that I did as a child).

I am a mother now and my oldest three children play with my phone all the time. They also eat whole, peeled juicy mangoes in the messy way that I did as a child. My six year old often dials international numbers and speaks with her cousins, grandparents and friends scattered all over the world in the six countries that we have lived in as diplomatic expatriates. Like my mom did, I playfully tap her hands and hung up unapologetically. Because it costs a lot of money to call internationally from my cell phone. Then I turn on Skype and she talks for hours on end for free.

Imagine if Skype was a village gathered in a circle and every child from every homestead took turns to sit in the middle and recount an interesting, made up story.

What a fantastic fantasy. Both the child’s fairytale and the idea of a Skype village.

I get this feeling that we have complicated our little ones’ childhoods so much in a quest for smart parenting. I have certainly over-saturated my mind with facts and figures regarding the art of parenting our ikids.

Yet a nagging feeling tells me that the simple thing that our children crave the most is an audience with us. Human beings who can dedicate their time and space to listen to them speak. When they speak, they speak like all children do. They speak childishly from the heart. They speak with innocence. When they speak. If they speak.

I enjoy hanging around older parents to get a sneak peek into my fast-approaching future as a parent of an iteenager, hoping that in the next year or so, Snapchat will be totally uncool and Facebook will be an embarrassment to our igeneration. What I hear is always the same conclusion. Teenagers don’t speak to adults. They exist in another world with only a select few of their friends, if ever. A shocking number of them exist in other worlds inhabited by only themselves and the latest bot technology.

What we seem to forget is that we are so consumed with finding ways to give our children a better audience with the internet as our village, that perhaps we have actually exercerbated this teenage silence. Maybe he’ll speak Mandarin in 14 days if he uses this latest app, or maybe my toddler will memorize his times tables in 6 weeks if I pay for twice weekly Kumon lessons. But the honest truth is, we haven’t asked the children what they enjoy most from us.

The answer to this came in a rare revelation from my oldest son 4 years ago. It was the UN’s International Day of Teachers and if you went to the UNESCO website, you could pick a pretty post card in various languages to send to your teachers. He was only 5 years old and needed help typing. When I asked him what he wanted to say to the headmistress at his small British school in Thailand, he said, “Tell her that I like it when she joins us at playtime and listens to us.”

Imagine that!

He did not ask to thank her for allowing them to watch a movie on a school day when it was parent-teacher workshops, he did not ask to thank her for the brand new iPads that they are now allowed to use in their early years class. He asked me to thank her for using the most natural form of human interaction. Listening.

Now let’s ponder this incredulous idea.

Imagine if there was a global curfew on technology. That after dusk, all form of technological gadget shuts off automatically and we are all forced to speak to and listen to each other speak.

I believe that’s the world our children are imagining when allowed the rare occasion to daydream. If my five year old preschooler then, now a typical ipad-crazy third grader, could acknowledge feeling nice when an adult is listening to him, then some nonverbal communication is getting lost in the translation of our tech lingo.

My own house is home to all form of technology. Ipad, iPhones, blackberry, laptop, Mac desktop, tablet and an old-fashioned landline. Yet there is a standing rule. No technology is allowed until Friday night movie. This is the day that we make a fuss about by taking turns picking the family movie. We have had our fill with Disney shows and are slowly moving into more real-life films. This rule has held its ground since the birth of our first born more than a decade ago.

Our children interact with technology on a daily basis in their schools. Our 6 year old can effectively navigate a few educational apps downloaded for entertainment on that mommy-is-at-her-wits-end occasion. When they go to play dates, we know that they might play video games, maybe even ask for it but hope they ask to play outdoors instead. At home, technology occupies that back burner on our family stove. We dedicate the front large burner to stories, books, stories and more books.

We have attempted to recreate that lost village gathering at dusk, as the last sliver of light vanishes into pitch darkness, when the stories of the day, some invented, others relived, begin to take their form.

When the lights go off at bedtime, I sit on a bright pink and green polka dotted bean bag beside a fading night light under a staircase and begin to tell the children stories that I invent along the way. The children lay silent, the night remains still. So still that we can hear the creatures of the night. The squirrels scatter, the birds lay in silence, the nocturnal tree hyrax, a furry cuddle-ball hiding in a hole during the day, but a monster with a terrifying, murderous scream at night, all begin their nightly routines. When we lived in S.E Asia, we imagined the snakes and a monitor lizard or two, slithering about in our car park searching for their prey. Back in Kenya, we can hear the laughing hyenas inside the Ngong Forest that sets the backdrop of our backyard, or imagine hearing the silent preying footsteps of a svelte leopard, freshly escaped from the Nairobi National Park, a stone’s throw away from our newly rented home.

One by one an eyelid is shut. My children fall asleep in pitch darkness, just as I imagine they would, if we lived in a Maasai village, a mere hour drive from the shining lights of Nairobi’s bustling city life into the renown African wilderness, where stories like ours are recounted by children who may never know of a Skype village.

I imagine them all as one global village of storytellers.

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Who is the global child?

Oh, the places you’ll go! Dr. Seuss.

A friend and I were once discussing our parenting methods and how as expats we do not necessarily parent from one particular school of thought. Instead, we have assembled different practices from the various cultures that we have interacted with from our stints living in different countries. Along the way, we have perhaps abandoned some methods our own mothers would have sworn by and taken on new, unfamiliar methods that become familiar to us as we engage more with our given host countries.

Later, as I was having a discussion with my 10 year old daughter about who she sees herself as, in the world, I realized that the term expat is often used to classify  “long-term foreigners” of mostly large coorporations, foreign embassy employees or UN staff. Immigrants, migrants or refugees are classified differently even though as a whole, they all collectively fit into a small box within the bigger box of “locals”. In the whole grand scheme of things, didn’t we all migrate from somewhere? Aren’t we all expats?

It is a natural and typical human trait to want to label everything. The autistic child, the ADHD child, the Black, White, the Expat. Then there is the Repat. The expat who recently moved back to their country of origin.

My friend and I are both repats, living back in our home country. The word home, does not evoke the normal feeling of being settled physically in one place. It is not the country of birth that makes it feel like home. My friend said that Nairobi does not feel like home anymore…

“Possibly because it doesn’t look like it did ten years ago?” I suggested.

“No, that’s not it. It doesn’t even smell like home,” She explained.

We would continue to have these sorts of chats at the school’s parking lot after drop offs, spending hours marvelling, reminiscing and attempting to solve bigger world problems. Then something would trigger that memory of being back in Kenya. The smell of the earth before an imminent downpour would send us to our cars and back home, to the reality of the routines and chores of our daily life.

Ironically, the smell of a place gives that feeling of belonging. Of recognition. Of familiarity. Each time we leave Nairobi and go out of town on Safari or even just on a drive to the countryside, it smells familiar. Things have changed, but even when one does not know what they are looking for to feel at home, a simple scent can bring that feeling back.

My father-in-law equates the smell of burning acacia wood chips to the smell of Africa. He gets nostalgic, and has possibly considered smuggling pieces of acacia bark to America, for those moments when he wishes he could return. He can pick up the distinct smell at the airport. Yet a local cannot pick out the smell of an acacia tree in a forest of mixed indigenous trees, because home isn’t where the acacia trees smell. For a local, it is where the familiar exist, where the routine lies- the normal traffic route, the coca cola bill board, the oldest apartment building, the construction site, the sound of the local transportation. For a repat like myself, the familiarity isn’t attached to the physical, because my locality is never rooted in one geographical place for too long. It lies somewhere deeply connected to the senses- the particular smell of the Thai kaffir lime leaf (which doesn’t smell like that anywhere else in the world), the pungent aroma of Ethiopian cooking butter mixed with a whole lot of onions, the intoxicating incense burning along the street shops of Kathmandu (which permanently perfumes the entire country). Those smells, an expat can pick up.

An expat child therefore, isn’t a privileged kid whose mother continuously posts on Facebook, pictures of their sunny beach vacations from enviable exotic locations. It is any person who consciously interacts with their senses on a daily basis, who can identify the unseen, the scents, the memory that a certain change of weather brings, because these elements speak of a time in place, a personal journey, an attachment to a specific friendship formed in a certain place, a life-changing experience that altered the course of their family life, a continuous adjustment of cultural values and physical needs.

In order to parent a child whose home is identified by footprints scattered in bits and in places here and there, but not concentrated anywhere in particular, one must identify their child’s strongest sense.

The smell of hot sweat dripping on my daughter’s face during games at her new school in Nairobi is reminiscent of the excruciating  high temperatures endured during tennis lessons in her former school in Thailand. The sweat bears a new form. A memory of her past life, and evokes in her a longing for the people she knew there- the tennis coach, the class teachers, the friends, the housekeeper, the gardener. Suddenly sweat becomes a thing. A very special tangible thing.

To answer my question, my 10 year old replied, “I am a citizen of this world.” When I asked her to elaborate what that “world” means (because she hasn’t lived in all the countries in the world in order to fully relate to the whole, entire world), she gave me the most unexpected, sophisticated, profound answer that knocked the socks off my feet. In a simple analogy, she said,

“Imagine the world as  a big jigsaw puzzle with 7 billion pieces. I am one of those pieces. Without me, the world would be incomplete.”

The truth in that statement is a paradox. The children who are parented under the expat umbrella may not fit inside the local box of their host country, but they fit perfectly in the local box of the global world. They are global-locals. Similarly, the children parented within the local box of their home country are locals within the global-local world in which the expat kids exist.

A global child therefore, is every child that counts  as one of the 7 billion people who live on our planet. Whether rooted in one place, or globetrotting the world like a nomad. Each child counts as they are all on a similar journey of self-discovery, of finding themselves in the scents that permeate their daily life, in the differences that they find in others, which allow them opportunities to define themselves, in the colours that paint the canvases of their life’s backdrops. Among the 7 billion and beyond, they are all equal parts explorers, equal parts citizens of our world. Their physical locations are temporary spaces; a beginning of their footprints on the universe.

Dr. Seuss quote

Categories: Expat postings, Uncategorized

What it means to be a global parent

My oldest child once came home carrying a copy of Jane Cowen-Fletcher’s It Takes A Village, based on an African proverb. She was 8 and we were living in Bangkok, our sixth expat posting at the time. I told her that she must telepathically possess the thoughts in my mind because it has taken me a little global village, from Kenya to the US, to Nepal and to the Philippines, to Ethiopia, to Thailand, and back to Kenya again, to raise her and her two younger brothers and sister for the last decade. I could never have kept my sanity intact without the critical support system of fellow global moms. Mothers like me, strangers-turned-family, who have continually loved my children as their own.

If all mothers of the world were to come together, there would be world peace- Anonymous.

During my family’s short-term stay as residents of various foreign countries, my eyes have been opened up to worlds once unknown, cultures unheard of and languages once unspoken. Being black African, I have attracted curious stares in places where I am often the racial minority yet felt at home among strangers with whom we share our common humanness. My conclusion is this: If you took the seeds of a fig tree, transported them in the bellies of migrating birds, who scatter them in far-flung fields of the world, some would make it, others would not. Some would grow enormous and stately. Others would shrivel and stunt. Yet all would be descendants of the original fig tree. Like the seeds, all cultures are interwoven into the same fabric, not a singular thread strung like another, some short, some long, but all strings of the same cloth, for we are all human.

We are all evolving in our ability to seek physical nourishment, intellectual advancement and spirituality. What distinguishes one culture from another and enables certain cultures to advance faster than others lies in our ability to adapt to change. But change happens when we allow ourselves the space to explore and question our world critically and independently.

All things are easier to understand, once they have been discovered- Galileo Galilei.

We can teach our children to embrace change as a human condition by listening to their questioning little hearts and providing them honest answers which teach them tolerance to overcome stereotypes. We can tell them what was told to us about ourselves, about others and allow them to question our knowledges that might conflict with what they now know. We can use technology to teach them about the worlds that border their little bubbles and come together as global parents, united in the quest to spread a legacy of peaceful coexistence, with others and with nature itself.

Nearly 10 years ago when my husband announced that he would be taking a job in Kathmandu, my initial reaction was, “Where on the map is Kathmandu?” To which he responded, “Nepal…you know, where Mt. Everest is?”  As if that geographical fact alone was enough to convince me to move our then toddler and all our household goods from the US, where we had just recently relocated from my home country Kenya. When we told our family and friends that we were moving once again, there were mostly mixed reactions. All except from my mother.

“Where is Kathmandu?” She asked out of curiosity.

“The capital city of Nepal, where Mt. Everest is?” I replied back over a cracky long-distance call.

“You sound hesitant,” She instinctively picked up, her maternal senses on high alert.

“Well, I don’t actually know whether or not I want to move there,” I replied, echoing the mixed reactions of the majority of our friends and family.

No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be- Chuck Thompson.

“What do they eat in Nepal?” My mother asked.

Sensing my confusion, she explained further, “Well, I assume there are people who live in houses, their children go to school and they must have some spiritual beliefs, but what do they eat? Food is important,” She replied matter-of-factly.

According to my mother, if there was enough food to keep us alive, decent housing, access to basic education and friendly people to interact with who had a sense of spirituality, that was enough to survive a foreign land. By the time we left Kathmandu, I had learnt how to make ‘Dhaal bhat’ (lentils with rice) and ‘roti’, the traditional Nepali staple, which was similar to the ‘chapati’ (flat bread) and coconut bean soup that I had grown up eating. I also learnt to embrace Buddhism as a reflection of my inner consciousness, which ironically solidified the core principles on which my Christian upbringing were founded- compassion, empathy, love for all humanity and nature. The same exact values that I was teaching my children were being lived and breathed by their budding Nepali yogis.

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home- James Michener.

“Go to Nepal, eat as a Nepali, learn the language too. That might be helpful, but don’t stress out.” My mother simplified our transcontinental move.

She was raised by a Maasai warrior, set in traditional African values, yet knowledgeable in the dynamism of culture. Unbeknownst to him, my grandfather embodied the traits of a global parent, navigating the current status quo with eyes set on an unknown future world. When others sold their daughters off for cows and goats and land in dowry, my grandfather sent all his girls to school in colonial Africa, because he saw education as a liberating ticket to an emergent world where gender parity would inevitably become the ticket to a free, fair and thriving economy.

“Those girls of yours will be too clever and turn to prostitution when they can’t find decent men to marry them!” Cried the villager elders, their customary bejewelled ear lobes dangling furiously at their disapproval as they gathered around the homestead.

But my grandfather, known for direct, few words retorted, “Don’t invite me to your dowry parties when you sell your girls.” As the story goes, he vanished off into the forest for days, spear and water gourd in hand, as he always did whenever he inched closer on the boundaries that separated the old generation from the young.

He would often stand up, not in rebellion, but in questioning the current belief system because he understood something profoundly liberating. The difference between tradition and modern culture. Tradition being the unquestioned right from wrong, the static values that mold a character, while modern culture is a dynamic set of values that change with the times and spaces of current trends and needs. To know where the axis lies between the two is to be gifted the freedom from mental slavery.

Having instilled a growth mindset in his children, my mother grew up approaching life as a political analyst would, navigating in and out of familiar and unfamiliar events with theories and concepts that challenged the social norms. This upbringing has enabled us, the five children that she raised, cope with life’s perpetual changes by allowing us to follow our callings, our destinies tied to lands far from each other. My mother, aged 67, now tops the charts as one of the world’s best traveled ‘cucu’ (grandmother). Even in retirement, she’s still pushing boundaries. Last year, on a visit to see her American grand-children in North America, she took a leap of faith and enrolled in a nursing course.

“I passed with flying colours!” She told me over another long-distance call. She also learnt how to drive on the left-hand side along with being a certified nursing aide. With a valid driving license in Massachusetts, she is prepared for a second career and a new life in a new country.

As long as you are free to move and to express yourself, your mind is also open to new learning and thinking- I can hear her echoing my grandfather’s wisdom.

One of UNESCO’s definition of illiteracy is the inability to express oneself. One can learn formal reading and writing, but to express oneself happens in that informal space called home. As global parents, we must begin to allow our children to tell us their stories by first understanding what they know and then providing them with the knowledge that we have. Our traditional values will have space in their future but to impose our present cultural practices, based on needs that are irrelevant to future times is to limit their ability to progress independently.

Storytelling is a powerful tool that is at our disposal that lies at the core of all of us. Everybody has a story to tell and it is in storytelling that learning happens. Everything that we are taught, formally or informally, begins as a story. While schools provide spaces for formal education, the root of all that learning is grounded in the knowledge that has been passed down simply as stories, at home.

Home is where your story begins

That’s what is imprinted on a rusty metal clock that I bought in a busy night market in Bangkok. It wrapped up our expat experience there with the stunning realization that our family story had, for a decade, been centered around time differences. Stories were shared across time zones with grandparents, cousins and friends around the world. Stories were shared with other expat families.These stories transverse time and space. They become stories of our shared global home. In these stories lies our ability to increase our critical knowledge of others by tolerating varying opinions.

While my family has had the privilege of travel and of physically interacting with people from countries different from ours, this isn’t the only way to gain critical knowledge about the world. Internet search engines and social media have made that really easy. The greatest inhibitor we have lies in our inability to question what we were taught as children of a different generation. We cannot rise above stereotypes, prejudice, racism, gender inequality, post-colonialism and all other forms of social injustice if we are incapable of asking questions and genuinely seeking answers with hearts open to a peaceful coexistence.

The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only life you have- Anna Quindlen.

As global parents, we must first possess an ability to distinguish between what we know to be absolutely true and what we practice as convenient truth that helps us navigate our current world. We then must take a critical part in our children’s journey of knowledge-seeking and understanding of the greater world by recognizing that traditional values like the Ten Commandments of Christianity or Islam, the 10 commandments of Sanatana Dharma in Hinduism, the Hebrew version- Aseret Hadiberot or the 10 principles of Bhuddism exist as guiding principles of humanity’s journey towards a Oneness on this planet and it is our duty to teach this understanding to our children. However, our cultural values are ever-changing and dependent on current needs. A global parent must know the difference in order to embrace freedom of expression as a unifying catalyst of peace and not as a weapon to be used to destroy others.

With an unbiased, critical knowledge of others, global parents can halt the wheels of prejudice. We can mold our children into the peaceful, resilient, tolerant, global citizens we wish them to become, by telling them the stories that matter. Stories about our shared values and historical past, which form the backbone of humanity’s resilient survival over millions of years on earth. These stories live in all of us- shared around fireplaces in some cultures, under a tree in others, online and in books.

Every time I witness a preschooler begin to reader, I am amazed by how quickly they grasp the idea of spelling and the joy of being able to write their own stories. There is something electrifying about the moment your child reads a full sentence. It opens up a brand new way of experiencing life. All of a sudden, they can see the world that you see, without speaking of it. Bill boards become stories, car license plates roar about in meaning. Conversations about a bigger world begin to take shape. But therein lies danger when the power to interpret what they can merely read is in the hands of closed-minded adults, the ones who base their understanding of others on stereotypes that were passed down as stories in their own childhood homes. The ones whose status updates on social media feeds are laced with inappropriate innuendo about the ‘other’.

Yet it’s not difficult to cultivate the seed of critical thinking. At the click of a button, you can gain insight into the lives of others far from your time zone and virtually transport yourself into their space. Pretend that you are an expat living in your country of choice and begin to explore the local scene. Find out what they eat, where they live, learn the native language. Gather new knowledge there and take it back home, to your children, to your community. To your online forums. Question what you thought you knew.

Most expat parents will agree that by being uprooted from our comfort zones, we gravitate towards each other, coming together in spite of our language barriers, speaking the same body language that defies all the set stereotypes of our backgrounds because it is human nature to care. Our instincts are suddenly tuned to love another person’s child just as much as we love our own children because we are in this global parenting gig together. We rally behind other expat kids ready to take in someone else’s child as our own, no questions asked.

I love these little people, and it is not a slight thing when they who are so fresh from God love us- Charles Dickens.

To the expat moms mothering from country to country, the question isn’t ever where you are from but whether or not the door to your heart is open. We do not regard geographical backgrounds or cultural differences as indicators of our strength as mothers, but instead share a global motherhood sorority whose door sign reads, mi casa es su casa, which we loosely translate into, my home is your home; your children, my children.

These children, a vibrant patchwork of cultures, colours and languages, become the first generation of storytellers of a new global cultural narrative, genuinely interested in hearing each other’s stories because the desire to connect is instinctive. Without biased adults steering them in different directions on the socioeconomic, cultural or racial divide, children gain an acceptance of others based on their similarities and not their differences.

Global parenting has the power to provide those spaces where these connections can occur naturally. It is our obligation, whether connected geographically or virtually through social media spaces, to share with our children the stories that unite us. Once barriers have been broken and bridges have been formed, stories of our interconnectedness begin to unfold.

It takes a global village to raise a global child- Wakanyi Hoffman.

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