Notes From Abroad: Is It Fair To Raise The Kids As Expats?

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Being paid to live in a foreign country is a gift that keeps on giving, if you let it. Not so easy to jet off to Tibet for the weekend with two young kids in tow, but in our family we make the effort – despite the fact expat life can sometimes bite us in the ass. Our youngest is the reckless one and her folly knows no borders. She’s clonked her head in just about every major city in Asia. And she’s also a magnet for mystery diseases, so a typical family photo will portray three smiling faces and a tiny, rashy, bandaged lump you can just about recognize as the baby.

Bumps and bruises, of course, happen everywhere. But we often wonder if perhaps we’re doing our little ones a disservice by bringing them up in a place so strange in every sense of the word. Dodging errant drivers; coughing up dusty phlegm; eating mystery meat – it’s just bound to end badly, right?

I considered this recently while reading a poignant piece in The Telegraph’s online edition, written by the paper’s Beijing correspondent Peter Foster – a father of three with niggling doubts about raising his brood in a highrise with views across the record-breaking smog. “What kind of parent chooses to bring his children up in a place where the air isn’t fit to breathe?” he writes. “If we aspire to give our children something better than what we ourselves enjoyed, then on mornings like this, I can’t help but reflect that I have failed.”

The tangible hazards of third-world living are impossible to ignore. (Seriously, they will not let you ignore them.) But there are invisible pitfalls, too. How many times have my children been asked where they’re from? Many. How many different answers have they given? Just as many. Born in one place and living in another, their parents with dueling blue passports, they haven’t a clue who they should be rooting for at the next Olympics, even though we’ll be living in London, the host country, in 2012.

The author Amanda Craig, writing in the London Times, (dis)credits her isolating experience as a child expat in Rome with her passion for many lonely hours spent reading and, later, her career as a writer. “Every year we would return to London, seeing it with a double vision as home and not-home,” she says. “This feeling has never left me…. If you take a child out of the country and culture in which you yourself were born, he or she will be irrevocably different.”

My girls are still little – too little to remember much of their extended family anyway. But soon it’ll start to bother me that they forget their cousins’ names, or cry when we ask them to sit with Grandma. At what point, I wonder, should we start caring less that our children can understand Mandarin and more that they understand the perspective of their own family? Because this life is still new to us, we’re unsure.

Some longtime expats, however, tell a grim story. Nikkie Newhouse, a writer married to a UN lifer, says her husband learned what it truly means to be a foreigner: “You might speak the lingo, contribute to the community but, unless your family is pretty unique, you will always be ‘other,’” she says. “It was (and still is) a common fact that the later a UN family repatriated permanently to their native country, the more serious the problems experienced by their children, ranging from higher levels of drug taking to antisocial behaviour and suicides…. Life’s difficult enough without being on the outside all the time.”


Yet not everyone despairs of missed Sunday dinners and references to TV plot lines that go over their heads. Perhaps our kids will be hardier, more respectful of other cultures, more capable, more independent. And that Mandarin comprehension can’t hurt, now, can it?

I think we’ll all be sad to finally get back “home” – whenever and wherever we decide that is. A move is always hard, even when it doesn’t involve leaving an exotic locale for an inherently less glamorous one.

Until that time, though, those donut cravings can sure hit hard.