Memories of an expat childhood

Memories of an expat childhood

Mia Otzen from Expat Gypsies was fortunate enough to spend much of her childhood in different countries all over the world.  She was a true Third Culture Kid.  She talks us through memories of those times and brings us forward to the present day where she is giving her own children the same privileges.  She discusses the impact of being an expat on children.  Mia can be found on Instagram and Facebook.

My earliest memory is of being trapped.  I am about 3 years old. The room is unfamiliar; it is a small glassed room in the middle of a strange courtyard garden, in a house that is not my home. I am even aware that I am not even in my own country.  My little hands are pulling at the strange round door knob, but it won’t open.

The idealized view of an expat life with big private swimming pools does not always hold true - but the pure joy of water always does!

You would think that a memory like the one described would consume my little self with fear, even panic. Most children would be. But my memory of the feelings that fill my body are completely different. I remember laughing; being excited. I can hear my siblings laughing as they run around the garden and house exploring while they snicker at my predicament. My older brother is blowing raspberries and making faces at me through the window. I can hear the high-pitched voices and am worried because of the two women I have only recently been introduced to, but whom I already feel so safe and happy with.  Their hugs waiting for me as they manage to unlock the door and check every inch of my giggling squirming body. The air is hot and humid but filled with exotic smells from the kitchen and the funny bike horns from the street. The lush garden plants seem to be pulsating with life. My mother come and thanks the ladies and scolds my siblings, while setting me on the ground and encouraging me to go off and explore our new home some more. 

My parents had travelled from suburban 1980’s Denmark with their four children to Sulawesi, Indonesia where we would spend the next four years. After that there was Tanzania, Pakistan and Uganda.

Every journey, every new country held a complicated puzzle of beauty, excitement and amazing people but also chaos, danger and complexities that even as a young child I had to learn to navigate. Combining an understanding and respect of people that would invite us into their culture and homes, and at the same time accepting that we were visitors and had no right to judge their politics or history.

My parents were in many ways the perfect expat guides. They insisted we try and eat as much local food as possible. As a young child my absolute favourite dishes were frogs’ legs at the small shack restaurants at the market place or listening out for the Soto soup seller wheeling his cart around our streets.

There were many idyllic holidays on pristine beaches or scouting for wild animals on safaris, but my parents didn’t blanch at opening windows on ancient customs that to many Westerners may seem bizarre or frightening. I was in the front row as a 6-year-old witnessing the sacrifice of a water buffalo at a funeral in Toraja, the dark spray of blood and the quick death of the animal imprinted on me. But the respect and calm of our hosts showed me that it was nothing to be afraid of and again the memory of my feelings reflect that. 

In Africa we would visit the local stalls selling boot leg liquor and my father would chat to the men there, discussing their brewing methods. In Pakistan we went to the exciting cattle festivals and visited tool smiths and rich landowners alike, leaning that democracy and politics in countries are more complicated than Western media portrays. I went to weddings where brides would cry from being forced to marry an unknown cousin and feeling the helplessness of not being able help.

And so, I grew. I probably became someone who is open to new experiences and adventures, but also sometimes emotionally distant, too used to goodbyes and ignoring poverty and pain. My taste for experiences was warped, a bit like an adrenalin junky being bored with most activities, I became bored with daily routine and life.

I stayed with my parents and traveling until my high school years, and finally in 2000 I moved to the UK to pursue my university studies. But my heart was already waiting to go roaming as soon as I could get away. When I met my future husband, one of the things that made us bond immediately was that we had both grown up as expat kids and it was a future we wanted for ourselves and our children. Our common focus almost from the start was to finish our university degrees in the UK and get jobs ourselves as expats.

It took 12 years of studies and working hard before we got our first posting. Our oldest was almost three, and our youngest was six months old. We set off on a plane to take us back to South East Asia where we both had our earliest memories.

Immediately landing in Brunei I felt at home. We all relaxed and felt happy immediately. I had left my job as an engineer when our first son was born, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to spend these precious years with them and giving them the same upbringing as mine. We spent five and half beautiful years there, enjoying a close-knit community, a loving amah who is part of our family, and amazing holidays. I have mellowed a lot after becoming a parent.  Goodbyes are harder now and I am more emotionally sensitive, but I am happy to be more open now and feel that pain.  It makes me appreciate what I have so much more.

Holidays can be on beautiful beaches, to teaching the kids the beauty of the powerful earth with visits to Mt. Bromo Volcano

When I meet other expat parents and they find out I grew up as an expat kid, they often ask how I adapted. They worry about their own parenting choices as they move their children from school to school, country to country. Do they become entitled and lazy?  But I try to reassure them that it is the best gift they can give their children. A recurring theme seems to be that we adapted and thrived in unusual and new situations, not to mention seeing the excitement and appreciation in meeting new people and cultures.

Of course, not all my childhood memories are happy and carefree. There are plenty that show the heart aches and struggles of a nomadic child, and you don’t always escape the other sad memories that all children encounter including bullying or loss of friends. You can also feel alienated and different from other children in your home country, unable to be honest about your upbringing and not feeling understood.  Often feeling you have to hide or hold back sharing your happy memories. Luckily you find as with all things that true friends will embrace and appreciate this part of you.

And do they become spoiled expat brats? The holidays certainly spoil them not only with an expectation of amazing experiences, but also a certain level of accommodation. However, at home in Brunei the community and country was unique. Most people had high end incomes, but due to the lack of choice in shops children often got second hand clothes, bikes and toys from neighbors and friends. Advertising and commercialization was heavily controlled and monitored in Brunei, which meant the kids were influenced less.  There was no sense of “being cool”or having to have branded clothing.

The circle completed in 2013 when we moved to Brunei.

Our eldest son once asked, “what does it means to be rich?”, and we answered “that if you are able to go on holiday then you are rich.” He could see the sense in this, and as most people he knew went on holiday it meant he knew there was no point in comparing ourselves to others with whom had what.

An expat child’s tapestry of life explodes with color, smells and smiles. The opportunity to experience different cultures, food and people is not something that can be taught in a classroom. And it isn’t just the gifts the host country can give your child; their friends and class mates in their local or international school makes them feel part of larger world community and connected to places they may never even visit. It makes them feel part of something bigger.

I hope my children have the same kind of memories as I have, of happiness, bravery and respect even in situations that at first may seem frightening but knowing that there is always people around them to guide and protect them.

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Alison Johnson

Alison is a travel junkie, digital nomad and the co-founder of She has lived in 7 countries on 4 continents and is passionate about opening the world up for others.

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