Alexandra Tyson is a traveler, an elementary school teacher and the founder of the website TGC: Travel for the Global Citizen. Her husband, Chris, is the in the Navy and they have three grown children. In 2008, when their children were school age, the family was transferred to Atsugi, Japan. Alexandra and Chris thought about what skills their kids would need to be successful while living overseas. The five years spent in Japan and the decisions that came along with this experience led Alexandra down the road of global literacy.

Alexandra and I met through the Wanderful community, which is a network of women helping women travel. I was curious about global literacy and what it’s like to raise children abroad. Here is Alexandra’s perspective on travel, raising global citizens and the inevitable question of home.

photo: Tammy Ward

Tell us about your personal high points and low points of living abroad. What are your memorable family travel moments? 

We had delayed going to Japan until the kids were older. We’d been regional travelers, not necessarily intentional travelers. We were living in Florida and I had a second, third and fourth grader when we decided to take the orders for Japan. Our kids, who have four sets of grandparents, were raised seeing these four different views of the world; each view being important. They had many experiences learning things with their grandparents. One night, we were in a restaurant—one that does not host children often—and the waiter said to me, “Your kids know how to order off a menu!” That waiter gave me confidence. Living abroad was something we could do. This was the moment we chose to parent through experience; it became intentional to live overseas. 

The military affiliation was the springboard for everything we did. The Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) office on base brought in local tour guides and we were able to do anything from spending three days in China to overnights in Korea visiting the night markets. There were day trips to the strawberry farm. It was a lifestyle. I don’t remember many weekends without sports or travel. One of our favorite trips was to see the snow monkeys in Nagano. Our guide told us, “Now remember, don’t look the monkey in the eye!” My son asked, “What will happen if we do?” And she’d answered, “They’ll scratch your eye out!” Still to this day, our family will say, “They’ll scratch your eye out,” anytime ‘what will happen?’ comes into question. Travel also taught us to roll with the punches, like the time we were supposed to celebrate Thanksgiving on the ship and it was unexpectedly cancelled. Things happen that are out of your control. The kids kept travel journals, keeping track of their memories, which persist now. As adults, I see them using skills from that time. The best decision I made as a parent was taking them overseas and living like that.

Why was it important to you that your kids were raised with a global outlook? 

I find that it is so important that kids understand the past and the other point of view before they can develop their own opinion. Those are the things that go into forming an opinion: understanding the past and another point of view. That’s what my motivation was. I was raised that way. I was in a military family. We moved around and I knew I had resiliency. I wanted that for my kids.

Your website is titled TGC: Travel for the Global Citizen. Can you describe global citizenship? And can you share your top tips on how parents can nurture this in their children? 

A global citizen is a person who realizes learning about others helps them learn about themselves. Exploring other places helps them define where they put their own boots (in the military, we say: home is where you put your combat boots). My biggest suggestion for parents is to read. Read like you’re traveling. Read with a globe or a map in front of you. Second, we have to be intentional with kids when explaining why something is important. We can’t expect them to think it’s important just because we say it is (I wrote about this in an article that tells the story of how my first graders were not impressed with some of the wonders of the world). And third, be authentic. It’s great to see the Eiffel  Tower type attractions, but you also need to show them poverty. Know the greatnesses but also know the reality. TGC is offering a private group called Learn Global, where you can get all kinds of great information for this era of distance learning. You get access to live teacher help, storytime, access to resources and more. 

What does global literacy mean to you? 

Global literacy means that you have a true idea and understanding of the destinations you visit . . . what their triumphs and failures are, so you have an authentic read of what your going into. We see the surface, but we can dig deeper. We can be well read on a place and be informed, remembering that we are active participants. So if you want to learn about the water system in the Netherlands, do so while paddling in a canal. If you want to taste a pierogi in Poland, take the cooking lesson and make it. With kids, they want to know what’s going on, they don’t like surprises. They might’ve seen a picture in a book, and when they see it in real life they get excited! Let them see it before they go, so that it’s not an overwhelming thing that they weren’t emotionally prepared for. 

How do you think family travel will evolve post-COVID? 

I think travelers who are confident and well versed will probably be the first to jump out into that world again. I agree that the age of the road trip has come back. The great American road trip exists and it’s going to take on a whole new meaning. My hope is that everyone understands now is the time to give your money to anyone named mom and pop. We just have to think in those terms. Now’s the time for every small town in the U.S. to attract more tourism. That has to be the thing we spread the most.

Travel puts home into perspective. As you said, it helps us define “where we put our boots.” What does home mean to you?

That’s a powerful question and I have a powerful story. It was 2011 and we were due to leave Japan. Fourteen days prior to leaving, the great tsunami and earthquake hit. We’d just packed up all our things. We had no idea if our things were at the bottom of the bay or on the way to America. We spent the following days in a hangar. Fourteen days of taking care of people and pets. We slept together in one bed. We worried, we communicated. We took care of a search dog at night so the handler could sleep. Our base was like ground zero for first responders. We were helping with water, food, diapers, whatever people needed. And then we got on a plane. We landed in Washington, D.C. It was my first time home; we’d been in Japan five years and had loved every minute. As the plane was landing, we passed the Washington monument, Jefferson Memorial, the White House. I saw the Potamic River and an American Flag. Waiting outside, were my parents. Just crying. Home is not where I put my feet but where I feel most grateful. The Japanese had named our efforts in the aftermath “operation tomodachi.” It means operation friendship. 

“Home is not where I put my feet but where I feel most grateful.”

And are your kids still traveling?

They are all wondering gypsies, I’m proud to say. 

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You can also join our mailing list to hear more in this series where moms talk home and world connections. When you join, you receive the free guide: Create a Memorable and Authentic Family Travel Experience.

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