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An overseas posting for a couple of years can be an incredibly enriching experience for the whole family. This is especially true for children who attend international schools where they will have an opportunity to collect a Contacts list full of exotic friends and broaden their minds by gaining first-hand experience of many different cultures.

However, if a peripatetic lifestyle means moving frequently – as in the case of military and diplomatic families – schooling and this way of life may well become an issue fraught with anxiety, particularly for teenagers.

Boarding

Today, an overseas posting may well be in a large, polluted and congested metropolis or in a high-risk security location where children lack freedom and need to be closely monitored 24/7. In such situations, parents sometimes decide that boarding school at home or within the region where they are living will provide a healthier environment with more “normalcy.”

A good example of a typical regional boarding school is Dulwich International College in Phuket, which attracts expatriate families based in Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta and other major cities around the region. Apart from being much less expensive than boarding in Britain, a major advantage is having their children nearby and accessible at weekends in some cases, but without all the hassle of commuting or changing schools each time they move on.

Teenagers, especially, often have strong feelings on where they want to attend school; some ask if they can return to their home country to board, as they often have friends who enjoy being at “home” for eight months of the year but have exotic holidays with parents for the other four months. Others merely dislike and respond negatively to change and want to have the stability of a familiar system with the same long-term friends.

If a child has a learning disability requiring specialised teaching that may be unavailable in an international school, boarding in the home country may be the only viable option.  When parents are considering boarding school, a child should always participate in the decision-making process to avoid feeling “sent away.” All the advantages of such a choice should be discussed, such as being closer to extended family members, being able to invite friends to visit and remaining in a stable environment. Apart from the international boarding schools listed in this guide, its sister guide The Good Schools Guide (www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk ) offers information about everything you need to know regarding British boarding schools and what choices are available.

International schools

The main advantage of attending an international school is that parents can remain closely involved in their children’s lives, and the family shares all the highs and lows – and whatever comes in between – of an overseas experience. By attending an international school, children will interact with other students and teaching staff that understand the transient expatriate lifestyle and know what they are going through.

The average student turnover at a genuinely international school is around 30% or more a year. For a newly arrived expatriate family, the international school can be a lifeline eagerly grasped with both hands; it can become a central contact point where not only children but also parents can meet – or avoid – their fellow countrymen and network to make fascinating new global friends. Becoming involved in school activities provides the whole family with valuable cross-cultural training. Try organising a kid’s birthday party and inviting the whole class but only having six show up because out of thirty nationalities, some parents don’t understand English and can’t read the invitation; some fear attending the party would place reciprocal expectations of them; others feel it is not in their culture to reply; while the rest don’t do parties where parental pedigrees haven’t been fully vetted.

Accepting new ways

Don’t assume that because a school is based upon a British or American curriculum, things will be done the British or American way. It partly depends on which major nationality group most influences the school as, outside the curriculum content, other cultural ways may prevail. In some cultures, it is common to bestow expensive gifts on school staff in order to curry favour, in return for good reports and grades or special treatment (yes, unfortunately it does sometimes work with very flattered Western teachers who are more used to complaints than pressies).

Attending an international school, especially in a developing country, defers the status of “wealth” on your children as such schools are invariably very expensive and only expatriates and wealthy nationals can afford them. Children often feel special as a result of this and many receive a rude awakening when they return to their home countries, where their lifestyles are less elite and they are just one more kid on the block.

Children will learn new values and ideas from their classmates and teachers and (one hopes) gain a global perspective on the world. International schools usually offer myriad exciting language options – who wants to learn staid old French or German when Russian, Mandarin and Urdu are all available?

With so many expatriates blazing a trail to Asia, it is worth touching on, albeit briefly, cultural differences that permeate all facets of life in the educational setting. Western cultures usually promote an independent learning style where individualism and assertiveness are encouraged and rewarded. In many Asian societies, such as China and Thailand, being individualistic is regarded negatively as age and rank are respected and young people are expected to unquestioningly obey their elders. Family is an all-important institution and one’s duty is always to the family and its welfare, as opposed to the welfare of the individual. Asian students are often reluctant to ask questions in class, as – in their culture – this would be construed as disrespect towards the teacher.

Confucian indoctrination in China has created an extremely conformist society: one does not want to be perceived as an individual, as people can create enemies by standing out from the crowd and may invite criticism for being selfish and opportunistic. In both Thai and Chinese cultures, life is also based on the philosophy of Taoism, one of the main principles being “wu wei” or doing nothing i.e. “do nothing and nothing will not be done.” Or to put it another way: “not doing” or “doing without doing,” to let things happen in their own time. The idea being to remain humble, passive, non-assertive and non-interventionist, then you will not be held responsible if things go wrong. Non-intervention or “live and let live” are the keystones of Tao. Harmony and patience are needed and action is obtained through inaction. This means that one doesn’t complain or cause trouble.

In Asia, ‘face’ is extremely important. Having ‘face’ means possessing a high status and prestige in the eyes of one’s peers and it is a mark of personal dignity. A person can lose ‘face’ on his own by not living up to others’ expectations (perhaps through not meeting parental expectations for good grades, which is why some Asian students appear to be workaholics), by failing to keep a promise, or by behaving disreputably. Individuals should never be criticised in public or put into embarrassing situations that cause a loss of ‘face.’                 

This leads us to understanding the meaning of “no.” When asked a favour, many Asians will usually avoid saying “no” so as not to cause embarrassment and loss of face. If a request cannot be met, they may say it is inconvenient or under consideration or simply ignore it and pretend it wasn’t asked. Chinese and Thais have a habit of telling a person whatever they believe he or she wants to hear, whether true or not. This is not a lie; it is a courtesy. If bad news needs to be told, they don’t want to be the ones to do it.                                     

Westerners are often perceived as aggressive and confrontational by other cultures. Being sensitive to other cultures and their different learning and participating styles, and respecting one another’s differences, are things that your children will learn as part of their international school experience. Native English speakers will gain cultural awareness as they immerse themselves in a second or third language. Many international schools provide language teaching or studies related to the host country to promote appreciation of their environment for expatriate students. Learning cross-cultural communication skills is an invaluable part of 21st century life in a globalised world.

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