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Observing Life: The Great Culture Challenge, The National, 22.04.2010

Going back to the UK, as we did recently on holiday, provides a useful opportunity to check the cultural barometer and size up how English my children really are. Two of them were born in the UAE and the eldest was too young to remember much of her early life in London, but with an eye on returning to the UK sometime, the challenge has been to make sure they are as English as they can be.

This is more than a jingoistic exercise, or just knowing about their roots, it’s about ensuring they can slip seamlessly back into life in the UK. Children tease each other about the smallest things. As my children will someday struggle with walking to school in 17 layers of clothes, missing the weather and their friends in the UAE, being teased about being different is one thing they could do without.

The eldest two can pick out the queen in a line-up of heads of state and my son can even identify Gordon Brown. They watch Dr Who, Charlie and Lola, and read Enid Blyton stories. Every now and then we sit down for a roast beef lunch with Yorkshire pudding and rhubarb crumble for dessert. They play rugby and rounders (no baseball, thank you), and, obviously, wear Joules and Boden clothes. Just like the children back home, we muse contentedly, as we tot up all the extra skills and experiences they have acquired by growing up in the UAE.

Like many other expatriate residents of the UAE, schooling is a key way of maintaining our cultural identity and ensuring continuity of experiences for the children. They attend Brownies and Beavers, and we convince ourselves that the pain of re-entry to our cold, windswept isle will be lessened if they have cultural reference points acquired by watching hours of children’s TV programmes from the BBC everyday. They may have square eyes, but they’ll be able to leap about the playground in zipped-up parkas saying “I will exterminate you” as well as the next child.

But this last trip back shook me from my smug slumbers as I realised there is one area which had slipped me by and does mark them out as different. My third culture kids can ably use children’s chopsticks, and mop up curry sauce with parathas, but can’t manage a knife and fork. So many of their meals are finger food, that wielding cutlery and cutting their own food is a skill they sadly lack.

My British friends attempt to make me feel better by explaining that their children have hot school lunches and have dinner ladies bearing down on them to ensure they eat correctly. I may have spared them the horrors of semolina, but will they one day be teased as the strange new kids who eat with their hands?

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