Being expat

Why international days and celebrations are difficult for true internationals

I know that writing this will upset some of my friends, but I want to share this because it came up many many times in the last weeks. At the latest FIGT (Families In Global Transition) conference we talked about identity and sense of belonging and as we all agree that having to chose between one or two of “our” cultures is difficult for most of us who grew up in different places or simply abroad, international days are a challenge. And later, at a talk I gave about embracing international life I shared what these international celebrations felt for me, who grew up and lived in different cultures my whole life.

What for people who grew up in one culture – let’s call them “monoculturals” – can seem like a lovely way to celebrate many cultures, to taste different foods and get a visual impression of what that other culture can look like, and a taste of it if food is involved, a “hear” of it if music is played, is a very difficult time for someone like me or my children who grew up abroad, never lived in that country we’re asked to represent, and only have a temporary experience – during holidays – of what life looks like, tastes and sounds like in that country.

Of course, one can “chose whatever country they have any kind of relation with”, and so my children once dressed up as Dutch, as German, as Italian, as Swiss, but we always cringe at the thought to have to chose.

8 years ago, when my son struggled with deciding which country to represent, I told him what I tell now all internationals who come to my talks and workshops, and their children and teens: you don’t have to chose! You are all of them, so combine them in your very unique and fantastic way!


Bildschirmfoto 2013-02-08 um 12.44.45

And so he did. He put on a French cap (on aime bien la France chez nous!), an orange shirt (omdat we van Oranje houden!), blue trousers from Italy (perché amiamo lo stile italiano!), hiking boots and a rope (will mer immer gäärn i’d Bärge gönt go wandere!), and I honestly don’t remember what part of his outfit was German (aber das ist hoffentlich kein Problem…). I didn’t take a picture of him, but I remember that other parents and their children were confused and some even quite upset that he combined some European cultures/countries in his outfit. But he felt better!

– He felt better but not “great”. And I know why: because we perceive it as a very superficial way to show what others expect you to show.

Others want to see colors, to smell spices, taste the otherness and have the illusion of “all is fine” and “everyone is different”.

You are expected to celebrate the bright side of that culture and society, the traditional outfits that you may never wear in that country because you don’t live there and you don’t connect the history, the tradition that comes with wearing them, the pride to be part of that culture, because you experience it from the outside, as a well prepared tourist who only visits it during holidays. You may feel you belong for a few days or weeks in a year: you speak the language, know about beliefs and traditions, adopt the values, but for most of the time you’re “the combination of many”.

Like my children I also attended a very international school, but we never had an international day and I am extremely grateful for that.

The reason for this is because when you live internationality, embrace diversity in your daily life, wearing a dirndl means to reduce your identity to only one, often the palest facet of your colorful self of your manifold identity!

I know that what I’m saying here is not shared by most parents and teachers at our school and other international schools, and you may think that I have an identity problem.

No worries, I don’t. I thought for many years that me being not only German but also Italian, French and Swiss – even British to some extent! – was weird, a problem for those who try to put you into boxes, label you with only one label, that I had to silence part of who I was to fit into groups, but I, we don’t have to.

Like TCKs, CCKs, those who honestly and wholeheartedly embrace diversity and internationality, don’t need an international day. They live it every single day of their life.

If you don’t believe me, try to ask the children and teenagers, the adults who thrive among internationals: How would their way to express internationality look like?

I know what my answer is: stop pointing out the differences! Instead of having separate stalls at these international events with Indian – German – Chinese – Nigerian – South African – British – Irish – Italian – French – Dutch etc. food, unite them all on long colorful table and let the truly international feast begin, where everyone eats from all plates without questioning, judging, comparing, pointing out the difference, but simply enjoying.

If you organize games or activities from all those cultures: find out what they have in common, what the children like to play and do, and why – and with games I mean board games or games played in groups without electronic device!

– I don’t like international days because they are only one day (some are a week): I prefer embracing this every single day!



10 replies »

  1. Thanks for this Ute. Whilst I’m not myself a TCK, and we’re a “simple” bilingual, bicultural household, I can see exactly what you mean. Identity is not a “zero sum game”, with more of one meaning less of another. I don’t feel myself any less Brit for having taken French nationality, and my children embrace both. My younger daughter pointed out this week that for the first time, she felt we’d be going “abroad” on Holiday for the first time at Easter when we go to Rome (despite multiple cross-Channel trips and time in Germany). Britain is just seen as an extension of home. We’ve been to “British Festivals” in France, and never stayed long – they don’t feel like “our” Britain, simply an image of someone else’s.

    • Thank you, mesnilman, for your comment! I am so glad that you can relate with what I wrote. What you say about those British Festivals in France are exactly what I observe at those international days – either in schools or elsewhere, where people gather to celebrate their culture one at their stand, insisting on some clichés… I feel alienated and sometimes embarrassed. Like you say, it’s the image of someone else’s way to see what should be a collective feeling of belonging, right?
      No, identity is neither a zero sum game (love this!) nor a constant: we change constantly and so does our feeling about who we are, where we belong. I always felt penalized when asked to “be German” or “represent Germany/Switzerland/Italy etc.”.
      Our children go through stages of profound need to belong to one of the many cultures/places etc., and stages where they want to embrace them all and don’t want to chose. Peer pressure and expectations from others surely play a part in this, but when trying to find out who we really are, we should never let anyone tell us who we are: it comes from the inside and we’re all allowed to be different. That’s what makes it so interesting, right?
      We’re a family of 5 and although my children have had a similar experience so far, they all three perceive themselves in a different way. I never ask them about belonging or identity, but help them when others do, because, like me, they usually are puzzled and slightly confused when asked.
      May I ask how old your daughter is?
      Rome!…What a great destination for Easter 😉

      • Hi again Ute – I should have actually made sure you have my name, not just my ‘nom de plume’. It’s Chris Drew, and we’ve discussed things before via LinkedIn. My daughters are 15 and 12, and take their bicultured upbringing very seriously. Our normal answer to the identity question is simply ‘franco-british’, which confuses just about everyone. The girls are really looking forward to Rome and the first trip ‘abroad’, which actually comes down to ‘the first trip in a country where we don’t speak the language’. The first thing I had to buy for them when it was booked was a phrase book.

      • Oh hi, Chris! That makes it easier for me, yes. I’m so glad to find you here, on my blog, too. The “first trip abroad where you don’t speak the language” is a very important experience. But as English and French speakers they can visit quite a lot of countries and understand locals! I remember the first time we visited the UK with our children and they were so happy to be able to read all the signs and understand everyone.
        A phrase book is always a good start. Around Easter you might hear a lot of other languages in Rome though, but sapere un paio di frasi in italiano sicuramente non nuoce (knowing some sentences in Italian surely won’t harm 😉 ).
        Please let me know how they find la città eterna! I’m sure you already have a busy program…

  2. Hi Ute
    Thank you for writing this. I’m thinking deeply about what you’ve said and it is really useful to see this side of the debate. I think this is something schools can bring into cultural celebration days. I think it would benefit many in the community to consider this point of view. For me I am conscious of the possible reduction of identities to cliche or stereotype. I’m also aware that In a school where many nationalities and TTKs are brought together under a single learning language and educational tradition, it’s important to validate the personal story of the children in some way. There used to be a tendency for the children to ‘leave their identity at the door’. So this discussion, and finding ways to celebrate children and their families and cultures are very important. Maybe we can find new ways?

    • Thank you, lizard100 for your very important comment: yes, there are ways to celebrate or acknowledge children and their families’ cultures. I know that in highly international settings it requires more engagement from everyone: teachers, students/children and parents. They all need to work on this together. Depending on our culture, our background, our expectations and experiences, we expect school to help our children with the school language and preferably also with our home language for example, but it is up to us parents to collaborate and take care of the home language(s) when these are not taught in school. This is just an example. Language as the vehicle of our thoughts and experience is, in my opinion, a good way to start. With it come other aspects of our culture. With even small steps like allowing our children to talk their language at school, allow the colleague to talk his/her language or share how decisions are taken in his/her culture will open more doors and avoid misunderstandings and judgments that only lead to building walls. Sorry for this long reply, I just have the impression that these celebrations are superficial and I think we have passed the stage of “admiring diversity” and it is time to embrace it on a sincere and deeper level. I guess it is fear to lose ones own “identity” or what defines them that keeps many away from allowing inclusion. Inclusion doesn’t mean annihilation of our self. Healthy inclusion means acceptance of diversity to a level where we look beyond that surface of colorful dresses, delicious smells of food, different sounds etc. and discover how we are all related on a much deeper level.

  3. I so agree!!!! I’ve been waiting a long time to have this articulated, it’s been circling inside my brain with no vehicle of articulation and I just love the way you wrote about it! Two aspects that I want to address, and one is that time is a factor in embracing the idea of a wholistic, healed global citizen who identifies with mankind. Change is occurring all around us constantly, we notice some, we ignore some of it, much of it never, ever lands inside our awareness. I wonder if certain creative types or sensitive soul-types are more prone to connecting to people at the level of people and are able to disregard the cultural frills? While I agree that these celebrations are superficial on many levels and they can build walls within communities, I think they are also a cause for celebration that nowadays we can actually live our cultures out loud – I am thinking about the jews being hunted in Europe. Some of the most moving celebrations I have attended have been International Days at Yokohama school when my daughter was very little, again in Saudi Arabia when the entire Kindergarten sang “It’s a small world after all”. I remember tears running down my cheeks because I was emotionally feeling like new citizens were being birthed, citizens of the globe and not one particular culture. My American born, British passport-holding daughter wore a Japanese kimono and was just thrilled with who she was. And yet, having said all of this, I feel like when we celebrate these days in the US, a supposedly multi-cultural nation, I always feel better inside when we are focussed on one culture, somehow the international mix feels messy, it feels like we are not quite pure globals – yet. I remind myself that this is a journey, at different locations we place markers to announce that we have arrived somewhere. Culture can be a beautiful marker, one that we can identify with, celebrate and feel into, or I like your son’s approach of combining cultures through dress. It’s such a pity that we can’t unzip ourselves to show our multi-cultural souls. I like to tell people that our hearts and souls have cultures embossed upon them, and if only we could appreciate that better.

    Also, I believe that places can facilitate intercultural living – like The Hague or Amsterdam. I spend half my year in Denver which has definite pockets of internationals, we have to seek each other out, put time and energy into finding each other, it’s not quite so easy to feel global here. Being an invisible immigrant lends whole layers of other perspectives to this conversation which I wont go into – today!

    Great job….sharing your work, thanks for your brilliant thinking my friend! The global in me recognises the global in you!

    • Thank you, Doreen, for this long and touching comment. I too was moved the first time I saw an international parade of children in so many different outfits and celebrating all together. You see, the fact that your daughter wore a Japanese kimono says it all: she wears what she feels more related to at that moment! Not an outfit that tells everyone where she – or more precisely – her parents come from.
      You are very right that The Hague and Amsterdam, like many other cities around the world, are like a melting pot of internationals and you’re constantly surrounded, immersed into a variety of different sounds of languages and cultures. I personally thrive in such a place – like you, I know. But exactly because it is already so international, celebrating internationality seems like taking a step back for me. A step where everyone isolates him/herself instead of mixing and mingling.
      Thank you, again, for your very kind words and insights. You’re a truly global soul!

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