29 September 2012

Nathan B., Third-Culture Kid

Lately, Nathan has begun to feel the effects of living in an international community.  Friends and classmates come and go, sometimes temporarily, sometimes forever, and he knows now that even the school principal is not a permanent fixture.  At times he accepts these changes easily with a simple "goodbye" or "see you later," but at other times it's quite difficult, leading to long, tearful conversations at home.

He thinks often of former classmates now living in other countries and suggests we visit them, and sometimes he shows me photos taken 2 or 3 years ago and asks me to identify people who look vaguely familiar to him.  And while he has always enjoyed plane rides, he recently brought home a piece of schoolwork that surprised me.  He had been instructed to cut out pictures of various things (a spider, the sun, a playground, a snowman, a bear, a cake, etc.) and paste them under one of two headings -- things that make him happy and things that make him sad.  When I asked him why he had placed the picture of the airplane in the "sad" category, his explanation revealed that he associated the airplane with goodbyes -- ends of vacations, farewells to friends and family members, and the possibility of not seeing them for a very long time, or maybe ever again.

This "separation anxiety" took an interesting turn one night a couple months ago, when Nathan wanted to know why he had to sleep in his own bed and not with Mommy and Daddy.  In answering him, I got to a point where I mentioned that one day he would find a person he loved, and might get married, and that they would then share a bed in their own home.  Instead of being comforted, though, he was disturbed by the idea that he would one day live away from his parents, and told me with certainty that he would not get married because he wanted to live with us forever.

When school started and Nathan was hesitant about signing up for after-school activities, I tried to reassure him that they would be fun classes where he could make friends with lots of kids, and that maybe even some of my high school students might participate.  He brightened at the idea, and asked if one particular student of mine, who had always been a friend and role model to our youngest students, would be in Arts and Crafts with him.  I reminded him that she had graduated last spring, and that she was now studying at a university in Canada. Well, he was very upset about that, and nearly cried, and said he didn't want her to leave the school.  That led to him saying that he never wanted to grow up, never wanted to leave QSI or Yerevan... I finally consoled him by suggesting we could write her an email, which we did the next day, and he was able to tell her that he missed her and wished she could come back.  Sweetheart that she is, my former student replied and said she would be back to visit her family at Christmastime, and that she would bring Nathan any gift he wanted, which made him pretty happy.

Despite these confusing and sometimes heart-wrenching moments, Nathan continues to impress us and everyone who knows him with his energy, wit, and independence.  Without knowing it, he teaches us every day about the complexities of being a third-culture kid.  He knows he's American, yet refers to Armenia as "my country"; his favorite foods are pizza and khachapouri; his best friends are Chinese, American, Korean, Greek-Armenian, Lebanese-Armenian, and German-Danish -- and they all learn together under the supervision of a teacher from Fort Worth,Texas!  Some of his current hobbies include  drawing and painting, watching Spongebob and Star Wars, playing Angry Birds and football (soccer), and singing songs in English and Armenian.  Things he dislikes include cigarette smoking, spicy foods, and people who don't take him seriously.  He's the top reader in his class, willingly takes on household chores and other responsibilities (and earns an allowance for his good work), enjoys our local outings and travel adventures, and makes friends wherever he goes because he knows that silliness transcends barriers of language and culture.

We're proud of Nathan's confidence, intelligence, and physical strength (for which we are eternally grateful to the cardiology team at Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital).  At the same time, he is a caring, affectionate, and compassionate little boy.  We can only hope that the lessons he is learning about love, friendship, and identity -- though sometimes painful -- will stay with him as he grows and as we find ourselves in new surroundings.  I feel that these experiences are preparing him well for his upcoming role as big brother to an Armenian sister, as well as for other challenges he will face in the future.