Being a foreigner in Switzerland has made me paranoid: Exhibit A

September 14th, 2011

The Small Boy came home from school yesterday with a letter requesting parental permission for him to be part of a study on motivation and motivational problems faced by primary school students. If we allowed the Small Boy to participate, he would be asked some questions in October and the same set of questions in the spring. They gave a few examples of the type of questions that might be asked (“How do you think the following sentence applies to yourself: Compared to other students my age, I am good at homework” for example), and they seemed harmless enough.

However. Parents who agreed to let their children participate in the study were asked to fill out a survey – well, I was asked to fill out the survey, as the letter requested that the caregiver who spends the most time with the child complete the survey – and I wasn’t so comfortable with the questions being asked. There were questions about how I discipline Small Boy (the person filling out the questionnaire was directed to give answers that applied only to the child who brought the survey home), whether I know his friends, if I praise him when he does something well, if he stays out later than he’s allowed, if he goes off without me knowing where or with whom, if I play with him regularly, ask about his day at school, and so on. I wasn’t thrilled with a lot of the questions, but I might have gone ahead and done it if they hadn’t also asked for the following: what language is spoken in the home, how long I have lived in Switzerland, the nationality on my passport, and how long the child in question has lived in Switzerland. And so help me, the first thought that popped into my head was how somebody was going to use this survey to complain about how foreigners parent their children and no way was I filling that thing out.

I hate thinking thoughts like that. I hate that I wondered if every kid in the Small Boy’s class got that survey, or just the ones with foreign roots (oh, I plan on bringing it up in casual conversation with a full on Swiss mom when I get the chance). I hate that as a former social scientist myself, I still doubt the motivations behind this survey. I hate that I often wonder if my children are being judged because of me.

Am I the only one, fellow expats, or do you have moments like this too?


July 13th, 2011

We have the Small Boy’s first grade class schedule – called the Studenplan – and classroom assignment. There are two first grade classes here in the village, and SB will be with the teacher he wanted (he wanted this teacher based on the second-hand information that a friend’s brother likes this teacher) and is staying together with his entire Kindergarten class minus one child who for some odd reason is the only one from his Kindergarten class going to the other teacher, which strikes me as awfully unfair for this particular child. (The life, it’s all about the unfairness right now.)

The first grade curriculum looks like this: he’ll have German (reading, writing, literature – this is the same as a US first  grader having an English class); math; “Natur-Mensch-Mitwelt,” which I’m assuming is basically social studies with some physical sciences thrown in; P.E., which they just call Sport here; art (including textile work), and music. There’s still a lot of down time – he only goes to school five mornings and two afternoons a week – though I confess I have no idea what the Swiss homework situation looks like in the first grade. I’m willing to find that out as we go along and if there isn’t a lot of homework all the better since he’ll have hockey practice twice a week and an extra “class” outside of school, from me.

I’m looking through first grade curriculums this summer – at the moment I’m reading What Your First Grader Needs to Know – to figure out what U.S. history Small Boy would get in the first grade, if he were going to the first grade in the U.S. and I’m going to put together a little extra class for him outside of school. I hope to be able to expose him to the highlights primarily through stories, especially in the early grades, so that it doesn’t feel like I’m sitting at the kitchen table tutoring him. Neither of us take to that particularly well, but he learns remarkably well  – and I pass along information fairly well – in the context of a walk, outing, or adventure. But him sitting there listening to me tell him Something Important? Not so much. I can imagine if I took him on vacation to Boston, for example, he would have a blast and eat up all the stories and learn ten times more about the Revolution than if I tried consciously to sit down and teach him about it. So I’m hoping for some good children’s books to lay the ground work.

Sooooo, American readers of young children, here’s where you come in. What should a first grader learn about US history? What are some good age appropriate books or movies? What did your first grader learn? (I’m thinking specifically US history here. I’m perfectly happy to have Small Boy learn world history in the depth and order the Swiss kids do. It’s just the U.S. stuff that he obviously won’t get here that I’m interested in.)

Aaand, expat parents of children of all ages, I’m looking for your advice too. Did you teach your kids about your home country? How? How much? How often? Which subjects were the most important to you? (For example, given time constraints, did you teach the literature of your native country on top of what they were getting in the local school?) Did you present it clearly as learning about where you came from, or did you just try to sneak it in in the form of stories and vacations? When did you start, and how long were you able to keep it up? Did your kids rebel against this extra workload? I’m looking for information galore here, so please feel free to pass a link to this post along to your expat friends.


And spare a thought for the Small Boy, who is about to be confronted with another of life’s little unfairnesses: he has to learn the history of two countries.

Home is the place where, when you have to go there

January 31st, 2011

I have a friend who works in Alexandria, Egypt. She used to live in Switzerland but moved several years ago. She actually left Switzerland when I was pregnant with the Small Boy, so it’s been quite some time. We have seen each other a few times since then, when she has been in Switzerland on a vacation or taking care of some business that she still has here; we email a few times a year but we are both poor correspondents and time and distance have weakened our friendship.

I sent her an email last week, not knowing what if any internet access she might have, simply saying I hope things were calm by her and that she stays safe. I haven’t heard anything back. Her employer maintains a Facebook page, which they updated on January 24th to say that they would be closed the following day. It hasn’t been updated since. I can well imagine that she only had internet access through work in the first place. It would meet her needs – she is a fairly unplugged person – and she moves often enough that I can imagine she wouldn’t bother with the hassle of finding a service provider as long as she knew she could use computers at work on her private time. So if she’s not going in to work, she is probably unplugged. I am not overly concerned about her physical safety, it’s not as if I fear for her actual life, but I am worried about how she is doing and if her neighborhood is calm or not.

I sent out a request for information on Twitter – does anybody have any information about the foreign staff of this employer? Through the miracle of re-tweeting, somebody actually associated with the place, albeit in a loose way, sent me a message that US staff are being sent home. Which brings me after a long introduction to the point: this friend of mine is a US citizen but hasn’t lived in the US for fifteen years. If she shows up at the airport or Embassy wishing to be evacuated, she’s got her passport and they’ll take care of her (and it’s scenarios like this that make R say, “Sometimes a US passport is a handy thing to have”), but where will she go? She lives in Egypt. Prior to that she lived in Asia and South-East Asia, and prior to that she lived in Switzerland. Prior to that, she lived in the Netherlands. To my knowledge, the last time she was in the US was simply to attend a job fair that landed her the Alexandria job.

There are expats like me, who either through marriage or long-term employment form a bond with the new country. If I had to get evacuated from an emergency zone I’d wave my US passport for all it was worth, and then make my way, with the boys, back to Switzerland. We’d try to get passportless R to be allowed to come with, on the basis of being the father of two minor US citizens, but we’ve already agreed that if push comes to shove I’d cut him and his Swiss passport lose to get the boys to safety and he’d follow when he could. (The US is simply better equipped to evacuate its citizens than Switzerland, and even R with all his pride in his Swiss military admits it.) But then there are expats like my friend who move a lot, following jobs or adventure or change or whatever it is that calls a person to move countries every few years. She’s got the passport, and if she wants to leave – which is an open question, actually – she’ll be taken care of, but then what? I sometimes envy her expat adventures and the amazing vacations she has taken all over South-East Asia, the freedom to change jobs and countries when she feels like it, but then what? After all the exploring and the traveling, now, when she might get evacuated – to where? To whom?

How rooted are you? (This might apply especially to my expat readers, but not exclusively). A line from Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man” comes to mind:

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there
They have to take you in.”

I’m wondering what my friend will do, where she will go, who will take her in. And remembering that the ties that sometimes feel like they are holding me back are also the ties that root me, that link me to the world, that give me a safe place from which to venture forth and a port to which I can return.