Are you putting off the experience of living and working abroad because you have kids? Children are often the reason people give for not traveling and living internationally. People seem to be very fond of telling Jammie and I that as soon as we kids we may as well pack our bags and head back to the US. We’ve never quite agreed with that assessment but since we don’t have kids we’ve had precious little to say in return. Until now. To find out more about raising a family overseas I have started interviewing people that are doing just that. For this post, I reached out to some good friends of ours, Daniel and Marlise Bernhardt to give me their perspective as parents who have chosen to raise a family far from home. Here are my questions about their very international lives and Marlise’s answers:
Describe yourselves in 140 characters or less
We’re a married couple from Argentina living in Thailand. Daniel is managing a food factory, and I’m staying home with our son (expecting our second baby).
How did you grow up?
When I was six my parents went to Lesotho, Africa, to work in a mission hospital. We lived there for seven years before returning to Argentina, so most of my childhood memories are set in Africa.
Daniel’s dad was a pastor in Argentina. At that time, this meant being transferred every couple years or so to a new area. So he did 12 years of schooling in 8 different schools and 5 different provinces!
How did the two of you meet?
On the Internet! Daniel was living and working in Buenos Aires and I was doing some volunteer teaching in Thailand. I was a bit lonely and got into this denominational website to socialize, and well, I met “this guy” who was actually interested in my adventures and misadventures in Thailand. We soon found out we knew a lot of people around us, but just not each other – I knew some of his cousins and even his brother – and some of my friends had had Daniel’s dad as a pastor. It took us a while to actually start dating because I was afraid of getting into a relationship with someone I barely knew (even though everyone around me who knew him kept saying he was great!), but things worked out really well!
Why did you decide to move to Thailand?
When we started dating I moved to Buenos Aires to be closer to Daniel. Then, just as we were planning our wedding, we received an invitation to return to the university where I’d volunteered in Thailand. Daniel had flown to visit me while I still worked there, so the admin had gotten to know him personally. They happened to need lecturers for the Business and the ESL (English as a Second Language) Departments – and we both fit that profile. Then two and a half years later, Daniel was offered his current job, which allows me to be a stay-at-home mom.
Looking back, it’s surprising we made the move at all. We were both enjoying our jobs and our friends back in Buenos Aires, and the move to Thailand made no sense at all – not socially, nor financially. But something pulled us to go there – in my case, I had always dreamt of having an overseas experience with my husband, and this was our opportunity. In Daniel’s case, he’d always wanted to work abroad. He was willing to go even if it meant switching from corporate work to teaching for a while. We were free to travel then – no kids, no debt, our parents were healthy – if we didn’t go then, we knew we’d settle down in Argentina and live there forever and that moving abroad after that would become increasingly difficult. We could always come back after a couple of years and re-settle. So we took the leap, and we’re glad we did.
How do you like it in Thailand?
Thailand is a great country to live in! It’s safe, and salaries go a looong way here. There are so many beautiful (and affordable) places to visit, such an interesting variety of food, and it’s exciting to learn about a culture and language that is so different from our own. We’ve faced our cultural challenges and sometimes still do, but we love Thailand.
The village (i.e. gated community) we live in now is purely Thai, so we’re forced to learn more Thai to communicate with our neighbors, since very few can speak English. I’m glad we’re being pushed into language learning though – it’s helping us understand Thais so much more and it makes our stay much more pleasurable. A whole world has opened to us since we began learning Thai.
Maybe the hardest part about living here is being away from our family and friends. Thai people are warm, helpful, polite and friendly, but somehow making deep friendships is a huge challenge when you face cultural and linguistic barriers. In Argentina we were surrounded by warm friendships and loving family – and that is what we miss the most.
What we hadn’t expected was how living abroad would bring us even closer together. We went from being in a place where each of us had our own social circle to suddenly being just the two of us!
Looking back, we have no regrets about our move out of home – we feel it’s the best decision we’ve made together (besides getting married, of course!).
You are parents – how does it feel to raise a child overseas?
I guess having been raised overseas myself, I never had a problem with it! Especially in a country like Thailand, which is a great place to be with a baby or toddler. Thais love small children and are very helpful and understanding. We were pleasantly surprised to notice that right after our baby was born here in Bangkok. We live in a safe place, and our son gets to listen to three languages and taste food we didn’t get to try until we came here as adults. We feel that an overseas experience is very positive for any child – what was once strange for us is simply normal for him; he’s not limited to just one culture and one way of doing things. I feel that offering our children an enlarged worldview along with bilingualism or multilingualism is a huge gift we can give them.
In Thailand there are plenty of products, good hospitals and anything you might need to comfortably raise a child here.
What are the main challenges of having kids overseas and how are you tackling them?
I guess being so far away from the grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Both Daniel and I are quite close to our extended family, and we’d like our children to grow up with that same sense of belonging. We keep in touch often through Skype with our parents and siblings, and we go to Argentina once a year to visit for a month (hey, so many people see their relatives even less often than that!). We also look at family pictures with our son and say their names. As our son grows, we will have to find other ways to connect him to family.
With having extended family so far away, I often miss the support and help I’d get with the baby if my mom, mother-in-law or sisters-in-law lived nearby. If I’m sick, we need to pay someone to come and help me instead of just calling a close friend or relative. All our “date nights” are with our baby – good thing he loves restaurants and is fun to be with!
The other challenge is cultural identity. We’re still just beginning, but we often talk about how we will help our children forge some type of cultural identity. Even if they won’t totally identify with our culture, we want them to feel comfortable with it and a part of it, because that’s where their family comes from. As a Third Culture Kid (TCK) myself, I understand that if you’ve grown up overseas, it’s inevitable to be a bit of a hybrid. Yet somehow, I do feel more Argentinean than anything else and I do find value in feeling a connection to my roots. I hope we can offer the same to our children, even though they will be TCK’s themselves.
As our kids grow, there will probably be social challenges too – but we’re not there yet, so we’ll cross that bridge when we get there!
What do you think your son is learning from this kind of childhood that he would not had you stayed at home?
I kind of answered this in a previous question, but I’ll add one more thing: open-mindedness. I’m not saying that someone who’s never traveled is not open-minded, but traveling and living abroad are natural ways of opening yourself up to new experiences. I feel sad when someone has to be coaxed into trying a Mexican burrito, or refuses to take a bite of ruccula, just because it’s something they don’t usually eat. I want my children to not judge a person because they’re using a spoon or their hands instead of a fork – and to think that it’s normal for there to be different approaches to doing the same thing; that people have different accents or sometimes use expressions we don’t use, but are still trying to say something that as humans we can relate to. This open-mindedness can be so positive for building relationships with different kinds of people, and also for any other area in life.
We also believe that by choosing to live abroad, we’re helping our children break an invisible mental barrier that would give them greater freedom. They won’t be initially limited to only one country or culture. By exposing them to a multi-cultural setting, they will learn that there are other options, that if they want, the world can be their home. We believe that the advantages of being bi-cultural or multicultural far outweigh the disadvantages.
What would you say to young families that would love to travel but feel they can’t because of their children?
I won’t lie – it’s not as easy as traveling without kids, but it can still be very rewarding. Jet lag is harder to recover from when you’re forced to stay awake because your baby won’t sleep, and you probably won’t be able to sight-see as many places as you would without kids, because let’s face it, kids do slow us down. But that’s ok since we do have so much fun with him! Depending on the needs of your kids, you might need to plan around nap times, choose kid-friendly places – you know, that kind of thing. But this doesn’t mean that traveling with kids is terrible. We enjoy traveling with our son. We don’t let our kid become an obstacle to traveling, unless there are safety concerns. Last year on our way to Argentina we had a stopover in Austria and it was precious. Yes, there were limits to how much we could do, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. Our son, one year old at that time, got to experience using shoes and thick jackets and a blanket for the first time! That was a struggle!
With regard to safety issues, what I recommend the most is getting in touch with people who’ve actually been or are in the country; they’ll know which places to recommend and what you should avoid. Embassies can tell you whether your family might need any vaccines. Most of the time, the news presents things as way worse than they really are, and people often get twisted ideas that make them more scared than they should be. Of course you need to be careful, of course you need to be informed – but get your information from people who actually know the place.
It helps to pack light when with kids – makes things so much easier. (Sometimes we still find that we’ve packed a thing too many!) Our son is usually more interested in us or the trip than in toys, for example. And we’ve found that if we really, really end up needing something, it’s usually available at our destination (this might not be the case for specific brands of healthy snacks or medicine, though).
If you’re thinking of a long-term overseas move, I’d say it’s different with babies/ toddlers than with school-age kids. Babies or toddlers will usually happily follow their parents and won’t have much input on the matter, but older kids will need more preparation, encouragement and emotional support for a move like that. But it can be done. When we moved to Lesotho I was six years old: old enough to miss my grandparents, cousins, and even a dog we had to leave behind. But my mom was very supportive and helped me through my grief, and now as I look back, the move to Lesotho was one of the best things my parents could have done for our family. A period of grief is healthy and normal when you make a move like this; don’t let it stop you – just do learn ways to help yourself and your kids through it. There are books that will help you with this.
How does the future look? Do you plan to keep traveling and living in different countries?
A few years ago we would make plans and schemes… Then we were invited to Thailand, and things turned out so differently than what we’d imagined – but in a good way. So right now, we know that we won’t live in Thailand forever, but we’re not sure where we will go next. We trust that God will open doors at the right time. But yes, we do see ourselves living in yet another country. And if it’s back to Argentina, we’ll be OK with that too.
What happens when your son reaches school age?
If we’re still in Thailand by then, I’d like to homeschool him, at least for the first few years. I know plenty of families who homeschool or have homeschooled and for them it’s usually been a positive experience. There are International schools here, but they’re quite expensive and their school days are very long. We’ll see where we are when that time comes, and what the possibilities are.