Not Richer Nor Poorer – The Expat Kid

A friend of mine separated from his wife, she moved back to her hometown with their child which meant they’d be living not only in a different city but a different state. For the past few years their son has been an “unaccompanied minor” as he’s flown from one city to another to visit his Dad. By pure co-incidence G and I were on a flight with him once, I watched in awe as he boarded, charmed the cabin staff, and amused himself with technology. He was six at the time. When we were home last year he told us his Mum was going to move back, they’d all be living in the same place again.

“Wow!” said our third little traveller. “That’s great news!”

“Well, kind of. I’m going to lose my gold frequent flyer status” he said with genuine angst.

The third traveller offered his commiserations, it was certainly a low blow in his mind. He’d coveted those who got to sit in the lounge or up the front of the plane. When you’re one of four children it’s very rare that it’s your family chosen for the upgrade. And when your parents buy their tickets by looking for the cheapest possible budget airfare, you can be pretty sure the plane is going to be jam-packed.

Expat travel tends to work in three ways. Those who are given a business class flight home with no option to downgrade or change their ticket status, one ticket, one return flight. Those who are given the cash, which is the amount of a full priced flight home. And those who are on their own – it’s assumed their salary will cover the cost of a flight. We get the cash. It comes at the beginning of the year and it goes straight into an account marked “travel”. We then wait for the school dates to be announced and begin planning with my friend Krissy (world’s greatest travel agent) on what the cheapest way to get home is. This year we’re flying Cathay via Hong Kong, last year we flew Emirates via Dubai, we will fly economy and we will not be upgraded as we’re a group of six and it just never ever happens.

Apart from San Francisco.

We still talk about San Francisco.

Ahhhh San Francisco.

It was late at night when we arrived at the San Francisco International Airport with 4 children, 2, 4, 5, and 7. We were on our way to Sydney. We’d left from Houston that day and had already experienced delays and a change in route, it had been a long day and we hadn’t even really begun. G stepped forward at the Qantas counter while I held back and practiced crowd control. All  4 children simultaneously decided at that moment they wanted to sit in the stroller. It was just as I caught the stroller tipping backwards, that I caught G’s eye. With the legs and arms of my children splaying from all angles I copped a kick in the thigh by a stray leg as G mouthed the words “UPGRADE”.

I froze. Had they noticed the state of my children? I launched into the motherly whisper shout.

“EVERYBODY STAND UP STRAIGHT! Quick quick, stand up and look well behaved. Dad thinks we might get to sit up the front of the plane.”

In a nano second I had children who looked like they were auditioning for the sound of music.

With arms by their sides and huge grins, the first little traveller broke the silence “just act natural”.

The second traveller couldn’t help herself and whisper squealed “Really? Are we really going to get to sit up the front?”

“SSSSHHHHHH” we all said in unison.

G turned back towards us again. I looked at him expectantly, trying not to get too excited. He had the look. The look you get when you’re sure there must be some sort of mistake but you don’t dare ruin it. You don’t want to ask too many questions incase someone changes their mind. The boarding passes were now in his hand, he made an attempt to casually look down at the seating number. He mouthed three words slowly in our direction, his lips forming perfect circles, his eyes gleaming with excitement.

“OH. MY. GOD”.

Row three.

As he walked in our direction trying desperately not to skip we all remained straight faced. This happens all the time. We always sit in the lounge, we always fly up the front. We always get to request our eggs be scrambled rather than sunny side up.

But we don’t.

Often in this expat world our children appear to be over indulged. Overseas holidays, Frequent Flyer programs, International schools with camps in foreign lands. An Inter-School baseball trip may be held in New Delhi one year and Oman the next. It all sounds very exotic, and it is, travel is exotic, unless your flight’s been bumped three times and the three out of four toilets on the plane are soaking wet and devoid of toilet paper.

My little travellers have witness some amazing sights; temples in Thailand, ski slopes in Canada, ice creams in California and turtles in Sri Lanka. They’ve also missed a few things; Saturday morning sport in Australia, regular visits with Granny, the freedom of growing up under the sunshine of an Australian democracy. They are not richer nor poorer for what we’ve given them, it’s just the way it is. This is the life we live.

It’s easy for children to sound ungrateful, or ill-informed of the realities of others. When the second little traveller asked me to sign her permission slip for an end of year party at a five star hotel recently, I teetered dangerously on the edge of making a mockery of her celebration.

“Good Lord! Your father and I haven’t even been to the pool at the St Regis!”

“Well maybe you should have had your grade 5 party in Doha Mum?”

I thought back to Grade 5. A blue brumby pushbike that I rode to the pool with a towel over my shoulder. Piano lessons I walked to after school. A basketball which I bounced precariously while protecting the emergency dollops of vegemite on each finger as I walked to the school courts. A week full of ballet, gymnastics, netball and whatever else I could convince my mother I needed to sign up for. A house that was a true home: comfortable, loving, we never moved. My grandmother next door, aunts and uncles up and down the street. A childhood rich in stories based out of the one location. Her childhood and mine are light years apart, neither is better, just different.

The front of the plane was amazing, decadent, and if we’d had to pay, impossibly expensive. We’ve had so many flights since then and each time I watch our little travellers looking expectantly for G to turn and mouth the word “upgrade”. We giggle about it now, make jokes as we wander by those enormous seats at the front of the plane, inevitably someone pretends to take a seat up the front “Oh? What? You mean we’re not up the front this time?”

Our children need to be warm, safe, dry, fed and most importantly, loved. We are not richer nor poorer for our location. We’re just us, living our reality, living the life that came our way. Our true wealth comes in the stories we create together, wherever we are.

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