Thursday, November 8, 2007

What's this expat life like for our children?

Living in Cambodia, far away from family and close friends, can play havoc with my emotions. There are days when I question what the hell we are doing here and scour the internet for last minute deals on flights back home. I complain so much you would think I was in exile, rather than on a chosen adventure. Other days I just feel thankful for all the opportunities this exciting life gives us. Either way, I wonder whether it is the right thing for our children. Usually I am confident that it is.
Today was a good day. As Jemima, Arabella and I were coming home from a friend’s house in a tuk-tuk, I felt totally happy and at home. Dusk is my favourite time of day in Phnom Penh. I am always surprised at how huge and dramatic the sun looks as it sinks down behind roof tops, leaking red and orange all over the sky. The streets were full of people going home on their motos, smiling and waving at us. Colourful wedding canopies were being setup on the pavement outside houses.

“Did you enjoy today?” I asked Jemima, knowing that she would say yes. We had been with her best friend Sofia, whose mother Anya teaches yoga for kids. She had taken us on a journey to the beach, where we played with dolphins, swam like jelly fish, sea horses and octopus and scuttled like crabs. Jemima loved it. I am sure I could find a kid’s yoga class in Hampshire too but I doubt I could afford it.

“We’re going away this weekend and so I will never, ever, ever see Sofia again!” she announced.

“Yes you will, darling! We are only going to the beach. You’ll see her at school on Monday.”

Although she seemed entirely unmoved by her statement, I was taken aback. She has been talking about ‘home’ a lot lately.

Yesterday she wanted to go to England to see her cousins and live in her ‘other house’. And this morning, as she packed a small bag and put her doll in her buggy, she explained, quite matter of fact:

“I’m going home. Good bye, Mummy, give me a hug, I’m leaving now.”

“You are home already, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m going to my other home. The great big home with a swimming pool!”

Clearly she is confused. And it is hardly surprising given that we have only recently returned from a long summer spent house-sitting for five different friends, before and after Bella’s birth. She knows that she is not Cambodian, that she once lived in England, where she was born, and where her extended family lives, and that we will one day go back to live there again. I am not sure where the swimming pool fits in, but she is allowed to dream.

It is not that I am not worried about her happiness. She has a great life here, adores her small, parent-run pre-school as much as I do, has a ridiculous number of little friends to play with, and, most amazingly, gets to have breakfast, go to school, and eat lunch and dinner with her father nearly every day. She doesn’t know this, but she enjoys a life of luxury that we could never be able to afford in the UK. From exciting holidays in the region, to the little things, like going out for breakfast, or an ice-cream, I am trying to teach her to value and appreciate it all. (I am not sure I always go about this the right way though. I told her the other day, when she complained about her dinner, that she was lucky to have anything to eat and that the little boy who comes to the house will eat anything he is given because he doesn’t know when he will next get to eat. It worked - she ate up her entire meal very quietly, but I think I could find gentler ways in future.)

She doesn’t know, either, that life in the UK would be a lot more humdrum. Much more of her time would be spent strapped into car-seats looking at roads full of cars and no people, being pushed around supermarkets, having to find indoor pursuits on cold rainy days. She would miss the freedom of hopping on a tuk-tuks, the constant stimulation and interaction with people on Phnom Penh’s vibrant streets, and the lifted spirit that comes from having constant sunshine and blue skies. Apart from missing out on the brilliant parks and playgrounds, which are entirely lacking in Cambodia to my eternal chagrin, she has a pretty good deal here.

Still, it is hard to feel so confident that this is the right choice, when your daughter persists in role-playing at flying home, and wanders around the house looking for her passport.

I suppose I have been waiting for the time when Jemima would start to ask about our life here, and this is the beginning of it. She understands that there are many different languages in the world, and has recently resisted speaking Khmer. Instead she delights in telling Cambodians, when asked “Sok Sabay?” that “We speak English, and you don’t.”

She understands that most of her friends are not Cambodian and she can tell me where they all come from. One friend is about to leave Cambodia for good, to go back to Germany. All of this she seems to take in her stride and it is pretty easy for me to explain it to her. More complicated will be the questions about why her life is so different to the Cambodian kids she sees on the street every day.

Yesterday, as we waited for James outside his office, which faces onto an open sewer, a young boy came up to us, tied by a rope to his blind father. I gave him some money and asked him if he went to school. Jemima wanted to know what we were talking about and kept looking as we drove off. When I asked her what she thought that must be like for a little boy, to have to stand in the hot sun all day asking for money for his father who could not see, she just looked blank. Obviously this was way beyond her sphere of imagination, but somewhere deep inside her, this experience must have made its mark. Somewhere in her sub-conscience, as we pulled up outside our house, in our clean, leafy street, she must have registered the injustice and plain, simple wrongness of what she had seen. I hope so. Because on a good day in Cambodia, I think this might be the main reason why we are here. We have little impact on the lives of Cambodian children after all, how ever much we try to do for them. But we are raising two children of our own. And while I don’t want to compromise their own idyllic, care-free childhood, just because other less fortunate children can’t have the same, I do want them to grow up to be compassionate, socially responsible adults, with an appreciation for what Cambodia has given them and a desire to give something back one day.


Tara said...

Oh yeah! Although E is a year younger than J, I go through this a lot too about are we doing the right thing in terms of distance from family etc. Esp. as we spent a week with relatives in France in early Sept and she still talks about them all regularly and sometimes asks if we can 'talk to grandma' on the computer (via Skype). Her Dad is away for work at the mo and she told her friend's Dad today that her 'Dada had gone to work on an aeroplane and was not coming home....' Damn near broke my heart....! And made worse by the fact that friends here are so transient - for her as much as for me.... But I too think of all the pros as well and end up concluding she has a 'good life' and will just remember more that she was happy (or not) rather than all the format.... I hope! T x

Laura said...

i think the rejection of khmer is a phase thats part of working out who you are and where you fit in the world - my 4 year old charlie went through the same phase, to my annoyance as i would love him to learn more khmer, but now seems out the other side and is picking up a lot and using it a lot - although he only really uses it with the one person he sees who speaks no english and always speaks to him in Khmer!

Great blog Georgie and really useful links too!

Laura xx

Georgie said...

Thank you Laura! Yes, I am sure you are right. Unfortunately the only time she does speak it is copying me... urm, have you heard my Khmer lately?!

Nikki said...

What a wonderful blog !!!

We were expats with 2 kids in sierra leone - been back 4 years now - its quite an experience isn't it?

And the book, is out yet?? Nikki

Milly said...

Hi Georgie,
We are expats living in Singapore at the moment, but also spent 3 years in Beijing and 2 in Hong Kong. I wish I had had this blogging in Beijing, it would have made life a lot easier.
It is heart renching sometimes when my 7 year old tells me that she hates the big buildings here and wants to go and live in the bush near her granny in Australia...But generally I think that it's a wonderful opportunity for the kids and will make them tolerant, open minded individuals.
Your blog is great by the way; an inspiration!
My blog is at

Anonymous said...

great blog we are moving to cambodia thinking of where about somewhere beautiful and rural waterfalls etc but also need teaching job for my partner not too far away. we have 4 kids aged 7 4 3 1

Georgie said...

Welcome if you decide to come! Ratanakiri? Mondulkiri? Or Kampot is closer and my favourite.. xxx