The First Goodbye

Before the pandemic began, my nephew left for another country and I wrote a little tribute to him soon after. This is an edited version of two previous posts.


My nephew is aged two years and a bit. Sometimes he speaks little sentences, sometimes Frenchy jibberish.

When a plane flies overhead, he hears its far away howl no matter the commotion in the room. Ears perked up and eyes locked with yours—he gasps: ‘Awat? Kouki!’

Photo of a toddler at an airport looking out the window at airplanes. This is his first move and first goodbye.
My nephew looking out the window at an airport

They both mean ‘airplane’. In my nephew’s toddler language, ‘awat’ is short for pesawat and ‘kouki’ is short for hikouki. The first is in Indonesian, his parent’s language, and the second is in Japanese, his grandmother’s language

So, we pick him up and dash outside to the backyard chasing the sound.

Sometimes we see nothing, and we just wait until the howl drowns out. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of the flying steel as it goes across the sky from behind the roof to behind the clouds.

At times like this, his arm is raised high and his little finger points at the sky. Still sitting in your arms, again, he gasps: ‘Kouki!’

One day last month, he fell asleep and woke up at the airport just after daybreak in another country. He and his parents were on their way to move across the Pacific Ocean. He looked out the big windows—and oh, the delight! So many airplanes, so close to him.

Auntie wasn’t there, but I could hear him squeal from across the seas.


It’s now been a couple of weeks since my nephew left Indonesia. It broke my parents’ heart and mine. We were the ones who had been left behind, not him, but we didn’t think he’d understand.

The other day, we video called him. ‘Jiiji! Baaba! Auntie!’ squealed my nephew as he called out to his grandpa and grandma in Japanese. As for me, he calls me ‘auntie’ because the Japanese version—obachan—is one too many syllables for a two-year old.

In his broken, toddler Indonesian, he told his grandparents that he wanted to come over to their house the next day. My sister, who was sitting next to him, explained that it was too far. We agreed with her.

So, my nephew asked us to come over instead. His eyes sparkled at his own brilliant solution to the problem.

But still we told him that we couldn’t. ‘Why?’ he demanded. It was still too far, we said. We would need to take an ‘Awat’ or ‘Kouki’, we explained.

He told us to take that airplane. We explained again. My sister tried too. My brother-in-law also chimed in to help.

Then, my usually hyperactive nephew fell silent. He continued to sit there, squeezed between his mother and father, on the new sofa in the new apartment. But his eyes were on the floor. He didn’t look at the phone screen again or say another word for the rest of the call.

At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that he was there but we were not.


You may also be interested in:

‘Why are all the local kids sitting together in the cafeteria?’ Presenting at the AIELOC Conference

The Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color (AIELOC) has joined hands with Women of Color in ELT to host a free online conference on November 14-15, 2020.

I’ll be speaking on the first day on: Why are all the local kids sitting together in the cafeteria? (Saturday, November 14 at 9:30AM New York (EST) / 3:30PM Berlin / 10:30PM Singapore & Perth.)

I’ll be speaking alongside a host of selected speakers, many of whom have been advocating for diversity in the international education sector for awhile. Among those who I know or have heard of are:

Amanda Bates who is the founder of The Black Expat and hosts The Global Chatter podcast.

Jasmine Cochran who was interviewed by the BBC in the wake of the George Floyd’s death as the news and protests began affecting students in her international school classroom. She was interviewed by Sundae Bean of the Expat Happy Hour.

Dominique Blue who is an international educator and part of the AIELOC Advisory Council. She is an advocate of diversity and has been a great supporter of TCKs of Asia and the research that I do.

Daniel Wickner who is an international educator and has been advocating for the importance of affirming students’ identities within the classroom.

To register or for more details, visit the AIELOC website. Scroll down to find the speaker bios, schedule/agenda, and session descriptions for each day.

Why are all the local kids sitting together in the cafeteria?

Saturday, November 14. 9:30AM New York (EST) / 3:30PM Berlin / 10:30PM Singapore & Perth.

In 1997, Beverly Tatum wrote that, upon seeing a group of Black students on an American campus, “The question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is ‘Why are the Black kids sitting together?’ Principals want to know, teachers want to know, White students want to know, the Black students who aren’t sitting at the table want to know.” The same was true at the international school where Danau Tanu conducted her doctoral research, except the main concern was the “local kids” of the host country and the “Korean kids.” These students were seen as “self-segregating” and “not international.” But were they really?

In this session, Danau will demonstrate how the biases and prejudices held by the administrators and educators at the international school contributed to the issue of “self segregation” on their campus. The mostly white, Anglophone teachers acted as gatekeepers for the dominant culture of the school and determined who was considered “international” and who was accused of “self-segregating.” The expectation they placed on students to assimilate into the dominant school culture acted as a crucial push factor that caused students to retreat into their language groups. Danau will also show that the high student turnover rate at schools catering to internationally mobile children can further exacerbate the formation of cliques based on race or language for students who do not fit in with the dominant school culture.

Danau’s research data is based on a yearlong participant observation conducted at an international school and over 130 in-depth, ethnographic interviews with high school students, their parents, alumni and teacher.

Third Culture Stories – a podcast by TCKs of Asia

TCKs of Asia has just launched our new podcast: Third Culture Stories! It’s where ‘Third Culture Kids’ share stories from Asia.

Icon for Third Culture Stories podcast. Tree with leaves in diverse colors.
Design by Karen Tan of ThinkImpact

We can experience the liminal in-between spaces of the third culture as a child in many ways – by growing up internationally, through education, being mixed, migration, international adoption and so on.

Third Culture Stories is about uncovering what we share in spite of our differences.

We are excited to share our first two episodes with the world. Both episodes are based on the live forums hosted by TCKs of Asia.

Third Culture Stories – Episode 1. Third Culture Kids & Family Ties: Relationships with Parents & Siblings

Click here to read speaker profiles and access the PowerPoint slides for Episode 1.

Third Culture Stories – Episode 2. Language & Power: Stories from Asia

This episode was a collaboration between myself and Isabelle Min, a former radio host and KBS broadcaster as well as one of the first generation of Koreans who grew up overseas. It was also informed by my research, Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School.

Click here to read Isabelle’s profile for Episode 2.

Coming up on October 6! – A Foreigner in My Own Family: The Hidden Loss of Language & Intimacy

If you like the podcast, don’t forget to register for our next open forum!

Poster with boy wearing DIY superman cape and pointing to the sky. TCKs of Asia presents an open forum. A Foreigner in My Own Family: The Hidden Loss of Language and Intimacy.
Design by Asako Noda

TCKs of Asia: A Foreigner in My Own Family. The hidden loss of language & intimacy

TCKs of Asia is back! For those who don’t know, I’ve been involved with a group of friends who run online forums for TCKs with some sort—any sort—of an Asian connection. Many of the themes we cover aren’t unique to TCKs of Asia but we had to call it something, right?

Read on for more details or register now.

Poster: TCKs of Asia presents an open forum. A Foreigner in My Own Family: The Hidden Loss of Language & Intimacy. Tue, 6 Oct, 9AM NY, 3PM Berlin, 9PM HK.
Design by Asako Noda. To register: tiny.cc/ask7dz

‘My parents wanted me to learn English and fit in. But they expect me to be fully Asian too. They don’t understand that I sometimes feel I’m not Western enough and I’m not Asian enough.’

Many Third Culture Kids (TCKs) grow up speaking a different language from one or both of their parents. Some experience a disconnect, a lack of language to communicate with those who are closest to them: their families. To one degree or another, they may feel a sense of loss of home language and culture, as well as the frustration of not being understood by their own family.

From the earliest age, children get their cultural cues from their parents, who are important anchors and mirrors for a child’s identity. But when a child’s strongest language is different from that of one or both of their parents — and because language and culture are so closely intertwined — it can create a sense of cultural disconnection that can affect the parent-child relationship, even into adulthood.

In this open forum, we will hear from a few Third Culture Kids about how becoming fluent in English or losing their home language complicated their relationship with their parents, their home culture and their sense of identity. We will also have time for an open discussion with all attendees.


From the TCKs of Asia website

Featuring Ardi Kuhn, Aiko Minematsu, Karen Tan, Isabelle Min and myself.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020
6am Los Angeles – 9am New York – 2pm Lagos – 3pm Berlin – 4pm Beirut – 9pm Singapore & Perth – 10pm Seoul & Tokyo

Click below for speaker bios & more details.


Structural racism in international schools: What do students think?

UPDATE 3/9/2020: The recording from the webinar is now available online here.

I will be giving a talk about structural racism at international schools as seen through the eyes of Third Culture Kids (TCKs). It’s for a webinar series hosted by the Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color (AIELOC).

International educators are on the frontlines of the international school community’s ‘BLM moment’. So, I am thrilled that I’ll get to share my research with international educators on August 12.

Let me explain what I’ll be talking about.

What do students think? Structural racism at international schools in the eyes of 'Third Culture Kids' - AIELOC webinar poster
Watch the webinar recording

‘Racist’ parents?

I have been following the discussions that have erupted within the international school communities surrounding the issue of structural racism within the expat and Third Culture Kid worlds. The recurring question that seemingly has no answer is: What do we do about the ‘racist’ parents?

When BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and Persons of Color) teachers criticize an international school’s racist hiring practices, school administrators often shift the blame to the students’ parents.

Sign a petition to Eliminate photos from CVs and ‘Native English speaker only’ language in applications

These administrators say, ‘Parents are the ones who are racist. Parents are the ones who want white teachers.’ They imply that the white school administrators are innocent. They claim that they are merely responding to the racist BIPOC parents who want to use money to purchase ‘whiteness’ for their BIPOC children. They are saying that their hands are tied because if they don’t pander to the racist parents, then there will be no money to keep the school running.

Or so the argument goes. How bloody convenient is that? Too convenient.

But is there a way out of this bind? Yes!

How do we convince parents that structural racism in international schools is bad for their child?

Parents will go to great lengths to ensure that their children get the best that they can afford. They pay exorbitant amounts of money to send their children to international schools because they believe that it will allow their children to acquire the skills and credentials needed to get ahead in an increasingly globalizing world.

Parents believe that international schools with white teachers who speak English with ‘the right accent’ is their children’s ticket to a better, more economically successful life. This is because, thanks to the cultural legacies of the British Empire and European colonialism, the current system of multinational corporations and international organizations is dominated by those who can speak English.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

But what if we told parents that putting their child through a racist educational system will negatively affect their child’s self-esteem and confidence? What if we told them that it will cause their children to waste time and energy to resolve their struggles with identity and internalized racism? What if we told them that these issues can stifle their child’s gifts and potential?

Would parents listen then? I believe so.

Where is the research to back it up?

Yet, systemic racism works to sustain itself and resist anything that would try to dismantle it. So, you can expect the school administrators to follow up with this: But how do we convince parents that a racist educational system is bad for their children when there is no research to back this up?

Sign a petition for the Explicit inclusion of anti-racism in international accreditation standards

Actually, there is research to support the call for equity in the international school system. In Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School, you can find the voices of international school students who are advocating for themselves. Students who participated in the research talk a plenty about the perils of an educational system that privileges whiteness.

There is also a lot of research that has been conducted in national contexts that are also applicable in international contexts.

What topics will we cover?

Recently, Joel Jr Llaban, an international educator who started a petition for the explicit inclusion of anti-racism in international accreditation standards, said that dismantling systemic racism within the international school system is a ‘child-protection issue’.

In the upcoming webinar hosted by AIELOC, I will offer listeners the research evidence needed to convince school administrators and parents that anti-racism is good for their students and children.

I will cover the following topics:

  • How do we make these uncomfortable conversations more comfortable?
  • How do students who do not come from non-English-speaking backgrounds and/or are not white experience the international school system?
  • How do school administrators, teachers, and the curriculum sustain systemic racism in international schools?
  • How do we convince parents that change is important?

When?

August 12, 2020 at 7am New York (EST) / 7pm Perth.

Join us for the conversation!

UPDATE 3/9/2020: You can now watch The recording below

Learn more about Growing Up in Transit