expat kid

“I teach kindergarten and elementary aged students.”
“Is there any specific reason that you chose to teach younger kids rather than older kids?”
“I really enjoy that my younger kids ask more questions. Pretty much because they’ve never had a black teacher before, they ask questions like, ‘Why is your hair curly?’ or ‘Why is your skin brown?’”
“So what is your answer?”
“‘Because my mom’s hair is curly, my dad’s hair is curly, so my hair is curly!’ I like that about kindergarteners. They are not afraid to ask the questions that everybody kind of wants to know the answers to but doesn’t feel comfortable asking.”

“전 유치원생과 초등학생을 가르쳐요.”
“나이가 좀 있는 아이들보다 어린 아이들을 가르치는 걸 선택하게 된 특별한 이유가 있나요?”
“전 아이들이 질문을 많이 하는 걸 좋아해요. 아이들은 대부분 흑인 선생님을 처음 대해보기 때문에 이런 질문들을 많이해요. 예를 들면, ‘선생님은 왜 머리가 꼬불꼬불해요?’ 혹은 ‘선생님 피부는 왜 갈색이에요?’ 같은 거요. 그럼 전 이렇게 대답하죠. ‘왜냐하면 우리 엄마 머리가 꼬불거리고, 우리 아빠 머리가 꼬불거리니까. 그래서 내 머리도 꼬불거리는거야.’ 전 아이들의 그런 모습들이 좋아요. 아이들은 어쩌면 다른 모든 사람들이 궁금해하지만 물어보기 꺼려하는 질문들을 두려움 없이 하거든요.”

Schools in rural China suck

So I teach English at a high-school in Zhongwei, Ning Xia, China. I lived in Shanghai as a kid (expat family) so Ive seen all the big cities and all the tourist spots. So I jumped at the chance to move somewhere off the beaten track. Zhongwei is an ancient city, its history goes back to the Tang dynasty and was founded on the old Silk Road and more recently has had some serious development because of the mineral wealth of the surrounding lands.

Anyway you aren’t here for a history lesson. So Ive been teaching here for just under a year now. I teach Gao 2 (final year before uni). One thing I’m not used to is the huge classes. The biggest is 92 students cramped into a room that barely fits 60 (“normal class size”). The fucked up thing is they separate them into classes based on their skill level. Basically the brightest ones get a small class of 44, then we have the middle of the road classes, kids move around these every semester, going up or down based on their performance but with 4 classes of around 60 students each they are all pretty much the same. Then you have the low class of 92 of the “stupids” as the head master calls them behind their back. When ever a kid gets moved from to or from of the top or bottom classes they make a big deal of it in assembly in front of the whole school (upwards of 1000 students). Its fucking heart breaking to see the kids faces when they get moved in to the lower class, no one stops the stadium full of their peers from laughing and talking while the headmaster reads out their report card in front of them all, the teachers join in. OFC everyone claps when a kid gets moved up. In the time I’ve been here we have had 8 suicides. Most of them were just faceless. Chinese schools are not great at developing individuality. One kid in the high class stayed in my mind. Really bright, really hard worker and that is a whole different ballgame in China. He had asked me for some extra English lessons weeks before it happened. He had always been the best of the best and he was becoming just one of the best. I wish now that I had said yes but at the time I was just to busy (still am but now I’m teaching extra classes in my lunch breaks) and so was he. All the students are fucking hard workers and TBH the difference between the top and the bottom classes is absolutely nothing.

Anyway, after 6 months I had started getting to know one or two of the kids by face if not by name. When you teach more than 600 kids a week it can be hard. There was one kid that really got to me. I was diagnosed as Dyspraxic when I was young (you can thank spellcheck that this is legible) so when I saw the signs in a kid in the bottom class I was fairly sure I could help. I took it to the head of English (my boss) and he didn’t quite understand. I told him about the problems the kid was having and suggested some stuff that helped me in the past. He just brushed it off saying the kid was just dumb so I went online and found some literature on the subject to show him. He looked very concerned after reading the translation I wrote and just responded that “We can notice him” (his english is atrocious). So, happy that I did a good thing, I went back to preparing lessons. I looked for the kid in class next time I had them, hoping to see him with a laptop (the school just bought a bunch of laptops for the teachers and we had hundreds lying about) but I didn’t see him. Next week was the same. I went back to my boss and asked him about the child. He told me that the kid had been moved. I assumed he meant to a special school.

Life went back to normal, I had a spring in my step at helping overcome a students difficulties (that I lost 2 months later when a kid in the bottom class killed herself by throwing herself off the top of one of the school buildings). The worst thing was that I could not remember her face or anything about her, students here spend most of their time head in books. One of the girls friends had taken the loss about as hard as anyone would take the practically ignored suicide of a classmate, so I tried to talk to her but got nothing. I talked to her friends but all I could gather was that her parents moved often for business so she lived at school. Her grades were slipping badly, she was disrupting class and I think she was getting drunk before school (not uncommon among the older students and teachers). I went to my boss to bring it up, she lived on campus so if she was getting drunk it was certain other kids were as well. I told him that I thought the kid needed help and he responded that he would look into it. I looked out for her in class the next week but didn’t see her. I went back to my boss and asked him if everything was alright. I’ll never forget what he said next “she has been dealt with”. That was all he would or could give me. At first I wasn’t sure what he meant and I’m not even sure he was. There were no other schools for miles, some of our kids had a 3 hour drive into school. We were the end, we occasionally took in “troublesome” kids from the high-school in the main town but the only way kids left our school is if their parents moved away.

In china the students stay in their classroom and the teachers come to them so I never took register or even counted them as it would take most of the lesson. After then I made a point of trying to remember each of the kids I taught. I never had to do any marking; that was handled by other teachers, so I never had a good idea of who was in my classes (I was the only person in the city who had ever spoken english outside of the classroom so my time was precious to the school). In classes of that size we would always have sick kids or kids who were absent but looking at the lowest class of students I recalled the first few months with them, cramped into a freezing room with 2 or 3 kids to a desk. I looked at the class, all staring at me intently and noticed something I hadn’t before. Several of the desks were one to a child. This was the norm for most of my classes where there was enough desks for each child but the bottom class had always been so crowded. I was teaching the passed tense to that group for the umpteenth time when I decided to do a headcount. 75. 75 students. Down from the 92 I had at the start of the year. We had had 2 suicides in that class and 7 had moved up but 92 to 75 was strange. The school had just recovered from flu season so I put it down to that. I continued my headcount for each class. The top group had gone up by 5 since the start of the year. The troubled kid in their group still was with us at that point and we had only had 2 students move down, both of which I can happily say are settled into their new class and doing better without the pressure. That brought us to a total of 47. I confirmed the number with a headcount. The top group didn’t take many sick days. I kept a log of each class and how many students in each. The middle group had lost some students to moving up or down to the “special” groups. But each class was more or less the same as when they had began. The only difference was in the bottom group. I asked off hand to the head master what happened if we needed to expel someone (we never did, you cant imagine how tame kids are here). We were literally the only school around so we couldn’t. We got other schools undesirables.

Schools in China get funded based on how many students they have but more importantly, how well they do at their end of year exams. We were the run off school for the province yet we had one of the best pass rates. One of the main reasons I took the job was because of the great pay, better than anywhere else in the province. Well I have kept up the head counts for the bottom class (everyone else’s stayed the same). We are going into exam time now and even though we have had 8 new students join us we are down to 67. I ask the other teachers but they just say the students moved if they reply with anything at all. Ive been to the police here, but they do nothing. Sitting here in my office, looking out across the mountainous reaches I think I may have solved it. Every day at 5am truckloads of people go out to work in the mines that make this little town so wealthy. At 8pm they come back. After counting the kids in the class of “stupids” I cant bring myself to count the trucks for fear of seeing a familiar face.

Coming Home

Because Asher was so devastated when we moved to Amsterdam and for months and months was desperate to go back to Seattle, we were unsure how he would respond when we returned to the States for Christmas this year. 

It’s been nearly a year-and-a-half since we moved, and we knew that Asher’s anger had dissipated. In fact, in recent months he’d come to an uneasy acceptance of our life here, telling me one afternoon while riding on the back of my bike, “I like it in Amsterdam. Like, I’d be okay if we have to stay here longer than we originally planned." 

We were visiting friends and family on the East Coast, so I knew he wouldn’t really be faced with the "home” he spent his first nine years living in. Still, I wondered what visits to Friendly’s and driving everywhere and unfettered access to Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup would do to his mood. 

My husband and I were prepared for the usual questions he’d throw at us whenever he was reminded of home. Questions like, When are we moving back? and Can you please promise me that we’ll move back to Seattle when we are done in Amsterdam? We expected at least a few disses on Holland, perhaps complaining about the guttural language or the lack of his favorite food brands.

But instead we got contentedness. Regulation. And acceptance.

Asher enjoyed his time with his grandparents and Aunt Shelly. He savored every sticky bun and soft pretzel and bowl of chicken noodle soup he devoured. He happily went outlet shopping with me so we could get him some new shoes, chilled with my parents while Derin and I spent a few days in NYC, embraced the science center and swimming pool and playgrounds he visited.

And remarkably, there wasn’t one word of annoyance or sadness over not living in the US anymore. In fact, the most upset he got was the day we were leaving—he had in his mind we were flying in the morning and instead he had to wait until the end of the day.

Most incredibly, when we looked at the sunrise out the window of US Airways flight #798 and the lovely, flat green fields of Holland came into view, Asher commented on how beautiful it was, and how happy he was to be back home.

I love that Asher has opened himself up enough to be in the present moment, to enjoy what’s happening when it’s happening. And I’m grateful he’s let go of his anger and allowed himself to fully step into his life in Amsterdam without conditions or constant questions about when and if and how we move back to the US. 

It seems as though Asher’s uneasy acceptance has become a little easier.

the same ppl complaining about immigrants not speaking their countries language are the ones that as expats will put their kids through international schools and look down on them speaking the local languages

The Summer Plan

So today is the first day of “summer camp.” Back in the states, I would have signed Asher up for a different camp each week—things like lego animation camp or wet and wacky physics camp or soccer camp or computer gaming camp. I also would have had to speak with the camp directors for each camp months earlier to tell them about Asher and his intensities and make sure they were willing, and equipped, to handle him and any challenges that came up. And of course, even with that heads up and understanding in place about what could be hard for Asher, there would always be a few that just didn’t work out. Last summer we were 5 for 8… the other three wrote me reimbursements checks.

Because I’m homeschooling Asher I wanted to come up with a way to differentiate “summer” from the “school year,” and so I’ve come up with 7 themed weeks of “camp.” Between now and the end of August, minus a few weeks for holiday, we’re doing week-long explorations in nature, architecture, comic strips, documentary filmmaking, sewing, Minecraft-themed art, and guerilla art.  Camps will run Monday through Thursday and Friday will be a beach day with friends.

It also felt like it was important that we change up our routine a bit for the summer – though Asher thrives with structure and routine, he seems to need a break from the same general daily flow we’ve done over the past nine months. So we’re making some shifts.

The biggest? Asher won’t be doing screen time on our camp days. This was his suggestion by the way (huge!) and I’m so curious to see how it impacts him. He’ll likely OD on screens the other days of the week, but for the sake of this experiment, I’m okay with that.

Another change? We’re going to be doing daily “sit spots.” This is something my friend and parenting / nature-based coach Margaret Webb turned me onto. A “sit spot” is basically a place in nature where one goes every day rain or shine to sit quietly and reflect, notice, and simply be. I’ve certainly noticed that some of Asher’s most present moments happen when we’re sitting together in nature – he’s tuned in, engaged, and aware. So I’m curious to know how he responds to this being a new daily ritual.

My other hopes for our summer of camps is that we’ll spend lots of time outdoors, get lots of exercise, read lots of books, be more playful, and that Asher will gain more independence and more fully step into himself.

But of course, as I’ve learned throughout my first year of homeschooling, things don’t necessarily work out the way I intended. In fact, chances are high that I’ll be looking back on this post at the end of August and have a good laugh at the naiveté of my finely laid plans. But that’s okay. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned this past year it’s that we always end up exactly where we’re supposed to be