My daughter’s first best friend in Vietnam, a cheerful girl from South Korea, moved a year ago –to Paris. C’est la vie. That same week, my older boy said goodbye to one of his fellow American buddies, who was heading with his family for a year in Washington D.C., prepping for an embassy posting in Mexico City. Now my boy’s Austrian pal is moving to New York.
So it goes for expat kids, especially in June, a season of goodbyes. In Hanoi the lotus ponds are lush with green and the sweltering weather produces brilliant sunsets – a nice cinematic touch for the close of the school year and a series of farewell parties. Nomadic expat families – affiliated with governments, with international organizations for the UN or World Bank, with assorted NGOs, with multinational corporations – gear up for the next adventure.
We aren’t moving on – not for awhile. We’ll take the usual summer sojourn to Southern California to visit my mom, ba noi, and my wife’s folks, ba ngoai and ong ngoai. The kids will be spoiled by their grandparents, aunts and uncles – We’re going to Disneyland! They’ll hit the beach and have a blast and then complain as we board the plane about having to come back to Hanoi, still unsure how long it will be “home.”
“I want to go see ba noi,” our three-year-old sometimes says as we ride in a taxi, as if we could drive there. It warms my heart, and ba noi’s, that he thinks of her months after his last visit. Does it somehow feel like “home” to him?
We don’t know how long Hanoi will be “home.” I wonder whether my children will ever think of a certain place as truly “home,” and how much that matters. We pay the mortgage on a house in California but I doubt we’ll ever live there again. November will mark three years in Vietnam, and it isn’t hard to imagine another three, four or more years. The uncertainty is unsettling. Someday I suspect we’ll want to return to the U.S. permanently. Or perhaps we’ll morph into the kind of expat family that embraces the nomadic life, moving from one “posting” or “contract” to the next. I’m sure I’ll never feel truly “at home” abroad – but perhaps my children will.
Until I fell for a young woman who was born in Saigon and moved to the U.S. later, I’d had a rather provincial life. I was living in Los Angeles, just a 45 minute drive from my boyhood home, the one my parents bought brand new a few years before I was born. My widowed mother still lives there; now I use Skype to dial the phone number I memorized at age 4.
Stability, I think, was what my parents had in mind when they bought the home as a young military family with one child, with two more to come. My father was a non-commissioned officer in the Marine Corps who in the late 1930s served at the U.S. Embassy and consulates in China, and later survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and the battle for Okinawa. While he was busy defeating the Japanese, his future bride was, at age 17, working in a military office in Washington D.C., typing form letters to the survivors of fallen soldiers. After the Second World War, my parents saw in that sunny suburb a kind of promised land – a fine place to raise a family. My sister, brother, and I attended the same public schools and graduated from the same state university, just a short drive away. It was a very provincial upbringing that, for me, led to a provincial life – until a few years ago.
My bride’s family, meanwhile, endured the upheaval of warfare. Now as a middle-aged man with three children, ages 12, 9 and 3, I can’t help but contrast my kids’ upbringing with my own. It is my wife’s career that has enabled us to join the expat brigade, and for me to freelance. The tradeoffs, I tell myself, are worth it. We are trying to make the most of it.
Back home, we could not afford luxuries like live-in household help, or extra tutoring in music or Vietnamese. Back home, we could not afford private schools, but would settle on overcrowded public schools. Back home, our travels would be rare – and mostly by minivan. Here, we are able to show our children a wider world – to travel within Vietnam and other lands, with much still on the “to-do” list. It is a rarefied, privileged existence.
So I wonder: Will the kids appreciate how fortunate they are? Or will it spoil them rotten? And what will “home” mean to them?