Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Raising a Child Abroad

Shasvinth was a small boy for 2nd grade.  He entered the classroom behind the smiling faces of his eager parents.  It was his first day of school in America.  I greeted the family at my classroom door, having already been alerted that my new student would be starting 2nd grade today.  He was from India, as are many of my 2nd graders.  Shasvinth had a new backpack, lunchbox, school supplies, and a very limited knowledge of the English language.  The school office informed me that his mother spoke Telugu, a language of southern India, but his father spoke Telugu and English. The family moved to the Detroit area as a result of a job transfer, and Shasvinth had to be enrolled in school.  His father had taught him a smattering of English words that he thought were necessary to begin school:  bathroom, please, thank you, yes, and no.   It was now my job to help Shasvinth make a good transition to his new life.

Having Shasvinth in my class reminded me of my experience living in Orsay, France, when my daughter was 4. I enrolled Katie in a French preschool so she could learn the language and make neighborhood friends.  I  was not yet a teacher, but a concerned mom who was worried about her child's adjustment to our new home.  Like Shasvinth's father, I instructed Katie in a few key French words that would help her communicate with her teacher and the children in class. Each day I dropped her off at school, I worried that she wouldn't be able to communicate with her teacher, or would be ridiculed by other children.

Shasvinth made excellent progress his 2nd grade year. A fine artist, he drew pictures of dragons and monsters that he shared with his classmates.  With his radiant smile, he made friends quickly.  My Katie, too, made big strides in her French preschool.  Her thoughtful teacher introduced her to 2 bilingual children who understood English, and translated for her things she didn't understand. 

In our mobile culture, oftentimes we are faced with the very difficult decision to move our families abroad.  Here are several ways to make the transition easier that I recommend to expatriate families of my students.

  • Find a native language speaker to help you locate a doctor, hospital, and dentist.  In Orsay, I joined a mother's group with expats from Britain, America, and Canada who provided much needed assistance in locating doctors and dentists who spoke English.  Such assistance can be found in community centers, faith or school groups, or women's clubs.
  • Keep to familiar routines and rituals.  Add new rituals from your host country as your stay progresses. Celebrate familiar holidays, but explore the celebrations of your new country. We celebrated both Independence Day on July 4th as well as Bastille Day on July 14 during our stay in France.
  • Help your child explore the new community.  Find parks, pools, or playgrounds where you can meet other families. Explore bike paths, recreational opportunities, and other places where families gather.
  • Prepare familiar foods, and also try new foods from your host country.  In Orsay, I planned a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but was unable to find a turkey.  Fortunately, an American-run store (appropriately named Thanksgiving), could order one for me.  They also had foods that I had been craving (Miracle Whip, Doritos, and root beer!). Katie surprised us by discovering her love of escargot and pain au chocolat.
  • Try new things. Attend museums, sporting events, concerts, and really get to know your surroundings.
  • Preserve your memories of this time with videos, souvenirs, and pictures.  Help your child keep a scrapbook.
I had the pleasure to teach Shasvinth another year, as we both moved up to 3rd grade. I've seen him become an enthusiastic student who made many friends. His language skills skyrocketed, along with his academic achievement. 

My Katie learned to speak French quicker and better than we did by daily exposure to the language in school.  Our family made friends with the families of her friends.  Her bravery helped us become more confident as we explored our new country and tried to make the best of our transition.

While at first, I wanted to fly back to Michigan at least once a week, that gradually lessened as I began to feel supported by other expats and learn more about the place we were planted.  Children will also grow in confidence, and resiliency as they become global citizens!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

When Playdates Turn Into Pub Crawls - How to Stay Connected to Your Grown Children

The holidays are over, the decorations are put away, and my two grown children have now returned to their own homes. When they were small, holiday activities included playing with new toys, sledding down snowy hills, cutting paper snowflakes, and Christmas stories before bed.  Now with their respective ages at 24 and 30, my husband and I had to "up our game" to ensure that we made the most of our time together.

Before their arrival on Christmas Eve, my husband and I brainstormed a list of fun things to do with our kids so we could all enjoy each other and have fun together.   We posted the list prominently so all of us could add our own ideas to it.   Some of the ideas didn't quite work out as planned. There was the Christmas Eve drive through a local park to enjoy the "Greatest Light Show in the Midwest", which turned out to be a massive traffic jam with most of the light show coming from the red tail lights of other cars stuck in the same holiday hell.  We had added cross country skiing and snowshoeing to the list to provide outdoor exercise, fresh air, and beautiful, snowy Michigan scenery, but due to a pre-Christmas temperature spike, all the snow melted.

In spite of the early "fails" described above, we did manage to have fun together making memories, learning about each other, and having fun together.  Below are some of the things we enjoyed, and other ideas that may make the list for next year.

Escape the Room Challenge - We were locked into a room and had to work together as a team to find and decode clues that led us to solve a puzzle and escape from the room in under an hour.  Escape the Room challenges are appearing in many different cities, and have different themes, such as the game Clue, murder mysteries, and gameshows.  We had fun working together solving a few puzzles, but in the end, had to concede defeat.

Cooking - Each of us has a specialty dish that we like to cook, and holiday time is a great time for sharing our recipes.  Our son, Joe cooked up delicious meatballs in a sweet barbeque sauce, and fresh guacamole.  Daughter, Katie is a master of meringues, and made these delicious cookies in three different flavors.  I provided the Christmas cookies, and my husband "The Grillmaster" grilled lamb and shrimp. 

Work Out - We each have our own exercise routine which we shared with each other. Our kids worked out with us using our favorite hatha yoga routine, and introduced us to weight lifting and cardio kickboxing.

Local Bars - Our local bars in the Detroit area have a wealth of entertainment options including trivia nights, pool tables, darts, and music.  Some also host wine or beer tasting nights.  We enjoyed listening to local rock and blues bands, drinking craft cocktails, and challenging each other to several games of pool while sampling some Detroit brews.

Games -  We spent a few cozy evenings in by playing Scrabble, the Game of Knowledge, and euchre.

Here are some ideas that made the list but didn't fit into the schedule this year.  We'll keep them on deck for next Christmas.

Family History - Have a few photo albums sitting out on a table or watch home movies to relive memories of earlier years.  Purchase each child a collage style frame, and have them select photos to display in their own home.

Take a Class - Some grocery markets host cooking classes, or workshops on making a holiday centerpiece.  Furniture stores may host a seminar on home design. Many classes are free to the public.  Sign up to do something fun together.

Make Something Together - My husband recently got interested in making knives, so he taught our son how to design and create a knife of his own.  There are places where families can go to paint together or create a family sign for the home. Local yarn or bead shops may offer workshops on knitting or jewelry design, or a culinary school or cookware shop will provide instruction in  cooking. Craft stores have many supplies to create soaps, candles, shadowboxes, birdhouses, and much more.

Museums - Many museums, such as the Detroit Art Institute, host film series, art workshops, music and brunch.  Explore their offerings, or just visit and enjoy the art.  Asking insightful questions can help you learn more about your adult children.

As you can see, I've already started on my list for our next holiday reunion.  I hope these ideas help you enjoy your family time, too.