With the new academic year now well underway, Simon Stanley looks at the ups and downs of student life in a new school, in a new country.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me?” was thirteen year-old Kevin’s reaction when his parents first broke the news that they were moving to Vietnam. “I didn’t really believe it at first,” he tells me. “It was hard, really hard. I had been living in Australia my whole life so it was a huge change. I got really emotional.”
Kevin’s story is no doubt a familiar one for families on the move; as if being a kid isn’t hard enough.
“It can almost [lead to] a period of mourning,” writes Carole Hallet Mobbs on her website ExpatChild.com, an online resource for expat parents. For Kevin’s nine year-old sister Amy, things were a little easier.
“Younger children are more dependant on the family,” says Fiona Nichols, Admissions and Marketing Manager at the British International School HCMC. “They’re a little more open to the change of environment. Teenagers are more independent and will have formed their own social groups and friendships… there’s an element of ownership which they can be reluctant to give up.”
That’s not to say that it will be smooth sailing for primary-aged children. “I remember witnessing my own daughter,” says Nichols. “She was five when we came to Vietnam and she became slightly withdrawn. I went to see her in the playground during her first week and she was just hanging out by herself. So the next day I gave her some stickers to share with the other children – something that would kick-start a conversation. It took time but a couple of weeks later things had changed radically. The school was also pivotal in that.”
When it comes to helping new students and their families adjust, Saigon’s community of international schools are on hand throughout the entire process, from encouraging friendships in the playground to suggesting restaurants the family might like to try. Coffee mornings for parents, family picnics, meet-and-greet events and expat-life workshops are some of the many school-led social avenues available.
“We also have country representatives,” says Nichols. “So if a family is coming in from overseas, they will be put in touch with a parent representative from their country. We feel it’s just as important as promoting the international context. There’s that hankering or longing for home, for just being able to speak your own language.”
Admissions and Marketing Director for Saigon South International School, Katie Rigney-Zimmermann, suggests that the attitude of a parent towards a move abroad is just as important, and can easily be mimicked by a child. “I think parents need to put on the brave and happy face and be the grown up,” she says. “But I think they can admit that they’re facing challenges.”
For Nichols, patience is essential when settling into a new country: “People come in with very high expectations of integrating immediately, but it takes time. You have to put your hand up and go to the social events going on around you without judging. Then you can start selecting what you feel would be the best fit for you and your family.”
Hit the Ground Running
Before leaving Sydney, Kevin’s mother Julie began planning the transition remotely. “I wanted to make the kids feel like it was home as fast as I could,” she says. “So I Googled everything; music tutors, swimming lessons, places they could do their art, their tennis… if they could get into extra-curricular activities straight away then they wouldn’t have any time to sit around and moan.”
“There’s a great vibe in Saigon,” adds Nichols. “It’s a really great place to reside, and I think tapping into it is really important so that people can feel that pulse early on.”
As a mother too, Rigney-Zimmermann believes it’s also the small things that matter. “When we first moved we brought some foods that we knew we couldn’t get,” she explains. “So, for the first couple of days, when everything is crazy, you can have that cereal you love for example.” Of course, District 2’s various supermarkets and the imported goods outlets on Ham Nghi Street in District 1 are there if you still can’t get over your Vegemite addiction.
Maintaining the old, however, is just as important as embracing the new, a fine balance where social media can be both a blessing and a curse. “I think encouraging the kids to spend time connecting with old friends through Skype and Facebook is good, but don’t let them get lost in that,” she says, “because then they’re not making new friends.”
Further down the line, life as an expat student proves time and again to be overwhelmingly beneficial. Less than six months after arriving, Kevin is now taking a course in computer programming via a university in Hong Kong, and regularly travels abroad with his school’s volleyball team, neither of which he could have imagined doing back in Australia.
“I’m doing things that I never thought I would at my age, at my level,” he says. “It’s had a hugely positive impact on my life.”