Looking back on my life, I have discovered that, as you grow up in different countries during your childhood, different people play a particular role in your life that can be of unexpected importance. While you interact with them, you do not know the impact they will prove to have had on your life until later. And you don’t really know who it is who will have it, either.
When I was a young child, we lived in the Netherlands. It was, without a doubt, the happiest time of my childhood and presumably the reason I returned when I was older. It was also during a period that apparently is important for how you start to define yourself. If I ever doubt the value of nurture, on top of nature, all I have to do is think back to that period to recognize how it laid the basis for how I stand in life today.
We moved here when I was five years old. I was the youngest of five and very much looked up to my two older sisters (the others had not moved here with us) as they made their way through puberty, friends, hockey, mopeds, parties… oh yes, and school, occasionally. I met a lot of their friends and some of them I liked more than others – and it was these friends who, in retrospect, proved quite central to my idea of who I wanted to become.
We left the Netherlands when I was ten and most of them I never saw again. Every now and then, however, one of their paths crosses mine and I feel an immediate sense of homecoming and recognition – of them as well as of myself. These people attach the same value to the same things. They have the same sense of humor. I don’t have to explain myself; all we need is half a word and we have an understanding. They had that same teacher / neighbor / family friend – the good one and the bad one. They lived in a world I once lived in. It is like stepping into a warm bath.
I want to celebrate those key persons who help you become the person you are as you ride your white-water raft through expat life
This is something that expat parents often forget. They say that children are flexible, that they adapt and that they move on. And expat children do, of course. Only, their process of forming who they are is interrupted. The path they were on becomes diverted. Out of necessity, they inevitably become someone else. In order to survive in their new environment, they have to change their colors – like a chameleon. I remember how I had to discard my entire concept of what my life was going to be like and who I was going to be. I can still see myself looking at my reflection in the mirror in our new home and realizing that the person I thought I was going to become had no place in this new life.
Of course, this is how you grow and become the adult you eventually are. But it is only as an adult that you can be philosophical about it and see it in this light. All I knew was that the occasional earthquakes that took place in our new home country – that were big enough to be reported on across the globe – were nothing compared to what I sometimes felt on the inside. And then again, four years later, when we moved to yet another country.
While I hold on to the hope that expat parents keep this in mind as they move their children from country to country, I am really writing this to celebrate those key persons who – directly or indirectly, with small gestures or big gestures – help you become the person you are as you ride your white-water raft through expat life.
As I mentioned earlier, every now and then, your path crosses that of one of those key persons and you remember – in a way that resonates within your soul – who you once were. And you suddenly realize that that little ten-year-old girl is still inside you somewhere. You didn’t lose her; in fact, she is still part of who you are now. Being with this person from your past allows you to look into a mirror that was not available to you earlier, and to rediscover an essential part of who you are. It is these chance encounters as you go through life that allow you become whole again. And that allow you to come home, within yourself.