A Family in Every Country

Families who move countries regularly share a certain spirit, an ‘impermanence’, which quite paradoxically can lead to strong and lasting bonds.

The annual school hiatus – summer breaks, October breaks, Christmas breaks and Easter breaks – often signal transitions; departures, goodbyes and heartbreaks, friends moving away, pink slips and uncertainties (given current times), graduations and moving on.

Transition and change, ever present in our lives, was never more highlighted than when Aideen invited me to join a public speaking group – parents from school – all ascending the learning curve of standing up and speaking out – without fear, with confidence.

My first instinct was to say no, in alarm and consternation. And then in a rush, before I had time to think it over, I emailed her a yes and took a deep breath.

I said yes because it was Aideen – friend and erstwhile neighbor – and our shared history spanned leaking roofs, feuding pets, a common gate, a marauding python, garage sales and some very interesting dinners and barbecues … so why not ‘public speaking’?

The group of eight parents had chosen their topics independently. Interestingly, almost all of the themes had to do with the very essence of being an impermanent resident – transitions, stepping out of comfort zones, challenges, unwritten pages, chapters closed and chapters beginning.

Aideen held up Spencer Johnson’s book Who Moved My Cheese ? and proceeded to sketch the analogies between our personal calendar of desires – a different lifestyle, a job, a relationship, money, freedom, health, recognition, spiritual peace … or even public speaking … and the simple story line of the book (of mice and men and what happens when the cheese – aka comfort zones aka security aka certitudes – suddenly disappears).

The parallels were simple.

The reality of our lives, she said, is change, continual change; difficult, uncomfortable, frightening, sometimes all of it all at the same time. Our community is, by its very definition, transitory and at the beginning of a school year, we are either moving our families to a new country – or continent – or some of our friends or colleagues are. And we lose them. New families arrive and we welcome them; we accommodate them in our lives.

Or, it is the time when our children have finished school and are leaving home, continuing their education, not in a town or city just a few hours drive away, but across continents. Australia, Europe. Perhaps the Americas.

Change … difficult, uncomfortable, frightening; sometimes all of it all at the same time. And we learn to anticipate it, almost always proactively. And when it happens, we embrace it.

I was given a list of topics and two minutes for an impromptu delivery. A quote from John Lilly found immediate resonance: Our only security is our ability to change.

And our reality I wondered ? It has to be our shared differences. Local or expatriate, resident or non-resident, visitor or native – the phases come and go and we are continually in flux; some more than others.

Impermanents aka impermanent residents shoulder additional challenges – the guilt and the fact of aging parents in distant countries, adapting to different cultures and climates, myriad education systems, the absence of family support groups, the leaving behind of good friends, the need to create comfort zones for the children and the family, multiple homes, the giving up of jobs, the learning of new languages, the inexorable building of friendships and relationships, the putting down of tentative roots; the providing of stability while acknowledging the impermanence … and the circle begins all over again.

On the flip side are the opportunities – and the time – to build bridges spanning the familiar and newly found.

Soon, it is a whole new family: Gina, who takes care of home and kitchen, laundry and pets, Mr. Chong, who massages feet back to health; Denis who does odd jobs but is never on time because he is probably counseling prisoners, Desmond, who diffidently suggests organic ‘chicken poo’ for the red palms, Mari, celebrating her fortieth with a splash-out lunch in Indonesia, a couple of hours away by ferry (bring your passport, do you need a visa ? we’ll be back by dusk), Usman who home delivers mutton, Richard who converts photographs to canvas, Christine who alters clothes, Mr. Lim who drives children to school but doesn’t speak English.

Change, as Aideen suggested, can be difficult, uncomfortable and frightening – and sometimes all of it altogether – but its glory and grace lie in the providential discoveries of new families and friends, all waiting to be found (before they get left behind), always just a heartbeat away.

Photographs by Anita Thomas

Visit www.singaporeforkids.com

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