By Suzi Livingstone
So what’s it like to raise your kids in Cambodia? Much the same as anywhere, I suppose. I have good days and bad days, laughter and tears, hopes and worries. The popular phrase parroted by Southeast Asian vendors, “same same but different,” pretty much sums it up.
There are perks. I do things every day that are illegal or frowned upon in Canada: breastfeed while driving, let store staff look after my kids while I shop, bring my kids out for dinner at fancy restaurants. Coffee shops have play areas, parking attendants get children in and out of car seats, and house help is cheap. I can buy things without ever getting out of the tuktuk, as long as I can yell loud enough. I can afford to be a stay-at-home mom. I have grown accustomed to these things, and sometimes realize that parenting back home would be much more difficult without them.
Like all mothers, I also have fears, albeit different ones than when I was raising my firstborn back home. I live in fear of dengue fever. Of motorcycle accidents. Of contaminated water. Of a medical system that simply isn’t good enough. Of the day when I will have to fork out monumental sums to educate my children at international school, or embark on the challenging journey of homeschooling.
It’s funny that things that are so familiar to me are totally foreign to my kids – things like grass, and carpet, and four seasons. I miss parks. I miss being cold and the colours of fall. I miss long-term relationships.
My children are conspicuous here. They are both chubby and blonde and therefore very popular. This means they are routinely pinched and sniffed by passers-by, but so well loved. I have had to learn to let complete strangers take my children out of my arms and walk away with them. I sometimes worry that whenever we move back to Canada, my sons will develop a complex as they realize that they’re not actually that big a deal.
There are hard decisions to make, both big and small. Being pregnant for the second time while living here caused me to ask questions that never occurred to me during my first pregnancy in Canada. Questions such as: What country will I give birth in? How quickly can I get a passport issued? Do I pay a ludicrous amount of money to fly home and give birth surrounded by familiar people, while staying in someone else’s guestroom and leaving my job on hold for months, or go to a nearby country with good hospitals where I know no one and will spend weeks killing time in a hotel room? There are no right answers.
It’s both and. Loss and gain. My kids never get to celebrate their birthdays with their grandparents, but they have an incredibly international group of friends. They can gorge themselves on tropical fruit year-round, and never see snow. They say a lot of goodbyes, but that means they have loved ones all around the world. There is a huge cost to living here.
But is it worth it?
They are growing up knowing that not everyone looks like them, thinks like them, or speaks like them. They have an intrinsic appreciation for other cultures and an understanding that there is no one “normal.” They hear multiple languages every day. They are good travellers, they know how to adapt to change big and small, and they understand that “home” is where mama and dada are.
It matters to me that my kids are seeing poverty firsthand. It matters to me that they are getting a glimpse of how big and diverse and broken and unspeakably beautiful our world is. I want to raise them such that they believe in peace and fight for equality and truly believe that we all have a responsibility to one another.
I want them to know how privileged they are to hold a passport, to have access to medical care, to go to school and have boundless opportunities ahead. I want them to experience things I only ever read about in books as a child. There is so much to see and learn, and they are certainly seeing and learning here.
I hope with all my heart that they grow up grateful for the choice we made to raise them this way, even with all the uncertainty and massive transitions. I hope our families forgive us for taking their grandbabies away, and understand why.
I hope they have nomadic hearts but also know how to be present and rooted wherever they are. I hope they are okay with having two homes, and with never fully being at home in either. Cambodia is familiar, but they’ll never be Cambodian; Canada is where they were born, but they’ve barely lived there. Whenever we move back, they’ll be outsiders there too. I hope people are kind to them while they figure out how to live there. I hope they’re kind to me, too, as I figure out what it means to be a mother there.
And I hope they remember this experience. We don’t know how long we’ll live here or where we’ll live next, and sometimes I am struck by the realization that my sons may have no conscious memory of living in Cambodia, while for me it is inextricably linked with my experience of motherhood.
I hope I hope I hope.
Like every mother.
One of the biggest gifts, for me, has been the people around me. The mama community that I have been welcomed into here is the most beautiful I have ever known. In Canada I found that having children was usually enough of a commonality to forge a relationship, but here there is a solidarity, an appreciation of the shared struggle, a similarity of worldview, and a desperation for community that means someone you meet at the grocery store check-out can quickly become one of your closest friends. I am so deeply grateful for the women I am mothering alongside here, and the fact that they wordlessly understand the frustrations and joys of this lifestyle.
At the same time, I miss having friends who knew me before I was a mother, friends who remember that I am educated and used to meet deadlines and leave the house fully dressed and get stuff done. Friends who love my children because they love me and they shared the anticipation. I miss their children. It breaks my heart that I don’t know them. I wish I could be at their births, or at least their birthday parties.
I didn’t know, when I dreamed of having children, that this is what motherhood would look like for me. And one day it will look different, when we move internationally again or decide to return home. But for now, I am here: a mother in Asia. Doing my best. It’s a beautiful chapter of my story.
Suzi Livingstone is a Canadian living in Cambodia. Her first son was born in Vancouver before her family moved overseas, and they traveled back to Canada to give birth to their second son earlier this year.
This piece was inspired by countless conversations with other mamas in Cambodia, who share the joys and challenges of raising children in a culture not our own.