July 25, 2016

Your Typical Errand in South Africa

Moving to South Africa, or to Africa in general, and adapting to life there, is most of all an exercise in patience.

The irony is that when you arrive, you are all ready to go go GO! for months you've been busting your backside getting visa applications filled out, securing coveted waitlist spots for your children in a South African school, and making sure your packers don't accidentally pack the potatoes they find in the pantry into your container (which, trust me, you want to avoid). You've shown an almost superhuman effort getting it all organized while firing on all cylinders, so that by the time you step out of the glass doors of OR Tambo International, you are buzzing with the energy of five triple-espresso shots, ready to take life by the horns and subjugate this new country to your wishes.

And then South Africa does what it does so well: It puts on the brakes. Sloooooow down, it tells you, not so fast young lady, no need to get everything checked off your list on the first day. Or ever, really. Welcome to Africa!

For the first few weeks, most expats fight a valiant fight, flailing their arms and willing things to happen NOW, not JUST NOW or even NOW NOW. But in the end, South Africa wins, so that eventually you are totally resigned to the fact that an errand, any errand, will always take the better part of a day, if not week, even if it is ever so small.


Living in Africa will teach you to be relaxed while running errands. Source: Unknown

For the budding and newly-minted expats among you, I'd like to share some typical errand stories, just so you can get an idea of what expects you in your new life. Take this story from one of my readers:
I went to the post office to pay a traffic fine of ZAR500. I waited in line for 15 minutes, then the guy looked up my fine and told me how much I owed. Then he told me that traffic fines can only be paid in cash (even though there is a sign at ever post office window saying "Pay with Visa".) I didn't have enough cash on me.

So I left and tried to find an FNB ATM. There isn't one at Campus Square. So I went shopping at Pick-n-Pay so I could get cash back (long line, surly checkout person, and in the end one of the pawpaws I bought was rotten on the bottom). I went back to the post office and waited in line for 45 minutes -- it was packed and hot and unpleasant. I got to the front and the same guy tried to pull up my fine. He tried on three different computers and finally, after about 15 minutes of trying, told me that "the system is down." So I left without paying my fine and wanting to stab myself in the eye with an icepick.

I went to Postnet to see if I could pay the fine there. They charge a ZAR 80 fee, which I declined. A guy overheard me and told me you can pay traffic fines directly through FNB online banking. I went back home, logged into online banking, clicked the "traffic fine" link, and paid my fine in 30 seconds.

To be sure, online banking and payment via EFT is a bright spot in South African bureaucracy, making some dealings easier than here in the U.S., where we still use - gulp, can you believe it? - checks. Handwritten and sent to contractors in the mail.

Most often, however, it is a case of South African Bureaucracy Driving You Nuts. Like Going to the Bank in South Africa. Or A Typical Day of Shopping in South Africa. If you happen to run your errands in one of the townships, you enter a whole new dimension of dysfunction. Read Alexandra Tour Guide for a Day, and tell me if you don't feel like pulling out your hair follicle by follicle just after reading it, let alone living through it.

And yet. In the end, it will grow on you. Like every expat before you, you undergo Type A Remedial School, and eventually you go home "as one cool lady or very medicated." You will think back to your life in Africa and think:

"Those were the days. If only everything wasn't so darn efficient here!"

***


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July 18, 2016

5 Ways Moving Abroad is Good for Your Children

As a parent who admittedly has been caught up way too much in the college prep race, I found myself thinking a resounding YES! when reading the following article:

I Don't Care Where My Children Go To College

Go on, read the article, but if you're a lazy reader and would rather go for the Cliff Notes, here is the essence:

"I’ve made a decision: I am not going to steal my son and daughter’s childhoods so they may wind up at Yale instead of Westchester Community College. I am not going to force them to be who I say they should be by signing them up for every class and making them stick with it. Instead, I am going to sit back and watch them find their own path. I am going to expose them to life and do it as a family. I am going on month-long family vacations in foreign lands and I am not going to worry about how it will look to the football coach or the college counselor."

After reading this article, it occurred to me that these sentiments expressed by Catherine Pearlman are exactly why expat life is such a gift to our children, no matter how much it may temporarily disrupt their lives.

Expat life can open up your kids' horizons in many ways. Our kids may have learned more from
various safari guides than they did in an entire school year.

Specifically, there are 5 ways moving abroad and living as expats is good for your children:

  1. Moving abroad takes them out of their comfort zones. Let's face it, we'd all rather hang out right on that sofa with the popcorn bucket and remote control wrapped up in a cozy blanket in the very epitome of a comfort zone rather than voluntarily venturing out of it. But lo and behold, when forced to venture into the big bad world, we learn to be courageous and self-reliant. Being the new kid in a school full of kids who speak with a different language or accent and seem to know what they're doing can be a very humbling experience.
  2. Moving abroad gives our kids (and - shhhhhh! - us) a chance to reinvent themselves. Who wouldn't like a chance to start over again, a chance to be a clean slate, a chance to remake, refurbish, and improve him- or herself? When we moved to South Africa, friends warned us that 13 (our oldest son's age at the time) was a terrible age to move. It turns out that 13 is also the age kids are most in need of reinventing themselves.
  3. Moving abroad expands your child's horizon. Before South Africa, our kids only ever lived in a bubble of privilege and entitlement. I'm not saying that they didn't live an even more privileged life in our very wealthy neighborhood in Johannesburg, but being the extreme minority for a change gave them a very different glimpse of how the rest of the world lived: the endless lines of people waiting for minibus taxis they would cram into at the end of their day on their way home to the shack settlements in Diepsloot, the lack of the most basic infrastructure in the townships we visited, the way street vendors their age had to make a living by hawking goods and services. Not only that, but living in a country with 11 official languages made them realize there are a lot of different cultures out there, with their own being only one of many. I'm not saying it's a given expat life will automatically have this positive effect. Expat children can very well grow up to feel very entitled. Read Entitled Expat Kids: How to Avoid Spoiling Your Expat Offspring to avoid common pitfalls.
  4. Moving abroad gets overachieving parents off their children's backs because now those parents have REAL issues to solve. Sometimes, the parents even rely on the children to navigate a strange and exotic culture, perhaps even a foreign language, because with this uncanny knack for fitting in as best as they possibly can, children often figure things out before their parents.
  5. Moving abroad lets parents escape the rat race of working so hard at their kids' future success, that hamster wheel of relentless pursuit of the best opportunities. It sometimes takes seeing an entirely different culture and their approach to raising children to allow us to take a step back and view our own parenting philosophy from afar. It can be an eye opening experience to see that there are other paths to our kids' future than just the one we thought was paramount, the one everyone else at home was working so hard pursuing. 
Expat life may very well keep us from being that one-track parent trying to keep up with the Joneses and overscheduling our kids. Because as expats, who the Joneses are and what they do changes with every move until you realize that there are happiness and success to be had in a lot of places, and that there is no one path leading there. 

Might as well enjoy the ride. And let our kids enjoy their childhoods.

July 11, 2016

Transitioning Back to an American School after Three Years in South Africa

"We are trying to decide which school to send our children to in Johannesburg, do you have any advice?"

Many of the emails I get from prospective expats begin with this question. I can appreciate the importance of it - where your children go to school determines where you go looking for a house, and looking for a house is the very first important to-do on  your Ultimate Expat Moving Checklist.

As I've told you in a previous blog post, International or Local School, the way we chose a school for our kids in South  Africa was anything but well-thought out or scientific. We simply kept driving by Dainfern College on our way in and out of a cluster of neighborhoods our estate agent wanted to show us, and the kids milling about looked so pretty in their school uniforms. And many of them were walking to and from school! That fact alone was enough to sell me on the idea, and so we chose to forego the American International School of Johannesburg that our company would have willingly paid for and enrolled the kids at Dainfern College, a South African private prep school. We did not regret it for a moment afterwards. These were the most enjoyable three years for me in my kids' school careers. That alone should count for something, right?

If you're in that same position we were in at that time, where you need to pick a school in South Africa and are overwhelmed with all the factors to consider, I advise you to read Everything You Need to Know about South African Schools, which addresses a multitude of all the concerns you likely have.

But the worry about the transition back into the U.S. system is a concern deserving of its own writeup. The reasons expat fret so much over the choice of school is not only a desire to secure the best education for their children during the next several years. Of more importance is often how they fit back into life at home once the expat assignment is over.

Because so many American expats have questions for me regarding that transition, I wanted to summarize our own experience for you. I'm not saying yours will be the same in any way. All I'd like to do is give you a level of comfort that things will most likely turn out alright for you, even if you don't make the simplest or most convenient choice.

Our kids transitioned well, even after three years of a "weaker" South African curriculum. A few months ago as the school year was coming to its end, I was invited to several awards ceremonies at our middle and high schools. Even though in a comparison of South African School Awards vs American School Awards South Africa wins by a mile, the fact that my husband and I continue to get to go to them is rewarding in itself. It shows that the South African private school curriculum doesn't seem to have done any permanent damage.


Our two middle children on their way to accept high school top student awards

In fact, I would say the diverse experience probably helps more than hurts. There was a bit of a catch up period right after we'd moved back, especially with U.S. history and math, but nothing crucial. Our oldest was in the middle of 11th grade when coming back, and for that reason only we had everyone go back the half year rather than forward, so he could start grade 11 from beginning rather than middle. For that, he had to repeat the 2nd half of 10th grade, which was incredibly boring but helped him take more AP classes in gr 11, have time to obtain his drivers' license, get his first paying job, and take the PSAT - all rites of passage for an American teenager. He ended up being accepted into 8 universities, one of them in the Ivy League, and received multiple scholarships. If anything, the South African private school experience helped his resume because it made him stand out a little bit more. It certainly made for a good college essay.

Our second son, because we made everyone go back the half year, had to go back to the second half of grade 8 in middle school, even though he'd already been in high school in South Africa (high school goes from grade 8-12 for a total of five years in South Africa). It was probably a mistake, as he was much more mature than those middle schoolers, and it took an entire year for him to find new friends once he was finally in high school. He might have been better off moving up to the next grade, and the school certainly would have let him.

Our girls had just finished grades 6 and 4 respectively, and we had them repeat the second semester of those grades. Again, there was no academic reason for this - it had mostly to do with preserving our family symmetry trickling down from oldest to youngest. Their school would have let us enroll them in grades 7 and 5. If  you're American and worried that time in a South African school will "derail" your kids' path through school so that they lose a year when coming back, don't be. Most schools will take them back into the grade they would normally have been in, and academically there is generally no need to repeat a year.

But what do the kids say, you might wonder? It's a valid question. My kids would be the first to tell you that South Africa was behind academically. Especially in math. And they resented that. They didn't like having to catch up when thrown into these classes. Would they have preferred to never have left the "American track" so that the transition would have been smoother? No doubt.

And yet as a parent I see other aspects that my kids wouldn't consider or value. The fact that exams in South Africa rarely included multiple choice questions but required long-form essays. That kids only rarely scored above 80%, making that feat all the more meaningful, no grade inflation there. They weren't prepped for tests like here with sheets that listed exactly what was going to be on the test. They weren't told how to keep their notebooks or take notes - much more was left up to them, from a much younger age, so they were able to become more independent learners. A South African "Matric", the equivalent of an American high school diploma, is a nationally standardized examination, meaning a particular school can't dumb down as they please. Passing your Matric and getting a few distinctions is a pretty big deal. And, my favorite: The school put a huge emphasis on polite behavior. I remember coming back to the U.S. and dropping the kids off the first day of school, when a door almost hit me in the face because the kid in front of me didn't think to hold it open. I was more surprised than annoyed. In three years in South Africa I had been utterly spoiled by the "Good morning, Ma'm" I would hear left and right when walking across campus. All these are non-academic values that I, in hindsight, value much higher than mere academics. For all I care they could have not progressed past long division and I still would have loved all the other things they did and learned.

The bottom line: Yes, transitioning back to the U.S. is most definitely easier if you've remained in the American school system via an international school. It'll be as if you've never left. Whereas if you've temporarily left the American school system, it may take a bit more effort, especially in that year between 10th and 11th grade where which grade you enter into makes a difference. Before South Africa, I never would have considered adding an extra year to our kids' school careers.

But to close with my words from an earlier blog post: Expats often don't know when or where the next posting is coming, so why not take the scenic route and make sure you immerse yourself fully into whatever is on offer at the moment, and trust that it will make you into a well-rounded person, no matter what the actual "curriculum" says?

To read more stories about transitioning back into the U.S. system from abroad, read my article in the Wall Street Journal, Expat College Admissions: A Bit Like Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. If your timing is such that your child may finish high school in South Africa instead, you might find interesting advice in Finishing Matric in South Africa - Then What?