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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Tiniest Expats, Travel Is a Tradeoff

Foreign children growing up in Moscow get experiences that their peers at home could never imagine.


Hannah Tingleff's son Peter is what you might call a typical Moscow expatriate toddler.


At the ripe old age of 3 1/2, he understands Russian, English and his parents' native tongue, Danish. His playmates come from Russia, the United States, Australia, Canada and Japan.


As international trade flourishes, a growing class of these globe-hopping children is emerging. But along with the multilingualism and adaptability these children have, there is a tradeoff.


When they return to their native countries, young internationalists can find themselves feeling more like foreigners at home than they did abroad. Cultural identity does not come automatically, expatriates who had globe-hopping childhoods say.


"The minus side is that you feel like you don't have a home; home is where your parents are, and they are moving all the time," said American businesswoman Wendy Blount, whose father was posted in Germany and Saudi Arabia with the U.S. military while she was a child. "It was just difficult to find a place to fit in."


Tingleff says that as a parent, she tries to balance cultural influences at home by speaking Danish and teaching Peter the songs and stories from her childhood. Graciela Iricibar of Argentina takes a similar approach, with food, language and furnishings from South America.


"At home we talk a lot, we laugh loud," she says, "Our house is Argentinian, there is no doubt about it."


Other parents try to make sure that their children are surrounded by playmates from the same countries. Quite naturally, the International Women's Club's toddlers group has fragmented into smaller units based on common languages and cultures like German and Finnish, said Lauren Roche, an American with a British husband.


"They just sort of form their own groups," she says. "This group is mostly just Americans now."


But things like holidays are more difficult for parents from countries less heavily represented in Moscow. Fastelavn, a Danish children's fete similar to Halloween in the United States, came and went Feb. 13 without any special note in the Tingleffs' house. There were no other Danish toddlers to celebrate it with Peter, Tingleff says.


"His cousins called to ask him 'What are you going to be for Fastelavn?' and he turned to me and said, 'Mommy what am I going to be for Fastelavn?'" Tingleff says, wincing. "I had to say 'Nothing,' there is no one to celebrate it with here.


"I think I felt more sorry for him than he did for himself."


Psychologist Beverly Dwight, who works with students from the Anglo-American school, says that one of the best ways of helping children maintain their cultural identity is to visit relatives often and to keep ties through letters and phone calls home. Keeping the same routines and traditions also gives a greater feeling of stability, she says.


Moscow's foreign schools strive to different degrees to maintain children's sense of where they come from. Children who attend the Japanese School in Moscow, for example, follow the same calender and academic program as children in Tokyo.


Other schools, like the Anglo-American School and the Indian school, have more of a challenge.


"We celebrate all festivals which pertain to different parts of the country," says Prasad Rao, director of the Indian school.


About 80 of the school's 275 students are from other English-speaking countries like Kenya, Pakistan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Tanzania.


Indian students are required to learn Hindi in addition to Russian and English, while other students learn French, he said. There are also weekly competitions in which students show off the dance, music, dress and literature of their peoples.


"The people who are studying in the school from India are likely to go back to India, so they have to be able to fit into the same stream of education again," Rao says. "You know, some of the children have never seen India before."


It is the return to the home country that can be most traumatic for expatriate children.


Dwight says that American children have told her they could not find a comfortable peer group upon returning.


Internationalists are more mature, they understand geography and world affairs to an extent that mystifies other children, and they feel awkward joining in the teen lingo and television culture of the moment.


Blount says that when her father got transferred from Saudi Arabia to Himesville, Georgia, when she was 13, other students treated her like she was bragging if she spoke about anything in her past. As a result, she preferred the company of adults.


"That's where I went through my rebellious stage," Blount says. "My grades plummeted. I had been in gifted programs, was an A student, and when I went back to Georgia I got my first F."


Dwight says that as adults, internationalists tend to feel constantly unsettled, moving frequently and socializing mostly with fellow travelers. On the positive side, they find that with their experience, adaptability and many languages, they are usually attractive to employers.


"So many of them become an international person," she says.


Blount agrees.


"I think that's why people in Moscow get along so well," Blount says, "Because there are so many people from that kind of background."