In the preschool where I teach, there are several cultures represented: Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Singaporean, Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, Algerian, Venezuelan, British, Malawian, German, Portuguese, Lebanese, and American. There are many more cultures represented within the vast network of international schools in Ho Chi Minh City, and all of these cultures are vibrant, distinct, and important to maintain. While our curriculum is based on British standards, and conducted completely in English, the parents and teachers I work with are all taking steps to maintain their children’s’ connections to the culture they were born into.

Language is a definitive link to a country and region. Without it, children will not be able to communicate with their extended family members, or be able to integrate back into their parent’s native society. Children must be fluent in a language before they can understand humour in that language, and understanding a culture’s sense of humour has been identified as a key component to successful repatriation.  Many expat parents here try to communicate regularly in their first language with other families in Ho Chi Minh City from the same country. When this option is unavailable, parents turn to social media and internet calls to encourage their children’s native tongue.

Teachers can also encourage a strong cultural identity by including a yearly unit on students’ countries of origin. Even the youngest students know where they come from and understand that they speak another language at home and eat food that might be different than what is served at school. Instead of brushing these differences aside, it is possible to highlight them in positive ways. It is highly rewarding to see children of all ages learn about their heritage and become culturally competent early on. 

Teachers can easily create opportunities for young students to teach others about their culture. Holidays provide a great chance to discuss traditions, food, and beliefs. Art projects provide an outlet to show and to tell – creating a country flag, making paper dolls in traditional clothing, or pasting together a collage of food from around the world – all are enlightening and engaging activities.

For expat kids, celebrating culture can keep one foot rooted in the home country while the other is free to participate in whichever place they find themselves. It is important to childhood identity to have a solid sense of belonging, and both parents and teachers can work together to foster and praise cultural awareness.

Shannon Brown is a head teacher at Little Genius International Kindergarten with a Master’s in Public Health. She cultivates healthy living by practicing yoga and rock climbing and has been living and teaching in Ho Chi Minh City since 2014.