Wednesday, January 10, 2018

What I wish someone had told me about expat life...

....before I moved to this town.

Last night, I made my son apologize to a child that he called a "jerk."

He didn't want to, and frankly, the kid deserved it. But it had to be done. When my kids say rude things, they have to apologize. Period.

But that doesn't erase that this all came about because this other child was bullying my child online, and acting aggressively and cruelly. Which just seem to be traits of the expat child. At least where I live. Expat kids in this community--a wealthy suburb of Seoul, in South Korea--are forced, and often trained, to be cutthroat and cunning. To do whatever it takes, by any means necessary, to establish and maintain their position on the social totem pole, even if it means hurting other people and abusing friendships and trusted relationships.

As a parent, it's nauseating to watch, and even more upsetting to navigate your children through such ugliness. I hate it. Which is why I am so excited to move home to America this summer. Though, I fully disclose that if we'd moved somewhere else abroad, our experience might not have been so unhappy. It just so happened that we landed in a city that has a reputation (that we weren't aware of prior to moving here) for being less than friendly or inviting to foreigners. Hindsight is always 20/20. *sigh*

It's been quite a trial for my kids. They'd never experienced this type of behavior before. Sure, they'd had friends who were unkind before, but never to the extent that the kids within the expat community have displayed. They've been gaslighted, called names, told to "kill themselves," hit, punched, slapped, spat at, ignored, lied to, lied about, cheated, and my poor daughter has been at the receiving end of a "frienimy" situation that still goes on to this day. And yes, this has all been at the hand of other expat children. Everything in the expat situation is magnified. Amplified. Turned up to eleven, if you will. And it's hard for kids. Cripes, it's hard for adults!

Surprisingly, I'm not even that mad at the aggressive expat kids here. Yeah, I don't particularly like some of them--you can only screw with my children so many times before I go all Mama Bear on you. I didn't earn that reputation by telling my kids to turn the other cheek all the time, amirite? But I do, for the most part, try to encourage my kids to let the ill behavior go, respond firmly but kindly, and stand up for themselves in a way that doesn't threaten or belittle the other child (hence, why I had my son message the kid who was so, incredibly rude to him to tell him that he was sorry for calling him a 'jerk'.)

Why do I offer mercy to children who abuse my kids? Well, because living as a child expat is a hard life. As in, really freaking hard. And I have pity for every expat kid in this stupid town.

I know, I know. There are a handful of expat parents reading my blog, getting all puffed up and defensive, saying, My child isn't living a hard life. My child is getting a global experience. My child is getting a world class education, and seeing beyond their bubble. 

Yeah. I see you. *waves* Now, simmer down. Because an alternative perspective is coming at you, and brace yourself. This might sting a little.

When you're an expat child, you are a child being thrust into a culture that you know nothing of while you're still trying to figure out your own existence. You're being moved from place to place, culture to culture, while still trying to figure out what your own personal culture is, and how it relates to you and your life experience. You're being asked to accommodate the whims and desires of adults who have infinitely more coping and adaptation strategies than you do, and you're doing it all while growing, learning, and developing parts of your brain and body that have been working properly on your adult parents for decades. You're being asked to do very adult things--world travel, cultural immersion, ignoring hate or disrespect, adapting to different traditions and languages, different foods, different healthcare, different educational systems, different governmental systems--all while constantly accustoming and re-accustoming yourself to your own ever-changing body and brain. You're asked to be smart, kind, accepting, and tolerant while being put into environments that are not always smart, kind, accepting or tolerant to you, and then hailed as global citizens as if that's a trophy to behold--even if you're struggling emotionally or mentally with such changes every few years. And while yes, this is an amazing, enriching, and priceless experience for a child to have, it does not come without some challenges, and sometimes those challenges bring out the worst in a kid. I know this because we've lived it.

Kids here are sometimes angry. They don't know why, because they're kids, but an adult--looking from the outside in--can see it. They're angry because they're living in a city where the expat population is small. They're being forced to be friends with other kids who aren't kids they would normally gravitate towards. They're thrust into friendships out of parental pressure and necessity, and then they are forced to either "make it work" or go without friends at all. Unfortunately, here in the community we're living in, there is a social heierarchy. Status is everything, and the more posh your parents are, the higher your status. Kids--being resourceful little buggers--pick up on this quickly, and they behave accordingly. The wealthier kids, the ones with the parents who are the most socially active and the most involved with the posh private school, as well as the expat circle, they're the ones who alpha dog the other children. They will say and do whatever it takes to make sure that the other kids know they're in charge and that they'd better fall in line, or pay the price, socially speaking.

I know, Harry. So do all the kids in this town.

My younger children have had similar negative expat experiences. Experiences I wish we'd been more prepared for. Which is why I blog honestly about our adventures. I wish someone would've warned us about what expat life is really like for children, rather than just telling me what a beautiful, enriching experience they would undoubtedly have. Beautiful and enriching? Yes. Painful and sometimes damaging. Yes.

My sons are 11 and 9, and therefore haven't had all the same experiences as my daughter. The children in their age bracket are mostly aggressive and occasionally mean. They don't necessarily "alpha-dog" the other kids, or nit pick them on their looks, the same way that the teenagers my daughter goes to school with do. Rather they lash out at random, biting whoever has the misfortune of putting their hand near their food bowl. Let me explain:

Younger kids who live as expats here go through the same things I mentioned above. They're thrust into new cultures, asked to ignore inconveniences and mistreatment, and offered a handful of other children that they either mesh--or don't mesh--with, and told to "make it work."

Am I the only person who hears Tim Gunn's voice when I say that?

Moving these kids are given a very small pool of kids from which to draw. Sometimes they're lucky. They find kids they really dig, and then they spend their time abroad with the bestest bestie that they'll ever have, and they form a solid bond, and then they'll inevitably be asked to break that bond, so that they can move to the next country with mom and dad. It's often explained as "part of the expat experience" and kids are told how "lucky" they are that they will collect these friends all over the world, all in an attempt at raising them to be Global Citizens. Personally, I think it's cruel.

I can hear the naysayers starting to get restless.......hang in there. I warned you this might sting a little.

I am in no way an expert on children, or children's behavior. But I do have four children of my own, I am a former foster parent, and before we moved abroad, I worked at an elementary school as a para-educator. SO....while I am not an actual expert, I do take pride in my ability to see unhappy kids when I spot them. And many of the expat kids I've seen here in the community I am in are not happy children. I see kids who verbally abuse other kids. I see kids who bully other kids, both in person and online. I see kids who manipulate and sabotage friendships. I see kids who become addicted to video games and social media. I see kids who are hypochondriacs. I see kids who are depressed. I see kids who taunt other kids, who egg other children on, and who gaslight other kids. I see kids who try to alter the opinions of other children against their victims. I see kids who self harm. I see kids who lie incessantly.

And the reason they're doing these things is because they're not happy. Yes, these things can happen in your home country just as much as they can happen abroad. Yes, these aren't behaviors specific to living as an expat, but living as an expat doesn't help the problems at all. And in our family's experience, it magnifies the ill behavior, and makes it worse. Like I said...everything you feel when you're an expat is turned up to eleven.

When they don't fit in, and they don't have any other groups of kids to fit in with--it just makes them angrier. When they don't mesh well with a person, but mom and dad keep thrusting them into social situations with them--it just makes them angrier. When they think they've found a friend, but that friend finds a new friend and there aren't any other children available who speak their language--it just makes them angrier. When they are called ugly, or stupid, or <insert insult of your choice> and everyone laughing are the only kids from which they have to choose from--it makes them angrier. My kids were taken away from a place where if one circle of kids doesn't work out, they can go find another circle that does, and plopped into a life circumstance where they are told to "make it work!" or...go without friends, period.

I can't imagine anyone responding well to that situation, much less an eleven year old. Crap, I'm 41, and I could barely handle it.

That's why I made my son apologize to the little punk kid who bullied him online yesterday. Because that punk kid is likely fighting a battle that--while unsaid--is all too familiar to us. He is living somewhere where he doesn't quite fit, doesn't quite like it, and doesn't quite want to be--all because his parents have forced him to be, just like we forced our kids to be--and he is angry, sad, lost, frustrated, and lashing out in random ways, simply because he can. Because he probably has to.

Being an expat in the city where we live is not just a beautiful, enriching world experience. It is those things, but that's not all. It's also demeaning, trying, emotionally draining, exhausting, painful, and incredibly damaging--if you're put into a community that isn't meant to support foreigners. Not that the city where we live set a goal of not being supportive of the expat community. On the contrary, I think it was designed to be an global community--it just isn't there yet. It's young. It's a fairly new city, and like I said, it's filled with pretentious folks who hold social status and public perception in the highest regard. It's simply not a supportive community at this point. It might be, someday. But as of today? Nope.

Unfortunately, this behavior isn't exclusive to expat children here. Oh, no. It is rampant in the adult expat community, as well. Ask me how fun that has been. Just ask.

Just kidding. You know I'll tell you anyway.

Expats here are all about seeing and being seen. And when you are seen, you darn well better play the part of a cultured, well spoken snob, otherwise you're subject to criticism and gossip. Again, I know because we've lived it.

My first year here, I was shell shocked. Gimping along with one foot here in this new, vastly different life of "doing lunch," cocktail parties, going to cultural events for the sake of a photo op, and rubbing elbows--always rubbing elbows.....and one foot back in my plain, somewhat simple suburban life in rural Washington state. I made friends, but didn't get too close, because I was still clinging to my life and friendships back home. I was invited to everything, but only went to about a third, and wallowed in my homesickness for months.

My second year here, I made the choice before even getting on the plane to return after a summer in the USA that "this was gonna be my year." I threw myself into the social game head-first and yes, I played the part, even when it required me to be a colossal b*tch. I did lunch, and gossiped with the other expat women. I planned parties and learned how to mingle and do that odd fake-hug-cheek-kiss thing that people do when they're greeting someone, even if they hate them. I made myself available to the people at the top of the social hierarchy, nudging myself so far up their bums, you could hardly tell where they ended, and I began....and by gosh, I did it. I let my connections to home go by the wayside, shoved my nice, country girl lifestyle to the back of my mind, and played the part of a worldly, socialite expat--despite having grown up on Government Cheese in Fairfield, Washington, and I alpha dogged my way to the top(ish) of the social totem pole......

Which made falling back down that much more painful.

Actual footage of me falling from my spot on the totem pole.

My third year here, my family fell on some hard times. My kids were struggling significantly, and my relationship with family back home had been shattered. My health was taking a nose dive, and the kids did not, and I do mean did not, want to return to their private school for the last year. The strain of the unhappiness was waning on my marriage, and the depth of my children's unhappiness was staggering. We were--as a family--in desperate need of love. When we all climbed on the plane to fly back to South Korea for our last year abroad, we were all bruised and scarred and feeling extremely fragile. We needed love, acceptance, compassion, and to be buoyed up by our community. When we lived in the USA, we were in such a place where if I'd reached out and said "We need help. We need love. We need friends." we likely would've had 5 casseroles dropped off, 3 playdates scheduled, and at least 8 kids would've reached out to my teenage daughter asking if she wanted to accompany them to the mall, to a movie, or to a church activity. We're mormons. Fellowshipping is what we do.

But I'd forgotten where I lived.

Upon returning to South Korea, when I reached out and asked for compassion from some of the expats I considered friends, I was met with what is best called: cold resistance. I was told by a fellow mother that my daughter didn't need be invited to everything, that she didn't need to be lifted up--needed to lift herself up, and she wasn't welcome to impose herself on her daughter's plans. (I'm paraphrasing. But you get the drift.) I was told by another friend all of the reasons I was now unliked by the community (which was news to me,) and all of the things I'd done to offend and ostracize myself. Then I was given a list of things I could change about myself to better fit in and be more accepted by the expats. I was incorrectly called crazy and suicidal by another woman (because that was her only reasonable explanation for my dislike of living in South Korea,) who joked that I was off meds and needed an intervention. I was lied about, gossiped about, and trash talked. I've been iced out of (part of) my church community by a crazy person, and forced to fight tooth and nail for my teenager in a situation where adults shouldn't even have involved themselves. My kids were mocked and ostracized at school because of my social faux pas of speaking up and asking for support from people I thought were friends.

And so--except for just a few select friends--I cut them all off. Shut almost all of them out for my sake, and theirs. (See my post on THAT RIGHT HERE.)

I made the decision to go into my third year abroad with a better attitude. Instead of focusing on having the best time ever, being the center of it all, being popular, seeing and being seen...I decided my focus during this last year abroad would be on being a better person and being myself. Because I was no longer playing the part of a chipper, grateful expat who would look excellent on a South Korean tourism board pamphlet, and because I was brutally honest about my experiences abroad, instead of stuffing all of my feelings down with a xanax and some zinfandel like everyone else here does, I was no longer welcome in the hierarchy. My honesty, transparency, and straight talk weren't welcome. They were frowned upon, and resented. My change in priorities wasn't appreciated. They didn't want me. They wanted the version of me that I'd  created for the sake of being on top--or close to the top--of the social heap. Because I didn't want to systematically and purposefully leave people out of events and activities anymore, I couldn't be part of the fold. Because I didn't want to alpha-dog other grown women to make them feel inferior or unwanted, I was unwelcome. And because I didn't like the person I'd become, mean-girling other women like they were unworthy of my attention or that of my fellow expat snobs, I was no longer a valued member of the expat society here--and neither were my children. I apologized for my behavior to women I'd hurt or left out, and asked for forgiveness. I didn't like the person I'd become over the last couple years, and I told them so. Some forgave me, and became true friends. Others didn't like the new or the old me, and passed on both options. And that was okay. I'd earned that.

Everybody needs a slice now and again.

We're left to our own devices for this last year abroad. Left to paddle our way through the rough waters of expat life with little support from the community we thought we'd built around ourselves. Though we still have the love and support of some, we certainly aren't being buoyed up by the community like we'd been in years prior. When our life got too messy, to unattractive for the clean, shiny, smiling, group of foreigners who do lunch--but little else--we had to learn how to deal with it ourselves. And so.....that's what we're doing.

Every day we get up, assess our situation, pray for the fortitude to get through another day abroad, and discuss how we're going to deal with the inevitable hurtles that will pop up in our way--and believe me, they always pop up. We've learned firsthand how brutal the expat life is, how angry and sad it makes kids, and how difficult it is to fit in, whether you're a child or an adult...and we've found a way to deal with it together. If nothing else, this experience has brought us closer together as a family, and that's something.

The expat life here is no joke. It's tough. Not for the faint of heart. Not for the weak. And like I've said a few dozen times, I'm a giant marshmallow who does not do well in tough situations. This has been a challenge, and that's putting it mildly, and I'll be grateful when it's over. Living as expats has afforded us some amazing experiences, and has created a global awareness in my children that I never could have created otherwise. I am so grateful for that. But I would not categorize myself as big believer in the benefits expat life. In my experience over the last (almost) three's done more damage than good, and for that I have significant mom-guilt. I asked my kids to make a nearly impossible situation work, and then had to sit idly by while almost everything we'd built as a family crumbled down around us. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

And that's the hard truth I wish someone would've told me about a few years ago.