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Expat parent
August 19, 2010 3:08 AM   Subscribe

Reflections on expat parenting in China
posted by bardophile (23 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is great. I loved this exchange.
Their upbringing certainly breeds an enviable racial blindness. My son was playing with a Chinese boy in the playground last week and noticed that a friend of ours, an Australian-born Chinese woman married to an Italian, was watching him.
“He’s my friend, he’s Chinese,” he said, gauchely.
“I can see that,” she replied.
He stopped, puzzled for a moment, then asked: “How did you know?”
She thought for a second. “Well, he looks like me and I’m Chinese.”
Billy looked back at her in incomprehension. “No you’re not,” he said, before running off to play.
posted by chunking express at 5:49 AM on August 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


How nice for them, to live all over the world.
posted by anniecat at 7:41 AM on August 19, 2010


Guy's a wimp. It's no big deal. I came to Taiwan from the States over twenty years ago. So I qualify as a real expat. The wife and I have raised our two now teenage daughters without the help of an "aiyi"...kids are so adaptable. This guy lives one of those privileged "expat" lives in China that irks me.
posted by rmmcclay at 7:42 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think having a nanny, or the other perks of the "privileged expat" life automatically means the guy is a wimp. While I'm sure some kids really don't have any trouble adapting to being uprooted and living in a completely new culture, not all *are* that adaptable.

In any case, there's more to the article than just worrying about whether the kids adapt. I also love the exchange that chunking express quotes. And there's a thoughtful exposition of the variety of issues that come up. If nothing else, it's a really good example of how much a lot of parents second-guess themselves when it comes to decisions affecting their kids.
posted by bardophile at 8:32 AM on August 19, 2010


Peter Foster, the Telegraph’s Beijing correspondent, wonders if inflicting expat life on a young family was the right decision .

There's nothing to mull over: it's a wonderful, danger-free experience for everyone involved. For one thing, Foster has an exit strategy: he will return to his job in the UK after several years, so he has no career worries.

The Telegraph also paid his to China, and will pay his way home again, so no need to worry about starting from scratch.

He probably already makes excellent money doing a job he loves, and on top of that is probably paid a living allowance during his time in China. The Telegraph also probably subsidizes his apartment. His children's education is probably subsidized, and (according to the article) they attend an "international" school (an experimental establishment affiliated to the University of Michigan) with the children of other expats, that in itself a wonderful opportunity for his kids to learn about other cultures. The education is top-rate; the teachers are probably non-Chinese.

The younger children are left to sink or swim in a (probably private) Chinese kindergarden. But they are young enough that they are still developing linguistically in their native language - a Chinese environment, over the long run, is no big deal.

Anyway, the article is a lot of meaningless, self-wankery. The author is part of the "Establishment". His ties will allow him to progress up the ranks of various media properties (assuming newspapers are still around in ten years). His children will attend good universities, and will be able to tap into their father's global network of contacts, if not to find jobs, then at least to be socialized into understanding what opportunities are out there, and how to achieve them.

As an expat, Peter Foster is not unique. You'd have to be crazy to pull up stakes and move from one country to another and start all over again. The sort of assistance he enjoys from his employer is pretty crucial, and any "country" or "region" manager (any other expat) is the same.

The thing about expats, though, is they will never, ever truly understand the culture they live in. Because their time is so short (2-5 years) in country, they will never pick up the language. Because they will never pick up the language, they will never really be able to interact with people, or experience the crucial mental and emotional changes needed to assimilate at least a little.

Expats remain in their own little bubble, and, in the case of journalists, this bubble is a pretty impermeable barrier to the truth. That's why it's impossible to trust non-vernacular news sources. CNN, Time, even the Economist will never get it right.

Interestingly, the report's children have the best chance of transcending the limitations of being an expat. Their dealing with the smog, their dealing with an insurmountable language barrier - why does Foster even worry about it?

His children are having a more authentic experience in China than he will ever have.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:52 AM on August 19, 2010 [9 favorites]


His children are having a more authentic experience in China than he will ever have.

Yeah, but what's wrong with that? One of my friends in high school was a white guy born & raised in Hong Kong until he was ~10 y.o. I can't even begin to imagine how incredible and enriching an experience that must have been. No matter how successful I ever become, I'll never be able to have that. Oh, sure, I can go now (or later), but I'll never be a kid in Hong Kong. That ship has sailed.

But if I could give that gift to my child… why on earth wouldn't I?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:06 AM on August 19, 2010


KokuRyu: "The thing about expats, though, is they will never, ever truly understand the culture they live in. Because their time is so short (2-5 years) in country, they will never pick up the language."

Do you mean that this holds in general, or just for China? I'm an expat in Mexico, and I've been here for 12 years now, but I certainly had picked up the language pretty decently after 5 years (and I would have done even better if my first jobs here hadn't been mostly in English). I agree that it takes a while to really get a foreign culture, but 5 years seems like it should be enough to at least get something of a grip on it.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:15 AM on August 19, 2010


Yeah, but what's wrong with that?

I didn't say there was anything wrong with it. However, Peter Foster, the author of the article, wrote an entire article wondering if it was the right thing to do.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:16 AM on August 19, 2010


I'm an expat in Mexico, and I've been here for 12 years now

Yeah, but most expats like Peter Foster only stay for 2-5 years before moving on (or moving up the career ladder). 12 years is a significant chunk of time, and a significant investment in living in a "foreign" culture, and is not really the same expat experience that Foster is describing.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:18 AM on August 19, 2010


How nice that so many member of this site live their lives with such complete certainty that they can mock a man who has conflicted emotions. Have you guys considered careers as therapists?
posted by GuyZero at 9:26 AM on August 19, 2010


the teachers are probably non-Chinese.

The article:
My son’s school, an experimental establishment affiliated to the University of Michigan, has also required an adjustment of my expectations. The campus is split into two hemispheres, one side exclusively in Chinese – teachers who don’t speak a word of English, wall posters and books all in Chinese characters – the other in English where the same strictures apply in reverse.
Teachers who speak Chinese, but no English are probably Chinese, I'd guess.
posted by Jahaza at 9:39 AM on August 19, 2010


No matter how successful I ever become, I'll never be able to have that. Oh, sure, I can go now (or later), but I'll never be a kid in Hong Kong.

Sure. But you were a kid in [wherever you grew up]. Clearly, you think that HK would have been preferable, but I can imagine that there are a lot of parents who might not think that, and a lot of adults who might reflect on their childhood versus a hypothetical one in Hong Kong, and might not be so crazy about the idea.

I think that's the big question. Many people have some sort of idealized childhood that they want for their children -- often similar to what they remember as the best parts of their own childhood -- and for some people that may not be Hong Kong. So I can see how those people might agonize over whether to do the expat thing for a few years.

If you'd spent your whole life working towards some sort of idyllic life on a farm because you want your kids to grow up on a farm surrounded by animals or whatever, because that's what you remember from your childhood and it was a positive experience and it's something you want to share, and suddenly you get handed this huge opportunity to go to Hong Kong or Beijing ... I could see how it might require a little soul-searching.

Personally I don't have a particularly strong opinion as to which childhood would be 'better' -- I've known people who've grown up in all sorts of circumstances and I don't think, in general, that it matters as much as many nervous parents think that it does. But I can see where the room for second-guessing oneself comes from.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:11 AM on August 19, 2010


How nice that so many member of this site live their lives with such complete certainty that they can mock a man who has conflicted emotions. Have you guys considered careers as therapists?

Indeed.

I was raised in foreign cultures by ex-pats. I would say that what this dude is saying about his kids' experience - good and bad - is about right on. Being plunged into a foreign culture as a small child is overwhelming and often terrifying. Do you adapt? Of course. Is it consequence-free?

Hahahaha.

The biggest family grudges I've ever known have been held by former state department kids. Hoo boy. Perceived lack of stability, forgetting more languages than many other people learn, never having a sense of what your own culture or language is supposed to be, not fitting in in a way that goes beyond ordinary adolescent anxiety - it strikes me as mean-spirited to insist that those aren't real issues because living overseas is so glamorous and privileged.

When people think this article is being sensitive and whiny, it really sounds to me like that's an adult projection on an experience - "Wouldn't it be thrilling to live in China, all expenses paid???" - not a child's.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:11 AM on August 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


Sure it's mean-spirited to a certain degree, but, then again, so is class warfare.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:11 AM on August 19, 2010


Sure it's mean-spirited to a certain degree, but, then again, so is class warfare.

Huh? What class warfare are we talking about?

What is with all this contempt of the author? As someone who has lived part of his childhood overseas (Japan), I understand sometimes why some of my ilk look down on "tourists." But there's nothing wrong with this dude or his concerns, so I just don't understand some of these sentiments.
posted by Edgewise at 11:34 AM on August 19, 2010


Sure it's mean-spirited to a certain degree, but, then again, so is class warfare.

Discussions about posts often go better when people aren't working out there unrelated personal issues.

posted by rodgerd at 12:17 PM on August 19, 2010


So, do the kids have India passports or UK, or New Zealand, or...? I would think twice about depriving my children of a US passport.
posted by Cranberry at 12:48 PM on August 19, 2010


I don't understand why this has to be about class. I *am* an expat parent, without any of the frills that seem to be offending some of the commentators. I can still relate to most of the author's concerns, which have to do with raising kids in more than one culture, primarily.

I am also the child of parents who lived in the US for 13 years, before moving back to Pakistan. Like the hmsbeagle, my memories of being uprooted and transplanted are not all good, even though I recognize that my life has been immensely enriched for having had lengthy experience of multiple cultures. My memory of my own childhood is one of the reasons I am conflicted as a parent.


Cranberry, presumably their passports are the same as their parents', or one of their parents'. They may have more than one passport, however, based on where they were born. Not all countries in the world automatically grant you citizenship for being born there, as far as I know.
posted by bardophile at 1:00 PM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thanks so much for this post - I've already sent it on to a number of current & former ex-pats I know. I loved his fretting & uncertainties even though - oddly - my hackles were just slightly raised by the very quote about his kids "their upbringing certainly breeds an enviable racial blindness" others here liked.

His kids are "a litter of three aged between two and five" and sound to me like well raised kids the world over on that score. I think that's too early for a parent to proudly deduce it's specifically their international upbringing that has instilled "racial blindness". (I just mean that I'd wait until they were seven or eight before evaluating the real influence of this part of expat life!).

KokuRyu: His children are having a more authentic experience in China than he will ever have.

I can see you've come out swinging on this one!

But I'm not quite following your thinking.

The whole article is about a family who have, so far, only experienced life together as serial ex pats.
So I'd say they are all experiencing authentic ex-pat life to its full extent - with all the "rootless" uncertainties and challenges and novelty that brings, surely?

(And in their case, they are not in an enclosed compound - but in a city apartment, and the author makes a point of explaining - contrary to your assertion that expats don't pick up the lingo - that he has been having daily language lessons for over a year.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:21 PM on August 19, 2010


I dunno. I feel sorry for the kids. It's probably great for their careers later, but "kids adapt" does not sound a lot of fun.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:24 PM on August 19, 2010


There's some pretty interesting perspectives about the kids of expats in this AskMefi thread.
posted by pecknpah at 1:47 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Re: 'enviable racial blindness'.

I was born and raised in Hong Kong: we moved to Australia in '97, just after the handover.

I still vividly remember the incredible disbelief I experienced when I started at my new high school when I realised that people (a) noticed the colour of my skin, and (b) actually cared. I was sixteen.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:43 PM on August 19, 2010


Thanks for posting this. My family has been back in the US after two years in North Africa, and I thought this was one of the better pieces I've read about expat parenting.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:04 PM on August 19, 2010


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