Man riding children in a bike with flowers and groceries
Credit: Subin Yang
Living Abroad

The Biggest Lessons These 5 Families Learned When They Moved Abroad

published Jul 7, 2021
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Living outside the United States changed me and my family life in both mundane and profound ways. Like many Americans abroad, we adopted local and regional foods, festivals, and language in our new home of Singapore. My Singlish, an English-based Creole language spoken in the Southeast Asian city-state, was very good! But I also took career risks and made lifelong friends. I became hyper aware of how insular and sheltered my American upbringing had been, and how ignorant I was about much of the world, despite an “elite” education. I shifted my perspectives. I learned new histories. I was humbled and pushed to my limits.

My daughter and I repatriated in 2016, but our experiences abroad still imbue our lives. We still mark Lunar New Year, even though we aren’t East Asian; I hanker for kueh (an umbrella term for a number of Southeast Asian desserts), even though they are hard to come by on the East Coast; we still have deep personal connections to Asia, even though we live in New Jersey. As a parent, I try to instill in my 9-year-old a sense of worldliness, but not in a superficial or touristic way. I’m, now more than ever, cognizant of our place in the world, and of our privileges as Americans.

I spoke to four other American mothers abroad (in Vietnam, in South Africa, in the Netherlands, and in Guatemala) and asked the following question: How has living outside the United States altered you, your family, your children?

As cliché as it sounds, children are resilient.

Writer Ann Mah’s husband is a foreign service officer, and they have spent many years abroad: first in Beijing, China, as newlyweds; then in France; and now in Hanoi, Vietnam, with their 7-year-old daughter. “Beijing was a very eye-opening experience for many reasons,” she said. “I’m ethnically Chinese, so I had to understand what it means to be Chinese-American in the world, and especially Chinese in China, and all the ways that people grapple with that concept,” she said. “Having lived in Asia before, I was expecting a lot of the same situations that I had experienced there with a feeling of loss of identity and not being accepted for who I am as an American, but I’ve been very pleasantly surprised that it’s very different here.”

Mah and her family relocated to Vietnam just eight months ago, in the midst of the pandemic. “She’s [Mah’s daughter] been the one who has been thrown into a different situation, because my husband and I have both lived overseas before,” Mah said of her daughter. “But she is very comfortable with it. She is the person who interacts with Vietnamese people the most out of the three of us. She has just accepted it as the way things are and really embraced it.”

Mah and her family are adapting to life in the tropics. Just outside their home are hibiscus bushes, palm trees, orchids, and birds of paradise. They have loved discovering the seasons of tropical fruits in Hanoi. “Right now, it’s mangosteen and lychee season — both new fruits for my daughter,” she said. “There are local mangos, papayas, jackfruits, young coconuts, and all types of fruits that in the U.S. we thought of as ‘exotic.’”

Mah’s stint in France changed the trajectory of her writing life, and she’s curious how Vietnam will change her daughter — for the better. “When you have kids, you worry about them not fitting in or having an awkward time at school, or maybe even not having the same childhood that you,” she said. “Many of us try to recreate that. But my daughter is growing up in a way that is very different to the way I grew up. I see that gives her a lot of confidence and strength that really has surprised me. Kids are really resilient, which is a cliché, but it is actually true. And it really inspires me to be braver and more confident.”

Family can include neighbors and community.

Stephanie Ebert grew up in South Africa and came to the United States for college, where she met her husband. “When we got married, we asked ourselves, ‘Where are we going to live?’” she said. “We tried it in both countries. When I was pregnant, we were in the States and I was like, ‘I really want to be in South Africa when my kids are a little.’ My parents are still there and I just had a really positive experience.” In 2017, she and her family moved to a 170-square-foot house on wheels there — permanently. Their view from their window is of Mbubu Mountain, which is normally emerald green, but “turns golden in the winter with the dry season,” Ebert explained. “When the sun comes up it’s beautiful.”

Ebert appreciates so much about raising her 2-year-old and 4-year-old in South Africa: the safety, the freedom, the culture, the weather. “A lot of white South Africans,” — and Ebert considers herself such — “have this idea of, ‘Oh, South Africa’s going down the drain and it’s so violent,’’ she said. “I always had a totally different experience.”

Living abroad has made the idea of family more expansive. “On the one hand, technology is amazing: that they can Skype their [paternal] grandparents and have story time,” she said. “But seeing other local families step in to be that grandparent figure or that cousin or aunt or uncle, has cultivated in us a sense of family isn’t just about us.” The family’s nanny and preschool teacher comes to their home four mornings a week, and plays and teaches on their covered patio until lunch. “She is studying early childhood development at a community college in the afternoons, and runs a preschool and playgroup for our boys and two other families who live near us, trying to teach them IsiZulu,” Ebert said.

“We love that our children are growing up a minority and learning their culture isn’t the centre of the universe,” she added. “Even though they are little, they are learning that different people do things differently. They are learning another language however imperfectly! We miss family, but neighbors become a great support system.”

Kids can surprise us with their independence.

Nicole Gardere relocated to the Netherlands from New Jersey in 2019. The global marketing company for which she was employed is headquartered in Rotterdam, and she asked for an international transfer. “Reggie [her husband] and I were at the point where we were in the small apartment in Jersey City Heights and my mom had passed a year earlier,” she said. “We were like, ‘What is the next move?’”

Now settled — the couple just purchased a house! — Gardere says that some day-to-day things have remained the same, while others have changed dramatically. Gardere’s husband still cooks the family’s preferred Carribean foods. “Sometimes we are sitting around the dinner table having our platanos or whatever, and you could forget where we are,” she said. “We bike, we take the tram, we walk. My husband has one of those cargo bikes — it’s called the bakfiet here — and he tosses the girls in there.” The family also has a “fietsschuur” (bike shed) in the front of their home. “It’s kind of like our garage, since it holds our main source of transportation,” she said. “Quite the departure from looking for on-street parking for two cars in Jersey City!”

Gardere’s two daughters — 8 and 5 years old — are far more independent than they were in the States. The family lives 100 meters from school, and the girls walk, bike, or scoot. “They walk to the bakery, the supermarket, the butcher, the bakery, the ice cream shop, and the playground,” she said. “I’m a former helicopter mom. The girls have learned so much — resilience, other cultures, curiosity, love of travel.”

It’s important to consider diversity before you move.

Cindy Lamothe moved to El Salvador to study journalism when she was 19 years old, and then to Guatemala, after meeting her now-husband. She and her family live in Antigua, which she describes as “a very touristy type of place and you have a lot of expats,” but also as “a very small colonial town, so you have that tight community feel.” She explained that the pace of life here is slower than more developed parts of the world. “I believe it’s what allows me to be more present,” she said.

Lamothe is mixed race — Honduran and Guatemalan on her mother’s side; white on her father’s side — and grew up between the States and Honduras as a child. “I’m just a global citizen at this point,” she said. “I feel very American, but not a typical American. A lot of my beliefs and a lot of my identity has been influenced by all of these different countries.”

She negotiates these identities regularly. She notices the subtle cultural differences between El Salvador and Guatemala; how she, as a light-skinned Latina, is treated versus her darker-skinned Latino husband; how racism impacts how white expats view her and her family. “I think that when you say you’re an ‘American,’ a lot of people tend to think you’re going to be white,” she said.

As a parent, Lamothe is always trying to share her identities with her son. “But I have such a mixed identity,” she said. “I want him to know these different identities at the same time.

Her son, happily, knows more Spanish than she does. “Sometimes he’ll correct me — and he’s 5 years old!” she said. “I studied Spanish in college!”

Lamothe advised people wanting to move abroad with their families to keep diversity in mind — ”places that have a diverse community where foreigners are welcome, and where you can meet and befriend other expats more easily,” she said. “I think it helps with the adjustment.”