Siblings and the expat child

Growing up as an expat child, moving constantly between homes, cultrues and continents,  there were really only five constants in my life until the age of 13 when I left for boarding school: my parents, and my three siblings. To be more precise, my parents and my three brothers. And actually, to be fair, the 1970’s being the 1970’s, I saw an awful lot more of my brothers than I did of my parents.

We spent what I think of as my formative years (from the age of 4 until I was 8) in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. It was, for the priviliged expat children that we were, a fantastic place to spend a childhood. We went to a large, International school; lived on a safe, gated compound where we were able to freely move around and run barefoot to friends’ houses; spent weekends either at the Army and Navy Club diving from the high board or at the Maya Maya Reef Club, snorkelling and collecting shells on the beach. We had what I remember as a large house surrounded by garden, filled with various pets – from cats and rabbits to quails and cockerals.

Maya maya pic

But when I think back to those days, although I do have memories of my mother (shopping, putting on puppet shows to raise funds for a local family planning clinic, plaiting my hair, ) and father (listening to the BBC World Service, putting on his tie, showing us how to catch fish), it is the time I spent with my brothers that really stands out in my mind.

We had to make our own entertainment. We not only had no internet, playstation, Minecraft, tablets, Wii, computers and all those distractions of modern childhood – we didn’t even have a television. There wouldn’t have been much to watch even if we had – bar the 1976 Olympics (when my parents managed to borrow a set for that glorious summer, and we all gorged on Wacky Races and the Road Runner), and the 1975 Ali/Fraser Thrilla in Manila fight. But we found plenty to do.

My family (plus one stranger, minus one brother) on the summit of Mount Apo, the Philippines 1977

My family (plus one extra, minus one brother) on the summit of Mount Apo, the Philippines 1977

Card games, in particular, loom large in my childhood. Like the leader of some sort of slightly shady crime family, my eldest brother would regularly set up his own card school where we used centavos or pennies (depending which country we were in), beans or even matches (yes, really – this was the 1970’s don’t forget!) in the place of proper money. I learnt three-card brag, poker, gin rummy….I learnt to lie convincingly, not get too upset if I lost and how to spook someone else out about what was in my hand. All great skills for later in life!

We played numerous other games – from non-gambling card games (knock-out whist, something involving the black queen that kept getting called different things), to board games like Monopoly (never my favourite – it went on WAY too long) and Diplomacy. We  made endless, complicated mazes for our pet mice out of bricks. We climbed on the roof and scrambled under the house – trying not to entangle ourselves in the electric wiring. We spent hours swimming in our neighbour’s pool, playing Marco Polo and a game that you had to pretend to die and the one who died most convincingly was the winner….

We also travelled a lot so for much of our free time were away from our school friends. On a beach, in the middle of nowhere without our toys, our imaginations really ran wild. I remember one game where – as there were four of us – we became the Swallows and Amazons: finding an abandoned sail boat to use as a prop was the icing on the cake. I always had to be Titty – but my poor second-born brother was forced into being Susan. He seems to have got over it!

All of this doesn’t mean that we didn’t fight. Boy did we fight! I can still feel the pain of my hair being pulled from the roots, and there will always be a place in my heart for the dolly who got thrown in the swimming pool and whose eyes never opened again….But isn’t this part of growing up, of childhood? Isn’t the rough and tumble with our siblings one of the ways we learn how to behave in the adult world?

On the Kyhber Pass (also 1977)

On the Kyhber Pass (also 1977)

Of course childhood doesn’t last forever. In fact, my own children’s childhoods are passing in a flash. And as we grew older, we started to go our separate ways. There is six or seven years between the oldest and youngest of us siblings so while my younger brother was still quite little, the oldest was off to boarding school. We all followed one by one, but then it was university, the world of work – and then we were spread to all corners of the globe.

Childhood bonds don’t always translate into adult closeness, and so it has been for us (although the birth of our own children has brought us closer than we have been for a while). But the shared childhood, so precious because we were our only constants, will always be there. I look at my own two girls now as we are about to take off for another overseas adventure and I hope that they too will look back on these days, and the time they spend together, as a precious time. Even if I don’t let them gamble with matches!

In memory of my eldest brother Matthew Quantrill: May 21st 1965 – June 30th 2014.

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18 thoughts on “Siblings and the expat child

  1. This is a beautiful piece Clara and such a lovely tribute to Matthew, I can’t believe it’s been a year. (It actually made me well up!) Your memories contain many similarities to mine, we used to play canasta for hours; I think even days! We also played Diplomacy and made up our own board game based on the Prague metro. I have excellent memories of swimming in rivers in the Czech Rep (which was Czechoslvakia then) and making enormous trains with all the kids on old-fashioned rubber lilos floating down stream together (we always picnicked and holidayed with friends). Even before you mentioned Swallows and Amazons I was thinking how our childhoods seemed like that!

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    • Thank you Phoebe, it’s true, we did get to have magical childhoods and I think we’ve both done what we can to give our own children something as similar as possible. Although sadly there’s no getting away from the tablets and the Minecrafting! I can’t believe it’s been a year either, it seems surreal. And still not real to be honest.

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  2. I really loved reading this piece. What a wonderful childhood. You really reminded me what it was like to play before we had all this technology! I remember running around in the woods near my home being either the Famous Five or the Swallows and Amazons with my sister and our neighbours. Good times.

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  3. Oh, I have memories like this, but from an army brat perspective. I love hearing about your diplo-childhood, because although I know mobility and the TCK experience, I know it from such a different perspective. I feel so much more confident that my sons will benefit from this experience hearing about yours. Thank you for sharing.

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    • They will benefit. I think it’s always worth being aware of the effect a global childhood can have on children and there is some useful literature about TCK’s but I feel this sort of childhood is BH becoming more and more common so our children hopefully won’t feel so different when they are older. Also technology makes such a difference, it’s so much easier for them to keep up with their friends when they move.

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  4. I am so sorry to read about your brother, far too young…

    My sister and I had a similar experience, we became close when I left for boarding school and she went to Nigeria – when I arrived for my first holiday at home she stuck to me like glue and never let me go, equally I realised I missed her more than anyone else. We only overlapped for 2 years in the same school when she was in JH and I was in 6th form. I used to take prep for her class and tuck her in bed and she came to sleep on my floor for exeats etc. When I left school our parents made me her guardian and she stayed with me for half terms etc. The shared experiences of childhood created an unbreakable bond.

    I was the family member who had to deal with the ‘shall we let her share a room with her boyfriend’ issues. She was the first member of my family I introduced to my husband, the first I told when we were expecting our children and she is, all these years later, my very, very best friend. When we are in the same country we spend as much time as possible together and when we are apart we skype when we can – conversations have been known to last for 3 or more hours. She is getting married soon and I am looking forward to having a brother too, afterall my sister has had my husband as hers for years!

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  5. What a lovely story. We are embarking on our expat adventure with my two little boys and I’ve been thinking about how lucky they are to have each other as we start our journey and that this will only draw them closer. Thanks for sharing these memories.

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  6. What a beautiful post. I lived in the same small town in Texas for my entire childhood. We ran barefoot and played and got dirty and my memories of my siblings and childhood friends are so strong. I worry sometimes about my own three children (ages 9, 7 and 3) and wonder if our international life with cause them to miss out on such things…then I see them together and I know they’re getting the same thing – just a bit different. They’re developing memories with each other that are so special and unique and include things that I never could have imagined in a million years. #expatlifelinky

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  7. What a bittersweet post Clara. Just beautiful and I am so sorry about your loss.
    This post is a wonderful reminder of childhood before technology took over, the freedom of childhood I wish I could give my three sons!! #ExpatLifeLinky

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