The Expat’s Dilemma: How To Tell My Kid Where He’s From

“So I’m going to carry the Saudi Arabian flag,” my son said, “because we’re from Saudi Arabia.”

Oh, dear.

You see, a while back I organized an event at my son’s school called Passport Day and every year, it is to a different country or region. When the school decided on the Middle East and asked me to run the event, I said yes without hesitation.

Because actually, despite looking like I stepped out of a Finnish travel guide, I am from Saudi Arabia.

My grandfather was an early employee of Aramco, the Arabian-American Oil Company, and he flew to the town of Dhahran in 1951. A few months later, my grandmother and mother flew to join him on The Flying Camel, a plane that had first belonged to the UN and was equipped with bunks for passengers to sleep in. Together, they lived in that little desert community on edge of the Arabian Gulf for 18 years.

My grandfather, Floyd C. Teel (center). Late 1950's.

In a strange turn of fate — or not so strange considering my mother’s deep nostalgia for the country where she grew up, and my father’s Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies — my parents also ended up in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, for the same company my grandfather worked.

My mother, Cathie Parssinen (left), and my grandmother, Willette Teel. Saudi Arabia. 1950's

My parents, too, lived in Saudi Arabia for 18 years, and I lived there for the first 15 years of my life: walking to school in sand-storms; swimming in the Persian Gulf; munching on my daily after-school snack of hummus and zaatar bread.

“So I’m going to carry the Saudi Arabian flag,” my son said last year, “because we’re from Saudi Arabia, right mom?”

How to answer this question, as a mother? In the span of 3 seconds, I went through a series of emotions:

Denial: OH MY GOD, WE ARE TOTALLY NOT SAUDI! We are American, we love America, I can recite the Pledge of Allegiance to John Hughes 80’s movies by heart!

Pride: Heck yeah, you’re gonna carry the Saudi Flag! Look at my kid’s appreciation for his cultural roots!

Confusion: WHERE ARE WE FROM? I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION.

On my Facebook Profile, the question that asks where I’m from is blank. When people ask me directly where where I’m from, I always say, “I went to high school in Texas.” When probed further, I tell them, “I grew up in the Middle East.” Curious, I scrolled through Facebook, informally going through all of my expat friends — Aramco “Brats” as we call ourselves — to see where people said they were from. A couple of people filled in the blank with an American town or city, but a very large number of them said they were from Saudi Arabia. I was envious that they could answer the question of “from” so confidently and succinctly.

I, on the other hand, had no answer for myself or my son. Keenly aware of my power to shape his perception of who he is and where he’s from, I told him in that moment, “You can carry the flag. We’re American, but we are — and will always be — deeply connected to Saudi Arabia.”

For the the next year, I pondered that question of home, identity, nationalism, patriotism, and how I could explain to my children the full spectrum of their history. In my daily search for clarity, I would relay the story of my son’s belief that we were from Saudi Arabia to family, friends, and strangers alike, scanning their faces for reactions, listening to the nuances of their answers. As if popular opinion would guide me to a perfect parenting soundbite.

There was always laughter from the listener — either nervous, disbelieving, or dismissive — the general consensus, “Oh, kids!” Because who, as an American citizen, declares a love of Saudi Arabia in today’s world? It felt inappropriate, dangerous, and wrong.

I spent the last 24 years of my life cutting myself off from my past, deliberately leaving the question of where I’m from blank, both literally and emotionally.

Avoiding my past also came from confusion and of course, after 9/11, fear. But it also came partly from a sadness of never being able to return to Saudi Arabia. Once an employee of Aramco leaves for good, the door to the country is closed permanently. So my home is perfectly and forever encapsulated in the years of my childhood, 1977–1992, but does not exist today. If I were able to go back to Saudi Arabia now, it would be nostalgic, but that connection of belonging would be severed, a phantom limb that aches if you think too much about it.

Me (center) and my little sister, Keija Parssinen (right). Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia. 1980's

Surprisingly, without me ever really saying much about it, my son recognized that phantom limb and picked up on my love for that country and the happiness of my childhood. Everyone’s dad worked for the same company. There was no unemployment, no poverty, a 1950-like compound community, where my girl scout camping trip was in the jebels and the sand dunes, our school field trips were to the spice and pearl markets of Bahrain, the ancient fortresses of lost civilizations.

My family. Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. 1990.

Now, as uncomfortable as it was, I couldn’t leave this question blank anymore. But where’s the age-appropriate chapter book for a middle-aged woman who wants to talk to her second-grader about owning your history with pride, but without cultural appropriation?

There is no easy answer to express to myself or my children where they are “from.” There is no politically correct language to claim a country that has a place in your heart, a country other than your nationality. And what does the word “from” mean anyways? What defines it? Citizenship? The blood in your body or the feeling in your heart?

On the morning of Passport Day, my son proudly donned the traditional garb of Saudi Arabia that my friend, Tiffany, sent him. I grew up with Tiffany on the Arabian Gulf, and she continues to live there as an expat, raising her own children as 2nd generation Aramco Brats. In the Passport Day parade of nations, my son did carry the Saudi flag and he greeted the school with a loud, “Marhaba!” Hello.

As an expatriate, the love you have for your native home and your foreign home run in separate, parallel lines, like cross-country skis you must straddle forever. Sometimes though, in a rare and magical geometry, those two lines intersect, as they did on Passport Day. After a year of careful planning and research, I was able to say, as I have never been able to with even my closest friends, “Look. This is my history. This is who I am.” It brought an unimaginable emotional catharsis, to welcome my past into my present and to acknowledge that the Facebook box is not big enough for my answer.

My family is from many places, including Saudi Arabia. Who am I to put my son in one nationality box, when he has so much pride for so many of the places of his heritage.

He taught me that.

And he’s from me too.