Since we have been in the USA, many people have asked us how our kids have adjusted to life overseas. It's not a simple question to answer and it's something I've been thinking on a lot as I watch my kids interact with surprising ease within their first language and American culture here. Before we left for Indonesia many people were concerned that we were taking our kids overseas, but on the other hand lots of people essentially said, "Oh it's good to move when they're this age, they'll just adjust and absorb the language and it will all be no problem."
I think every kid, family, and destination is different, so there is no one rule for how little kids react to a cross-cultural move. All I know is what it's been like for my kids, and that is that it has not been an easy, simple journey. We have been there long enough that they hardly remember any other life, but still they are on a journey of entering a foreign culture, the same as we are. This week as I backed up my computer I showed my kids the video clips I was sorting through. Judah and Elly were delighted by the videos of their room, playing around our house in Manokwari, and play time with their neighbor friends. On the other hand, photos and videos from the very community events that Isaac and I have found most exciting and the greatest opportunities for building friendships brought comments from Judah like, "I don't like that, I don't want to go there again, those aren't my friends."
The first weeks of transition are chaos for everyone, highs and lows, lots of new things, fun and anxiety. Beyond the first weeks is what is both easier and harder. The kids settle into a routine and a space of their own and we all move past the chaos of the "beginnings". The new place begins to become home. It's also harder in some ways, though, because you start to expect normalcy and yet my kids still, after nearly two years in the country and 10 months here in Papua, are in the process of adjusting culturally.
In our particular context, my kids are entering a place with a different culture, different language, and different ethnicity (meaning, they stick out like a sore thumb and always will because of their light skin). They haven't "just absorbed" the language. They continue to learn, but it is a process for them just as it is for us, and frequently they don't understand and that can cause frustration. Much about entering a new culture is fun, and such a privilege to expose our kids to. Papua is beautiful and it's so great to have my kids love the local food, playing in the "jungle" and the beach, and absorbing local practices. One of the highlights of my whole year was Judah's fun friendship with his buddy Willem.
The toughest thing, though, is that because my kids are Caucasian and their blue eyes and light skin are so different than everyone else, ALL attention goes to them when we enter a room. Often people immediately come up to shake their hands, try to pick them up, take pictures of them or with them, etc. It's pretty understandable when you think of how unusual my kids are, but when it happens every time they go anywhere in public every single day, the cumulative effect on my kids is that they push away from local interaction. They are overwhelmed by attention, so they pull away, are resistant, and can appear rude. Eventually it got so that when I stopped to talk to people, if we were anywhere within reach of home, Judah would literally run home alone to get away.
For us, the journey over the past year has partly been learning to go at our kids' pace. I had understand that my ability to interact in the local culture would be more limited than I expected while I shepherded my kids' adjustment. We wrestle with what to expect and how to guide our kids. We try to require politeness and kindness, but to understand how overwhelming our kids can find it to be out of the house and interacting in the local culture. I picked a few weekly activities that were structured and consistent so that the kids would get to know those same people and how things would go at that event. Over time they slowly settle in, stop being resistant, and begin to interact with people. At home they could play freely with neighbors with such delight and joy, and in that way began to pick up language and perceive Papuans and Indonesians as friends. The first time Judah took Elly's hand and led her off to Sunday school without me was SUCH a day of celebration for me.
Most people locally don't understand why my kids are reserved because they don't know what's like to be new and receive constant attention. On the opposite extreme, many other parents of third-culture kids around the world just don't really expect their kids to interact with local culture. Kids go to international schools and are involved in the expatriate culture but don't become a part of the local culture. I hope and pray for more than that. I pray that over time my kids are fluent in Indonesian (more so than I ever was as a kid), that they have real friendships despite being from a different culture, and that the local culture becomes a part of them. I hope for this, but I want to hold it with an open hand. I understand that my kids have to make their own way and that this cross-cultural life is such a privilege but also sometimes overwhelming and really tough for them.
In the end, my kids will always be foreigners, but it is my prayer that they are foreigners who know and love the local culture of Manokwari. We'd love it if you'd pray with us that our kids would continue to absorb Indonesian, would develop close friendships with Papuans, and would increasingly be at ease and at home in Manokwari. Pray for wisdom for us as we love our kids, try to understand what they are going through, and shepherd them through the hard things.