Differences between Russia and America
(That People Often Can't Truly Understand Without Actually Living in Each Place)
Weather might seem like such an obvious answer, especially to those of you living in colder areas of the USA. What is harder to communicate to others "back home" in the USA is everything else that winter entails: seven months of grayness, for example. We rarely see the sun and it can be very depressing, even for kids. The pollution mixes with the snow and becomes a dark, dark brown sludge that can be very deep, varying from a snow-like consistency to looking more like water from a septic system. Then you have to walk in it for months.
Moscow is expensive! Well, Katya's example of 1 Barbie in Russia = 10 Barbies in America isn't quite right... But three years ago, the Barbie that went along with Fairytopia did cost the equivalent $106 here, while you could have gotten it on sale in the USA for $15... The Littlest Pet Shop digital keychain games can be bought for $9 in the USA and cost $37 here... Some items are even much more expensive here than that -- but not all, however.
In the end, what it has meant for our kids is that the little things we might get them as a reward in the USA aren't things that they could hope to get here. They don't even ask anymore, because the refrain "We can't afford that because it's sooo much more expensive here" has been engrained in their brains. It's very frustrating for them! They know that any special birthday gift they hope to receive has to have been chosen during the trip to the USA that precedes the occasion, or they won't be able to get it. This means that Natalia has to know what she'd like for her birthday in July -- and her birthday isn't until December!
So much for kids' whims! I kind of like that, though... I have almost complete control over the kids' exposure to pop culture in the media and toys --- how many parents can say THAT in the USA? They don't even get exposure to advertising in stores since I don't usually take them with me to run errands, and their peers also have a low level of exposure -- so there's less talk at school.
At times I can really relate to the girls' frustration, though... When Katya has worked hard to save up for something that would only cost $10 in the USA, it's so frustrating to have to wait five months until she can actually buy it... The same thing happens to me when a favorite piece of clothing is ruined, the kids go through a growth spurt or I run out of craft supplies.
Katya sometimes feels quite different from peers at school when she sees that their parents will buy them clothing and toys that we won't. What she used to not grasp is that their parents might, indeed, have spent $50 on a particular item -- but we will often then spend that same amount back in the USA --- getting that item and four additional things instead.
It's significant that Katya talked for sooo long about this one point! Traffic has been a big part of her life here, leading to many other decisions that aren't easily apparent to family and friends in the USA. For example, she would have a visceral reaction to the questions, "Why don't you have swimming lessons more often?"; "Why did you stop being a Brownie?"; "Why do you need a nanny?" (so I could keep her out of all that traffic!)...
She used to have to be in the car to get to and from school and every other activity we did. Traffic jams were a constant and stressful part of her life (and mine!). She knew that I couldn't let her do certain activities that only lasted an hour because I would have needed to allow an hour and and half in driving time before and after in case of bad traffic -- which I couldn't do. (It would have taken too long by public transportation, too, so that wasn't an option, either).
Cars park along both sides of one-way streets, making it a "Mission Impossible" feat to get through without scraping both sides of the car in the process -- on a daily basis. She can sense my fear as I maneuver... It can often take an extra 30 minutes to find parking, too...
When she now says, "I get to walk to school!", someone in the USA might say, "Oh, that's nice..." -- without realizing what a life-changing event this is for her!
Since Russian law requires all cars to stay on the spot, usually blocking the roads -- even for minor bumps and scratches -- she used to see at least ten accidents a week, sometimes more. Most weren't serious -- but she did see some that were bad... People here drive so badly, breaking rules, aggressively... Many simply "buy' their driver's license instead of wading through the bureaucracy entailed in obtaining one honestly...
Poor child to be so afraid of this... (And thank God she doesn't realize the fear parents harbor about how would the ambulance to get our car -- through the traffic -- if Heaven forbid we ever needed one...) Yes, that's why our kids are hardly in the car any more!
Here she shows how she acts as a typical cultural chameleon, having one set of feelings about the police in America and another in Russia. Those feelings aren't QUITE so separate, however... Her American indignation causes her to challenge the Russian police. If they stop me, she and her sister instantly start complaining that they need to pee or are about to throw up, putting on a masterful act about being sick. Once Natalia -- at age four -- even told the cop, in Russian, "Could you please just hurry up and take my mom's money? We're late to ballet!" The girls' beliefs are now overlapped, influencing their feelings in both countries. Katya is so appreciative when we can approach the police for help (directions, for example) in America.
Cultural Differences in Both Countries: Taboos
(Is there anything you do in one country but not in the other?)
Wow, my little Katya is a future PETA activist! She certainly got upset about her classmate's wearing real fox fur for her costume in the class play... She does understand that people have traditionally needed to wear fur in Russia -- but she knows that other alternatives now exist.
She "gets it," though, that culturally fur is acceptable here -- and that it's part of the country's practices going back centuries and centuries. I pointed out, "Honey, they were wearing fur here long before the Columbus discovered America -- and for that matter, the Native Americans wore fur, too!" She thinks that if people were educated about the matter, that attitudes could change -- the way they have in America. She won't be the one to start "enlightening" them, though; she doesn't want to stand out among her peers.
Being a Cultural Chameleon (Fitting In)
She keeps "her mounth shut" about her feelings about fur -- and about quite a bit more, I suspect... It hasn't always been that way. Last year she got in quite a spat with her roomates on the school overnight trip because she wouldn't wear slippers (a MUST here) and she wouldn't share hair elastics (as all moms in America, I've raised the girls to know you don't share hats, brushes, etc.). Luckily her teacher lived overseas and can easily diffuse tensions due to cultural differences!
While she may not voice her dissenting opinions when with her Russian peers, she certainly shares them at home and with her other expat/TCK friends. This, I think, is the key to understanding third culture kids: they have this unique experience of understanding the reasons behind the cultural practices in their different countries, and they grow up making choices about which aspects to take from each in the creation of their own identities.
Best Parts of Growing Up in Two (or More) Cultures
Languages, obviously... As I said in "Part 1" of the interview, she thinks is natural to know many languages, and she has the mentality that she can learn any others she chooses.
She stresses the importance of friendship because she has gone through the pain of feeling it's absence! Moving here -- having to go from having a best friend in New York to not knowing anyone here -- and not knowing the language any of the new children spoke -- was extremely hard for her. She will never take friends for granted.
TCK's who grow up moving every few years often find it very hard to maintain those friendships, however... Each friendship was so intense at the time -- but when one has lived in six or more countries before attending college, it becomes a logistical impossibility to visit them all -- or even to keep up with regular correspondence... I'm glad we don't move continuously; I don't know how others do it!
Appreciating the Local Culture
She knows it's a priviledge to see things other kids back in America can't even imagine. She doesn't value the things a typical young American tourist here would love, however... She doesn't really talk about the circus, or walking on Red Square. What she meant by "visiting the Kremlin" was going on very detailed tours about specifics of Catherine the Great's life, learning eclectic facts about exhibits in the museum. She isn't just "visiting" Russian culture; she has Russian culture inside her in the way she loves certain poets or traditions.
Hardest Parts of Growing Up in Two (or More) Cultures
Not Fitting in 100% in Either Culture
Not feeling completely understood by kids in either culture -- only by fellow TCKs who have the same experience. This is why I think it's important for parents who are raising their kids overseas to provide their children with ample opportunities to meet other children who have similiar experiences. It took four years, however, for Katya to finally meet a TCK girl with whom she instantly clicked! Nevertheless, during the past four years of simply knowing other expat kids, she was aware that she wasn't the only kid going through the ups and downs of being an American kid here.
I think this point also applies to kids in in the "foreign" country who attend English-language schools. There are plenty of cultural differences in that context, too! For one, cultural values and behavior certainly differ between America, Canada, the UK and Australia... Assuming that there are so many similiarities can make it a real shock when differences pop up! Another factor is that the teachers and students in such schools have often lived in many different countries prior to ending up in the current place -- just because everyone is speaking the same language, doesn't mean that many of same issues TCKs face in local-language schools aren't also present. (It is, however, a very different experience to be surrounded by a whole school community of TCKs as opposed to perhaps being the only one in your school).
This one is obvious... It's so hard on everyone...
An Uncertain Sense of Time in the Future
Since we don't know when we'll be moving back to the USA, she doesn't know... When kids at school talk about a certain class trip that usually occurs in a particular grade, she doesn't know if she'll be around to go... It's hard truly having no idea about where the rest of her childhood will be spent. Her friends back home know what their middle schools and high schools look like, have driven by them many times... She doesn't know what school activities she'll get to do, since they vary so much from country to country. School sports? Not in Russia... School play? Not in Russian high schools...