By Mia Hansson
It’s hard enough for adults to arrive in a foreign country, knowing nobody, and not knowing what to expect from even the most everyday things like grocery shopping and public transport. How much harder, then, must it be for children who have less control over their environment than adults do? We asked Swedish families what they do to help their kids adjust quickly and happily into their new lives in Thailand.
The International School of Bangkok (ISB) and the New International School of Thailand have about 15 Swedish students, and Pattana has much fewer. Many of these children have spent the majority, if not all, of their lives outside Sweden. Their parents often worry about how to maintain their children’s ties to their home country, through speaking the language and developing an understanding about Swedish cultural values.
Catarina Bjorlin Hansen, who has a 4-year-old daughter, comments “I do worry that Maiken’s Swedish isn’t as good as it should be at the age of 4. We moved here from Russia, so my daugher spoke Swedish and Russian when she came here. Thus, the hardest thing was adapting to the English language. But it was still pretty smooth – kids are great with languages.”
Birgitta Norrgren, mother of three teenage children, adds “I feel sorry for expat children when they feel like they don’t have roots. They didn’t grow up in a constant environment, like I did. But there are of course advantages that make up for that.”
The advantages of living in Thailand are indeed numerous. Kids may have to give up biking through pine forests, but to make up for it outdoor activities such as swimming or even jungle exploring are available 365 days a year. Monthly beach holidays with the whole family become an affordable habit rather than an extravagant luxury. Many parents prefer schools here to the ones back home – “They really work with and motivate the kids instead of being a parking lot for kids while the parents work,” comments one happy mother. “Small children in school here are sick a couple a days per year, not a week per month, like kids at dagis in Sweden. This is good for the kids as well as the parents.” And with home help, the parents have more play time with the kids after school.
The most immediate way that children make friends on arrival is getting to know the neighbours. This is easier if the family chooses to live in an apartment building with other families, rather than a townhouse. Then they settle into school and regular leisure activities, which become their social network.
The Swedish Church, now run by the new chaplains Lennart and Lis Hamark, runs a kids’ group every Tuesday afternoon. Children between two and nine years old play in the garden before going upstairs for singing, games and storytime. When we were there, eleven girls and four boys sat in a circle playing a boisterous name game. Then they went quiet and listened intently as Lennart started, “I en stad pa landet bodde en gang en farbror som hette Zakaios.” Meanwhile, the parents enjoy afternoon tea on the verandah.
When the kids aren’t playing or doing homework by the pool, popular Bangkok excursions include the Emporium and Siam Discovery Centre playrooms, and the bicycle tracks at Sirikit Park next to Chatuchak. Together, Bangkok and the schools cater to every interest, whether it’s horse riding, gymnastics, or mountain biking. With all these activities going on, it does help to avoid the traffic, either by living as close to activity areas as possible, or within reach of a skytrain. One mother I know didn’t hesitate to put two of her kids on a motorbike taxi, then followed behind with her youngest on another bike, when they were late for ballet class on Sukhumvit. Outside Bangkok, there are the proliferous beaches and nature excursions for the whole family. Asia is extremely child friendly which helps when it comes to travelling.
Teenagers are another story. Socially they’re more independent, which makes it simultaneously easier and harder for them to immediately make friends at school. They’ll be well practised at getting to know new people, but on the other hand they have stronger identities than before and may find it trickier to find friends that they can relate to. They’re also coming of age when it comes to clubbing and drinking, both of which are much easier to do here than in Sweden for those who are underage. Most parents apply the same rules – only go out if you’re sharing a taxi or a car with a driver as a group; agree on a curfew; keep the communication lines open. Many feel that Bangkok is safer than other Asian cities. In fact, in some ways it can feel safer than Sweden – here, there are usually helpful people around wherever you go, and there’ll be taxis to take you home, whereas in Stockholm, there are dark empty stretches at night which may have to be negotiated alone, especially if they’ve missed the last bus. For those who are easily tempted, drugs are easier to get hold of here, but international schools run random tests and strict anti-drugs policies to ensure that their students are safe. So how to retain those Swedish language skills, to avoid sounding like a foreigner on the trips back home?
Swedish is the main language of communication at home, especially for those whose parents are both Swedish. Speaking Swedish with the other kids at the church group while playing also helps. Currently, ISB’s Swedish class taught by Birgitta Norrgren is on hold but will be resumed shortly. Asa Ekdahl runs the weekly class at NIST on Monday afternoons, where kids from other schools are also welcome. There are now thirteen students aged between six and thirteen years old, separated into two age groups. It’s a relaxed class which at the time we were there opened with the discussion of activities and Swedish news, for the older age group. Then the students wrote down their summary and opinions of what had just been discussed, and progressed to learning Swedish spelling and reading fiction. Teenage children usually keep their language skills through correspondence courses and avid reading, both books by Swedish authors, and other popular authors in translation. At gymnasie age, some board at Sigtuna, which is often their first chance at learning to speak Swedish fluently.
When parents told me that it was important that their children retain their Swedish values, I was intrigued. What are Swedish values?
“Swedish children have more freedom and independence,” says Asa. “We allow them to be kids. They don’t have to learn maths tables aged three.”
She’s right, I realise, as I look out over the carefree kids frolicking in the garden of the Swedish church. Most families make sure that they return to Sweden for holidays every year for up to six weeks at a time, to keep in touch with grandparents, other family and friends, and Swedish nature. This can be enough to keep up the language skills. Then there’s the rituals of celebrating Lucia at Christ Church in Convent Road, Christmas, midsummer and the crayfish festival. Swedish food is imported in company-sponsored containers or through visiting friends. Finally, there are the classics, which are a must-pack when moving abroad: books and videos of Pippi Langstrump, Fem Myror, and Emil i Lonneberga: the Swedish identity in a nutshell. For older kids, make sure auntie brings Lukas Moodyson’s hilarious and poignant film “J**la f***ing k*k Amal” on DVD when she comes to visit. Any homesickness will be immediately dispelled.