We have a 3-year old, energetic and vivacious boy running around our house here in London. Recently, we were also blessed with a little girl, who we were told ‘completed our family’. It was already great being a daddy to one child and now I had the pleasure of doubling up on the role to another. While sleepless nights were a struggle, nappy changes were a nuisance, those were probably the smallest of our worries. You see, my wife and I are expats who only came to London and settled here a few years ago. As is the case in this global and highly connected world, it was the prospect of a career and a ‘good life’ that drew us to this part of the world. While we hail from different parts of Asia, the systems, beliefs, cultures, traditions and even basic day-to-day activities tended to be vastly different where we came from. What meant one thing in our countries could and did have a whole other meaning here in the UK. Again, minor adjustments; we realized the true challenges of being expats when we welcomed our first little one three years ago.
So, what are some of the challenges we have faced as expat parents? And what lessons have we learnt from them?
- Bringing up your kids in a new country can raise several questions and concerns; one thing you worry about as an expat parent is the strength of ties to the family – how are my kids going to get to know the rest of our families; how are they going to react when they see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins; will that connection ever be there; will it be the same as what we had growing up – so many open-ended questions with such few answers. While a trip to the mother/fatherland every year or so helps keep those ties alive, it just isn’t often enough or long enough to allow for those connections to be strengthened. Besides moving with kids, or travelling long distances poses its own challenges. How did we solve it – we used the best way to relate to kids - through stories - whether it is by reading books to children about our hometowns and families, or just narrating our childhood stories, our experiences with our families and so on. We also established the ritual of using modern-day technology to FaceTime, Skype and video chat with members of the family on a regular basis – a picture, after all, is worth a thousand words, no?
- So, you don’t have your family in your new country? What do you do? Who do you talk to or hang out with? Where are your friends you can call on? Essentially, what is your social circle like? You have left not only your family but also your closest friends back in your hometown. These would be the people you could talk to on a regular basis, see frequently enough, go paint the town red with, or on a more sober note whose kids your kids could and would more than likely hang out with. Therefore, moving to a large metropolitan city like London was daunting in its own way, but moving to a place where we knew almost no one to start off with added to that fear. You soon realize, you are not the only one with those fears – there are other parents, families and individuals like you looking for companionship – with or without kids. So, playgroups, kids’ classes, even sessions at the neighbourhood library are suddenly great ways to get to know other parents and for your little ones to form new bonds of friendships. In this day and age where everything is available at the tips of your fingers, it’s not hard to find the nearest kid-friendly activities – so, don’t be shy, go look for them and sign up ASAP.
- You’ve now got your familiar connections in faraway lands and are starting to get to know people here, but who do you have for help in this foreign land? Who can you turn to in the case of an emergency or even for short term relief? You want to go out on a dinner date with your significant other – who do you leave your kid(s) with, not having to worry about your safety? Or who can you call to come over and sit with your kids for that short period of time? Can you trust that new babysitter? Can you leave your kids with anyone else – what kind of help or support system do you have in such an instance? Childcare and babysitting can be prohibitively expensive in a city like London (as probably in many other cities), and so you wonder if you have a ‘free pass’ with a close friend or neighbour where you can pop your kids over for a few hours one evening? So, go ahead and find that close friend you can trust (preferably one with kids of their own) and drop your child off there once in a while. After all, happy parents are key to happy kids and you want yours to be the happiest baby on the block!
- Being new to a country also brings the simple (or not so simple) logistical challenges of understanding the workings of the country. For instance, what is the education system like? What does my child need to do to get into a particular school? Speaking of schools – which are the best ones in our area? With a child, you also need to be well versed in the workings of the local healthcare systems. What are the best hospitals in our area? What does treatment cost? How quickly can I get an appointment for my child? How are the costs covered? For all its progress and development, the UK faces similar challenges to the rest of the world in both its healthcare and education systems – that of discrimination and shortage. If you can pay for it, you can avail of the best services at the quickest rates – the privilege of the rich. If you can’t, then you like the rest of the world must wait in line, because for the rest of us, there is only a limited amount of doctors or teachers around. And so, with the birth of our children, we were quickly brought to face these harsh realities and had to get smart around them.
- And the last challenge or issue we grappled with was language. You see, neither my wife nor I grew up in predominantly English speaking countries. India has a myriad of languages and in the Philippines Tagalog is the dominant language. It was, therefore, a constant question in our household as to which and how many languages we should prioritize. We were constantly told that kids pick up languages quickest in the first three years of their lives… but how many languages can they do? What’s too much for a child? Bringing up a child in the UK meant that English had to have its place on the list, but what else and how would we do it? We settled on Tagalog as being the additional language our kids would hear in the house. And so we split roles – I would be the English speaker and the wife the Tagalog speaker. We also resorted to our good friends to help us out – books… storybooks. We set reading goals… more like reading traditions. There was always time for a story every night before bed. Whether it was a story each in English, Tagalog or something else was a choice left to the kids, but it was a non-negotiable ritual. So much so that on many nights, our eldest would pull out his favourite books and come over to the bed saying “read me a story”. And so with the power of the storybook, we were able to overcome this challenge – or so we hope/believe.
- Another one that you constantly worry about as an expat parent is around stability – how permanent or temporary is your current situation? How stable is my current environment, be it in terms of the role I have, the immigration status we hold, our residence? Is it for a few months, is it for a few years, or is it forever? In each case, you wonder what the impact of that stability is on your child – positive or negative. Of course, everyone wants stability for their kids to ensure that they are not constantly shuttled around schools, always changing friends and therefore never settled. Thus far, we have ensured that our kids have encountered a degree of stability in everything they do – be it schools, friends and the like. As we enter a new phase of our lives, we hope that any churn or change is kept to a minimal amount and therefore our kids’ lives remain fairly settled. Humans generally tend to be change-averse and so it must be with kids as well who are just getting used to things in a particular way.
In addition, there are many other topics and challenges you come across as parents on a regular basis – religion, acceptance, culture, traditions to name a few others – a lot of which stem from the concerns above. Surely, all you expat parents out there face similar issues too – you can relate! Write to us and tell us of your experiences and biggest challenges – we are keen to hear (and tell) your stories as well: firstname.lastname@example.org