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Dialog with Our Children

Aug. 22, 2019

The Crawford family are friends of our family who made the decision to place their children in local Beijing Schools after seeing our kids in local schools and asking us about our experience. They gave an interview on their experience in the following article “The China Expat Parents ChoosingPublic Over International Schools, and How Their Kids Cope

Me: Our kids went all the way to grade 8 in local school and then transferred to international school, getting the best of both worlds (except Stephen who grew up native Beijinger starting with Chinese kindergarten and then transferred a couple of years before we left China).

Caleb, Jonathan & Stephen, I would love for you guys to weigh in with your thoughts as people who went through this experience and have now graduated college and/or left the system. Your hindsight would enrich us by providing perspective from a longevity viewpoint.

Jonathan: Long post alert, since this is an interesting topic: I definitely do not think local school is for everyone, since it was very challenging to handle the culture shock and intense curriculum. Also the feeling of being an outsider is tough on an elementary school student and that leads to many years of trying to understand your own identity. Transitioning back into international school/American public universities is another challenge in itself, as you then have to come to terms with the fact that your local Chinese background is sometimes looked down upon. But there are numerous aspects of this experience that have been extremely positive now in retrospect, but take it with a grain of salt since everyone’s personality and coping mechanisms is different. 1)Opening your mind to alternate ideologies forces you to think critically at a young age, which sets the stage for the way you interpret ‘mainstream’ facts for the rest of your life. This is a huge positive.

2)Being forced into developing proper study habits and disciplined approach to life (local school is highly structured) has really helped me in my career when it comes to focus, organization, and working hard.

3)I appreciate the amenities, lifestyle, and ‘privilege’ that I have been born into, having grown up with classmates that had far less than I do. I understand that a lot of where I am today is circumstantial, purely because of the opportunities and family I have been born with.

4)One of the biggest advantages I have today is actually the lack of formal English classes, since I was allowed to skip English class on the condition that I was reading English books. I honestly believe I am one of the most well read and fastest readers amongst my peers because of this reason. Additionally, my lifelong love of learning/reading a diverse range of books was groomed in local school. Curiously, I discovered that just from reading 1-2 hours per day from grades 4-8, I entered back into international school with a higher reading and grammar level than my peers.

5)Looking back on my time in local school is surreal - it’s like watching a movie of someone else’s life because of how different everything was. I think the strictness, oppressive view on individuality, and a number of other unique things about being in local school as an outsider caused many of us to struggle with some degree of mental illness during the transition years back to our native culture. However, those of us that eventually normalized have developed a significantly higher tolerance for adversity and love of risk/new ideas/challenge. Finally, what's interesting to me is that parents looking into this experience from the outside tend to over-emphasize the part about learning Chinese in an immersive environment. I would argue that for the child going through it, that is almost a trivial factor compared to all the other things I mentioned above (specifically relating to cultural shock). Indeed, when I look back on the experience everything else BUT the language acquisition challenge stands out.

Me: I love this post!!’ So in hindsight if you knew all this going in — would you go to local school at all? Why or why not?

Jonathan: That’s a tough call because that is an Integral part of who I am, so I have no reference point to who I would be if I did not attend. But I do think with the information and our situation at the time, you made the right decision to send us to local school. And that’s really the only way you can evaluate these kinds of decisions

Stephen: as Mom mentioned above, I had a very different experience than Caleb and Jonathan when it comes to my experience in local school. For me, I almost had a semi inverted version of the typical Asian American upbringing and thus struggle. Instead of struggling to cope with being born from a culture that was looked down upon and struggling to feel a part of each culture, I found I almost struggled to feel normal from the abundance of privilege afforded to me from my expat status. Circumstantially, I had it the easiest between the 3 brothers as I grew up with almost a silver spoon in local school as I was given special treatment and attention at every turn. This meant that I got to grow up comfortably in my native culture to feel pride within my Asian heritage as I saw the best sides of it and never had to view it through the lenses of it being foreign. This however led to drastically different results than it did within my brothers. Being raised in the strict and oppressive education system in China so young, I learned to see myself as an elite and thought my opinions were more valid just because I came from an English-speaking family (I was a real spoiled brat growing up). With the heavy focus on math and language classes, I found myself rebelling at every turn to focus more on the art classes available to me and take it easier in the math and language courses. So instead of learning better study habits with a more critical look at different ideologies, I found I became lazy in thinking I was privileged enough to get away with slacking off. This however all changed when I transitioned into International school. The sudden disparity between the fellow students that surrounded me from each school felt completely unreconcilable in my head. In addition to now having to face intense bullying for my Asian accent and FOB-by (Fresh off the Boat, a disparaging term for a new Chinese immigrant) appearance, everything felt flipped upside down. This intense culture shock taught me a few things: 1)Seeing how easily the kids at international school were able to grow ungrateful and take their pampered lifestyles for granted when the kids in local school were rejoicing over getting an AC unit installed or being able to eat meat for dinner... it changed how I viewed my own significance as well as how to treat others. Realizing how much of my life was simply due to a matter of circumstance taught me to be grateful for my family, and all the opportunities available to me. 2)Facing the bullying of being Asian led me to briefly renounce all the culture I had once held so proudly. Deciding to become as “whitewashed” as possible, this sparked a lot of self-loathing, and years of self-deprecating humor I'm still trying to weed out to this day. That foundation in local school however is what eventually allowed me to be confident and integrated with Western society, but still proud of the culture I was raised in without being militant (which I find quite rare with Asians I meet who were raised in the States.) 3)Finally, I found that entering international school at a younger age than my brothers didn’t give me the same productive habits rooted in a culture of hard work, but rather one based in my belief that I was smart. This led to many issues as classes became progressively harder in middle school which challenged this belief that I was “smart”. It wouldn’t be until early high school when my brothers taught me how to work hard. Instead of those habits however, that resentment towards the strictness of local school now released in the freedom of Western education helped blossom an age of creativity and passion for the arts in me, freeing me to explore more and seek out more adventure and new experiences. In conclusion, after reading my brother’s post I hope it’s apparent how different local school experiences can be for each individual, and the difference timing can make. Ultimately, I'd have to agree with Jonathan in that the source of growth, regardless of what kind, was ultimately stemmed from the adversity faced in culture shock. In general, I believe we grow from the challenges we face, but living through the East to West culture shock provides an unbridled sense of perspective that I think would be difficult to find anywhere else.

Caleb: I think that our experience was unique to the time that we were in China. Pre-olympics was truly a different China, and attitudes towards the US have soured while national pride has soared. I would expect the expat experience in local schools to feel increasingly more like an immigrant experience of a Chinese student from a middle class family moving from China to America. That being said, the biggest difference between the expat experience and the immigrant experience will always be the following: 1)Expats tend to come from affluent families, so they have comfortable home lives that may even be envious to local students 2)Expat adults are not expected to integrate into the local culture, and so expats will never experience the shame of having parents who are outcasts or misfits.

3)Expat communities are strong, and there is no stigma (thatI know of) towards segregation. Point # 3 above can be countered by parental guidance, though if the family lives in a compound with other foreigners, this may be difficult. As for point #2, even if parents do learn to integrate, the shameful part of the experience will never really come into play. As for my experience, I never integrated as much as I would have liked, and I would liken myself to a Chinese student that came to school in the US, learnt the language and made some friends, but still primarily stuck with other Chinese students. One of my biggest regrets is not diving deeper into the experience to really understand the culture and people, and not gaining more mastery of the language as well. My biggest takeaways were due to my inherent lack of discipline. I have a lot of drive and passion when I'm interested in something, but I lacked the discipline to stick with something even after that passion had waned. Just as many others have highlighted, local school taught me the importance of discipline, and helped me hone my memorization ability. Rote education has many cons, but it is very good at helping you understand structures and the purpose of structure in life. Learning both extremes (the other being the open creativity of international school) helped me to find the middle ground that I operate most effectively in, while still allowing myself to stretch into either mode when needed. Ultimately, what everyone I know who went to local school was able to benefit from (not everyone came away with increased discipline) was exposure to a very different way of thinking, as well as a language and culture that is founded on very different principles. You can't truly understand the benefits of groupthink until you've been a part of it, nor can you judge impartially its drawbacks until you've experience both groupthink and full independence. In particular, exposure to communism is highly beneficial to those raised in anti-communist countries like America, as many Americans completely block out socialist ideologies, even though some are very valid and useful. As for timing, I think that middle school and late elementary school are best. K-3rd grade are extremely formative years for kids where gentle and encouraging environments, in my opinion, are far superior to strict and disciplined environments. Kids should be encouraged to discover, not hone, at these early ages. Middle school is the time to learn discipline and structure, and also the time when children's minds begin to close and they learn to be tribal, and so this is the perfect time to subvert that process by forcing them out of their comfort zone, culturally. After that, I think high school is really conditional on the kid, though I do think that some freedom and room for error are beneficial for helping teenagers discover their passions and what they are both good at and love doing. So in conclusion, there are many benefits to sending your expat kid to a local school, but timing is key.

Me: Thanks for sharing so transparently and deeply of your personal reflection. No one ever thought about timing but it is so key. Something else that might be a little bit different is the color of the expat's skin -- white skinned expats attract a certain level of fascination or respect vs. yellow-faced expat and then even a black skinned expat either from Africa or America. Another aspect that parents also need to take into account is how the different personalities of their kids react to culture shock and change in friendships. I would like to think that the local school experience stretched your abilities to be further at each end of the extraversion/introversion spectrum when the occasion arose. Just observing how the three of you guys reacted, received different insights, and reached different conclusions and summaries is so instructive for me as a mother and I'm sure will be so helpful to other parents facing similar issues.

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