Becoming an expat mum means facing many challenges that you never even considered before. In this series, I’m trying to gather good advice on these topics into clear guides that can help you navigate these issues.
Have you ever feared that your kids are not in tune with your birth culture? Do you wonder how you could nurture that connection so that they feel they share your culture as well as that of the host country?
We think about it often, and we have many cultures at home!
Here you’ll find a mind map of the five pillars of cultural connection.
Stay in touch with your family
This one may seem a bit obvious. But perhaps not for the right reasons.
Staying in touch with your family and having your kids talk and interact with them is vital since it feeds back with the linguistic aspect of culture. Your kids will identify your language to that of your family in your birth country and its associated culture. Plus, being able to communicate with their grandparents/aunts/cousins can be an excellent incentive to practice your language.
As an expat family, the most obvious means to stay in touch with your family is by videoconference. Many families have weekly or biweekly calls with the family through Apps like FaceTime, Skype or Google Hangouts. Skype and Google Hangouts have the advantage of being available across platforms (be it PC, Mac, Android or iOS) and allowing multiple people in each call (did I mention it’s free?). If you and your whole family are Apple users, then for quick bidirectional calls FaceTime does the trick very well. It comes in your device by default and you can catch each other on the go at any time, even for a quick “Hello!” to the grandpa and grandma.
For a thorough list of Apps that can help you stay in touch with your family, click here. All these methods allow for safe and controlled sharing of pictures, info and memories. However, many people still use social media for updating friends and family about their lives. A word of warning, though. Your profiles are public, and unless you are very careful and diligent concerning which data is public and which one is only shared with your friends (and how close those friends really are!), the pictures and videos of your kids could potentially be accessed pretty easily (think of their privacy and whether they gave you permission to post their cute bums online!).
Of course, nothing beats a good old visit to the family. I must admit that we always reserve some of our holidays to do the family tour (which involves a trip across half of Europe), normally around Christmas. They also come and visit throughout the year a few times, so our kids are in contact with our families roughly on a bi-monthly basis. Of course, the frequency will depend on how far away your families are. Take advantage of your visits to show your kids around your city and the places you grew up. It is an invaluable way of building a connection!
Use your mother tongue
Culture is intricately linked to language, and it would, therefore, be very difficult to immerse your kids in your culture if they’re unable to understand your language.
This is your number one resource when it comes to infusing your culture in your kids. It will shape their brains and their logical thinking and you can start effortlessly as soon as they’re born.
Granted, it takes a long time to see results, but this investment is worth the wait! When they grow, you will be able to share your culture’s art fully (be it literature, films, theatre, music…). They will also be able to interact with your family every time they come to visit or you go back to your birth country.
If you’re having a hard time being consistent and finding a language strategy that works for your family, take a look here!
Expose them to your culture
There is surely a wealth of cultural baggage from your birth country that you can transmit to your kids.
Just think of literature, movies and music alone! Think of what books you were read to when you were a kid, what movies you loved, the songs you sang when you were growing up. Your kids can be exposed to these on a regular basis.
We have a healthy variety of books, music and films in different languages at home. Our kids can choose what to watch/listen to and we strive for them to vary it regularly.
You can also contact your country’s embassy to find out if there are any cultural associations in your host country. Here in Switzerland, there are Italian and Spanish clubs where children can go on a weekly basis to practice the language and get some cultural background (and meet other kids with their same heritage!). Finding friends with common roots is an excellent way for children to build links to their heritage (especially for third culture kids who may have a hard time figuring out where they belong to!).
Some families also repatriate for a few years and then continue the expat journey. However, this works especially well if both parents come from the same country. An alternative is sending your kids to camps, language camps or even a whole school year in your home country. You’re expats! You know that spending time abroad is an unforgettable and life-changing experience. Why wouldn’t it be for an expat child to spend time “abroad” in their parent’s birth country?
Choose and follow your own cultural rituals
What are the first things that come to mind when you think about home?
Maybe it’s the way the sun gives everything a golden sheen. Or maybe it’s those cosy winter days looking the snow pile up out the window.
But I’d bet that one of the first things we all think about when we reminisce home is food.
And it’s a great thing to do to keep your culture alive at home! And you would be teaching your kids a very useful skill that will serve them for life. I know our lives are hectic and we don’t always have the time to cook elaborate meals, let alone doing it with a couple of messy little people jumping around the kitchen. However, it’d be great to save a few hours over the weekend, even if only a couple of times a month to prepare a proper “home-worthy” dinner. You can talk about how people prepare it back home, or maybe that there are some variations even within your own country.
Be on the lookout for local communities celebrating special occasions from your home country. The embassy would be a great place to start. Hey! We even have an Argentinian association here in Switzerland that organises “asados” (the best barbeques you’ve ever had) on a regular basis. Chances are there already is something going on around you.
Keep your home celebrations alive (those that you care about). I am not a big fan of how commercial every holiday has become, so I wouldn’t buy gifts or spend huge amounts of money just because it’s “mum’s day” (not to mention I get about 4 different mum’s days a year – one per country we’re related to). However, we do like to keep traditional activities or dishes when celebrating certain occasions. You choose which ones are important to you, and keep them alive. I do, however, like to fusion them with local ones. I like to think that expats have a great opportunity to take every little thing they liked about every country they’ve lived in and make their own special holidays!
Isn’t it great when you can sneak your own traditional thing even when you’re celebrating or at a dinner with people from different cultures than your own? Sharing your culture and learning what other people do instead is an enriching experience that can be very positive for kids.
Cultivate your child’s curiosity
If you go back and read the previous sections, you’ll see that there is a common thread: curiosity and open-mindedness.
Yes, cultivating your child’s curiosity is positive in every aspect, but it will also help discuss their culture background. Encourage and have free and open conversations about how your culture (or cultures) and that of the host country have points in common. Try to look at it from an integration standpoint rather than noticing what makes you different. This way you would be building bridges amongst many cultures and fostering inclusion and open-mindedness in your kid. Which is something this world is currently in dire need of.
If you do your homework and spur those little minds often enough, sometimes they may come to you with questions to which you don’t really know the answer. Don’t despair! Make it a learning exercise for both of you. Take the time to do some research and get to the bottom of the question and you both will end up knowing more about your roots and how they relate to the place your kids are growing up.
What do you think? Is it possible to keep a strong connection with your home culture at home while being open to integration and cultural fusion? What’s your experience?
Is there another question you’d like to see answered in this series?