Photos: Priscilla Obermeier
“Mommy, what do I say when people ask me where I’m from?” Indy looks at me in hopeful anticipation, but instead of a straightforward answer I give him a puzzled look. “Well…” I start, “You were born in Amsterdam, but when you were five weeks old, we moved to Los Angeles where you learned how to walk. You celebrated your second birthday in your home in Berlin. You learned how to swim around the corner of your home in Milan. You went skiing close to your home in Vienna. And now you live in Dubai. On top of that, you spent time in London, Qatar, New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Rome, Munich, Jakarta, Singapore, Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, and Venice as we traveled for business as a family.”
“So, I’m pretty much from everywhere?” Indy asks.
“And from nowhere in particular,” I add.
Later that day, I continued to ponder about Indy’s riddle of the Sphinx. If you are from everywhere-and-nowhere-in-particular, are you from somewhere? What are the coordinates of that place called home for a family constantly in transition?
As a traditional third-culture kid (or TCK), Indy grows up among many cultural worlds with a high degree of mobility because of his parents’ work. Since he was born, we move and travel around the world as entrepreneurs. But already before our work turned us into nomads, we were the sum of a culturally complex equation.
We speak English at home, work, and online school, but Indy is the first one in our family who speaks English as a first language. He practices his Mandarin every day. Markus’s first language is German, but he also speaks English, French, and Italian. My first language is Dutch, but after speaking mostly English and German in the last ten years, my Dutch has become a bit rusty. Indy’s online school is American. Here, he learns to write in American English (color instead of colour) and finds himself engulfed in books and projects about American politics, the US market economy, the American Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, and Native American history. Very different from the lessons I learned about the V.O.C. and the Dutch Golden Age, and the effects of the Bismarck years Markus needed to research together with his classmates.
We are a multi-racial family. By birth, we come from 3 different countries: Germany, Indonesia, and The Netherlands. We’re also a cross-cultural family. I was born in Indonesia, but I grew up as an adoptee in the Netherlands with Dutch-Indonesian parents. With several of my mother’s brothers and sisters living in the US since the 1950s, I spent many summers and the occasional Christmas on the East Coast where I turned into a mall rat, devoured pop-tarts and IHOP pancakes, tried to conquer the cold waves of Rhode Island, rode horses in the beautiful hills of small towns in Massachusetts, watched my cousins compete in cheerleading, learned how to waterski, and I knew that when I ordered a hamburger for 50 cents, I would have to pay 52 cents because of tax. In the Netherlands, I grew up in a multi-cultural neighborhood, surrounded by children born in The Netherlands, and by children born in Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Africa, Indonesia, Surinam, and Turkey to name a few. Oh, the glorious food I was surrounded with! There was Iranian saffron rice and Persian pastries at my best friend’s home, my mom’s friend Gladys made us Surinamese roti, I ate Turkish Pide bread with peanut butter and sambal or with chocolate “hagelslag,” there was my mom’s, grandma’s, and my aunts’ Indonesian cuisine, and my Dutch grandma’s “stamppot.”
I skipped a grade and was only 10 when I went to high school in a more white and privileged neighborhood. Next to being the youngest and shortest in my class (my backpack was taller than me), I also was one of the few brown kids in the whole school. I never really felt out of place though. Truth to be told, I blended in. Kids from Surinam thought I was from Surinam. The same counted for kids from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia. To all, I was one of them. My friends’ Dutch parents often thought I was half-Dutch. A Peruvian woman I met in a hotel gym in London, asked me if I was absolutely sure I wasn’t from Peru. As a cultural chameleon I never felt “other.” At the same time, I never felt I belonged anywhere.
Markus can relate to that sense of not-belonging. Growing up in a less externally visible, yet no less, real changing cultural world, his Bavarian parents were considered odd in the small northern German villages in which he was born and raised. His parents spoke differently and ate different foods (these were the 70s and 80s) than the neighbors. While visiting his aunts and uncles in Bavaria he was considered an outsider-“Prussian” because he didn’t speak in their accents. At age 18, he left Germany for France and Italy, only to end up in The Netherlands in his late twenties.
Even though the details are different, there’s something profound we share as a family in the multiplicity of our “outsider” experience alone. There is the joy in the wonder of experiencing so much of the world’s beauty first hand, and there is the grief of saying goodbye to people and places as we move on to yet another “somewhere.”
In 1984, Dr. Ted Ward, of Michigan State University, stated that Third Culture Kids were the “prototype citizens” of the future. In other words, the experience of growing up in and amid many cultures coupled with a mobile lifestyle would one day be the norm rather than the exception. Fast forward to today, growing up among worlds still isn’t exactly the norm. But, cross-cultural mixing at every level (from shopping at global e-commerce giants to finding kimchi at the local grocery store or ending a Yoga class with “Namaste”) and people traveling back and forth between different cultural worlds has become part of the everyday. Globalization has definitely made TCKs more common. With increased ease of transportation and trade, many families live a lifestyle where cultural boundaries are no longer clear. There are also more and more Cross-Cultural Kids (or CCKs): children who lived in —or meaningfully interacted with—two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years. These can be traditional TCKs – children who move into another culture with parents due to a parent’s career choice – but also international adoptees, children of immigrants and refugees, bi/multi-cultural/ and/or bi/multi-racial children, children of minorities, and domestic TCKS – children who move in between sub-cultures in their own country.
No matter traditional TCK or CCK, all share a “dynamic in-betweenness.” They are the kids (and their adult equivalents, the ATCKs and ACCKs) who move easily and powerfully between different cultural traditions, acting appropriately and feeling at home in each. In doing so, an integrated, multi-cultural sense of self is cultivated. Rather than being defined by an either/or identity, there is the both/and sense of self. A sense of self I recognize in myself, Markus, and Indy. We share a curiosity in other cultures and the ability to adapt to any situation or environment. We also share confusion when we are defined by our passport culture. Because it’s not our passport culture that mirrors us. It’s with each other and the fellow members of our culturally-complex “tribe” where we feel a sense of belonging. Here belonging has little to do with geography, but is shaped and formed through a collection of personal interests, ideas and relationships accumulated over time. With shared multiplicity come shared experiences that are understood or even celebrated. Within the culturally complex, everybody is from everywhere and nowhere in particular, and we don’t need to explain ourselves. Instead, we simply build bridges across differences but never firmly settle on one side or another, in one place or another.
It’s while standing on this “bridge,” that we came to the idea of our story-driven online toy store. Over time, Indy’s toys gave us a sense of home. They weren’t just another car, block, plush monster, or pull-along animal. Toys became the small, portable objects that articulated identity, that we could all cling to with each subsequent move abroad. Indy still knows exactly where he found each and every toy he owns — Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Harrods in London, a small market in Berlin, or a souk in Qatar — and why he chose it, even if it was years ago. I can pick up one of his plush animals, smell it, and “feel” home. Markus can look at a Transformer and be reminded of that time in New York late at night, trying to turn a car into a robot to help Indy. Indy’s toys carry our family memories, and our memories feel like home. Toys are from everywhere and nowhere in particular. Turning toys into our family business felt like…home.
Frederick & Sophie has now become our digital portable object. No matter where we are, when we browse through our site, we see “our” selection of toys, “our” characters. It’s like a walk through our living room. There’s Wally, Frederick and Sophie smiling at us from afar. Behind our toy store’s scenes, worlds and cultures align. The site is my many talks with our illustrator, Maya, in the US, with our web developer, Michi, in Austria, and with our suppliers in the UK, France, and Germany. It’s the joy of selecting wooden toys made with so much care for people and the environment in Thailand, Indonesia, France, and China. It’s talking with toy manufacturers about adding more diversity to their dolls. It’s the excitement of exercising my imagination, finding new toys, coming up with many stories, writing around the world, and using my stories to invite our shoppers and readers from around the world to stand on that bridge with me. We receive emails and messages from clients in the UK, Abu Dhabi, USA, Australia, Norway, and Germany. It’s so much more than just a business, it’s our global “kitchen table,” it’s my third-culture family’s happy place, it’s “us, all-around-the-world” wrapped in toy-commerce.
With our home being continuously in flux, we find our constant in the digital world. Not just as e-commerce entrepreneurs, but also as an online school family. Since Grade 2, Indy is a Laurel Springs student, and he takes his online school with him wherever we are off to next. In Vienna and Milan, I sat down with Indy to work on his Native American medicine kit and museum of American History. We did many science experiments and discussed Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. in Dubai. Markus taught math in planes, hotel lobbies, and at kitchen tables around the world. This year, Indy started Grade 6 at The Academy of Laurel Springs with his US based teachers always only a click away.
Where is home? Where are we from? It definitely isn’t one dot on the map. It’s the sum of all the places, cultures, languages, foods, drinks, and people we have experienced so far. It is a bridge between the traditional lines of culture, identity, and within the context of our diverse experiences. During one of his Grade 5 Social Studies lessons, Indy asked me, “Mommy, doesn’t Bhinneka Tungal Ika mean exactly the same as E Pluribus Unum?” It’s true. The Indonesian national motto and the traditional motto of the United States have the same beautiful meaning: Out of many, one. It reflects the determination of both countries to embrace and unify all of their people’s diversity. Maybe it is also what best defines our home: Out of many places, one.
Home is where the heart is today. A heart filled with memories made around the world. And it’s a pretty wonderful place to be.