“I Knew Flags, I didn’t Know Allegiance”

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Last month, I found my son Micah’s college essay. I was sorting through some papers in a desperate attempt to find a medical document. As often happens when you begin sorting, you find papers and letters from long ago and you end up lost in a past time and place.

Micah’s essay focused on our first year in the United States. He was eight going on nine , a free-spirited active boy who had spent his entire life in Cairo, Egypt. The essay was a window into his memories, a window into the way his memories differed from mine. He talked about his first day at an American school, how he did not take his precious baseball hat off, because he didn’t know that this was a sign of respect to the flag and the pledge.  He wrote about being made fun of because he didn’t know the Pledge of Allegiance. “I knew flags,” he said “but I didn’t know allegiance.”

He described the contrast between his small, one-room school house in Cairo and the seemingly huge elementary school where he was the new kid. In reality, the school was small by American standards, but to Micah and his siblings, it was huge.

Mostly he wrote about the solace that he found in a pond in back of our house that year. We rented a ranch-style house, nothing special. It had four small bedrooms and a bright orange kitchen that the advertisement had described as “large and country.” It sat just off a busy street in a small, New England town. A wooden jungle gym in the back was perfect for a family with five children. We were used to renting apartments in a large city – this house, while not large, had both the jungle gym and land in the back with a stream that widened into a small pond in the woods.

The year that we returned was chaotic and filled with transition and grief. After carefully preparing for months, everything that could go wrong did. We arrived in Massachusetts tired and wounded.

It was at the pond where adventure abounded and joy could not be squelched. “At the pond I could be anything I wanted to be.” he said. “One day I could be a pirate sailing the Seven Seas, the next an explorer discovering a new land.” Every day, whether rain or sun, whether cold or hot, my children played in and around that pond. It was a place that was safe from the do’s and don’ts of adults, open to all the possibilities that a child needs to grow. The pond brought extraordinary comfort and escape from family and parental turmoil by providing room for imagination and adventure.

The expat parent and the third culture kid have vastly different memories of the same events. Children see events through the lens of childhood; they don’t know everything that goes into a decision or a move.  Parents decide what and how to communicate. Children are left with half the details and in their minds they fill in the rest of the story. They interpret events through the often limited details they know and it can be many years later that they understand the entire story. Children are excellent recorders of events, but not always reliable interpreters. In the words of my son, they “know flags, but they don’t know allegiance.”

Until I read the essay, I didn’t realize the significance of the pond. I didn’t know that this small body of water, secluded from the world of transition, was a place of imagination and solace. The year that my son looks back on as full of possibility, I remember as incredibly difficult. Unbeknownst to me, a pond and children were creating their own alternate memories that would serve them well through the years, well enough to make a difficult transition bearable. A pond became a balm and comfort, nature doing what it does so well – providing healing and fostering resilience.

16 thoughts on ““I Knew Flags, I didn’t Know Allegiance”

  1. two things —

    1) although this is about tck’s, which i was not, it made me think about the fact that my siblings and i have very different memories about our childhood, so much so that i sometimes wonder if we grew up in the same family, although we were close in age and went through almost all of it together! a very tangential point to your essay, i realize….

    2) another very tangential point: when we moved from egypt to the uk, we knew very few people in the whole country, the wind and rain blew sideways trapping us indoors, after the constant egyptian sunshine, the coldness of the londoners compared to the warm egyptians echoed the weather contrasts, and i felt so isolated in a place we were only going to be for a few months. but every day i looked out our kitchen window at the little pond in the back. and growing beside it was a single yellow tulip, which i called “my tulip of hope.” God used it to help me get through the early, dreary weeks of that spring.

    3) good post (ok, i never said i was good at math)

    xo

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  2. I agree about how we as parents often don’t realize how our expat children are perceiving their experiences….even ones we all share as a family. Just yesterday, my 14 year old daughter who has never lived in her home country, randomly mentioned how much she loves driving to the airport, which is always in the middle of the night, groggy maybe but with an adrenaline-rush. Even if she’s not the one to get on the flight, it fills her with excitement. Honestly, I have just the opposite reaction – because of the usual stress of managing the packing and leaving and a million other arrangements to do with “home-visits” as well as the sleeplessness and long flights to come. But I was delighted to hear that she had a quite different experience of it all ! That she could love what I had learned to hate – well, that was wonderful to me, and showed me another example of God’s faithfulness and intimate care for each of our/His children. Apparently, He can bring them joy in the most unlikely places! :)

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    1. Oh my gosh! I’m just like your daughter. I LOVE going to the airport! Whether to pick up or leave myself. I was talking to a group of TCKs at a conference in March and we were laughing about how we don’t mind security checks or the smell of airplane fuel – and the food!! We love the food! How weird is that?

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  3. I love listening to kids, now adults with their own kids talking about their years in Bolivia. Also our grandchildren from our daughter spent most their growing up years in a remote village in Papua New Guinea, they can tells some stories. Our children have never regretted the years we gave them overseas even the hard ones. It has shaped them into caring outside the box people. Their world is big enough to hold many others. I think furloughs were the hardest, the word goes by so fast in a developed country and it takes an MK a lot of time to adjust to. Most do the adjustment better then the adults. Good post.

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  4. This post resonated with me, as my girls found the same solace in a small pond on the property we stayed while on our last furlough. As a family, we’d recently been through a very difficult time, and God knew that we needed a comfort-spot like that place to help us on our road to healing. It gave me a sense of relief coupled with joy to realize they were enjoying themselves, despite what we had been through. Leaving the place with the pond was hard for them. They look back on it with such fondness. I think their memories in later years will be similar to your son’s. Love that Mk’s share these common bonds of their unique life.

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    1. I remember the first month that we were there. We had no money (all or savings was being eaten up with no jobs) my husband and I would job search and send out resumes in the morning and head to the ocean with the two little ones in the afternoon. God met us so powerfully with those ocean waves, just as he met Micah through that pond.

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  5. Yes, there are times throughout life when we need to find our “balm in Gilead.” Those special places do become a balm and comfort – providing healing and fostering resilience, just as you have written, Marilyn. A beautiful essay.

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