Technology and young people

Children-Using-Different-GadgetsAnother rant, this time about technology and what it does to our young people. Which is ironic, as I’m an avid, and grateful user of technology.

As a young journalist, in France, I worked in the newspaper which first introduced computers in its editorial office and trained writers to use them. That was in the early eighties, and the computers were ugly, bulky machines with black screens and green letters. Later, when I became a translator, I also worked for the first publishing house to use computers in France. Instead of printing out two copies of my manuscript, the way my other publishers requested me to do it, I would simply bring the large, black square floppy disk containing my finished assignment to the editor.  The computers were still enormous, the screen was still black, and the letters bright orange. And in the late nineties, when I lived in New York City, that same publisher was among the first to allow translators to email the completed manuscript as an attachment instead of mailing hard disks which were by then much smaller. The Internet also allowed me to forget about carting my hefty bilingual dictionary around. Research became so much easier. And then, in Nigeria, I discovered online writing communities; In India, online writing courses and blogging, and Facebook. It is hard to imagine life without all these medias, today.

Facebook allows me to keep in contact with people who live hundreds and thousands of miles away. It also keeps me informed. This is how I read most of my news. And even as I recognize the increasing Orwellian quality of our world , I can’t, nor do I wish to renounce the many advantages of being connected. But I’m an adult. A flawed adult, but an adult nevertheless. I have had time to develop a reasonably discerning, critical mind which allows me to recognize the dangers of technology. Also, as a dinosaur born half a century ago, my mind was shaped at a time when we actually read books from beginning till end, when we still knew how to sit and listen to entire pieces of music, to watch entire movies or TV shows. The world was not fragmented in bite size, pre-digested segments, movies could be slow, even contemplative. We could sit in a car, watch the world go by, and not whine about being bored only a few minutes into a journey. And if we did, no one gave us a DVD player, or a DS, or an i-Pad to keep us occupied. I remember trips from Paris to Malaga, in the south of Spain: 1800 Kms in a car, with usually one overnight stop in the middle, and what did we do? We sang songs in canon, told jokes, argued, or slept.

What about our young people today? Teenagers, and even pre-teens? What about these kids who seem to have mobile phones surgically attached to their hands, some of them not even 10 years old ? These kids who are requested to use computers for Homework, and work on their Maths, Sciences or English projects,  (or should I say try to) even as they have half a dozen or more applications running: Google chat, Skype, emails, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and all the other social networks, new ones, older ones that I discover every day (the last one, Ask.fm, allows you to ask other users questions, with the option of remaining anonymous, and it has been linked with cyber bullying  and several teenagers suicides in recent past.)

As a teen, when I was not in class, or doing homework, I could usually be found reading, playing my piano, day-dreaming or singing in my room. My family wasn’t into sports, which is not necessarily a good thing, but other kids my age might have been practicing a sport, or another instrument. When I was bored with Homework, I’d open the drawer under my desk, lay a novel there and read, quickly pushing the drawer close when I heard my parents coming down the corridor. After I turned 16, I was allowed to go to the movies with my friends.  I still remember  how Saturday Night Fever and Grease shook my world. I got the Grease record for my birthday, and listened to it over, and over, and over again. Oh, and we had one telephone with a rotary dial (a what?) and the curly cord plugged into a wall socket. All my parents had to worry about was my running huge phone bills when my best friend moved from Paris to a city north of the capital, and it only happened once. Mostly, we wrote each other 18-page letters. By hand. Of course, while working on this lengthy correspondence, I was not solving Maths problems, translating Latin texts, or memorizing German vocabulary lists. But at least, I was practicing a skill. What skill do kids practice, nowadays, when they exchange messages with truncated, acronymed groups of words? Certainly not spelling or syntax. Of course, I often use these abbreviated forms myself, nowadays, when texting. But I learned to spell words properly, first. Of course, with spell checkers, who needs to know how to spell, nowadays? And that makes me so sad.

How can parents possibly keep up with all the gadgets and Cyber distractions available? I almost feel as if I must do the rounds, each evening, to make sure that my teenager doesn’t stay on a smart phone, or an i-Pod, or an i-Pad, or her computer until 2 in the morning, texting with her friends or watching You Tube videos under the covers of her bed.

And let’s talk about You Tube. I love it. You Tube is fun. It’s great. It serves me the whole world onto a rectangular screen, from recipes, to dance steps, to TED talks, to TV shows I cannot watch where I live (Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, Bill Maher, yes, I love knowing I can find them any time I need a recreation). But our children, what does it give them? Most importantly, what does it do their brains, to constantly watch this barrage of over sexed music videos showing women in various states of undress contorting themselves on sandy beaches, the back seats of stretch Limos, or hanging from lianas in the jungles? And what about shows like the X Factor, that seem to promise the world to everyone, and make it look as if it’s easy, as if all you have to do is show up and sing and everyone goes berserk and claps and cries and screams adoringly! Or the way some singers are hailed as great singers, when in my opinion all they do is shout (anyone else out there wonders what the big deal is about Adèle?) Last year, our teen said she wanted to play the guitar. We bought her a guitar, we paid for guitar lessons (on top of the piano lessons, that was the condition), and after six months, she decided she no longer needed lessons, and would continue on her own. Of course, the guitar now sits on its stand, gathering dust. If you ask my daughter about the piano, which she also gave up a few months ago (we were in the middle of a move, and I didn’t have the energy to continue fighting that battle), she’ll tell you that she knows how to play and doesn’t need to take any more lessons. What can I do, when I hear that, but roll my eyes, bite my tongue, and chant internal mantras about adolescence being a normal, necessary phase in life, knowing I’m only good at the first one, and terrible at the other twos?

But I digress. Or do I?

One of my friends likes to claim that her children (slightly younger than mine, I’m waiting to see if she can keep it up) are not allowed any computer time, or barely. I respect that, and yet, find it an impractical solution. I don’t even think I could implement it in our house. Not with an IB school system that relies so heavily on technology, using the irrefutable argument that our children need to be able to function in tomorrow’s world – a world that no longer uses rotary-dial telephones or typewriters. Clearly, the way we educate our children today is, for the most part, on the verge of total obsolescence. I recognize that. I understand the value of introducing them to new languages like Internet coding. But how do we avoid the pitfalls as we negotiate the transition into this new era?

The school does try to educate them: they have talks and assemblies on Digital Citizenship. Facebook, and now Ask.fm, are banned from the school computers, on campus – but of course, most kids have their smart phones or tablets and access these networks via Wifi. And what about the time they don’t spend on campus?

At my request, my daughter now leaves the school laptop at school before she comes home at the end of the day.  If she or her sister need the computer to work on a school project, they save it to Drive, and use one of our home computers. I purchased two applications to help me control the time spent on the computer. If they need to do research, I run the Anti-Social application that automatically blocks Facebook, Twitter, and any other social network  of my choice, for the amount of time that I choose. If there is no research involved, I run Freedom, which blocks access to the Internet, again for a time chosen by the user. It helps. A little. So long as I’m there to launch the application. And too bad if it makes me feel like a police constable.

Have I turned into one of these conservative grumpy old farts who cannot tolerate the way the world changes before their eyes? Do I need to relax and trust that all will be well in the end? A friend of mine, who refuses to use Facebook, also says that she doesn’t want to know what her son (a few years older than my daughters) is up to, and if she used it, would not even consider being his friend on Facebook. What you don’t know cannot hurt you. Is this the way to go about it? Look the other way?

It’s like a massive tide, over powering, unavoidable. We can try our best to keep our children occupied in as sane a manner as possible (sports, music, travels), and continue to be self-appointed home police constables. Mostly, we can take a deep breath, ride that wave, and hope that our children will make it to the other side, safe and sound. With the understanding that while they ride that technological tsunami, they must also learn the skills to strive, and possibly succeed in this ever-more competitive world.

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Navigating the tricky waters of bilingualism

So our family is bilingual. Father and mother are both Francophone, with a father who grew up speaking both French and Creole, and a mother who grew up speaking both French and Spanish. My husband and I speak French together, and it was always clear to us that French would be the language spoken at home. Sounds easy enough.  Except when you start realizing that speaking French to your children is not the same thing as speaking French with your children.

Our first daughter spoke French with us exclusively until the age of 6 or 7, when school (always English medium ones, at first because we didn’t have a choice, and later for a number of reasons to complex to go into, here) started occupying an ever-expanding place in her life. Also, by that time, her little sister had joined the same English-medium school and was becoming quite talkative.

For years, I fought an ongoing battle with my older and very strong-willed first child, tutoring her as she took a long-distance course that follows closely the language and literature curriculum taught in French schools. I just had to mention the acronym CNED, and a rebellious look would spread across her face. Some days, a little cajoling was enough. Other times, the conflict escalated into a power struggle, a war of wills between two equally stubborn people, the young one clamoring that it was profoundly unfair that she had to do boring grammar exercises and writing assignments when she could be playing, the older one responding that it was of paramount importance that she should be able to not only express herself in her maternal language, but to write it well as well, something she would understand later. Nowadays, the child has turned into a teenager, and she still follows the CNED at her 8th grade level. In other words, were we to move to France, or was she to end up studying in France, she would be perfectly able to. She still grumbles from time to time, but as the course has now been taken over by the school, she also understands the futility of arguing about it.

I’m now fighting with her younger sister, who has a very different way to express her defiance and dislikes, but I’m now a seasoned warrior. Most importantly, because our second daughter lived her first few years in a family environment that was no longer entirely francophone (from the moment both girls attended school, English became the language they spoke together), I feel the pressure to impose this curriculum even more than I did with her older sister.

But now, I face another dilemma. Neither of my daughters wants to speak French with me. “Parle français” is something I hear myself repeat practically every other minute from the moment they walk through the front door at the end of the school day. The little one manages to slip back to French, but the Teen, who has not lost her spunky spirit, well, she just won’t.

Now what?

Should I give up? After all, she IS bilingual by now. She WILL continue with her French until she graduates from High School.

But it’s no longer about that only. And here comes one of the many threads of contradictions that run through the tapestry of my multicultural life. I love the English language. So much of what I’ve done in my life, so many of the roads I’ve traveled are a direct consequence of my falling in love with the English language. Am I not writing these words in English?

But I also love the French language. I’m still French. Besides, as I  once told an English lady who’d asked me who edited my English before I published anything, seemingly implying that it couldn’t possibly be good enough without someone bringing out their red pen: “No one. Maybe I write English better than I speak it.”

And Spanish. I already gave up part of my heritage when I chose French over Spanish as the language I would use with our children. It was an obvious choice, and yet, it does pain me that when we go to Spain, they can’t understand a word, nor can they communicate with their aunts and cousins there (although our little one started learning Spanish this year – she had a choice between Serbian and Spanish, and it was a difficult one, and I was even pushing for her to learn Serbian, thinking it might give her a better advantage, on top of helping her to fit in better in her host country, but her mind was made up and I didn’t insist). And I’d bet it somewhat pains their father that they cannot speak or understand Creole when we go to Haiti, even though communication is not an issue, there, as everyone in the family speaks French and/or English.

I don’t want to speak English with my children. Of course, words, expressions or idioms will slip in from time to time, as the conversation flows. But I don’t like these disconnected conversations we have, nowadays, where I speak French, the Teen speaks English, and the little one alternates between English and French, depending on how much energy I have (because it takes a lot of energy to interrupt them constantly with a reminder to speak French to me.) I worry about what this will do to our relationship.

And yet, how do I justify the importance I’m attaching to the issue? Shouldn’t I let go of that, too, and accept it as a direct consequence of the displaced life I have happily chosen. I wanted it to be a beautiful, multi-colored patchwork, didn’t I? So what if the patchwork now has to accommodate multiple languages, including at the dining table?

Last night, the teen came back from her ballet class and wanted to tell me something. Parle français, I interrupted, on auto-pilot. She got angry and went to that place where she retreats whenever she’s asked to do something she doesn’t want to do (and also when she’s asked to do something she might have happily considered, but since someone else asked her to do it, well, she’s no longer interested.) And she went to bed without sharing what she had in mind.

This is where I need to draw the line.  I know – it’s about time. I’m slow, what can I say? What matters, right now, is to work at keeping the channels of communication wide open. Life, and the normal course of things will create enough interference without my adding to it. Forget about the language. Put it in your pocket with your handkerchief on top, as we say in colloquial French. Maybe it will come back. The important thing, here, is that she communicates, in whichever language she chooses –  which doesn’t prevent me from continuing to speak the language that feels right to me.

I know this is the right decision. I just would never have thought it would be so hard.

My Global Bookshelf : Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

Unlike your typical Western mother, the Chinese mother believes that:

1. Schoolwork always comes first

2. An A-minus is a bad grade.

3. Your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in maths.

4. You must never compliment your children in public.

5. If your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach.

6. The only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal.

7. That medal must be gold.

These are the words on the back cover of the British edition of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, written by Amy Chua, a Chinese American mother of two girls, now adolescents.

When the book came out, wrapped in a cloud of controversy, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. But then, someone presented it at a book club, and I picked it up. I did not expect that I would like it.

Amy Chua’s memoir is about parenting, the mother of all difficult, nerve-touching subjects, and her style, blunt, frank unapologetic, tumbles down pretty much everything we’ve heard in the past few decades. Hence the general outcry upon its release.

As the mother of two daughters (like the author) who are as different as oil and water (like the author), myself the child of one immigrant mother and working class parents who spent years taking their kids to music lessons, I could relate to a LOT of what Amy Chua recounts in her memoir. In other words, this so called Chinese mothering has an awful lot in common with my Hispano-French upbringing, something the author is quick to mention. This is not so much a cultural divide, as it is a choice born from the parents’ values, beliefs, ambitions, and expectations.

Amy Chua does not want to raise a “soft, entitled child.” She expects, and demands excellence. And she gets it, dammit! Her daughters are A+ students, and accomplished musicians (the oldest played the piano at Carnegie Hall when she was 14). The corner stones of the Tiger Mother’s method are : respect for older people and authority, practice, practice, practice, endless drilling, and, yes, quite a lot of bullying, threatening, and absolute control over the children. It’s not pretty every day, for sure.

Overall, her strength lies in her conviction, her consistent behavior, and her superhuman energy. Here we have a Yale Law professor with a busy career that involves lectures, teaching, writing books, and also some cross-country traveling, who still finds the time to not only take her children to all their instrument lessons, but also to hunt down the best private tutors around, to read books about violin techniques, and to spend up to five hours a day making them practice after their homework. She’s everywhere, hawk-like, ready to even cash in her pension fund in order to buy a great violin for her child. Does the family take trips to Europe in the summer ? She finds pianos for her older daughter, and there is no going out of the hotel room before the little one has practiced her violin. It reminded me of a time when my father took me every morning to the church in my aunt’s neighborhood in Spain, and I would practice on the harmonium, sitting on his lap so he could push the pedals that my legs, too short, coudn’t reach. When that was out of the way, we went to the beach.

Yes, Chua’s methods favor result and achievement over self-esteem. But she’s quick to point out that two children who receive an ovation at the end of a concert hall performance can only experience a great boost in their confidence…

I loved this book because it spoke to me in ways I could relate to, but not only. Today’s “Western” parents need voices like Amy Chua’s to counterbalance all the others (and the million and one books out there – and I’ll admit to having read a lot of them)  singing a guilt-inducing chorus that confuses and leaves us/me, feeling utterly inadequate, anxious, and confused… and isn’t that the worse thing for our children to witness… It doesn’t mean I agree with everything she says or does. Actually, by the end of the book, not even Amy Chua is sure to agree with everything she’s said or done. But by sharing her extreme child-rearing methods, she provides the kind of weight needed to tip the balance back towards a parenting approach that respects the child, but still expects them to understand their responsibilities toward their parents, and toward themselves. It’s Amy Chua’s excessive controlling and authoritarian ways vs. the equally excessive, and dangerously generalized leniency that has given kids King’s status within the family, often turning them into self-absorbed, self-satisfied tyrants, something that doesn’t even make them happy. Now, can we find a middle ground?

I also found Amy Chua to be brave, and profoundly human in spite of all her brashness and boasting. She does not shy away from presenting herself under a less than flattering light (even the pictures chosen to illustrate some chapter headings, like the one where she stands over her young daughter practicing her violin, with her arms crossed, the score taped to a TV screen, seem to beg us not to like her.) Yes, she is strong, she is all-powerful, she’s unstoppable… And no, she doesn’t allow doubt or guilt to trouble her resolve. That is, until she hits the brick wall of her youngest daughter’s extraordinary willpower and personality. Lulu has balked at her mother’s ways before, but this time, it’s for good. The scene at the Red Square café in Moscow moved me to tears, because I could feel this mother’s pain and despair as she sees the edifice she’s painstakingly constructed crumble before her very eyes. Maybe she brought it upon herself. She’s refused to see that her pushy ways can no longer work with that particular child, not if she wants to keep her love. At 13, Lulu is strong enough to say “no more.” When Chua understands that, she steps back and admits her defeat. But is it really a defeat ? Lulu loves the violin. She is a stellar student, an accomplished musician, and she wants to continue playing her violin. OK, so she may sport some emotional scars. Who doesn’t ? But what she’s learned cannot be unlearned. And Lulu will apply that focus, determination and ambition when she decides to play tennis. Who can insist, therefore, that Amy Chua was all wrong, all along ?

Another great scene has the family sitting at a restaurant on the occasion of the author’s birthday. The celebration is a last-minute thing, as everyone had forgotten it. The girls give their mother a card, and as she opens it, Chua sees how the words were quickly written on some table corner. She hands it back, explaining that she keeps a special box for her children’s cards, and this doesn’t belong there. Besides, she deserves better than that. She always organizes big parties for her daughters’ birthdays, inviting their friends, and making a big deal of it. Why should she settle for a few words quickly drafted, the way someone gets rid of a boring task? She wants them to put more efforts and thoughts into it.

Wow ! Do I hear emotional abuse ? A symbolic slap in the face of both girls, certainly. Not the nicest thing to do, and who looks a gift horse in the mouth, bla bla bla. Still… Have we not all felt let down at one time or another because our children sometimes take us for granted? Have we never looked at a picture, a letter, a card, or even a piece of homework, and thought, she/he really didn’t apply her/himself to that one, she/he could do so much better – and yet, kept mum about it? Could be that we were tired. Or just plain lazy. No energy to fight, to struggle, to get into arguments and try and convince them to do it again. Amy Chua is anything but lazy. Also, isn’t the unspoken rule nowadays that anything produced by our little darlings is worthy of being hung on a museum walls? Even when it’s crap ? How do we navigate the blurry line between boosting our children’s self-esteem, and encouraging them to challenge themselves, which is the only way they can reach their full potential ? I hear that some children do it naturally. I don’t happen to have a set of those, myself, and to be perfectly honest, I was never like that either. I always tried to get away with doing as little as I possibly could (at least until I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do with my life, and that didn’t really happen before I was… too old to admit it in this column).

This brings me back to music. Growing up, I had a good friend who played the violin. He was born in France, of Spanish immigrant working class parents who drove him really, really, really hard. His father made him practice his violin daily, and when the kid didn’t comply, the belt came out. I know, I know, physical abuse. Thing is, today, this kid has become a professional violinist who was second violin in the Bastille Opera orchestra, in Paris until he had an accident running down the stairs after an intermission, one evening. Now, he still teaches the violin. If you ask him how he feels about his father’s child-rearing methods, he’ll tell you that he thanks him everyday on his two knees, because if it wasn’t for his father, he would never, ever, have mastered the violin, which is one of the most difficult instruments there is. And he loves the violin, and he loves his job. Now, I do not condone brutalizing children. Besides, this happened forty years ago. I’m just throwing this out there, one argument to feed the debate.

What Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother confirmed for me is that no parent has the right answers when it comes to parenting, and NO BOOK has them either. Because when they come to the world, our little ones already have their own personality, and all we can do is try and figure them out as we fumble and go about our duties as parents and educators (not as their friends), learning by trial and error. Some children will be relatively easy ; others will be defiant, difficult, and give us premature white hair. No matter: our duty remains to prepare them for the time when they fly out of the nest.

It’s not an easy world, out there. Few things irritate me more than when a parent tells me : “all I want is for my children to be happy.” Well, duh, and I just enjoy making them miserable ! What mother or father doesn’t want their children to be happy? The question to ask is : can I make them happy now, and still prepare the ground for them to be happy later ? These don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and yet, children need to experience frustration, not getting their ways, and they also need to become acquainted with some of the hard rules of life : food doesn’t fall from the tree straight onto the plate, most people have to work for it, and if you want to have a good job, some day, you better start working now, because competition is fierce (and don’t forget to watch out for all those Asians kids who are two years ahead in Maths, because it’s true, they’re out there.) I know I’m boring, but academics matter, and so does having a solid – preferably bilingual – education. So yes, you gotta do your homework, and when that’s done, you gotta work on your French. Practicing an instrument is also part of the deal. And don’t even start about not wanting to do your scales, or I’ll send you to Amy Chua. Because here is another unbendable truth: you can’t play Schubert, Chopin or Paganini if you don’t do your scales first. A lot of scales.

It is still too early to know whether Amy Chua’s daughters will thank her, later on (even though her older daughter Sophia has just been accepted at Harvard University.) Maybe they’ll come up with their own books, in about twenty years. But she deserves a lot of respect and admiration for sticking her neck out, writing such an honest memoir, and raising difficult, important, and necessary questions.


The Expat Life, or the art of taking life-altering decisions in the blink of an eye

If your partner works for an international organization, the kind that seems to not give a hoot about the families trailing behind, the process goes something like this.

You’ve been at your duty station long enough to know that you must start studying rotation lists. In some cases, you wait for those vacancy bulletins with an eagerness that borders on obsessive mania (when we were in Nigeria), in others, you have profoundly mixed feelings (as when we were in India). You start selecting postings according to a list of prerequisites : in our case, the number one priority is schools ! We learned that the hard way ; out of our six years in Hyderabad, only the first, when our older daughter was still in Kindergarten, and the last, after we’d switched her and her then kindergartener sister to another school, were satisfactory. The rest was of the pulling-one’s-hair-and-not-sleeping-at-night-worrying-about-my-child’s-education variety. Then come the living conditions and the financial package.

This is when I usually spend days searching the Internet, checking websites like Tales From a Small Planet, the Expat-Blog, and sending emails to complete strangers, asking for information. Then, comes the waiting. And more waiting. Until you hear that all the research was for nothing. And you start all over again.

But one day, when you’re about to give birth to a baby (Nigeria) or just happily enjoying your vacation in France, with zero issue about returning to India where you’re now happily settled – especially since the children switched to their new school –  you’re told that you’ll be moving to Bangladesh in August, and you’ll have exactly six days to pack and move your house, plus, aren’t you the lucky ones, you’ll arrive in Dhaka one afternoon before school starts for your children – the only school which is able to take them, because this late in the day, they have no place left anywhere else anyway.

What can you do but grin and bear it ? I read a good post somewhere, recently, about the high levels of tolerance of trailing spouses. Indeed.

So, you put on your happy face, and show up at the new school on the first day, ready to LOVE that school, because if you don’t, aren’t you in for some miserable time. And more often than not, you do. Love it, I mean. Sometimes for the right reasons. Other times, just because if you didn’t, the worry would drive you insane. If there is one thing I’ve learned, in my ten years+ life as an expatriate mother (being an expat as a single woman was not the same ; it did not carry the same consequences, at least for me, as a writer and a translator with a portable career) it’s the ability of the expatriate to consider their life circumstances through a very peculiar looking-glass, one that allows us to diminish the real impact of our situation as much as we possibly can. It’s a mixture of wisdom – something akin to the beginning of the famous Serenity Prayer : grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference – and total denial.

The trick is to know when we’re being wise and strong, and to recognize when we might be going into denial, which then requires to switch gears and back pedal to that second part of the aforementioned prayer.

Because it takes courage to change things, especially when those changes involve your children, who do not have the experience and hindsight to know that a school they like, where they have their friends and habits, is not the right choice for them if it does not challenge them, does not teach them the basic curriculum that will allow them to be at their grade level, or lets them get away with pretty much anything, as was the case in our first international school in Hyderabad, India.

It takes courage to see your child cry, and cry when you tuck her in at night, because she misses her friends, because she finds it hard at the new school, ’cause, guess what, they have all these funny rules about not crawling under the tables, interrupting the teacher, or throwing paper balls across the classroom. Plus, imagine that, they now have to learn their multiplication tables ! It takes courage, and it takes persistence to listen to them, dry their tears, and explain, again, and again, and yet again, why it may be hard, now, but they will thank us, later. Like when they hear about their good friend who moved to another country and found he had to repeat a class.

Next school year, our daughters will enter their fourth school in four consecutive years – a decision we’ve had to make in a matter of days in order to secure their places. I have lost countless nights of sleep over the matter since April (which is when we realized that our older daughter’s maths level was appallingly low, in spite of a report card at the end of January stating that she was at her requested grade level, and several emails to her teacher inquiring about the alarming dearth of homework throughout the year, and said teacher replying each time that all was well.)

I have mixed feelings about where they will be going next year. It’s very different from what they’ve known up to now. This new school is very small, and has none of the perks they’ve grown accustomed to: nice campuses, great sport facilities They teach a British curriculum, which will be another difference. And they will have to sit through Bible studies. As someone who grew up with a very Catholic Spanish mother, and spent a few years in a Catholic school, you do NOT want to start me on that one. And yet, it feels somewhat right. It’s not perfect. Then again, there are no perfect schools. But the environment seems to fit our values, if not all of our expectations, better than the previous one. Our kids spent a trial day there, and they liked it. I was amazed to see the confidence, and ease with which they both settled into this new place where they knew no one. I’m so proud of them.

I now need to renounce my own dreams of grandeur. Because the truth is, I liked entering their previous campuses and admiring how beautiful and well equipped they were, and thinking that I was giving my children opportunities I had never had. But this was me stroking my maternal ego, and forgetting what really matters : a solid education and sound values.

So far, this posting in Dhaka has all been about tolerating. Our apartment is nice, but we need to move, and the house we will most likely move into is kind of okay, but I doubt I’ll ever really like it. It just makes sense, in our current situation. Same for the school. Same for pretty much everything. If I can tolerate it for another two years (hopefully not more), the time will come again to start studying rotation lists and to send emails to strangers about our next location. And to be prepared to shift our lives, yet again, most likely in the blink of an eye…

Rant : Do NOT make a mockery of piano playing and music, please.

Growing up in our family, music was THE most important thing right after school work. We didn’t do sports. We did music. My sister, brother and I all played at least one instrument. (I tried the cello, on top of the piano at some stage.) Our week was divided between school, and running to the “conservatoire” where we all had our classes – piano, theory, violin, cello, you name it. And on week-ends, we ran from orchestra rehearsals to concerts, auditions, exams, or private tuitions.

The little academy we attended in the 9th arrondissement of Paris was led by a fantastic man, a man with an infectious love for music and children. His name was Alfred Loewenguth, from the Quatuor Loewenguth, and even though he died many years ago, I still see him interacting with us, cracking jokes, conducting the orchestra, and always, always, sharing his passion for music. He was truly an inspiration.

I was reminded of him, yesterday, when I attended my daughter’s Piano Concert at their current school. I did mention recently that I need to write about our experience with international schools, but it’s a long, very complex story/issue, and I would probably need several posts. For now, let me focus on yesterday’s piano concert and what it brought home for me.

Our family was of very modest means. In fact, I realize more and more the sacrifices that our parents made in order to pay for all these lessons for three children. The people around us were pretty much the same. Lower middle class. Middle class. But our music made us very rich indeed. It was all about learning our instrument and getting better and better at it, listening to GOOD music and becoming a discerning musician, even at an early stage.

My daughters’ school gives its pupils the possibility of taking piano lessons, twice a week, with an expatriate teacher married to a Bangladeshi man. At first, we thought it was a great opportunity. She comes from the Eastern bloc, and they’re usually very good musicians, and solid teachers.

By Christmas, I knew that this arrangement was not satisfactory, but we’d already payed for the lessons, and there was so much to take care of during this year of transition to our new life in Bangladesh, I had no choice but to let it go. Next year, I’m finding another teacher. Someone who’s invested in sharing her passion for her instrument, someone who is able to choose a piece according to the level and capacity of her pupils, someone who actually listens to the children when they’re playing, as opposed to talking on a cell phone or painting her long nails (quite telling for a piano teacher).

In the meantime, I had to sit through a piano concert that was, in my opinion, a masquerade.

To begin with, the piano was pushed to one side of the stage. I entered the auditorium a few minutes late (having found myself stuck in traffic, after a crazy episode at an ATM machine that spewed a ticket stating I had just received 20 000 Taka, and then died on me without having delivered said amount) and wondered at this strange stage setting – until the child who was playing finished her piece… She bowed (very nicely) and the teacher walked out on the stage with a medal, after which they both paused in front of a photographer. This happened in the MIDDLE of the stage, precisely where the piano should have stood.

Now I got it! This was not so much about children learning to appreciate music and mastering a piano piece, as it was about… the teacher showing off her high heels, her silk dress and coat, and boys and girls wearing anything from their Sunday clothes (well it would be Friday clothes, here) to sparkly gowns of the type I have never owned myself, and I will soon reach a half century on this earth.

Want to hear what else had me grinding my teeth, in my seat ? The photographer (that photo thing was a very big deal) kept walking to the children sitting at the piano to push their hair from their face before he took his pictures ! I mean, WHILE they were playing !!!

Two young girls, dressed for a ball, stood at a lectern, and announced the names of the players, and the title of the piece they were going to play. As a lot of what I heard had nothing to do with classical or jazz music (most pieces were transcriptions from the whole movie repertoire – I came out with the Love Story theme stuck in my head), they never bothered to mention the composer, not even for the very few (including my older daughter, but she and I had chosen that piece, against the teacher’s advice, and boy, am I glad I put my foot down for that one!) who played pieces by Beethoven, Mozart or Chopin.

Do I sound angry? Actually, I think I’m sad.

Of course, my daughters were excited. The little one insisted on wearing her fairy dress, and she looked like an angel, and played very well, a piece far too easy for her, after the teacher had chosen one far too difficult, and only realized it three weeks before the concert ! My older daughter did pretty well, too, considering the fact that she has to practice on our digital piano, with keys that will not come back up after they’re pushed down (a direct consequence of the move and something that cannot, apparently, be fixed). Most importantly, I tried to explain to her that her piece was actually one of the most difficult I heard, yesterday. It was a complex Mozart Menuet, and required technique. It was not a wishy-washy transposition played with lots of pedal so as to muddle the whole thing up, and impress people who know nothing about music. (yeah, I know, I’m getting snarky).

I think that, more than anything else, what this parade of a concert brought home for me, yesterday, was the fact that even though we didn’t have much money, growing up, we did have access to what really matters.

Our daughters’ international school is attended by very wealthy families of Bangladesh. The cars with drivers waiting for the children, each day, are a catalogue of luxury brands (Porshe, BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, you name it). The school provides bus transportation, but only a ridiculous number of children use it (ours do, of course). The campus is gorgeous. Their auditorium is state-of-the-art. They have computers, tennis courts, a football field, a swimming pool, and they bring in their teachers from all over the world (some great, others not at all, I might add – being a foreigner does not guarantee that you’re a good teacher, and we got confirmation of that fact, this year).

But you know what ? I think I’d rather see my children in a more modest environment, running around with kids who look their age (as opposed to 11, 12 or 13 year-olds parading in evening gowns, perched on 5 inches stiletto heels) playing music for the beauty of it, and not so their parents can have their picture at the piano for the world to see, and most important of all, learning good, sound values, acquiring work ethics, and understanding that… all that shines is not gold.