I didn’t make the decision to raise my daughter in Nepal lightly. But the opportunities it presented far outweighed any challenges I could think of: I could do research for my PhD and spend more time with my daughter, Miriam, and she could have a happier childhood, growing up in a country that loves children and gives them room to actually be children. All that proved to be true: Nepal is a very special place.
But as parents, we don’t—or can’t—always see all the potential consequences of our actions. When our kids are young, we think we know everything about their world, and it’s all too easy to forget that they see things differently than we do.
For me, the true impact of that big decision only hit me when we were back home, visiting family in Germany three years after we moved. My father had invited us over for dinner. We got there a bit early, so when we arrived, my dad was still busy preparing potato pancakes in the kitchen. It was a nice, uneventful visit. But on the drive back to where we were staying that night, my six-year-old daughter couldn’t stop giggling. When I asked her what was up, she said, “He cooked. He is a man, and he cooked. That is so funny. Isn’t he ashamed?”
I probed further and, to my horror, discovered that Miriam also thought women couldn’t drive motorbikes, girls had to get married as soon as possible, and men should not have to clean anything. Still in shock, I asked, “Why would you think something like that? Who told you that?” Her answer was simple. “No one told me that,” she replied. “That is just how things are in Nepal!” Only then did I realize that growing up in a different culture was affecting her on so many more levels than I had imagined.
Naively, I thought my own influence on my daughter’s perceptions would be stronger. I completely underestimated the effects of the broader culture and overestimated her capacity to extrapolate from our personal life. After all, she sees me work and her father cook—in our family, gender roles aren’t as rigid. I immediately started giving her a crash course in feminism. And in the two years since that incident at my father’s house, we have talked over gender roles a million times, and I’ve gotten much better at pointing out all the instances where Western culture differs from that of Nepal. Whenever we have the choice between a male and female taxi drivers, I choose the female one. I point out other families where the husband cooks and cleans while the wife works at an office. I try to squeeze in teachable moments whenever I can.
On some level, I think it’s good for her to see such stark differences up close. I grew up with rights and freedoms that our mothers and grandmothers had to viciously fight for and, like many women in my generation, I sometimes take them for granted. I hope that seeing the struggles other women face might make her more appreciative of what women in Germany have already achieved. And it seems to be working: My daughter has become very vocal about gender roles, often pointing out to strangers that I’m not cooking because I have to but because I want to, that my partner does the dishes in our house, that a woman can be the breadwinner in the family, and that she can become whatever she wants in the future. At the same time, she is very aware that this is a privilege that is still being fought for by women in Nepal. Her girlfriends in Nepal have to help cook and clean while the boys can roam freely.
The struggle for me now is in trying to make her realize that there are cultural differences that need to be accepted and others that need to be challenged. I don’t mind if she decides to eat her food in Germany with her hands, but I do mind if she tells me that my skirt is too short. At the same time, I want her to know that it’s also totally fine to wear a long skirt, or trousers, or whatever a person chooses. Talking about it and putting everything she experiences daily in perspective is key to making sure that she takes away a positive message. And it’s a very important experience for me as well because having to reflect about these things makes me see my own privileges and perspectives much more clearly.
Growing up abroad is also teaching Miriam so many things on so many different levels. She is already fluent in German, Nepali and English and currently learning Spanish. She has become incredibly adaptable in the weirdest of circumstances. For her, it’s completely normal to be sitting on the floor of a mud hut in Nepal eating rice with her hands one day and then going to the theatre to see a play in her fancy clothes with her grandmother in Germany the next.
What I love most, though, is the way that she is learning to accept different cultures and religions by experiencing them first-hand. For her, no behaviour or custom is weird—it’s just something new to experience. She is fascinated by the image of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross when we visit Christian churches, prays her mantras at Buddhist stupas, knows her ways around Hindu temples and goes to an Islamic mosque with her friend. Nothing is exclusive for her; everything just adds up to the big picture.
This acceptance of differences is something that I had to learn the hard way. Even after more than a decade of travelling and living in different cultures, I still catch myself thinking, How strange that they do this? How weird is this food? How annoying is that music? Intercultural competence is something I had to learn, but she just lives it.
On our last visit to my father’s house, we had a very different experience. Instead of making fun of him for cooking, my daughter decided that she wanted to learn from him. “Grandpa, your potato pancakes are so delicious! Can you teach me how to make them?”