Our son turned 7 a few weeks ago! This was his 2nd birthday celebrated in Nepal. 2 years to a 7 year old is a loooong time. There have been lots of changes in the two years; lost teeth, 4 shoe sizes and almost a foot of height. I recently showed him a picture of his best friend Levi from back home (who also grew a foot taller) and he didn’t recognize him. Heartbreakingly, the memories of the U.S. are fading for him, but some memories and impressions remain.
Ex-pat living is different for him than it is for his 3 year old sister who remembers nothing but Nepal. Though he may be forgetting people and places, he was culturally stamped as a westerner in his attitudes and impressions, long before we left America. He is still in, what I call the ‘super hero’ stage of life where everything is split into good and bad, right and wrong. It is interesting to see cultural observation and adjustment in a child who hasn’t yet learned the art of contemplation and the inner monolog. All his feelings about people, places, everything just flow out unchecked, and has led to some interesting comments and conversations about poverty, government, environment, race and culture. He hasn’t learned to be embarrassed by his fear of difference like we adults have, and it is expressed in his super hero, good and bad dichotomy. He remembers large, paved streets and clean sidewalks in the U.S. and is exasperated by the tiny, crumbling roads and littered paths in Nepal. Good and bad. He remembers big bath tubs and flush toilets and turns up his nose at wash pails and squatty pottys. Right and wrong.
As adults, Dave and I have some logical frame work to place these cultural distinctions on, and we also know how to cover up when we are straight up uncomfortable about cultural. Actually, we both have university degrees in cultural studies, so heck, we really have no excuse for being squeamish with squatty pottys. Our son has none of that. He is getting a crash course cultural sensitivity and unfortunately, the BA degree aside, I am the imperfect teacher leading him in that.
Nepali children play more actively and physically than my puzzle working, lego building western child and this leads to some culturally confusing interactions;
He has come home crying a toy is broken because the Nepali kids didn’t play with it properly. I’ve had to explain that a different way to play with things is ok and can sometimes be fun and creative. But I really want to tell him not bring his toys out to play because those kids don’t take care of things.
He has tried to invite them to play in one of his elaborate imagined make believe worlds, but they don’t understand this type of play and want to watch television instead. I tell him Robot World (or whatever it happens to be that day) is amazing, but maybe instead he can watch some TV with his friends. But I really want to tell him he doesn’t have to play with those boring kids if he doesn’t want to and should tell them to go home.
He wants to play on the cricket pitch with the neighborhood group of boys, but can’t always catch the gist of the game in the rapid fire Nepali slang. He wants in on the soccer game, but finds they won’t pass and sometimes he simply doesn’t get included or told to go away. I tell him to keep trying and the more he practices the better he will get, but I stand there with tears in my eyes wishing it wasn’t so hard for him.
I know there are mean kids in any culture and some of this is simply growing up and learning how a society works and how to fit in. But arguably there is some difference in maneuvering the social scene in a society that isn’t yours. I’ve prayed that despite my own inefficiencies, my children would each get something special out of our time in Nepal. I hope they remember Nepal as a wonderful place and the people of Nepal as wonderful people. I hope Nepal will leave an impression that might have a lasting effect for their adult lives and how they see the world. Maybe for our son it will be, what it feels like to be different. What it feels like when your hair and skin don’t match everyone around you. What it is like to be excluded from a game when you don’t know the rules and when you don’t know the words. Perhaps because of his experience here, he won’t be afraid of different. Perhaps he will know the importance of embracing difference, and being a friend to different and reaching out to people who don’t fit in, and don’t do things the same way, and don’t match everyone else. People like him.