Ladies Only

Expat Brats: The Signs To Look Out For

My friend A was recently worrying whether her children were becoming expat brats. On a trip back to the UK, her sons were horrified when she got out to fill the car with petrol and insisted they wait for ‘the man’. Another friend – N – told me that when her daughter flew economy for the first time she had a tantrum because she’d never had to turn right before. N’s little girl didn’t even know there was a cabin behind business class.

It’s something we think about a lot here in the Middle East. The easy comforts of life in Dubai (housemaids, villas, swimming pools, four-wheel drives) mean children are at high risk of expat brat syndrome. If parents don’t nip it in the bud quick enough, the results can be quite dire.

Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 16.58.29Aside from breeding little monsters who refuse to tidy their rooms (the maid will do it), wash the car (the man at the mall will do it) or put groceries in a bag (yes, we don’t have to do that, either!), fast forward ten years or so and you end up with teenagers who are totally unprepared for real life.

The culture here means children lead sheltered lives. In the UAE, there’s little crime, begging is banned and unemployment is virtually non-existent. We don’t feel threatened walking down a street at night; teenagers aren’t even allowed to take part-time or holiday jobs; and they don’t know what a job centre is. Forget ‘signing on’, they’re more likely to sign in at the beach club.

Imagine, then, when said offspring flee the nest for university back in their home countries. Instead of maid service, tennis lessons and pool parties, they’re faced with grotty digs, rain, domestic chores, hard drugs and even harder students.

Here’s some more clues to look out for so you can take steps to alleviate expat brat syndrome long before the kids head off to college. Good luck!

–They flew before they could walk

–It’s not a nice day unless it’s tropical outside

–They base their opinion of an entire country on how fancy the hotel was

-They have to take at least one plane to get ‘home’ and bump into friends at international airports

-They’re members of at least two beach clubs

-They take off their shoes as soon as they get home

-Their best friends are from four different continents

-An invite arrives for a classmate’s party at the Atlantis hotel on the Palm, followed by a private desert safari

-They watch the Travel Channel or National Geographic specials and recognise the places

-They know what TCK* means and consider themselves to be one

-Their school closes (or threatens to close) for rain, prophets’ birthdays, national mourning and SARS

-Someone mentions the name of a team and they get the sport wrong

-They get Christmas and birthday money in three different currencies

-They blank when asked where they’re from

-A visa is a document stamped in their passport, not a credit card

-They don’t think British beaches are really beaches at all

*TCK=Third culture kid, the name given to a child who spends a significant part of his or her developmental years in a culture(s) different from his or her own.

First published: 11 May 2011


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Blond(ish) mum and son seek new friends

“I’ve got some great news Mum!”

“What’s that?” I asked, raising my eyebrows a fraction.

“Zaid and Ryan say they’re going to stay at school until Year 12.” Raptor smiled.

Friends come and go like buses

“That’s good,” I said, and thought, “we’ll see about that.” Not because I’m expecting Zaid and Ryan to flunk out before Year 12, but because there’s a high chance their fathers will get posted to Singapore or some other far-flung corner of the world well before then. Either that, or the family will decide to repatriate – or switch to a new school offering an astronaut cadet programme.

It’s a big problem in expat schools – your kids make friends, and then their friends pack up and leave. Sometimes overnight. “Noel never even told anyone he was leaving,” Raptor said to me. “He went back to Finland … And then there was Horace. He went to Germany forever. And Hanna went to … erm,” His eyebrows snapped together. “I can’t remember.”

“Hungary,” I prompted.

“D’you remember Corner?” he asked. “Who always used to sit in the corner?”

I nodded.

“Well he left.”

Then his face softened. “And Morgan went to a different school.” His girl crush, now in a nearer, American school. And Eva and Omar – the list went on.

We haven’t got to the point yet where a school friend is off sick with a cough and all their classmates assume they’ve left, but it is something that, as a parent, you think about: Will they assume all relationships are transient? How much are they really affected by these lost friendships? Or, worse, perhaps they’re so used to it they barely notice?

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 21.55.25Adults, of course, are equally as likely to lose friends in expat societies. I sat on a small, hard chair recently at Raptor’s back-to-school night, and realised I didn’t know anyone. At a school we’ve attended for five years. (Each year, they mix up the classes and so Raptor started the term in a class filled with different and new faces.)

A group of ladies were listening to a mum whose eyes looked a little too wide awake. She ran her hand through her hair, bracelets jangling, holding court. A new girl feeling swept over me like a cloak, transporting me back to the awkward, pimply, teenaged me on my first day of big school.

The start of the meeting was delayed as the head finished his speech downstairs, and after 10 minutes of shifting in my seat, someone I knew finally walked in. An Italian mum who’s been at the school almost as long as us.

She strode over and gathered me into a hug. She smelt like a posh department store, her earring pressed hard into my cheek. “How was your summer?” she trilled. We swapped very brief highlights. Me: Isle of Wight. Her: Los Angeles.

And, by the way we greeted each other like long-lost friends, I wondered if she had that fish-out-of-water feeling too.

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So how was your weekend?

It’s something you don’t expect to hear when you ask someone about their weekend. But with my son attending a school where at least 60 per cent of the students come from airline families (who get super cheap tickets), I’ve learned not to bat an eyelid when mothers tell me about what they’ve been up to.

“Did you have a good weekend?” I asked a fellow mum.

“Yes … Actually we went to Johannesburg.”

Anyone else want to tell me about their Christmas in Lapland?
Anyone else want to tell me about their Christmas in Lapland?
“Really, just for the weekend?” I have to admit I was impressed – the South African city is a good 8 hours’ flying time from here, and that doesn’t include all the getting to and from the airport shenanigans.

“We had 24 hours there. Yesterday morning, we were in the lion park! The children loved it, especially as they’re doing Africa in class at the moment.”

“An amazing field trip!” I agreed. I’d just been looking at all the photos of big animals and African plains on the classroom wall.

“It was really last minute – my husband was flying there, and I woke up and thought ‘Why aren’t we going too?’ Half an hour later, we were on our way to the airport.”

“It’s not like me at all,” she added. “I usually plan everything far in advance.”

“Well good for you,” I said, as we were spat out the school gates – and I really meant it.

Sometimes you just have to grab life by the horns.

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Why dress-up days should be outlawed

First, let me just say that Son2 loves to dress up, and finds it a big thrill to go to school in anything other than his navy-blue shorts and pinstriped, button-up shirt. In his closet, you’ll find plenty of costumes depicting numerous genres, from spiderboy to alien, vampire and terrorist. Yes, you read that correctly: he came downstairs this weekend looking like this:

Erm, DH: What was Santa thinking?
Erm, DH: What was Santa thinking?

But every time the school announces a special theme day, I have to admit my heart sinks a little bit. I can’t sew; if you handed me a piece of fabric I’d have no idea what to do with it; and the prop that would accessorise an outfit perfectly is never just lying around the house. It’s usually buried at the bottom of a cupboard, lost, broken or still in the shop.

And I’ve come to realise that this is a universal problem: there’s my good friend in London who had to come up with “a simple homemade fez” – with a tassel. (“We want the tassels to swirl when the children dance,” the teacher said.) Then there’s the kind commenters on my blog who’ve dressed their child up as a triangle and seriously considered crocheting a pilot’s hat after trawling the mall and finding nothing.

Oh yes, we mums do try when faced with these challenges – because you just know that there will be crafty mothers who got straight onto Pinterest. Not to mention that on, say, Book Character Day, school will be invaded by a mini fictional force made up of Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss, Angelina Ballerina and other favourite storybook characters. The look on your child’s face if their outfit is a laughing stock is enough to make any otherwise sane mum start cutting up the curtains.

I’ve even heard of dads having to get in on the act too, in some cases taking over as costume-deviser extraordinaire, and sewing! Another friend tells me her DH is the go-to person for dress-up days; for an Easter Bonnet parade, he constructed a spring hat with a giant carrot protruding from the top, which we were all still talking about the next year – a pilot by profession, creative genius in his spare time.

In the Circles household, given enough notice, I’m able to dispatch DH to a costume shop in New York on one of his trips here (yes, we cheat, big time!); and he came up trumps last term, with a ghoulish-grey Area 51 costume and mask for the day aliens landed on the playing field at Son2’s school.

The news that today would be African Explorer Day came a week ago, just as the reality of getting back to the grind was hitting, and saw me arguing vehemently with Son2 at 7 this morning over why he couldn’t take that stonking big nerf gun pictured above into class (huntsman, explorer, it was all the same to him).

As we got out of the car, Son2 – donned in hurriedly assembled safari-type garb and wearing binoculars round his neck – got cold feet. No-one was in costume! Mum must have got it wrong! (I hadn’t, it was only for his year). I did wonder for a moment – until, at the gate, we saw a stressed-looking mum with a teary, uniform-clad child, being asked by a teacher if they had anything at home resembling the mishmash my son was wearing. As she headed off (upset boy in tow) to figure it out, I ’m sure she must have wished dress-up days could be outlawed too.

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Silently stealing luggage space

My DH took the children away last week. I couldn’t go because of work, so I (rather forlornly) waved them off to Beirut, where their grandparents live.

It was the first time I’d had to ‘let the boys go’, and I felt strangely untethered, as though gravity had disappeared – until I rediscovered how much extra time there is when you’re the only person in the house (things stay exactly where you leave them, it’s crazy!)

Our nanny did the children’s packing, but when I got home from work, DH was doing some pruning.

Don’t forget their toothbrushes – and the class gorilla! (hehe)

Now, when I pack the cases, I’m pretty thorough. If we got stuck on a desert island, we could be self-sufficient thanks to my packing (which is sometimes, I admit, excessive – but then I’ve got nearly nine years’ of experience of travelling with children who create laundry like nobody’s business).

Men, I’ve realised, view packing quite differently. DH had thrown out several T-shirts; when I tried to put baseball caps in, I had to argue their case; and as for taking suntan lotion, you’d think I was attempting to sneak a brick into the suitcase. (“There’ll be some there,” was DH’s viewpoint. “Just take it, in case,” I replied.)

So I did have to secretly smile when DH’s hand-luggage only plans were stymied by the class bear. The mascot is actually a gorilla – at least a foot tall. As Son2 left school clutching the stuffed toy – hardly able to believe his luck that he was the first to take him away – DH must have groaned inwardly at the gorilla’s surprisingly large size.

At the back to school night, another dad had quipped, “If he’s excess baggage, he’s not going.” But, given the jet set life of a travelling toy in an international school, you just know that the class gorilla has probably scuba-dived in the Maldives; made it to Hong Kong Disneyland; not to mention enjoyed weekend trips to Oman and Turkey.

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An 8-year-old’s embryonic blog

Thank goodness that, for Son1, at least, the days of bringing back half a rainforest of artwork are over. This week, he’s mostly brought home exercise books, rather than the artistic creations exploding with glitter and glue that used to get piled up to the rafters during his kindergarten years.

The English, Maths, French, Arabic and Music books were certainly interesting to look at, but the workbook I enjoyed the most was the diary documenting his weekends. It was almost like an embryonic blog, with squiggly pictures and illuminating insights into his mind:

On the role DH and I play:
“Families are important because they take us places … They pay for cheeseburgers and crisps. They go to work to get money to buy toys.”

Before we busted him for getting up at 5.30am to play computer games:
“Happily, on Friday morning I played Xbox for 4 hours, then my mum came downstairs.”

Such a hard life:
“If I could make something disappear, it would be homework … and school.”
[“Tell me more,” wrote the teacher!]

In my next life, I’m coming back as an expat kid:
“On the weekend, I flew to Oman and stayed in a fancy hotel.”

On being small:
“I think it is great being a child because we don’t have to pay the bills. We can also fit through small holes, and adults can’t.”

Not Son1's, but this made me laugh. It was turned in by a first grader in the US, and marked by the teacher. The next day, the mom wrote a note: "Dear Ms. Davis, I want to be perfectly clear on my child's homework illustration. It is NOT me on a dance pole on a stage in a strip joint surrounded by male customers with money.  I work at Home Depot and had commented to my daughter how much money we made in the recent snowstorm.  This drawing is of me selling a snow shovel.
Not Son1’s, but this made me laugh. It was turned in by a first grader in the US, and marked by the teacher. The next day, the mom wrote a note: “Dear Ms. Davis, I want to be perfectly clear on my child’s homework illustration. It is NOT me on a dance pole on a stage in a strip joint surrounded by male customers with money.
I work at Home Depot and had commented to my daughter how much money we made in the recent snowstorm.
This drawing is of me selling a snow shovel.”
Ladies Only

Class list Jenga

This week, many mums in Dubai found out which classes their children are going to be in from September.

Each year (and for Son1, it is an annual event), the release of the class lists is an eagerly anticipated event. Mums anxiously pore over the role calls; they take photos of the lists, and discuss at the school gate who little Sylvie will be mixing with next year.

(Believe me, I’ve seen mums sobbing over this).

As for the children, I’m not convinced they’re as bothered as the mums.

It might be different for girls, but for boys, shaking up the classes doesn’t seem to be too big of a deal – especially in a society as fluid as ours, where numerous children leave at the end of the school year anyway and September always sees a fresh crop.

Circles of friends are given a shake, rattle and roll
Circles of friends are given a shake, rattle and roll, with no bribes accepted

Son1 was given the chance to pick three friends he wants in his class next year, and the letter said they’d try to make sure he’s in the same class as at least one. (I hear some schools in the UK even let you name one child you’d rather not be with).

There follows a process of list building that I can only imagine is like playing Jenga, with the teachers not only taking friendship groups into account, but also gender balance, ability mix and personality clashes.

Far from just bunging the names in a bag and pulling them out, the decision-making must get complicated: “Sylvie makes Tallulah cry so we should split them, and we’d better share out Boris, Hugo and Tarquin because they’re gifted and talented – almost fluent in Mandarin with rocket-scientist aspirations – and make sure the football squad aren’t all in the same class.”

Repeat x140 children per year.

But, as I said, for us mums, that moment when the list is released can be a little tense. My eyes rapidly scanned the names of the children– of whom son1 knows about three, and (because we all know this is important too) I know one of the mums. Not bad at all.

Happy mixing kiddos!