Tuesday, May 3, 2011

M is for....

My husband and I wanted to live and raise our kids overseas for a number of reasons, some of which include the fact that we can teach in schools that don’t have metal detectors or annoying standardized tests determining whether or not we are “good’ teachers, free tuition for our kids (we are, after all, poor teachers!), and awesome travel opportunities. Yep, we can get on a local budget airline and be in Singapore or Thailand in less time and (with the price of gas in the US these days) with less money than driving up to a cottage in my home state of Wisconsin.

And that? Totally rocks. My 19-month-old daughter has already lived in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, has visited Singapore and will be spending the summer in Thailand. My four-year-old has already had to have new pages put into her passport and has visited four continents so far- four! That is one continent less than the number I have visited, and the difference in our ages is WAY more than I care to admit here in public.

There are some unexpected limitations to raising your kids overseas (please don’t even get me started on the horrors of 24+ hour flights home for visits. Just…don’t. Because I may start to shake uncontrollably and end up huddled in a ball on the floor in the corner. I wish I were kidding. But I’m so not.). However, there are also some unexpected benefits that we didn’t even consider when we decided to make the move to expat living, the biggest of these being the lack of commercial advertising.

Yes, they advertise overseas- you’ve all seen those ridiculous commercials and ads featuring Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston hawking things like Heinneken and Rolex watches, for which they get paid millions of dollars (seriously? MILLIONS of dollars? That is one of the great imbalances in the world). However, one thing you just will not see very much of overseas is advertising toward children. We’ve lived in Malaysia, Qatar and now Indonesia, and we have YET to see even one commercial for any type of breakfast cereal or toy. I swear, it’s true! People in the US don’t believe me when I tell them that, because they just cannot begin to even FATHOM watching a TV show without their kids begging for something.

A few summers ago, we spent a month in the US, and I think the television was turned on for all of FIVE minutes when we’d already seen ads for SpongeBob sponges (and please explain to me why anybody in the world would spend $10 on a sponge for their kids. Because all I can think is if you are paying that kind of money for something that is usually one of the cheapest items on the grocery list, then you deserve to be targeted by Big Corporations), about 8 different kinds of cereal (NONE of it remotely healthy), and a bunch of toys that I’d never heard of, all of which were made of plastic and made really horrible noises.

It was a nightmare. One I am glad I only had to experience for a month. And it wasn’t even Christmas, which I imagine is obnoxious enough to drive relatively normal people to a level of insanity that can only end with them throwing their televisions out the window.

I’m not going to say that my daughter doesn’t ask for things. Yes, she comes to the grocery store with me and EVERY TIME asks for some chocolatey cereal with a cartoon on the box (EVERY. SINGLE. TIME), and she wants a Barbie for her birthday. No, she really really really really really REALLY wants a Barbie. Girl has simply GOT to have a Barbie. On a side note, we are currently investigating the least offensive Barbie available, so as to not start our 4-year-old down a path that her dad is convinced will inevitably lead to a starring role on “Toddlers and Tiaras”. So far, Veterinarian Barbie is taking the lead, but if anyone has any other suggestions, I am totally open to them. Librarian Barbie would be awesome…

Anyway, so no, we are not immune to childhood begging, but we have it on a much smaller scale, and it comes not from commercials, but rather from seeing her friends in class with these things. Plus, due to the fact that her classmates and friends come from many different countries, cultural differences prevent any trends from blowing too out of proportion.

Another example is the fact that my kids have been to McDonald’s exactly ONCE in their lives. That one time was when we were at the Science Center in Singapore and there weren’t any other attractive options for a quick lunch. Being vegetarians, I got the TWO things that are quasi-vegetarian on the menu (because I am not gullible enough to actually believe that those fries and pies are cooked in 100% vegetable oil. And I am pretty gullible. So that is saying something.). I took them to the table and…Kaia wouldn’t touch any of it. Skye ate some of the fries, but then again, Skye is a french fry freak and would eat fries that were coated in dirt, I am convinced of that.

Now, I am certainly not going to get on some high horse and try to come off as someone whose kids have such sophisticated palates that they will not DEIGN to eat something as low-brow as fast food, because I think I’ve shared enough of my kids’ eating habits to be called out as a big, fat liar within 20 seconds of making that statement. It’s just that we never eat fast food, and they are not aware of what they are missing because they are not bombarded with commercials and ads everywhere they go.

I’ll also clarify here that the reason WHY we don’t eat a lot of fast food is because we are vegetarians, and there just isn’t a whole lot on the menus to make it worth our while. Not because, you know, fast food just isn’t GOOD ENOUGH for M’Lord and M’Lady.  Because I do love myself an Egg McMuffin on occasion, and there are certainly times when a chicken soft taco or McNuggets do sound pretty darn good to me. Pretty, pretty darn good. But alas…

One time, Jabiz and I were walking with Kaia in the mall, and walked past the McDonalds sign. Kaia looked at it and said, “M! Look, Mama, M!” Jabiz and I shared a look of dread, wondering if this was where it all began- the demands for the Golden Arches, the indignation at the fact that she was not provided with free toys on a weekly basis, the craving for the nuggets whose meat is of VERY questionable origin…was this it?

“M is for Mommy!”

I cannot even accurately describe the relief and happiness that we felt in this moment, so I won’t bother trying. However, if you can imagine grown adults sobbing with elation while trying to hide this emotion from their child, for fear that she would wise up to exactly what was going on, that pretty much covers it.

“Yes, that’s right! M is for Mommy!”, and we continued to drill this point into her blond little head every time we visited the mall from then on.

“Look, Kaia! It’s the big M! The Mommy sign!” and she somehow never caught on. And she is pretty smart- way smarter than both of us. It’s not easy to hide things from her, but we manage it thanks to the wonderful lack of advertising overseas.

All that makes the 24+ hour flights worth it. Sort of.


  1. This post made me smile! I love that you don't have to deal with all of the commercialism the US so freely spits out...very lucky! We have just chosen not to have a TV (we have one to watch movies on) but thanks to the internet mom and dad are able to get our fix of rotten shows and miss Elleah has stayed "immune" so far! Mike and I laugh because if McDonalds is ever mentioned Elleah says "McDonalds farm" or McDonald duck and goofy! ahh the innocents for a brief moment!

    I am quite envious of the travel and passport stamps!

    oh... and my only thoughts about the desired barbie are, try convincing her Skipper, barbies "kid sister" doll is a good choice! -she is the younger, flat chested, not so curvy, more realistic barbie. or better yet has she heard of La La loopsy dolls! 100% better than barbies and very cute in my opinion! They come in all sizes! Good Luck!

  2. Hi! My name is Tara Ronzetti and I'm Jeff Nesmith's wife. Well, not just Jeff Nesmith's wife...anyway, thank you for your blog, which I will be following closely as we start our process to expat-hood. I also forwarded it to a girlfriend who, along with her husband and kids, will start teaching in Shanghai in the fall. I look forward to meeting you and having our little girls play on the other side of the world. BTW-in terms of Barbie, I think Barbie becomes whatever way mommy portrays her. I was a big Barbie-phile and grew up to be a sensible and when warranted a strong feminist. Siena-Kaya likes to play princess in the yard. She "works" and then gets on the ground waiting for me, the prince to wake her. To my delight the first time we did this she sat up and said, "I'm not marrying you!" and ran away. To indulge myself and assuage my fears I gave her a sentence to add to that, that she uses every time she runs away--"I'm not marrying you, I'm going to college!!!!" Oh how much I love to play princess now! :)

  3. wow, i'm right in the middle -- okay, the northwest corner -- of the america you two are so happy to have escaped and i don't even really recognize the place you're describing. i'm as big of a critic of things like mcdonald's and advertising as anyone else -- to the point where i'm preparing to write a dissertation that relies heavily on critiques of consumer culture -- but from a parenting perspective this stuff is almost nonexistent (so far, at least and i hope it stays this way...)

    mcdonald's? our son has never even seen one. nearly all his food comes from the food co-op that is across the street from our apartment (fyi: 650 square feet, one bedroom, and just on-street parking for our one hybrid car).

    advertising? he's never seen a television commercial either because he doesn't watch tv. there is one streaming episode of barney ('purple dinosaur!') he watches periodically though, one which he started watching on an afternoon when risa couldn't nurse him and we thought (like good americans) that the television might distract him. it did, and he still likes to watch it and sing along.

    all i'm trying to say is that america, for all it's ridiculousness, has plenty of alternatives to unreflective consumerism and inner-city schools with metal detectors at the doors: risa's school is the bronx didn't even have those...and her low income school is in a new, 'green' building with (sometimes functioning) natural ventilation. we live in one of the densest neighborhoods on the west coast; our child walks, rides in the stroller, or takes the bus most of the time so he's hardly ever in the car; he gets his books from independent books stores (we walk six blocks to one, or across the street from his day care -- to which we ride the bus daily -- to the other); his toys come from an indie toy store (4 block walk away); we can walk less than ten minutes to four parks. so, yes, i too am horrified at the lifestyle of many americans, but you don't have to go to overseas to get away...unless you need a huge house, a nanny, and oodles of international travel on two 'poor teachers'' salaries.

  4. I appreciate your thoughts and comments, Keith, though first I must point out that I certainly do not feel that I have "escaped" the US. On the contrary, I LOVE the US- I am sad that I don't get to visit it as often as I'd like (though I plan to once the kids are older), and if we moved back, I would love living there. We would most likely gravitate to living in your neck of the woods, as well.

    However, at this point in time, we are simply choosing to live overseas and appreciate it, and that it what this blog is about- sharing the experiences of being a parent overseas. I hope I am not coming off as saying that living overseas is BETTER than living in the US, because I don't think that. I apologize if I sound that way.

    Believe me, there are many things about living overseas, especially when it comes to parenting, that drive me crazy, and often times I think, "This wouldn't happen if we lived in the US!" There WILL be plenty of blog posts coming down the line about these things, as well. Perhaps I need to work on being more balanced in my reviews.

    All of the things that you mention (food co-ops, walking around, indie toy stores, recycling) are the things that I miss when I live overseas. However, there are things that I also don't miss and that I appreciate about living in another country.

    Also, a lot of the things that I say are just coming from my personal experiences, and are not meant to be a social commentary about the US. I'm very glad that your personal experience is different!

    Though at the end of the day, right now, I just LIKE living overseas. Maybe one day we'll tire of it and move back to the US, but for now it's the choice that we are making. And while I don't necessarily NEED a big house, a nanny and international travels, I do LIKE it! I don't like having a driver, though- I wish I didn't have to have him. But that is for another blog post...

  5. Hi Tara, it is nice to meet you! Hopefully we will get to meet in person, soon! Please feel free to ask me any questions that you guys have.

    You are talking to the wrong person- I know that giving a 5-year-old a Barbie is not the end of the world, as I also had Barbies when I was growing up and feel that I turned out relatively normal. It's her DAD who is not convinced. I believe in things in moderation, and I'm working on getting Jabiz to come around on that! We'll see how that goes...I think it's different for dads, because they don't have that experience of playing with things like Barbies and princesses when they are young and so it scares them a bit.

  6. Lora- I would get Kaia a Skipper doll in a heartbeat, but she is nowhere to be found in Indonesia! I have no idea what happened to her- where is Skipper??? It's a mystery...maybe I'll have my mom bring one when they come to visit.

    This warrants a visit to Amazon.com, thanks for the reminder of the lesser-known but just as awesome Barbie sister!

  7. One more thing that I would like to point out about this post is that the reaction I get from most people is that they avoid the commercial advertising of the US by simply NOT turning on a television set, or only watching videos. My intent was to say that overseas, you CAN turn on a television without the commercials.

    Whether or not it is right for kids to watch TV, or how much TV they should watch, is a bit beside the point. I admit that my kids watch a moderate amount of television, because there are just some good shows on out there. So when we go back to the US, they do watch some TV, and the commercials are there. Overseas, they watch the same amount of TV, and the commercials are not there.

  8. Ha, we love McDonalds here. My kids could point out the sign at 1.

    I love their mystery meat nuggets too. But I've never been picky. If it tastes good, I eat it.