Expat Kids: Living the Mobile Life

At the end of orientation day. She wants you to know she’s not really that excited. Just photobombing.

It’s been a while since I woke up with writing on my mind. There are many things I want to write about, but I’ve been in the midst of a period of exhaustion. I needed a little time off. Sometimes we do. My daughter Emma took a day off school yesterday; she’s been sick for a week, and not really getting better. She’d been going to school, but Sunday night she was complaining about her sore throat, so I suggested a day off to rest up, and she took it. She’s feeling better, so back to school today.

I myself will get a couple of days’ respite from teaching next Monday and Tuesday, our university’s spring break. Imagine, two days off in a 16-week semester! But that is how our university does it. They have a whole week set aside for midterms, so the students don’t have regular classes while they do their exams. But then every class is required to give an in-class midterm, so they have a lot of studying to do. It breaks up the semester for faculty, too. The hardest part of teaching for me has always been preparing classes when I have a ton of grading to do. I will try to do the grading during this week, so I can really take one of the spring break days “off” to recharge.

I woke up thinking about Emma’s school experience this year. It’s been interesting, for sure. She has had a lot of changes, moving from the US to Mongolia, from a Montessori school to an International Baccalaureate school, from elementary school to middle school. We’ve lived in one place for as long as she can remember (we moved into our house in California right after her fifth birthday), and we’ll be going back there for a year in July. So this turns out to have been an interlude for both of us, which has made it both easier and harder.

Emma has struggled with school this year. Socially, at least, it’s been good. After going to the same small school for five years, she’s had a chance to broaden her horizons and meet kids from all over the world. Her closest groups of friends are from the Faroe Islands, Japan, Korea, and South Africa. Some of them have lived in Mongolia a long time, and some of them are recent transplants like her. Some kids came in part way through the school year, as well. As the year wore on, her social circle expanded to include kids from other classes and other grades; I feel like the multi-year model of the Montessori system has really paid off, since she is used to having friends from different age groups. The expansion of her social circle has been gratifying for me. It has helped me feel better about uprooting her from our beloved school in California.

Academically, it’s been another story. She has gone from a tightly knit school with phenomenal teachers and an expansive curriculum to a large, mostly impersonal cookie-cutter environment. Her school here touts personalized learning, but it’s really more standardized than they realize, and if you are an outsider, very confusing. From the beginning of the year, there was the expectation that everyone understood everything, and that everyone was used to a certain curriculum and style of learning. There was no effort to help new students (or their parents) ease in or familiarize themselves with their new environment. We had an orientation day (part of which included her taking the first standardized test of her life; indeed, the first test, since Montessori doesn’t rely on testing), but when school started the next day, it was as if everyone should know everything and be used to everything. It was her first time encountering not only tests but grades, and there was no clear introduction to the IB evaluation system, either.

In principle, this could be good: Plunge in, get going, don’t look back. In practice, it was alienating and disheartening. To make matters worse, in the IB program middle school starts in sixth grade, while in the Montessori program it starts in seventh grade. So at her old school, she was being transitioned into middle school towards the end of the year, but at her new school, it was assumed that she’d been in middle school for a whole year and should be used to it. For people who don’t remember or don’t realize the difference between elementary school and middle school, it’s big. You have different teachers for different classes, you change classrooms each period, the expectations are different for each teacher. It’s a lot to take on. Her current school makes a big deal out of it for the fifth graders. But an incoming seventh grader is supposed to be used to it already, somehow.

Fortunately, Emma is personable, resilient, and self-confident. Some of her classmates have fared less well. But she has been very frustrated, and one of her mantras from the beginning of the year has been, “I miss Village Gate!” I am lucky that she has not blamed or resented me for “dragging” her here (though she does joke about it). She understands that for me, this has been a great experience and important in more ways than I hope she’ll ever realize. When I bring it up, she says, “You need to be happy, too, Mom.” So she has dealt with school very well, all things considered. I wish I could say she thrived this year, and in some senses she has (her art has taken off in leaps and bounds), but most of her experience has been one of “just getting through it.”

I’ll write in more detail about her school in my book. For now, my ultimate assessment is that it’s not been bad for her to have this experience of a large-ish school (by our standards—her old school had about 70 kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, and this K-12 has about 300) with teachers of very mixed ability and quality, and kids who come much closer to pop culture representations of school kids than she’s experienced before (the bullies, the drama queens, the depressives, etc.). She’s been overwhelmed at times by the ignorance of her classmates (everything from “How can they know so little about climate change?” to “Why do they think crickets will crawl up their butts and eat them?”), and it’s good for her to experience that. But I’ve been underwhelmed by the quality of her school, overall, given how much it costs to send her there (more than double the amount of her school in California). Though I imagine it’s hard to entice really good teachers to come to Ulaanbaatar when they could be at any IB school in the world. Some of her teachers have been great and inspiring, while other have been truly dismal (I’ve written loads about one teacher in particular in a Facebook group I belong to). None have been abusive or destructive, at least.

So she’s had a “normal” school experience in many ways, for the first time since first grade. We won’t know the full impact of this experience on her for a while, but it will be interesting (and hopefully gratifying) to see it unfold. I keep thinking back to the orientation day we had in the beginning of the year, first in that crowded room full of new kids and their parents, listening to the various school officials tell us how great the school is, and then on the tour of the almost unbelievable facilities. I mean, the school is awesome in some regards. From the large library (which, sadly, the kids don’t actually get to use for research) to the impressive theater to the indoor pool, the school has a lot to offer. At one point on the tour, we entered the secondary school gym, and Emma turned to me and said, “It’s like a school in the movies!” because there were basketball hoops and bleachers. We both cracked up that she had that reaction to what was essentially a “normal” feature of many schools in the USA.

But the promise of that day hasn’t really been met. We’ve talked about how ultimately disappointing it has been, and how she learned so much more at her old school (and will again; she’ll be going back for eighth grade). She’s not unhappy we came to Mongolia because, as she says, “I might never have worked so hard on my drawing in California.” She has filled many sketch books, and she got an art tablet for Christmas that she uses every day. And she has a good, go-with-the-flow approach to life that has really helped a lot.

But our experience has got me thinking about the whole “expat” existence for kids. Certainly, it can be great. A lot of her friends have moved around a fair amount and gotten to see a lot of the world. On the other hand, it depends on how it’s done. Many of these kids are extremely sheltered. They move from one IB school to another, with roughly similar experiences, similar student bodies, and similar international teachers, all part of the cosmopolitan elite that it’s hard not to fall in with when you live in another country. They sit around talking about how dangerous Mongolia is and how they are not allowed to go anywhere or do anything by themselves. As Emma has pointed out to me, every time we are out on our daily walks we see little Mongolian children out and about by themselves, running errands or just moving through the streets, sometimes in packs, sometimes on their own. Just yesterday we saw two kids walking together down a major street who couldn’t have been older than five. No city the size of Ulaanbaatar (around 1.3 million) is completely safe, but compared to some other places I’ve lived, I really don’t worry about security much here.

We’ve met some very nice people through her school. Or, I should say, Emma has. I don’t spend a lot of time there, since she goes to school on her own by taxi, but the people I have met have been very nice. She has made a couple of Mongolian friends, though most of her closest friends are international students. There have been a couple of new arrivals during the school year, and one sad departure, when one of her original posse of four, a girl from South Korea who’d been in Mongolia for a while, moved to the Emirates in February. That has also got me thinking about how kids get carted around by their parents, coming and going part way through the school year, having to suddenly make friends and adjust to a new school when the social and academic patterns have been more or less established.

Perhaps this is what makes international schools a rather insular, closed environment. They need to be similar so kids can slip in and slip out without too much disruption, and they are made up of communities of fairly similar people. Many of Emma’s teachers assumed I worked for the US embassy, because so many of the parents there work for embassies and consulates. One of her teachers, who learned that I taught at a university here, was surprised, saying, “What kind of person takes a job teaching at a university for only one year?” Emma’s response was, “My mom does!” But we also weren’t sure it would only be for one year. It has just worked out that way.

We are not living in the expat bubble that a lot of Emma’s friends are living in, either. We are in a different kind of bubble, on the MIU campus, kind of far from her school and her friends, who are all on the other side of town. We live in a university dormitory with a couple of hundred students and some other faculty, mostly Korean. We interact with more Mongolians on a daily basis than most of the kids at her school probably do (except for the Mongolian ones, of course), so that’s been good. But she hasn’t really felt like becoming a part of any community other than her school, and even then she is happy to get home at the end of the day. She’ll be even happier when we go back to California, though we have started to talk about what she will miss. (Her friends, mainly.)

There’s another thing I’ve been thinking about in relation to all this. I heard from one former faculty member who was in Ulaanbaatar with his teenage kids for four years. The kids (at least some of them) cried a lot for a while. They were really unhappy about being here. But they stayed and “got over it.” I can’t quite imagine doing this to Emma. Maybe it’s because there are only two of us. I know she is not very happy here, and it really bothers me. I would love to stay here for a while; I love the university and the students, and this is a very interesting place to live. I’d like to be part of a community I can make a contribution to. I’ve enjoyed being treated like not only a human being, but a human being with value. True, there are aspects of life here that are difficult and challenging, and I worry especially about the impact of the air pollution on our health. But I would love to stay.

Emma, however, is clearly unhappy here. I mean, she is “OK.” She has friends, she’s getting used to the school, and now that the weather is warmer, the pollution is less severe (though still high), and we can go outside more, our quality of life has improved. We are finally not wearing our parkas anymore, and in fact we both broke a sweat on our walk yesterday for the first time this spring. But she really misses her old school, and her friends, and our house in California, with its menagerie, much more than she would if she were having a good time. She misses not wearing shoes, and being able to go outside any time without having to “Eskimo up,” as she calls it, and “get lung cancer.” And she just doesn’t like it here, on a visceral level. Ulaanbaatar is messy and confusing and hard to deal with sometimes. She is not learning the language (she is studying Mandarin in school), so she misses being able to talk to people. (I am learning the language, but only the basics, and I speak English at my job.) It’s harder to just spontaneously go somewhere because the traffic is insane. Also, I am working, so I have things I have to do, as well.

“Eskimoed up”

So, I could put my own happiness first and insist that we stay here for a few more years, which is no doubt what many parents would do. Suck it up, kid. Like is hard. Get over it. Or, even worse, just think what you are learning from this experience! Think of what a better person you’ll be because of this! How much you will grow! As if you’ll be stunted if you are enjoying life. This whole line of thinking that suffering makes us stronger is popular in a lot of different cultures. (Yes, it might make you stronger, but it also might make you more unhappy, anxious, and depressed, which is what the research tends to show. You can’t be sure.)

I’m glad we came here, and so is Emma, and our plan is only to stay in California for one more year. This has been kind of a test of concept for us: What would it be like to leave the US and live overseas? This is what I have been wanting to do for a long time now, and I am glad Emma is on board with it as well. She talks about what she will miss about California when we leave, but never with the feeling that she really wants to stay. We mainly talk about finding a place where we can both be happy, or at least comfortable, for the four years of her high school. Where we can do meaningful work, enjoy life more, and contribute to our community. This remains our goal, and she’s still good with it, even if this hasn’t been her best year.

2 thoughts on “Expat Kids: Living the Mobile Life

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