Growing Up Expat
How My Expat Childhood Continues to Be Part of Who I Am Today
By Faiza Karim
Published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 21 | Nov/Dec 2015
Funny how now as a woman in my early 40s, having spent more than three decades in Canada, I realize I have always been a global citizen at heart. It’s true what they say… your roots really do matter.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve debated – both with others and myself – about what “roots” or “origins” really mean. Is it where you were born? Is it where your parents were born? Is it where your grandparents were born? Can it be a place where maybe you weren’t born… or perhaps even never lived?
Is it the type of food, music, art or clothing we include as a part of our daily lives? Is it the language we speak at home, or maybe learned as a child? Is it where we have spent most of our lives? Or can it be a place where perhaps we spent only a brief period of time but it somehow imprinted on us?
These are the types of questions I have debated, with friends, family, strangers… even with myself. In the end, I’ve concluded there is NO single answer we can all agree on. Let the debate continue. But what hit me one afternoon a year ago while sipping tea in my kitchen, what I’ve come to realize in my life, is that for me the answer is clear.
My roots – that part of my psyche that is a seed, my origins, where I began – amount to one thing: the place I was born and where my life began.
This place is Zambia, Africa.
My life began, as strange as it sounds, as an expat. My parents had recently arrived there – one month before my birth, to be exact – after having lived, studied and traveled in Asia, Europe and South America. They were an exuberant, intellectual young couple, about to become parents. Having just arrived to a new country, a new continent, in fact – with my father furthering his academic career – I can only imagine how terrifying and electrifying this experience must have been for them.
Growing up, and still to this day, and especially now that I live away from them, I love hearing the Karim-dinner-time stories my parents share of those early days as newcomers to Zambia.
Their struggles leaving their family and social supports behind; bringing me home from the hospital in a cardboard box (soon to be crib!); my dad’s potentially life-ending encounters with wildlife; and having to learn quickly the daily complexities of African metropolitan living.
To capture the essence of my life in Africa on paper wouldn’t do it justice, but for me, what I took from their stories was simple: My parents were young adventurers seeking better opportunities for themselves and for their growing family, willing to take risks (and there were many), accepting of the challenges that arose on a daily basis, and above all, embracing their life with a spirit of abundant open-mindedness and curiosity.
My own childhood in Africa as an expat little girl was exactly a reflection of these values. In fact it was a part of our daily life, our survival, our existence. My friends were from every part of the world, many of them expats themselves, and many of them native Africans. We all came from families as different as one could imagine. Our mindset allowed us to embrace these differences among us, and just be children together. As a young family we traveled often to different parts of Africa, Europe and Asia. Seeing people of every creed, color, accent, language – their food, dress, festivals, music – were all part of my childhood. I also caught disturbing glimpses of adult global issues: racism, poverty, hunger, uncertainties and extravagance.
Our journey then led us eight and a half years later to Canada, where in 1982 we landed at Pearson International Airport as proud new immigrants. I will never forget that late summer day… sitting in the new immigrant arrival room with my parents, where a very friendly Canadian lady gave my brother and me crayons, a maple-leaf-adorned coloring book and stickers. Being so accustomed to adventure as an expat child, I recall thinking how a new one was just beginning. More adventures followed when a few hours later I ran outside of the airport eager to touch snow for the first time… only to feel perplexed why it was as warm and sunny as it was on the continent we had just left.
Now, more than 30 years later, as I sip my warm Canadian Chai, I realize that as a woman, wife, daughter, sister, friend and mother, every part of my day-to-day life is in some way impacted by those early adventures. Being an expat child was like living on a high. The sheer volume of life experiences was like squeezing a galaxy into a bottle.
I believe, right down to the core of who I am, that the way in which I view the world, how I choose to interact with others, especially those who are different or marginalized, and the values I strive to instill in my own children are all derived from that place I call my roots. That precocious expat girl still thrives inside me.
An excerpt from a poem I once wrote says it best:
That mango tree, where dad made our beloved swing
At the threshold of our garden
Where my little brother and I, spent hours, in the dense African jungle
We knew as our backyard
Earning scabby knees for all our adventures
Befriending the resident chameleon
Our ebony, peach and mocha-skinned friends
All of us covered in African dirt
Mom standing gracefully
Smiling at us in her sari and pearls
The aroma of her mouth-watering curry wafting over to us
Sadly calling it a day
I can still see myself
Sitting upon that swing
Dreaming of my next big adventure
Of sharing mangoes and stories with friends
I am still there
The Nov/Dec 2015 issue of Global Living Magazine is FREE in our app!
If you enjoyed this article, SHARE it with your friends, fellow expats and international networks!