Stupid Americans

Stupid Americans

We didn’t have a car for our first two years in Beirut, which I would highly recommend for language learning… I have rarely met a taxi driver who isn’t chatty, and it’s a great way to practice your new language skills.

Even now that we have a car, I still use public transportation fairly often, and the conversations never cease to amuse me. I can only think of once when I was really uncomfortable with the way a conversation went – this particular driver was insistent that I take his phone number and call him if I ever met a blonde woman who would be interested in marrying him. Not because he cares about looks, he was quick to mention multiple times, but because he had a dream when he was young that he would have a blonde child, and so he’s certain his blonde wife is out there somewhere, he just needs help meeting her.

Most conversations revolve around religion, politics and whether the taxi driver should try to immigrate to the US. It’s rare to meet a driver who doesn’t have a relative in the States (“my brother’s wife’s sister is in Dearborn!”), and with the economic situation in Lebanon, many are looking outside of the country to give their children a fighting chance at a good future.

So we talk about the struggles of living cross culturally, what makes life in America easier, and whether Los Angeles or Michigan would be a better place for them to live. More often than not, I’m dispelling myths and combating stereotypes about life in America, and I can’t count the number of times the phrase “every country has it’s beauty and it’s issues” comes rolling off my tongue.

no offense, Michigan, but yeah, NO.

Recently I had an especially chatty driver. We talked a lot about his Italian girlfriend and his mom’s opinion of her and her cooking, why I felt it was important to have a conversation with the children tapping on our window trying to sell us toilet paper, and how superhero movies were definitely the best genre of film ever created. This guy was a real movie buff, which also clearly made him an expert on life in America. So he’d tell me about how it is in the States, I would gently correct or agree, and the conversation moved on to his service in the army.

And then, out of nowhere, he lobbed this one my direction. “Apologies for the strong language, but Americans are pretty stupid.”

Umm…okay….?

“Again, no offense at all, but Americans are pretty dumb. I mean, why, if you live in Tornado Alley, would you build a house out of wood?!? Look at this building,” he continued, pointing to a large concrete structure covered in glass windows, “if a tornado hit this, yes, the glass would break, but at least it would still be standing! But no! In America, you guys are like, ‘yes, my brother and mom both died in a tornado, but we are going to rebuild our house with wood!’ See! Stupid Americans! No offense of course.”

And for the first time in my life, a taxi driver rendered me completely speechless. Thanks, Bill Paxton.




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Sorry kids, it’s not your best life

Sorry kids, it’s not your best life

A common caption for pictures on my Instagram feed is something along the lines of “she’s living her best life” accompanied by an adorable shot of a toddler cuddling her puppy or a little boy with an infectious grin covered head to toe in mud.

(NOT our dog)

Sometimes I can just smile at the cuteness, but other times I get a churning in my gut – a mix of envy, guilt and the ever lurking fear that the choices we’ve made for how we live our lives will somehow ruin our children.

If I was creating the perfect childhood for my kids, it would involve living close to family and having a clean, safe outside space to play in. There would be lots of opportunities to try out different sports and instruments and activities, and school would be fun. They’d have access to services when they were struggling with speech or reading, and a gaggle of neighborhood friends to shoot hoops with in the driveway. The air they were breathing would be clean and they wouldn’t catch salmonella from playing at the beach (or taking a shower – jury is still out on where that nasty bug came from.)

enjoying the green grass of Arizona!

Everyone tells you about the benefits of raising children overseas, and I love that my kids are growing up multilingual. I love that they are exposed to different cultures and the close bonds they have with one another because of our “never quite fitting in anywhere” lifestyle.

I don’t love when my kid comes home crying because some girls filled her desk and backpack and books with glitter… because she won her class math competition and they have to bring her down a notch because she’s a foreigner.

Are my kids “living their best life?” I can confidently answer that with a resounding no. Don’t get me wrong. They are happy. They have friends, they enjoy the activities they are involved in, they are doing well in school. But looking at it from a physical, emotional or psychological perspective, no, it’s not their best life. And yes, I often feel sad and sometimes guilty for this. We knew we would be making sacrifices on our kids’ behalf when we chose this life, but that doesn’t make it any easier when your children are bawling their eyes out because they miss their family or because apparently white people are ugly.

But all this begs the question: is that our primary responsibility as parents? To give our kids their best life?

When our kids were younger and they’d pine for life in America after a fun summer there, we could easily remind them that summertime anywhere is more fun. But as they are getting older, the reality of what they are missing out on is becoming clearer to them. So we let them talk about it. We grieve with them the loss of the life they think they’d enjoy having.

And then we try to teach them why we sacrifice so much. And ultimately it comes down to obedience. We felt like God called us to this life, and so we obeyed. It’s not always easy, it’s not always fun, it’s not always comfortable. My hope is that this is a truth we can pass on to our kids… that striving for our best life is less about the perfect environment and endless opportunities and comfortable relationships and more about just being obedient

It doesn’t mean I don’t ache with and for them when they are struggling because of this choice that we’ve made. The feelings of guilt are very real. But I have to believe that our obedience will bring blessing… even if that blessing doesn’t come in the form of the puppy my middle child desperately wants to have.

The 4th language

The 4th language

Lebanon is no doubt a multilingual society. In a lot of ways, it’s different from other countries with multiple official languages because there is not much separation between them. It’s not uncommon at all to hear two or three languages used by the same person in the same sentence. It goes against everything you’ve ever read about language learning (in children especially), makes learning to speak Arabic difficult, and I have my theories on how it effects a child’s overall language development and communication skills, but that’s for another post.

I love that my children are surrounded by and exposed to so many languages. English is for sure their first and strongest language. They also speak Lebanese Arabic (with varying degrees of success), and learn formal Arabic and French in school. The girls have recently discovered that French is a secret language they can use in our house when they don’t want Mom or Dad to understand. This makes me both proud and absolutely livid when they start whispering to one other, plotting away in French… usually when I’m in the middle of a lecture or meting out some (well-deserved, of course) punishment.

But then we have their 4th language. We first noticed it a few months after Isla started school way back when… but thought that she was just mimicking her friends while retelling us a story that happened during her day. But, no. We have now decided that this is a full on language, that we (at first begrudginly, but now lovingly) call “School English.”

because apparently you can’t share whatsapp voice messages… so a video of it playing will have to do

I discovered to my horror that this is how Isla talks to everyone at school – friends and teachers and janitors – when we went to an open house and she raised her hand to answer a question. At first we tried to correct it, but then realized that she was communicating in a way that she felt she would be best understood… thick accent, wonky grammar and all. So we’ve embraced it now as our children’s newest language. It’s amazing to see how fluidly they can all three switch between English and school English, depending on who they are talking to. Even Luka, who is only a few months into his first year of school, is getting a good grasp on it.

Curious if this is more pronounced because of our context… where our kids are spending the majority of their school day being taught their first language by non-native speakers… or if it’s a pretty typical TCK trait?

How to save a life

How to save a life

Not a week goes by that I don’t get a message from a friend on Facebook or Whatsapp pleading for blood.

Can you imagine the immense pressure this would put you under? You are in need of surgery, but before you can have it, you need to find enough family and friends with your blood type to donate any blood you might possibly need during your surgery.

I have a friend whose brother needed weekly blood transfusions to help him fight an infection. But he had a very rare blood type, and he’d often miss his transfusions because his family couldn’t collect enough blood on time.

A few years ago, whenever a post would be going around social media asking for blood, someone else would mention an organization you could call who would help you collect the blood you needed.

Donner Sang Compter holds regular blood drives to help stock hospitals with blood in the hopes that patient’s families won’t be forced to collect their own, and at the same time manages a country-wide database of blood donors in order to match donors with those in need. Once you sign up, you receive alerts whenever there is a need for your particular blood type at a hospital in your neighborhood.

Of course, you can always go to your local hospital and give a general donation. If enough of us do this, we could eliminate the need for friends and family to scramble to collect at what is likely one of the most difficult times of their lives. Do be aware that different hospitals have different eligibility requirements, so if you get rejected from one, don’t stop trying! (Some friends and I went to donate once at an American hospital, and they weren’t allowed because they were from the UK. They had no problem, however, donating in a French hospital!)

I remember very clearly the first blood drive I ever participated in. I was 17 and the statistics are still seared into my memory – that just one donation – 30 minutes of your time plus maybe a little dizziness (or if you are me, passing out a few times) – can save the life of up to three people. I know it’s hard in the busy-ness of life to carve out time to go to the hospital every few months to donate, but at the very least, get your name and blood type into DSC’s database so that you can be contacted when your blood is needed most!

On choosing a school

On choosing a school

It’s that time of year… where moms in our expat chat groups find themselves in a panic because they’ve just found out that NOW is the time to have their 2 year old start interviews in order to register for school next year.

It’s not quite as simple as heading down to the neighborhood public school with your water bill to prove you live in the district. There are a lot of options, and you have to decide it while your baby is still in diapers!

So what do you need to consider when choosing a school for your child?

Language

This often comes as a surprise – Arabic is not the educational language for most private schools in Lebanon. So the first question you need to ask yourself is which language do you want your child educated in – French or English?

We chose an English medium school, which means our children take Math, Science, English of course, and all their specials (PE, art, etc) in English. Arabic is taught as a language, as is French, and eventually (starting grade 4 for us, this depends on the school and the system) social sciences such as history and geography are taught in Arabic.

For us, this was an easy choice – neither of us speak French and we wanted to be as involved with our kids’ education as we could be. For others, the language you choose might not be quite as simple.


We love that our kids school starts French every day from the first year!

Cost

You need to decide on your budget for education. School fees can range anywhere from $3,000 – 20,000 per child per year. Be aware that the fees change depending on your child’s grade, sometimes doubling from kindergarten to grade 12, so it’s a good idea to ask for fees for each grade to make sure the school will still be in your budget in a few years.

Make sure to also ask about other supplemental fees (books, stationary, uniform, activities, etc) and whether the school offers discounts for siblings.

Another aspect of cost to consider is the atmosphere that comes with a school being very expensive or very cheap. How comfortable are you or your kids in different socioeconomic groups and what comes along with that?

Location

This is a huge consideration that I can’t stress enough… in our opinion, the closer you can be to the school the better! Traffic in Lebanon is notoriously terrible and inconsistent. It could take you 20 minutes to get to your kids’ school or an hour and 20 minutes with no rhyme or reason. Of course all schools have buses at an additional cost that will save you time on the road, but not necessarily your kids.

We’ve always lived within walking distance of school, and it’s honestly been the best decision we could have made. That’s not always possible of course, but location should definitely be something you consider as you choose a school for your kiddos.

Curriculum

This is the piece of the equation that we didn’t really do a lot of research on – because we had no idea we needed to! Not only do you have several languages to choose from, but there are multiple educational systems each with different curriculum, requirements and theories of education.

Every school in Lebanon is required to offer the Lebanese curriculum. But if your child has a foreign passport, you have the option of registering for the French Bacc, High School, or International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

The school we chose for our kids only has the Lebanese system. When we chose it seven years ago, all we really knew about it was that it meant our kids would have to do Arabic with all the native speakers (as opposed to taking a special Arabic for foreigners class) and they would have to sit for the government exams in grades 9 and 12. We wanted our kids to learn Arabic, and figured that because they were born here, they should be able to do what any other child can do, academically speaking. And that has proven to be true.

What we didn’t realize were all the other things that entail being enrolled in the Lebanese system. It’s not only about the curriculum, but educational styles as well as values play a huge role in the education your child will receive. For example, the Lebanese system is very math/science heavy, rote memorization is still highly valued, and the brevet (grade 9 exams) are notorious for putting a lot of pressure on students to memorize a lot a lot a lot of useless information. Some kids will thrive in that kind of system, others won’t. For us it’s not a question anymore of IF our kids can do it, because we know they can, but more of a question of if we WANT them to. We love our school, but the jury is still out on how long our kids will continue there.

I’d highly recommend doing research on the different systems – what does the IB offer? What classes will a student in the high school program take? What are the education styles employed in the French bacc system? I wish we had known more about the options, although to be honest, we likely would have ended up at the same school because of it’s location and cost. (And we are very happy there, thankfully!)

Other important questions to ask

Of course every family will put different value on the 4 major considerations – maybe budget is not an issue because your employer will cover your kids’ tuitions, or maybe you only have a Lebanese passport so the Lebanese system is your only option. Every school has it’s pluses and minuses and what makes one family happy will drive another up the wall. But the choice can be overwhelming, especially if you are new in the country or didn’t go through the school system here yourself. A few other questions to ask once you’ve narrowed down your choices are:

  • What kind of special education services are offered? (Not all schools are equipped for or will accept kids with special needs)
  • What kinds of activities are offered both during the day or after school?
  • When do kids start having homework? How much per day? (This might be a question better asked of parents with kids in the school than the school itself)
  • What place does religious education have in the school? You’ll find a wide range – from not religious at all (including Christmas/Ramadan celebrations) to mandatory chapel or religion classes.
  • What percentage of the school are expats?
Our kids go to an Orthodox school. This year they added optional religious education to the curriculum for Christian students. (Photo from the school’s facebook page)

I was reading a report recently that one of the main reasons that expats return to their passport country is because of children’s education issues. While there is no perfect school, and you will find things you love and hate about any school, finding a school that is a good fit for your family will go a long way in making your experience as an expat in Lebanon a positive one.

For those of you here in Lebanon, what have I left off? Any questions you would add?


Getting a late start in school

Getting a late start in school

I was on a blog break when Luka had his infamous school interview. The school changed the interview process a bit – now the kids head up to the classroom alone while the parents fill out the paperwork downstairs. I get the idea behind it, but I also think it is quite traumatic… and you don’t want a child’s first experience of school to be negative!

It wasn’t an issue for us – Luka was so so ready for school. I actually had to downplay the interview quite a lot because he still had to wait nine months before his first day. We got to the lobby and while I was still greeting another mom I know, he was halfway up the stairs. Apparently he played a little basketball and the teacher asked a lot of questions. When I tried to quiz him about the type of questions, his response was consistently the same: “blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Part of the reason he was so comfortable was that he’s been doing school pick up since a was just a few days old. He knows the campus, he knows the teachers, he knows the kids. But the bigger reason is, he’s a year older than the girls were.

The cutoff date to start school here is January 31. This is set by the ministry of education each year. There are a few schools that set an earlier date, but most follow the ministry. This means that your child can start his first year of kindergarten when he is 2 years and 8 months.

Luka has a late November birthday, so instead of starting him when he was 2-almost-3, we decided to wait an extra year and start him at 3-almost-4. Best decision ever.

I get a lot of pushback – mostly from moms who decided to start their kids on the early end: “It depends on the child!” And my response in my mind is always, “no, it doesn’t.”

I’m not saying that a kid who starts on the early side is destined to fail. Isla is one of the youngest in her grade (if not the youngest!), and she’s excelling academically. Ruby started at 3.5 years and is doing great socially.

But the difference in awareness of a 2 year old, a 3.5 year old and an almost 4 year old is huge. The girls did fine, they were generally happy, but they cried every morning for weeks. They came home exhausted, needed naps but couldn’t have them, and just in general seemed so young to be in school all day.

Luka has been a totally different story. He understood what school was, he was itching to go. First day, he waved good-bye and marched up the stairs so so happy. No tears, no looking back. Days 2, 3, and 4 were more difficult… because most of the class spent the whole day crying for their moms. Which you would expect from a class full of 2 year olds! He’s frustrated because he wants to do school things, but other kids were crying and scribbling and throwing their food on the ground.

We could have started him straight into his second year of kindergarten because of his age which would have been a smoother start, more like what Luka was expecting school to be like. But, because they start French and Arabic from the first year, I wanted him to get the full benefit of the three years of KG before starting the much more serious first grade. So much research says that it’s much better for kids (especially boys) to be on the older side of their class, so we decided to start him from the first year, even though it means he’s more than a year older than some of his classmates.

The one thing I wish I would have done was had him skip the entire first week. He’d miss a lot of the crying and tantrums, which up until this point have been the only source of stress in his school experience.

Can a child do well in school if they are young? Of course. But I’d start Luka late a million times over again, and if I could go back in time and delay the girls’ start, I’d do it as well!