Thoughts On Living Overseas With Children
To avoid the risk of presenting you with unwanted ho-hum how-to advice on traveling and living overseas successfully and stress-free with children, I thought all of you out there in job-fair-land might enjoy instead some of those Kodak moments you may wish you could forget. If you have worked overseas with your family, some of these moments may spark some of your own memories or at least give you cause for a chuckle or a gasp. For those of you who may be considering bringing or starting your family overseas, don’t be deterred.
Being pregnant overseas has its own slew of experiences that folks back home can’t even begin to empathize with. Put yourself in these situations:
• Trying to convince a customs agent in Kuwait that the pregnancy books your sister sent to you are not pornography in need of the black marker of censorship.
• Sitting in the waiting room for your monthly appointment with the obstetrician along with dozens of mothers-to-be swathed from head to toe in black and feeling just a bit out of place in your pale pink maternity overalls.
• Accepting with grace the fiery admonitions of the Japanese midwife who was adamantly convinced that you were gaining too much weight because her charts were meant for the typically diminutive Japanese woman, not a 5’11” American woman.
• Wrapping your brain around the fact that in Japan you are pregnant for ten months, not nine, because a month is four weeks exactly and not necessarily a calendar month.
• Using a raised stand-on toilet on a moving train in Thailand while six months pregnant.
• Actually attending a job fair at six months pregnant. Not many job offers forthcoming that year!
Infancy and toddler hood have their own challenges as well as moments of delight. Try some of these travel situations on for size:
• Walking up and down the aisle of the airplane during most of the 12-hour flight to your new posting holding the hand of your hyper two year old while cradling your six month old in your arms. (Definitely take the pediatrician’s advice to test the effects of Benadryl on your toddler before using it to help them sleep on a long flight, as a very small percentage of children apparently have the opposite reaction to it!)
• Figuring out the myriad of culturally embedded daycare rules in Japan when no one at the daycare speaks English.
• Trying to make it through customs and immigration in Kuwait unobtrusively when your toddler has decided unequivocally that she must push the stroller all around the airport and not wait patiently in line. Even our contact outside the airport could hear her shrieks that resulted from our attempts to confiscate the stroller and contain our child.
• On a brighter note, trying to keep a straight face when trying to convince airport customs in a country that prohibits alcohol that the liquor filled chocolates you picked up in duty free at Heathrow were really just chocolates as you hear your three year old ask angelically if she might have another chocolate. (It almost worked, but, no, the “chocolates” were confiscated after all.)
• Watching helplessly as your four year old picks up…and then drops… a rocket propelled grenade while wading and searching for pretty shells on a supposedly clear beach in Kuwait after Iraq’s invasion and surrender. How could we have lived with ourselves if it had in fact exploded?
• Shopping in the Sultan Center in “alcohol-free” Kuwait as your child sitting in the cart points out another shopper and calls out “Look, he’s going to make wine!” as she recognizes the standard grape juice bottle and bags of sugar that many expats used to make homemade wine.
• Luxuriating in an extended holiday in Bali and realizing that your three and four year old children have figured out how to use their unending charm to order banana splits from the lovely employees of the waterfront hotel.
• Watching your children, no doubt full of ice cream, collecting the delicate flower offerings these same workers had left every morning for their wonderful array of gods and re-adorning the bushes with the blossoms.
Returning to the States to live, our kids wanted to go to Bali during Spring Break. What About Visiting Grandma and Grandpa?
After five years in Kuwait, a year in Japan during Kuwait’s occupation by the Iraqis, and a year at an ISS start-up school in rural Pakistan (that’s a whole other article), we decided to return to the States to stay, determined to establish some small town American roots in our children and give them an opportunity to get to know their grandparents and other family members. Our resolve didn’t last long however. We realized what we had given our children by spending their early years overseas, when we heard their response to the innocuous question of what they wanted to do during their spring school vacation. Instead of the anticipated “Let’s go visit Grandma and Grandpa!” our six year old son enthusiastically responded with “Let’s go back to Bali!” After an abbreviated explanation of the disconnect between the cost of world travel and teacher salaries in the States, not to mention the geographical challenge of traveling to Bali and back in a week and still having time to enjoy your stay, our kids settled on the goal of having more adventures again in the future. Shortly thereafter we were registering for our next job fair in search of our next post.
Taking Older Kids Overseas can be a Rocky Road at First. But no More Rocky than Moving Back to the States Again.
For our new overseas teaching adventure, we were off to Brasilia, Brazil. By the time we were actually on our way, our children were heading into their third and fifth grade years. Quite a bit different than traveling with little ones! They were now their own social beings who would thrive on the new experiences but also missed their friends back home. They now had the added challenges of adjusting to a new school and to the new culture of their surroundings. They had to learn a new language and get used to seeing new friends leave to new postings at the end of each school year.
It was a rocky road at first, but no rockier than the readjustment back to the U.S. again five years later. It was during this move that we truly understood what was meant by “third culture kids.” To a teenager, how can life in small town American compete with fishing for piranhas in the Amazon, body surfing off the beaches of Rio, or enjoying the company of friends from all over the world? How can a teenager reestablish ties with childhood friends who haven’t experienced such adventures and may not even know where Brazil is? Of course at both ends of our time in Brazil we were plagued with parental guilt. What had we done to our children? First tearing them away from their home and friends in the States and then, five years later tearing them away from their home and friends in Brazil.
Despite the funny and not-so-funny moments, the heightened challenges of having children overseas, as well as the occasional parental doubt over the years, neither we nor our children have regretted any of our time spent overseas. Their experiences have so enriched their lives and strengthened their character that it is simply impossible to imagine not having done it.
As our children are now in the midst of their high school experiences, our eleventh grader has begged us to just let her finish out high school before we head back overseas (but to choose a place that will be awesome for her to visit over college spring break), and our ninth grader gives an enthusiastic thumbs up to finding a new place to explore for his last two years of high school. Our eldest has, since our return to the States, traveled on her own to Israel to visit her best friend from Brazil and is applying for scholarships to travel to South Africa or Australia this coming summer. I guess the wanderlust is forever in their blood!