September 7, 2011

When is the Best Time to be an Expat?

If you've ever thought of taking an assignment in a different country, this question will have crossed your mind. When we moved from Kansas to Johannesburg over a year ago, many friends commented on how hard it must be for a thirteen-year-old to go through all this. Being thirteen is not easy to begin with, so the consensus went, and leaving all your friends behind and being plunged into a new world on top of that must be especially tough.

There is no doubt that our previous expat stint in Singapore over ten years ago was much easier in many ways. We only had a one-year old child (though when I now see parents travelling with their first baby and all the fuss they make over that one child, it seems to me they are more stressed than I am with my four, as I probably was as well during that stage), and school research and enrollment was not even a blimp on our radar. Much less any arguments over why we were having to move and how unfair it all was. Then again, when I conjure memories from this seemingly ancient period in our lives, I think of carrying stroller and child up and down endless parking garage staircases in places that lacked elevators, and being left on the roadside time and again by cab drivers who didn't want to transport that same stroller. All of this in 100-degree heat and being pregnant (and later, no longer pregnant but now with a double stroller). Not to mention having to give birth in a foreign country, which turned out to be a very pleasant experience. Excuse me while I go looking for the stroller picture I have in mind.

Our life in Singapore took place either sitting in or pushing and carrying this
very stroller, until it fell apart after one plane trip and gate check too many

[I'm back... Finding the right picture took several hours of getting the hard drive plugged in and then searching through a thousand folders, while reminiscing about our life in Singapore. I told you I tend to get sidetracked, so forgive me if I I'm now including more than one picture from so long ago.]

My point is, life has its challenges at all the different stages you are in, whether you're an expat or not. When I look back now at the stretches where we did stay in one place for quite some time, I am amazed how much energy I spent on trying to preserve a certain status quo, enrolling the kids in the same sports year after year, for instance, so that they would get better and they (or, more importantly, me?) would feel the rewards of success. It seems to me now, from my new vantage point, that staying made life difficult in some ways, and only by moving did I actually become more liberated and able to enjoy the moment. It's all a matter of perspective, as I've described in one of my Expat Joys series posts, "Variety and Life Skills."

In the driveway of our house on Holland Grove View

The fact is, moving to a new country can even make things easier, whether it is fulfilling your dream of full-time domestic help or gaining new company benefits or tax advantages only available to expats. In our case, once we got past the groaning and sadness about having to leave everything behind, all of us found new things to like and embrace here in South Africa. And instead of being the worst time to move, thirteen might even be the very best age to leave everything you know behind, when adolescence and peer pressure can make returning to yet another year in the same middle school especially difficult, and starting over in a new place might wipe away a lot of teenage anxiety. Of course it's impossible to go back and do it over so we won't ever know for sure, but I think that especially for the thirteen-year old mentioned above, who likes structure and routine so much, it has been good to move and be forced to engage in new activities and make new friends.

Noisette and the boys in Singapore, together with Ampy, our beloved maid, in 1999

Of course, as parents you never stop worrying, so now, as our oldest is entering 10th grade, we are beginning to feel the specter of college looming over us. A recent visitor from the U.S. was asking us if our son was already looking at any universities, and I had to admit that the thought hadn't even crossed anybody's mind. The biggest event in a South African kid's life is the prospect of boarding school, where many children go to follow in the footsteps of their parents starting in the 8th grade. The selection of a university is almost a non-event in comparison, and no one puts much thought into it before perhaps the middle of 12th grade. Another American friend mentioned her son's summer job, something that the South African kids we're surrounded with do not go and look for. Neither can they be working on their driver's license, yet another topic most of our friends back home are very immersed in, since the legal age for driving here is eighteen.

So now I feel slightly guilty. Are we depriving our kid of the things he'd normally be doing back home? Is he somehow losing out on a much-needed head start to build up his resume so that he can get into a good American university? I made a half-hearted effort to at least somehow stay connected to the college application game by signing up for daily SAT-Question emails which, as is typical in our house, our 7th grader who is still years away from college has made a habit of completing regularly, whereas they just clutter the inbox of his older brother who did a few, got most of them perfect, and promptly stopped to focus his attention once again on that great educational tool, the xBox.

But even here, using my own arguments from above, I probably worry too much. We are living in Africa now, the kids are having a great experience, and somehow we will brave the next big stage of higher education, regardless of where we are at the time. I'm greatly comforted by an excellent book I read shortly before moving here, called "The New Global Student" by Maya Frost, which I'll be reviewing for you in another post.
Getting back to the title of this post and the question of when to best be an expat - who am I kidding? Let's face it, you're not going to be given a preview of the next twenty years of your life, sort of like a buffet, where you can pick and choose what you want. "Let's see - we'll take the posting to Sydney when the kids are ten and twelve, that should be a good age... and perhaps the 1-year stint in Egypt before kids so we can have leisure for all those museums and pyramids... oh,oh, and I've always wanted to live in Thailand... what, Sweden after the kids have left home? No, perhaps we'll skip that one."

12 years and 2 additional kids later in Cape Town

Of course you always have the option of just packing and leaving, like the aforementioned Maya Frost did, but for the rest of us reality will look more like your spouse coming home one day and telling you there is an opportunity for a 2-3 year assignment in, say, Johannesburg, South Africa, at which you will gape with an open mouth and think that's the craziest idea you've ever heard, but a tiny morsel of imagination will have lodged in your brain and before you know it you'll fire up the computer and google schools in Johannesburg, instead coming across a ton of horror stories about crime, at which point you might shelve the entire idea, but the job opportunity is really good so maybe you will give it another try and plow on through loads and loads of information, and hopefully at this point you will have found Joburg Expat full of hope and good advice about moving to and living in South Africa... (Sorry, I couldn't resist). You won't know if there will ever be another opportunity like this, wherever it might be in your case, and your choice is to take it or leave it.

My advice is to take it.


Jozie Days said...

Hi Sine, I really enjoyed reading this blog and could not agree more! When is the best time? It is any time. We moved with 3 kids, a six moth old, a 10 year old and a 12 year old. Each of them has adapted in their own way. The baby has never known any other country and loves SA like his home country. The 10 year old was thrilled to be in a new country, with a clean slate, to make new friends and he has adapted very well. The 12 year old cried when we left our home country but seized every opportunity he found in SA. He has thrived and has excelled in his academics and made lots and lots of great friends. He did his SATS last year in SA and then decided he wanted to go to university here. He is studying at one of the most beautiful (yes I am biased) universities in SA - the University of Cape Town! And it is only a 2 hour plane trip if he wants to come home for the weekend.

South Africa is a melting pot of different cultures and we have all benefited from the move. When I look back I can safely say if you get given the opportunity grab it with both hands! It is not always easy, there will be bumps in the road but it has been such a fantastic experience for us all.

Sine said...

Thanks for that, Jozie Days, I love hearing your perspective. I hadn't actually known you can take your SAT here, so that is good info. Although your point is well taken, in the end you might not even need it and opt to stay here for university (or go to even yet another place).

Familjen Lundqvist said...

Hi Sine,
You are so spot on! When is the best time to live?
How about right now :)
I also think we tend to worry a lot more then neccessary about our kids education. I am confident they eventually learn what they need, regardless of school or country. As an expat we often have the fortune of having very good schools for our kids as well.

Jozie Days said...

SATS are done in Johannesburg at Wits University on a Saturday morning. You can register on College Board and pay for them.I also went to the American Embassy in Sandton where I bought the SATS revision books.

Sine said...

You are so right, Malin - not just about being expat but life in general! And I couldn't agree more with you on our worries about education. It's the family background that counts so much more than the actual school, which is why I think a lot of the discussion in the US but also Europe about how to improve education is not going to accomplish much. It is 90% or more the parents who instill the importance of education in their kids, not the school. That's why Asian kids are always so good all over the world, because their parents value education above all else.

Thanks for the info, Jozie Days. What grade was your son in when he took the SAT?

Jozie Days said...

My son wrote them when he was in Gd 12 (age 17). If kids want to go to a local university - ie UCT then they write NBT's (National Benchmark Tests) These are also written on a Saturday morning at Wits and several other locations around SA. These test Maths and English but they also need to meet the entry requirements with their Matric results.

Simone said...

Hallo Sine,
an dieser Stelle möchte ich mich dann auch mal bei Dir melden und Dir sagen, dass ich Deinen Blog absolut klasse finde. Ich habe in den letzten Monaten kräftig bei Dir mitgelesen. Wir ziehen Ende Oktober von der frz Schweiz nach Johannesburg. Als mein Mann vor ein paar Monaten mit der freudigen Nachricht vor mir stand war ich erst mal geschockt. Ich habe eine ganze Weile gebraucht um mich mit dem Gedanken anzufreunden aber so langsam fange ich an mich auf SA zu freuen. Unsere Kinder (8 und 5 Jahre) sind auch schon ganz gespannt. Sie werden auf die frz Schule gehen. Nächste Woche kommen wir nach Joburg um ein Haus zu suchen und die Schule zu besuchen. Ganz schön aufregend :-))))

Sine said...

Simone - das freut mich. Bin mal gespannt, was du ueber die frz Schule sagst, dort kenne ich noch gar niemanden. Viel Glueck und lass mich wissen, ob du bei irgendwas Hilfe brauchst!

Magos&Friends said...

Hi Sine,

Now I follow your blog, in name: dorottya magos

Hope to hear from you soon! Best regards, Dorottya

Sine said...

Hi Dorottya,

if you scroll down there will be a box on the right saying "subscribe to this blog". If you put your email address there, you are also subscribed and I can find your email address. But if that sounds too complicated, just send me an email instead: sinethieme at gmail dot com.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Very well written. Has a nice narrative flow.

I wish I could have moved somewhere else when I was 13. In college I had an opportunity to take a year at Oxford but my parents wouldn't go for it. They were paying for my school and didn't want me away for a year in a foreign country.

In High School I had the opportunity of meeting several foreign exchange students we had as well as a few more in College. Quite a few countries were represented: Hungary, China, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Japan, Korea, Italy, and Germany. Every single one of these students were far more mature than anybody local that I knew (except for the Italian; I was friends with the daughter of the host family and boy did she have some stories). It was interesting to get a taste of all these other cultures even if only vicariously.

Probably the most interesting in the bunch was the German girl that arrived in 11th grade. She didn't like it here all that much even though the weather reminded her a lot of home. The problem she had was that the girl she was staying with was always dragging her off to weekend parties either to show off or because this is what this girl usually did anyway. The German girl didn't understand what the attraction was to partying and getting drunk. I talked to her about it one time before class one Monday morning because she had been complaining about it. Anyway she wanted to know why American teens thought it was so cool to get alcohol illegally, party, and get drunk. She said she had been drinking wine at dinner since she was 11 and that she was allowed to have beer when her parents had cookouts and most of the time she didn't have any because she didn't care much for it. This has fascinated me ever since and is something I'll never forget.

Sine said...

I think kids who are or have been exchange students definitely have more maturity. You have to, because you are thrown into the deep end somewhere, and you have to basically observe a ton around you to "survive". Most kids that age don't observe much at all and are very self-centered. Getting out of that self-centered teenage bubble is definitely an upside of living abroad during those years. Our kids also were more mature when returning to the US, which for some was a bit of a problem because it was hard to fit back in with kids much less mature. But it also helped them to not fall in with the wrong crowds.

I had to laugh about what you said about the German girl, as this was pretty much me. I also didn't get the fascination American kids had with getting drunk and partying, as I too had been offered many glasses of wine at my parent's table, none of which I particularly enjoyed. I am absolutely convinced that the U.S. drinking age is counterproductive. They mainly have it to prevent drunk driving, but to me, those are two separate things. You can be tough on drunk driving even without a drinking age. Case in point: Germany. It does help that there kids can't drive until almost 18. Still, a younger driving age in the US is not enough reason to have a drinking age of 21. 21! By that time you might have had three years to die in Iraq or somewhere, and you still couldn't have a drink legally. That's insane. And it is counterproductive. It's the forbidden fruit effect: more forbidden makes it more attractive. I'm not saying that German kids don't get drunk, and teenage alcoholism definitely happens there, but if they do drink, they do it so much earlier when they still live at home, that parents can still have some influence.

OK, getting off my little soap box now, but you started it:-)

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I agree 100%. I have been on that same soapbox for years so you are in good company.