Sunday, June 18, 2006

My last column

THE EXPAT LIFE
By ALAN PAUL


International School Helps
Teach Lesson in Diversity

June 9, 2006

When any family moves, the kids' transition is always of paramount concern. That feeling is only magnified when the relocation is overseas. As our own move to Beijing became imminent, all of our anxieties seemed to narrow into one: how would our children, particularly Jacob, our eldest, take to Dulwich College of Beijing, or DCB, the British school they would be attending?

A few weeks before leaving New Jersey, we received an email detailing the school's uniform requirements. The tone was very formal, very stern … very British. And the contents terrified us -- there were requirements for "shiny black shoes," high navy socks and polo shirts. Jacob had a life-long aversion to anything other than Velcroed sneakers, sweat pants and T-shirts. A simple and absolute refusal to wear the uniform seemed a distinct possibility and I was not entirely unsympathetic. My father taught me to be open-minded about everyone except the fancy pants social climbers and status seekers who attended country clubs or sent their kids to "pretentious private schools."

Now we were jumping into that pool, deep end first. DCB is affiliated with Dulwich College of London, a 400-year-old, quite prestigious academy. In just its second year, the unspoken goal seems to be to turn itself into Beijing's elite international school, with a strong emphasis on athletics, performance and school spirit. Like the other schools here, it is hugely expensive, nearly $20,000 per annum. (Like most other corporate expat parents who get the fees paid by the companies that sent them abroad, we don't pay ourselves because there are no public school options here.) All of this was far removed from the suburban New Jersey public school where Jacob attended kindergarten and first grade. We liked the school, but "optional" programs like art, music and gym perennially face cuts and there is endless angst around town about the system reaching a tipping point and tumbling into the abyss.

It didn't take long for most of my fears about the British school to fade. I was deeply relieved that Jacob and Eli's teachers were both warm and sunny American women. The kids took to the school immediately, with Jacob leading the charge. He never questioned the uniform and even enthusiastically embraced the mid-year decree that students from Year 3 (grade 2) up commence wearing their "best-dressed" uniforms every Thursday, including a sports jacket and tie. He volunteered for the year-end play and is on the DCB soccer team (sorry I can't bring myself to write the words "football club" without quotation marks), whose opponents include the Japanese School and a couple of Chinese schools. In short, he has had a fantastic year.

Maybe a dose of British discipline is just what Jacob needed. But if things had not worked out, we would have had other options, because international schools are thriving in Beijing. There are at least 25 such schools in and around the city, enough to fill a book, the recently published "Stadler's Education Guide to Beijing", though not all schools are in English or serve all grades. Most people we know attend one of three located in our neck of the woods, where many expats live in housing compounds: Dulwich (British curriculum), the Western Academy of Beijing (International Baccalaureate, an international high school diploma) and the International School of Beijing (an international curriculum but generally viewed as being the most American). Each of the schools has its own history and philosophy but all appear to be booming.

ISB moved into a striking new 33-acre campus four years ago. The school has about 1,800 students from pre-k through high school. WAB has a massive new high school under construction. When it opens this summer, they will have a total of about 1,400 students. And DCB is constructing a beautiful new 880-student facility a few miles north of the current campus, which will continue to house grades 4 and below. Eventually, the school will also have nearly 1,400 students total. All three of these schools have waiting lists in at least some grades.

ISB is Beijing's oldest English-language international school, celebrating its 25th anniversary. It was founded as a joint project of the American, British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand embassies and didn't begin accepting non-embassy children until 1988. The relatively small number of nongovernmental expats in Beijing before then often sent older children to boarding schools back home.

We chose Dulwich because it was located right outside our compound and several people we know had their kids at DCB's forerunner, the Montessori School of Beijing, where they were all happy. (Dulwich bought the school last winter.) The transition has caused some anxiety around here, and there is lots of talk about the British curriculum and how it compares to others. All I know is the kids are learning a lot and they are excited to go to school every day. It all seems much less complicated when your kids are young, which is one reason the lower grades tend to have longer waiting lists.

There is a perception that raising "third-culture" kids becomes more difficult as they get older. One friend with an 11-year-old who has had difficulty making friends here frets that he has shut down his ability to open up after moving through three countries in a few years. We consider our kids fortunate that their American identity is secure amidst their international adventure, though it is less of a factor since we plan on being long back in America before our kids become teens.

"Kids develop their sense of self when they are adolescents, so all the issues of raising your children outside of your home culture are magnified," says Sandra Jarvis, the DCB Pastoral Director who will run a parents seminar on raising expat kids next week. "They don't really identify with the culture of their parents. They identify with other expat children, who have developed almost their own subculture."

Over 40 nationalities are represented at Dulwich, with Americans making up the largest single block at 28%. This number is deceptive. The school includes many American passport holders who come from non-English-speaking households, mostly Chinese families who had kids while living in the U.S. There are many Chinese students from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and elsewhere, though the mainland China government forbids its citizens from attending international schools (there are persistent rumors, however, this will change soon).

It's a polyglot student population. Some of our boys' friends include Brits who were raised in Finland and Hong Kong; Israeli Argentineans who moved here from London; a Bulgarian-British boy who has only lived in Beijing; a Thai-Scottish girl; a Japanese-Chinese brother and sister; and an ethnically Chinese boy with a mother from Spain and a father from Hong Kong. The kids barely notice the differences and, I must confess, the uniforms assist in that leveling.

As our first year draws to a close, our concerns over the shiny black shoes seems a lifetime ago. We laugh at the formal memos now and I barely bothered to read the recent note about changes in next year's uniforms. Whatever they are, we'll get them and the kids will wear them. I've chatted with several expats lately who are plotting to stay overseas for another 10 years to keep their kids on the international school gravy train rather than face the scrum of public schools or the expense of private academies. That is nothing we are contemplating but I am sympathetic to the idea, which represents a shocking shift. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks after all.
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Readers Respond

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, on my TV-repair experience at a Beijing market.

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I was so happy to find your column online. My husband and I just relocated to Seoul, Korea from the U.S. We are very excited about this opportunity to live among and learn about another culture. I look forward to reading more about your experiences in China -- I appreciate that you are trying to experience the local culture and language, and are exposing your children to this also. We hope to start our family here. I look forward to reading more about your experiences.

-- Cathi Harris

Thanks. Best of luck as you set out on your international adventure. I hope that my columns continue to remain relevant to you.
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Thank you for sharing your personal experiences -- I really enjoy reading your story every week. I wish it was more often & more in depth but like ice cream, it's better in small amounts.

-- Mitch S.

Thank you. The column actually runs every other Thursday, so think of it as really, really rich ice cream.

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As a 3rd-generation Chinese-American with two children adopted from China and a thirst to learn about China, present and past, I find your column very interesting. I'd like to live in China for a couple of years so my family can experience it and really pick up the language and culture -- more than just going to Chinese school on the weekend here in southern California. Keep up the great, fresh and informative writing.

-- Laryn Lee

Thank you. Drop me another line if you make any movement towards coming here for a visit or longer.
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Great article on TV repair. I grew up in colonial Hong Kong and came to the US to start college 20 years ago. Last year for an anniversary present I took my wife to China to see what it was like. With her "fresh perspective" [similar] to yours, she noticed much the same things you have.

-- Sri Viswanath
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As a former expat, and recent traveler in China, I appreciate your articles. My 3 kids were the age of yours when we first went overseas in the 60s. Their experiences growing up in foreign countries has given them a different perspective on the world than their current friends. They are much more comfortable with foreigners here and with traveling overseas with my grandchildren.

Living in countries with both 110 & 220 V and transformers we never had any problems, each had different non-compatible plugs.

-- Dave

Several other people wrote in with similar observations about the plugs. Unfortunately, the two-pronged plugs here are just compatible enough to cause some problems. I also fried my guitar amp by plugging it into an adapter when it needed a transformer, but that's another story.

Thanks for sharing your kids' experience. I hope you find this week's column on point.

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I just read your wonderful article on the TV repair adventure and the commentary afterwards. I visited China and Tibet last summer with my 17-year-old son and just loved it (although I'm not brave enough to attempt what you and your family are succeeding at).

-- Peter László

Once again, I can only say thank you.