Year Two: An Epic Education Cultural Identity Update

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Fi & Jamie in Krabi Hot Spring 2 — Cultural Identity — An Epic EducationWhen we first set out on this adventure in September, 2013, one of the biggest questions I asked myself was how a life of travel would affect my children’s cultural identity, and possibly my own.

I’m an American who hasn’t lived in America since 1997, and my kids were born and raised in Tokyo. Their only experience in America thus far is being spoiled by their grandparents in Atlanta.

Tokyo is an incredibly dynamic and cosmopolitan city, and an amazing place to raise kids. I loved it so much that I wrote a book about it, and we miss it sometimes. However, I wanted their worldview to expand, and this desire helped propel me toward figuring out remote working and getting our family on the road.

How would a peripatetic life affect cultural identity? Here are a few observations after 16 months.

A Higher Tolerance for Difference

Fi at Penang Performing Arts Center — Cultural Identity — An Epic Education“Different” isn’t better or worse — it’s just different. You’ve heard people say it, but it’s a completely different thing to witness those words sink in — with my kids, and often with myself.

Our kids weren’t skittish xenophobes when we left Japan, but sometimes difference made them uncomfortable. When you meet someone from a different culture or background, has it ever thrown you off? What do you talk about? What can you ask them? These were concerns.

Fi at Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Waterfall Temple, Penang — Cultural Identity — An Epic EducationWhile living in Japan, we lived in working-class neighborhoods full of kind and generous people who didn’t look beyond their borders very much — country and city borders, yes, but often neighborhood borders, as well.

Talk of international news, events or customs was not met with scorn, but rather genial befuddlement. Most people had nothing to add, and were either uninterested in learning more, or afraid to appear ignorant by asking questions.

Japan has a reputation for conformity, and not without merit, but you can see these same attitudes in the United States, Europe, or any other country you can think of.

I’m no grand thinker, but I start to go nuts when every conversation centers on something (or someone) situated within ten kilometers of where I’m standing.

Please understand that I’m writing in HUGE generalizations here — and that there are countless creative, adventurous and inquisitive people in Japan — but I felt that if I wanted my kids to learn diversity and inclusiveness, some of it needed to happen beyond Japanese borders, and it needed to start sooner than later.

Jamie portrait — Cultural Identity — An Epic EducationThe results? Both kids are much more comfortable with difference. Our present home base in Penang, Malaysia is a pretty diverse place, populated by Malay (often Muslim), Chinese (often Buddhist), Indian/Sri Lankan (often Hindu, Jain or Sikh) cultures living peacefully with Christians and the non-religious of numerous races and nationalities.

Then there are the expats from Europe, the tourists and businessmen from the Middle East, and the immigrants from Thailand, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian neighbors. Experiencing all this outside the homogeny of your hometown (whether that be in Japan, Jamaica or Jackson, Mississippi — does something to your psyche that I believe reaps enormous benefits.

Painting lesson in Bali — Cultural Identity — An Epic EducationFor example: a few years ago in Japan, we bumped into my Nigerian friend Sonny, a huge, gregarious guy with a booming voice and a personality even larger than his 6’5”, probably 250-pound body.

Both kids recoiled from him then — he was so big, loud and “foreign” to them compared to Japanese people. They could barely meet his eyes then, but if that meeting happened today, they would walk right up and give him the high-five he would certainly go for.

More Ease With (and Empathy for) Being the Outsider

Jamie and the Penang Panthers — Cultural Identity — An Epic EducationHere in Penang, our boy plays on a soccer team with all local kids. Our girl went to a week-long theater workshop with all Malay kids of Chinese and Sri-Lankan descent. Similar things happened when we lived in Taiwan and Thailand, as well.

In other words, they’ve been the outsider for a while. This wasn’t completely new for them, however. In Japan, both kids were often referred to as “ハーフ,”  or “half,” a common term for people with one non-Japanese parent.

They would always be considered a semi-outsider in their home country, but the boy had struggled to become an insider during those first few years of elementary school. The struggle was painful to watch (no teasing or bullying, just a desire to be like everyone else).

Now, however, he is much more comfortable with who he is. He is not Japanese or American or third-culture kid or whatever label you care to put on him. He is HIMSELF, and that’s more than enough.

Jamie and the Penang Panthers 2 — Cultural Identity — An Epic EducationI’m not saying that it’s been all happiness and contentment. The concepts of Cultural Identity, and of identity in general, are things that many people grapple with their entire lives.

My boy has an interesting path ahead of him — something that merits more words than I can put here — but experiencing what it’s like to really be on the outside, looking in, has been a valuable lesson.

Our girl isn’t mentioned here, as she hasn’t struggled with this as much — possibly because we left the comfortable womb of Japan earlier in her life, but it’s been astounding to watch how they both adapt to their social surroundings.

The Language Shift

Fi & Book portrait — Cultural Identity — An Epic EducationWhen we started this trip, both kids spoke, wrote and read in Japanese just like any kid their age in Tokyo would. Their English, however, lagged far, far behind. You might not notice if you spoke to them, but if you saw their writing, or handed them an English-language book, it was obvious.

Jamie reading — Cultural Identity — An Epic EducationNot anymore. They’ve both completely caught up in the reading and comprehension department. We spent the last year poring over the Percy Jackson series, and then the myths and tales that inspired them.

We have made weekly visits to the library at a nearby international school to find books that match their interests. This transition to English took about two seconds for our girl, who is a big reader and a vocabulary-retention machine.

For the boy, it took longer. For one, he wants run, not read — he’s athletic-minded, and his brain is on the field (he plays with three soccer groups here — originally four, but there was too much overlap).

I wasn’t an athlete growing up, but I wasn’t that into books, either. In fact, I’ve never been a voracious reader, I’m ashamed to say. I read all the time, but only in 15-minute bursts, which means novels are often left unfinished, losing out to links, Wired articles and profiles in the New Yorker.

There may be a biochemical explanation for this, but my boy is the same way…or so it seemed until we found the 39 Clues series of books, which he now tears through unabashedly for hours.

Both kids’s writing skills are still in need of (a lot of) work, but on the bright side, it went from several grade-levels below level to maybe one. I’m working on it. Journaling and programs like Time4Learning play a role, as well.

The result of all this time abroad and copious cultural consumption (we now watch much more Western TV & movies) is that the kids’ Japanese proficiency is dropping.

Only a little for the boy — probably because he still prefers to speak in Japanese — but quite quickly and profoundly for the girl, who has struggled a few times to keep up with Skype calls with relatives back in Japan.

Some would say that one language spills out when you stuff another one in, but that’s the wrong analogy. Nothing has spilled out. Rather, it’s simply burrowed into a less accessible place. Keiko will work on extracting it in 2015.

Cultural Attitudes and Expectations

Looking for dinner in KL — Cultural Identity — An Epic EducationBoth kids still think Japan is the best in most things — the food, the life we led there, etc. — and they still have pleasant (and sometimes bittersweet) feelings of 懐かしい (closest translation is “nostalgia”) whenever we encounter elements of Japanese life and culture.

Many people feel like this for the place they know best, and I’m ok with that, but stepping outside the cultural bubble has given them a perspective that they probably wouldn’t have discovered if we stayed in the same Tokyo apartment until they graduated high school.

Game time in KL — Cultural Identity — An Epic EducationOn the other hand, I have found myself clinging to certain Japanese cultural traits more than I expected to. Of course I’m used to a shoes-off household, and can’t imagine going back.

I also prefer the Japanese custom of showering at night: the idea of laying on my bed still covered in the day’s sweat and grime is incredibly unappealing. But more than that, I still find myself comparing certain cultural norms to Japan, and it really needs to stop.

For example, Japanese service is renowned the world over, but I shouldn’t expect to be treated the same in a shop or restaurant in Penang, Atlanta or anywhere else.

I don’t expect it, actually, and yet my eye starts to twitch with irritation when some clerk at an electronics shop brushes me off, or when a contractor comes to fix our apartment wall and leaves a huge mess. I’ll work on adjusting my expectations more this year, because every place we travel does things differently than the last.

How has travel or moving to a different place affected your cultural identity? Or someone you know?

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