I lived in Southeast Asia for 16 years. Not as an adult, but from my infancy to age 16. My family was around for two revolutions, two natural disasters, and the “haze” under Mahathir in Kuala Lumpur.
When the Twin Towers were struck, there was an armed Thai police truck parked outside my house because of the vulnerability of State Department families. This experience of living overseas wasn’t amazing, however; it was simply my childhood.
Growing Up Overseas
Growing up as an international kid has benefits and negative aspects. I experienced life in a unique and unusual way.
Living overseas seems exotic, but when you spend every day life somewhere, it becomes home. When you come on vacation, my country looks exotic.
People ask, “Have you been to this Wat, or this waterfall, or these ancient ruins?” Yes, I’ve been there, but these points of travel aren’t exotic to me. I don’t journey to gaze upon the magnificent glory of gold-gilded Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma and bask in its religious importance. I drive past it on my way to Dagon Center where I go shopping and spend my money on the latest pirated PC games.
One downside of living in an international community is that people live in a “bubble.” It is entirely possible to move to a new country and really not live there at all. The Russian embassy, living quarters, and school were all in a single compound in Rangoon. The French had their own French school and avoided the American-funded English speaking school. The American embassy community was slightly less insular.
An Experience that Shaped Me
So what is my final say about my international childhood? I would do it all over again. And here is my advice to parents who are considering the bold move—do it wholeheartedly.
Get a house away from all the “back home” influences, make your children learn the local language, and have a peer group full of more diverse nationalities than the United Nations. Let them buy tequila shots at bars while they are only 16 and have girlfriends whose names you can barely pronounce.
Of course, there are going to be some negative aspects of this life. The simple question of, “Where are you from?” will always be an uneasy one when people say “Ahh, Burma? Ain’t that a county in Alabama?”
Life can be very different overseas, but looking back on it now, spending five years living under a military junta-controlled dictatorial regime was probably the single most influential experience in my life. It has shaped who I am and what I value today.
Raising a child overseas is tough – but it will be the most eye-opening experience a parent can give, more than any summer camp or even a private education. One thing I can certainly guarantee: your child won’t be blown away by village huts made out of dirt and bamboo, or the electricity suddenly being cut short. He’ll know that it’s normal where he grew up.