Life abroad: outdoor cafes, couture fashion, art museums…but what do kids take away from it? Living abroad as a child, my clearest memories were the torture of getting my legs waxed in an Italian salon way too young, and the thrill of Greek taxi drivers turning off the engine to save gas going downhill.
I wanted my kids to live abroad to be exposed to diversity, to speak a foreign language, and to be more worldly (whatever that is). They didn’t learn to appreciate art or exhibit excellent manners just because we lived abroad. And to be clear, they really didn’t learn any of that at all, but they did pick up a collection of good and bad habits that extend to their daily life back in the US today:
A huge steaming café au lait is a great way to start the day when you’re two. Being the foreign mom, I make it decaf. It has more protein than most other breakfast items that my kids will eat – or I will make – in a rush.
Abroad as expats, we had perks, like drivers who asked the kids what kind of music to play, what temperature they preferred, etc. Moms don’t start up the car and take these requests, so I had to put a stop to it under the premise that the driver rules. (For the record, having a driver abroad isn’t always purely a “perk.” The roads or the regulations can put drivers in dangerous situations.)
My kids have a great tolerance for spicy food and adept intestinal bacteria. They can eat off any street cart and don’t complain about ethnic food. In fact, they think they are Indian food experts despite the fact that they never lived in India.
American kids don’t show much public display of affection between friends. In many cultures, boys hug and kiss their friends, throw their arms around each other while watching a cellphone video, and girls actually stroll arm in arm.
My teenager’s first drink wasn’t vodka shots in someone’s basement until he puked. It was a mojito at the “fiestas del pueblo” in Spain, an outdoor festival. Sure, he was 14, but it was only one, because he only had five Euros with him. He got used to it slowly and he won’t be dying to do those shots in college – or before.
I have no patience for ensuring my kids are signed up for anything “with a friend” to be more comfortable. They can walk into any new situation and deal with it. They’re just happy it’s in English, and that’s familiar enough for them.
Certain foreign language songs are forever recorded in their brains, the infantile ones about ducks and waking up in the morning, and the cheesy ones that teens play ad infinitum. Another plus: researchers extol the benefits of being “bimusical.”
Living abroad, you meet other expats, and you’re all highly likely to move again so you end up with friends in many corners of the world. The kids become little social geniuses at keeping up with all these connections on social media.
When my son had a 105 degree fever that barely responded to Motrin, a Brazilian emergency room gave him “Dipyrone” and he snapped right back. “What is this stuff?” I wondered. The answer is that it's a common analgesic banned by the FDA in the 1970's for toxicity. Besides that, I still keep some in my medicine cabinet, along with many other meds that I can buy over the counter abroad for a few bucks.
Whether it sticks or not, foreign language learning makes the brain more elastic. Researchers say that early language exposure “sculpts” the brain. Additionally, there will always be a few choice words that decorate their vocabulary forever.
It takes a village!
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Annalisa Nash Fernandez