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