We Are International Parents
Published on: June 10, 2020
Raising your children internationally brings about different questions of belonging and identity.
By Karin Hongsaton Zackari
We are international parents who have moved away from our home country. Many of us have very international families, with children born to parents of different origins. Some of us carry a sense of belonging not based on citizenship, but in our hearts and minds. What do we hand down to our children? Where do we want them to feel that they belong?
I am Swedish, my husband is Thai, and our first child was born in December 2015. We met in Australia but decided to live in Bangkok close to the paternal family. Our child is what they in Thai call luk kreung, ”a half-child”, or in Swedish “a mixed child”.
The term mixed is fairly out-dated with its reference to racial ideas. In Thailand, however, it is still common to refer to my child as half, no matter how whole he obviously is. The everyday slips of the tongue by strangers: “The nose is Thai, the hair is foreign.” The amused expressions we are met with when I say the father is Thai, so the child is Thai.
It makes me uneasy that his identity is partly determined by what others can only see with their eyes. My child’s looks – skin, hair, eyes, nose and mouth – is one challenge he as an international kid faces in growing up and trying to find an identity among friends and in society. It doesn’t matter that there are many ways to look foreign, different from Thai.
Living internationally, whether we understand the language or not, we know that people gossip about our ways: “They do it like that because they are from…” Either positive or negative, people have a need to determine what is familiar and distinguish it from the unfamiliar. Our kids, running around the block, of course sense this judging.
It worries me how he will handle this, once he understands what is said about him. At least as parents we hope to make the family a safe place, where the child is accepted just the way he/she is. Ideas about race are socially constructed and whatever is said to our children based on the colour of their skin doesn’t have to resonate within.
Moving abroad, international families have also made choices that grandparents, aunts, and uncles might not be too happy about. Many find that the older generation are afraid that their values and their language will be lost. We might try to assure them that we’ll pass it on but at the same time, our lives are obviously different and the culture of our birth country is not reflected in the life going on around us. We might not even be aware of what our culture is until we are confronted with other ways of doing things.
The thing with our children is that they exemplify what culture really is. It is a constantly evolving, lived experience that cannot be kept unchanged. We learn new things and we forget some old knowledge. Some things we’ve always been doing are simply not practical, so we adapt.
I see how my childhood friends marry someone from our hometown, and some even settle down in the house where they grew up. They raise their kids in a society and culture familiar to them and to the previous generations. Surely, their ways also change with time, but they experience those changes from within.
I will teach my child to respect what is important to grandparents here and in Sweden, and we will create ways that are important in our little family. One day he will follow his own heart and mind. Through school and encounters with other children and grown-ups, I hope he will learn to understand and respect differences. I don’t think we give our children a more unstable ground or a less solid belonging in life through our international lives. Instead, I hope we give our children a greater awareness of the wonderful diversity life has to offer, wherever they are, wherever they feel that they belong.
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash.
About the Author
Karin is a doctoral student in human rights and Programme Coordinator for the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University. She has two Thai-Swedish children aged 4 and 2.
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