I never moved as a child. My parents still live in the same house that they lived in when I was born. I graduated with many kids who I remember in my kindergarten and first grade classes. But my own two children, for better or worse, will grow up as third-culture kids. By the time they graduate from high school, they likely will have attended five different schools and will have lived in as many countries. Moving from Korea to China was only the first of several transitions for them.
My daughter has transitioned pretty smoothly, mostly because she is so young. For about two months after arriving here, when I asked her who her friends were, she’d list off names. Kelly—a blonde, curly-haired little girl who attended her daycare last year—always made the list. My daughter’s transition showed her mixing the present with the past. Though she will likely never see them again, the children in Korea are still her friends just as much as the friends she sees every day here in China.
Helping my son has been more challenging. When we first got here, it kept me up at night and made me sick to my stomach.
Bedtime is very often my favorite part of the day with my children. The daytime usually entails me herding them to soccer or swimming lessons or ballet class—telling them twenty times to get their shoes on, or asking them to play by themselves while I make dinner, or trying to be thankful for the “help” they offer while grumbling inside that, once again, dinner won’t be on the table until 6:00 pm. Laying down with them after the hustle of our daily lives is sometimes my only time to snuggle with them while my blood pressure has recovered from the day’s stress. My daughter likes to snuggle at bedtime. My son likes to talk.
Pillow talk with my son. I love it. It has always been a window into his little brain about what struck him during the day or what was most troublesome.
About one week or so after he started school here in China, after the lights were turned off and he was laying on his pillow and ready to talk, he said, “Mommy?”
“I think Michael is going to be the mean kid in my class this year.”
“Why do you say that, honey?”
“I wanted to play soccer at recess, and he said, ‘You don’t know how to play soccer, you baby. Go away.’”
“I’m sorry, honey. That made you feel sad, didn’t it?”
“It’s okay. I played anyway.”
He shifted in his bed. Before too long he asked again, “Mommy?”
“What school do you like better? Do you like China better or Korea better?”
“I don’t know. What do you like better?”
“No. You answer first.”
“I like China better. I’m really happy here.” This was the truth, but I knew it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. “What about you?”
He sighed. “Yeah. I like China better, too.”
“I want to go back to Korea to visit.”
“I would like that, too.”
He paused again, and turned to face me in the dark. “I think it would have been better for us not to move so soon.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe it would have been better for us to move at the end of this year. So we could have had another year in Korea.”
“You miss it, don’t you?”
“It’s okay to miss it. I miss it sometimes, too.”
“I like Korea better than here.” He paused. “But only a little. Here. Feel my fingers.” He pinched his index finger and thumb together leaving a few millimeters of space. Knowing I couldn’t see in the dark, he grabbed my hand and asked me to feel how close they were. “That’s how much I like Korea better than China. Just a tiny bit.”
How unfortunate to find myself wanting to give my son social advice—how to make friends, how to deal with bullies, how not to be an outcast. I’ve always been sort of a nerdy outcast myself. Give me a choice, and I’ll spend my spare time in solitude with a cup of coffee and a laptop. A room full of strangers is not my idea of fun at all.
When I left his room that night, I sat down with my husband and told him how the conversation went. I said that I wished he had been the one to lay down with him. My hubby would have had the right words to say, the right advice to give. Instead, my little boy had me, and I said nothing. I let him talk, and I listened. That’s all I knew how to do.
I know that my children will find mean kids anywhere we go, even if we had stayed in Korea, but hearing him struggle made me feel incredibly guilty for uprooting him.
The next day, I happened to be at the school when the kindergarten kids were having recess in the courtyard area. I wasn’t planning on going to school that day, but my daughter was having a hard time with separation, and I decided to take her to school instead of sending her on the bus. On my way out, I walked past the window looking into the kindergarten play area and there was my little boy, right next to the window, completely unaware that I was watching him.
He was playing with the other boys in his class. He was guarding a goal, doing a silly little dance, smiling and laughing with the other boys.
I stood there for a while. Watching. Enjoying. Loving that he looked so happy.
There were moments that he would step back from the game and observe for a while instead of play. My son is a thinker and an observer—it’s just part of who he is. But he always got back in. He would fumble the ball, in his clumsy five-year-old way, and laugh and try again.
This was such a simple thing—watching him from the other side of the window while he smiled and laughed and danced—but it was one of the best little blessings God gave me since we had arrived in China. I had been so worried and guilty after the conversation we had had the night before. It was God’s way of telling me my son would be okay. He’s growing and learning, and it’s okay to have mixed feelings, and he’ll learn how to make friends. I can’t do that for him. He has to learn and find his place just like I did.
It’s just so hard to watch my kids learn through their struggles. There is a purpose to pain, I believe that. But when it’s my children going through the challenge, I want to fix it for them. It’s so hard to step back and let them struggle through it, especially when I feel responsible for their pain.
*Children’s names have been changed.