Expat Life: But What About the Children?

by Miss Footloose

As foreigners in alien lands we often come across cultural customs, habits and behaviors that baffle us, charm us, annoy us, or creep us out altogether. Generally we like to adjust and participate, be good sports, and feel enriched for the experience. Expat children have to make cultural adjustments too, of course.

Indonesian Shadow Puppets

Wayang Kulit – Indonesian shadow puppets

While our two daughters were young, we lived in Indonesia for two years, in the provincial town of Semarang on the main island of Java, a town with only a very small expat community at the time. Indonesia is an exotic country with wonderful food, seventeen thousand islands, many rich cultures, lots of coconuts, serene beaches and an uncharming tropical climate. Next thing I was going to say was this: Indonesians love children. A really dumb statement because have you ever traveled anywhere in the world where people do not love children? Not I.

In Indonesia we encountered a custom, or habit, that was particularly unpleasant for our daughters to deal with: Cheek pinching. Javanese will do this to their own children when they want to warn them or reprimand them. However, for mysterious reasons I have not explored, this same gesture can also be an expression of affection. Javanese love to pinch the cheeks of cute kids. Guess how cute our two young pale-skinned, blue-eyed, blond girls were in a land of brown-skinned, brown-eyed and black-haired people? They were super cute!

I remember our family visiting the local zoo one day, where, for the Indonesian visitors, we were part of the attraction: The locals were not only taking photos of the animals in the cages, but also snapping pictures of us, rare mammals with two blond offspring, wandering loose among the cages. Not only did they photograph us, they descended from all directions and pinched the girls’ cheeks. They smiled sweetly and made adoring comments while the girls wailed. Intercepting the swooping hands was not always successful, as we were distracted at times by exotic creatures behind bars instead of paying attention to the friendly ones in front.

We tried to explain to our kids that the pinching was a nice thing, really. This went over very well, as you can imagine. Coming home later that afternoon, I noticed that our daughters’ pale cheeks were smudged from all the pinching.

I imagine us immortalized in the photo albums of Indonesian families. I can hear these nice people talk as they leaf through the pages, reminiscing about how much fun the had at the zoo, pointing at the photos:

The cute ones inside the cages

“Here are the snakes, the orangutans, and look at these tame foreigners with their cute little ones! They were so adorable, we just had to pinch them!” (If you’re one of the pinchers reading this, and you recognize our daughters on the photo, e-mail me. I want to speak to you.)

So, what did this do to the tender psyches of our precious little daughters? Nothing mentally crippling, at least not that I have noticed so far. But it did have a certain impact on number two daughter:

A friend from the Philippines came to visit us in Semarang one time. Mars was a cheery sort and had fun playing with our daughters. One afternoon she was sitting on the sofa with the younger one reading her a book and having what seemed an animated discussion about the story. I was in the room but not paying much attention.

“You are not brown,” I heard our four-year-old say. This peaked my interest given the fact that Mars was most definitely quite brown, darker than most Indonesians on Java. (I’d give you a delicious culinary description of her color, like chocolate or dark rum or mocha, but it’s so cliché, don’t you think?)

“Of course I am brown,” Mars said. “Just look.” She put her arm up next to our daughter’s pale one.

Our girl shook her head, “You are not brown,” she said with conviction.

I was baffled. As was Mars. Her chocolaty arm pressed to number two daughter’s vanilla skin made quite a contrast. I wish I had a picture.

“Look at our arms!” Mars said. “How can you say I’m not brown?”

Our daughter lifted her chin, blue eyes defiant. She was only four but she knew her mind and not even the truth would persuade her to change it.

“You’re not brown,” she stated, “’cause you don’t pinch!”

So there you have it.

* * *

NOTE: Children often have their own unique view of their expat experiences. Do you have some gems to share?

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I love this story on so many levels!

What an entertaining post, and I love the photo of the puppets. My dad used to have the sweetest lady working for him, her name was Irene and she was a childless lady that adored children. She was a cheek pincher, she pinched me so hard once she bruised me. But I still liked her back. (She was not brown though.)

Trish and Rob MacGregor

I was born and raised in Venezuela. My parents were American. Regardless of the weirdness that occurred – revolutions, strange politics, strange customs ( no cheek pinching, but plenty of sexual innuendos)I love that time, that childhood. It gave me a broader perspective.
– Trish MacGregor

It puts the whole black/white thing in perspective doesn’t it? It’s not the colour of your skin, it’s the cheekpinching…

I love this story. I can’t remember who told me about this, but there was an African-Anerican foreign correspondent in Tokyo some years back who lived there with his family. He and his wife wondered when their son would realize he was black, not Japanese. During the winter Olympics, there was a black ice-skater from France. The correspondent and his wife asked their little boy what he thought of the ice skaters, wondering if he would mention this woman. He told them that he liked ‘the black skater’ and they felt that he had finally recognized his identity. It turned… Read more »

I guess you don’t HAVE to be brown to pinch 😉

Trish and Rob:
You are so right that living in different cultures gives children, (and adults too, of course a wider perspective. It’s been good for our kids. The world is getting smaller and more tolerance and understanding is important.

It does make you wonder how these experiences get processed in kids’ minds!

Mary W.
Great story! Thanks for sharing.

Wonderful observation. Interestingly enough, I posted on some of my own expat children’s idiosyncrasies. today

Thanks for the link!


great blog! will def be back for more reading when i get back from bladdy school! xx janelle

I recognize this pinching! My dad was a diplomat so we lived in lots of different countries when I was a kid. I swear, I have never been so stroked and pinched except as an adult living in China!

What an interesting blog. I found you via Turquoise Diaries and I’m so glad I did.

I loved the white/brown skin story, reminds me of an old show that featured “Kids Say the Darndest Things” and brought a smile to my face.

But, the previous post on the repairman had me in stitches!

My mommy has always wanted to see the orangutans up close. They look really sweet.

Great post! I think many of us expats can relate entirely, one way or another!

Cheek pinching happens a lot, here, in India, too. My children hate it. And of course, there is the whole hygiene aspect. Where have those hands been before they land on those chubby cheeks ? My husband, one day that we’d been out and about and said pinching was getting out of control, suddenly walked up to a lady pincher and pinched HER cheek. Imagine ! Not sure if that lady will pinch another cheek in her life. My little one has learned to avoid approaching pinching hands. She also sometimes tells people that she doesn’t like it. Another thing… Read more »

Hi, just discovered your blog! This post struck a chord. My sister and I used to dread our first encounter with my grandfather when he visited as he used to grab our right cheek and squeeze it hard while tapping the other cheek with his free hand. This was his form of an affectionate greeting! And he was from Lancs, UK, so it’s a global phenomenon!!

Rhonda and Janelle,

I’m glad you found me and enjoyed my story. I hope you come back!

Katia and Kate,

Thank you for sharing your stories. It is so nice to find them when I log in!

Ha! Love it…same can be said in India, sometimes 🙂

Ah, yes! If we could only see things through a child’s eyes! Great story!

This reminded me of when I used to be visiting my very English grandmother with my very English mother. As we approached the house my mother would suddenly notice that I looked a bit pale and she would pinch my cheeks hard to make me look rosy! It was quite painful and NOT done out of admiration either!


out of the mouths of babes, how lovely! :0)

Rinkly Rimes: thanks for your story! yes, I remember that being done when I was a child!

Justine: Glad you found my blog. Hope you come and read again.

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