C is for Culture
Hmm, I’ll bet you didn’t think I was going to go for Culture for today’s post, did you? There is a much more obvious “C-word” for autism, and that is “cure.” But I’m not going there, my friends, for many reasons. Not least of all because long before ASD, ADHD, SPD and all the other lovely acronyms came into our lives, our kids were already TCKs: Third Culture Kids. Their upbringing is a cocktail of my English and their father’s US heritage, and a blend of all the countries they have and will live in throughout their childhood. Much as autism or sensory issues colour our lives, so does this multicultural mix.
One thing that has always fascinated me about Pudding, is that relative to her diagnoses, she is a fairly flexible child. She handles transitions well, and follows directions and accepts authority at least as well as most of her contemporaries. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t have meltdowns and behavioural problems, but they seem to come from a different place. Perhaps she doesn’t understand the situation, or she lacks control over it. Maybe she isn’t familiar with an expected custom, or she is expecting others to behave according to a custom and they don’t. Clearly she is a child on the autism spectrum, but these are also difficulties generally found in young children who have lived in a variety of cultures.
Pudding and Cubby have adjusted flawlessly to life here. Things that are jarring to me because they are so different, are simply accepted as the status quo. Take Cubby, for instance. He is currently fascinated by kombi buses. For those not in the know, a kombi is a kind of minibus that should hold about 10 passengers, but usually has double that. They are generally old, beat-up vehicles with lights and indicators that don’t work. Not that it matters, because the drivers never use them anyway. They prefer to hoot their horns if they want to let you know they’re going through a red light, or crossing your lane, or just coming to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road. Not that they always choose to let you know. To my knowledge, white people don’t tend to ride on these vehicles, and they certainly don’t drive them. I’ve only lived in countries with very strict safety laws about seat belts and maximum occupancy, so I experience a little culture shock regarding the death-trap transportation here. Cubby, however, will grab a cardboard box and pretend he is driving his kombi bus. He thinks they are just as awesome as trucks or fire engines were in the US.
The kids are too young to pick up on the poverty and inequality that is prevalent here in the Rainbow Nation. They are sheltered, of course, in their ethnically diverse, but still expensive and private preschools. In her own way though, Pudding has made observations about life here. For instance, when we are in the cleaning aisle while shopping for groceries, Pudding will say, “that’s for Leia*” (our housekeeper). I still clean at the weekends, and certainly that was my responsibility before we moved here, but she never described cleaning products as “Mummy’s”.
The outcome of all this exposure to different cultures during a child’s development is very interesting. Third Culture Kids generally excel at communication, and are frequently adept at learning languages. With a receptive-expressive language delay and auditory processing dysfunction, this isn’t exactly Pudding’s strong suit. And yet…yet I feel one day it will be. She picks up on the subtle differences in pronounciation that many can’t detect. Asking for a drink, for instance, will be a rather English waw-ter from me, and an American wah-derr from Daddy. She has taken to saying ho-tay-ull (for hotel) as though she is Scarlett O’Hara.
Older TCKs often describe how they don’t feel that they belong anywhere, and both belong to and are apart from their parents’ home culture. Without the shared experiences of growing up in the same place, they feel very different from their peers, and may adapt better in a foreign land than they do in their “homeland”, which may be neither the place they were born, nor have ever lived. I’ve read accounts by TCKs where they describe the strange blend of feeling like an alien amongst their peers, but able to assimilate to any culture. Strikingly familiar for me as a mother of child who looks like any other on the outside, but is so very different underneath. I’m pretty sure that one day I’ll be steering Pudding towards the exchange students or other global nomads, who might be a little more understanding and accepting of behaviour outside of the cultural norms.
I’ve been thinking about culture a lot, because one thing that strikes me is how family friendly South Africa is. Children are very much welcomed here, and they are expected to behave…well, like children, really. Because young children do run around and bounce up and down. They are loud and exuberant, and why should they be expected to be otherwise? The western world could learn a thing or two from the attitudes here towards the young. I’m considerably less tense when I’m out with the children, knowing that they are accepted here.
So, why then, did I get the look from those ladies when we first arrived? Perhaps they weren’t from here, or they were just plain mean. Or maybe I was carrying a lot of baggage from living where hyperactive children aren’t so well tolerated. Where expected behaviour is being still and quiet, two things that are impossible for Pudding. But one thing is clear to me now, I focused on the one table where Pudding was viewed with negativity, not at the people all around who didn’t notice, or didn’t concern themselves with a child having a meltdown.
The more relaxed I become, the more I see the genuine pleasure people here get from seeing my girl quite literally dance to her own rhythm. We feel like we belong. And that is most definitely my kind of culture.
This post is part of my A-Z series that you can find by clicking here.