The Expat Education
Updated : 08/27/2012 11:49 GMT + 7
About a year ago, a friend described me on Facebook as “an ex-patriot.” I feigned outrage, proclaiming that the fact I had moved to the capital of Vietnam did not diminish my allegiance and love for the good ol’ U.S.A. My friend apologized – and slyly suggested that my Hawaiian birth certificate may only be as genuine as Barack Obama’s.
My friend’s innocent slip may have been revealing. Many people, I think, really do have a sneaking suspicion about expatriates, believing that we must have some hidden motive in leaving our homelands behind. They wonder: Just who do these expats think they are? “Citizens of the world” or something?
Well, yes, thank you, we’d like to think so. And those of us who come here with children also want our younguns to have a broader understanding of the world.
And we, the expats, do not see any great distinction between being a good and true Brazilian, Dane or Uzbeki, say, and being a good and true Earthling. We, the expats, in order to form a more perfect planet, may not always take ourselves so seriously – and some of us, perhaps, consider life abroad a bit of a lark. But we don’t think our presence in Vietnam is doing any harm back home – and hope it is doing a bit of good. And we have high hopes for the international education of our children.
Here’s what hundreds of expat parents in Hanoi were doing the other morning. While childless expats may have been sleeping in after a night or carousing, hundreds of expat parents were up early. At 7 a.m. sharp, we all logged into the network of the vaunted United Nations International School, or UNIS, racing to enroll our kids in after-school activities such as archery, knitting, baking and basketball.
This required hustle, a bit of strategy and some family diplomacy. It meant explaining to an angry 4th grader that she can’t take the papier mache class or anything else on Monday because that’s when her Saigon-born mother wants a Vietnamese tutor to come to the house.
UNIS is a remarkable place with students from more than 60 countries and facilities and a pricetag that would rival those of any private prep school in America. My wife and I are both products of public schools, and in California our children attended public schools as well. Shortly before we left, budget troubles sent class sizes soaring by 50%. Their education in Vietnam – first at the Hanoi International School, now UNIS – meant a return to teachers with a manageable class size.
When we first visited UNIS, the director explained how the UN had only created two schools in the entire world – and the other is in New York, serving families who work at the UN headquarters itself. Emerging from its painful decades of warfare and hunger, Vietnam needed more help from the international community. So 21 years ago the old Swedish school morphed into an institution to encourage nations to open permanent missions in Vietnam. Its purpose, first of all, is to serve the families of diplomats and embassy staff. It also reaches out to the families connected to NGOs, corporations and other expats and Vietnamese who can afford the tuition. There are also some scholarships for Vietnamese.
Parents complain about UNIS. Some think the focus on math is lacking. It’s quaint that Swedish is still offered – but why not Mandarin? But it’s sobering to consider what the typical Vietnamese family faces. Vietnamese public education is a notorious mess, with underpaid teachers tending to huge classes and charging families extra for after-school sessions. A common observation holds that two crises threaten Vietnam’s future: corruption and the weak educational system.
My children are certainly getting a different education than I received. My childhood in Southern California was very provincial – a 30-mile trip was a big deal. While my kids sometimes long for California, they are learning a lot about the world through osmosis, and formally as well. I hope they are learning to feel at home here too. UNIS drives home a message that we all share planet Earth: that it’s a big place, but also a small place, so don’t screw it up.
Now some of my fellow Americans would think that UNIS is engaged in indoctrination, not education. But these aren’t the ones who put Barack Hussein Obama in the White House.