My five-year-old son slides the beads on his abacus, and says, “sepuluh.” Then ten more beads, “dua puluh.” He continues counting by tens in Indonesian up to one hundred, the words gliding out of his mouth with just the right aspiration and tonality.
We’re practicing his math at home. I don’t think he even notices what language he’s using.
“Pintar!” I say. “Wow! That was great!”
He’s spent almost his entire life in Indonesia, and the past couple of years going to this welcoming preschool nearby. But his first grade year at the same school has required him to learn new Indonesian words for subjects like science, math, social studies. During the first few weeks, he came home in a fog of confusion, sometimes begging to quit. The next day, he’d find the courage to return to friends, beloved teachers and to the hard work of learning new words.
Like many third culture kids (TCKs) growing up in what can feel like a big world world, my son’s good at watching, listening, noticing. I heard recently that another important piece of helping TCKs thrive among many cultures, beliefs and economic levels is to give them a voice so they can express concerns, questions, ideas. That’s one of my biggest motivators in encouraging my kids’ language acquisition. I want them to understand the world around them, and to be able to be understood.
I’m in first grade, too, sometimes. After thirteen years of making a life here in my adopted home of Indonesia, I’m still learning when to listen, and when to speak up, especially when it relates to my own family’s needs.
A few years ago, I decided to seek out Indonesian writers so that I could write in a community. Recently, one of my Indonesian writer friends asked me to edit her memoir—that she’d written in English, one of the many languages she speaks. Besides being a writer, she’s an advocate for indigenous concerns, a passion fueled by her own transformational relationship with Christ.
I returned her work, after taking the unique way she told her story and tweaking it for her English readers. But her stories stuck with me. I saw things I’d never fully understood about my adopted home take new shape through her voice.