Graduation Day In America From An Expat Perspective


We have been living for just 11 months in an affluent small town in New Jersey too far from New York City to be international. If I want to go to the City it takes me a good 90 minutes by train one way, so I don’t go often there, although I loved living in  NYC  back in 2001.

Here we can see farms with cows, many deer and all sort of animals including bears. At first I really enjoyed the place. Imagine “Wisteria Lane” transposed in New Jersey and you have an idea why I enjoyed it : big house, kids playing in the street,  except that no desperate housewives were there to welcome us  with cookies or just “hello”

For the first time I was in a place with no expat around, my son going to a local public school in 4th grade. Families in my neighborhoods have been living there for more than 10 years and most kids have been going to the same school since they were 5 years old. The first day at school was not fun, my son came back crying that the teacher did not introduce him to the class as he was the only new comer and French in his class. What a trauma for him as he was used to have 20 students from almost 20 different nationalities in the class and plenty of new comers. For me it was hard too, nothing was organized for new parents and I was very disappointed when the parents were invited just to get a lecture from the teacher about the program and everybody was back home without having the opportunity to chat.

However at that time, from September to February, I  saw only the positive aspects of my new life such as having the school bus just in front of my house, the YMCA at walking distance to enjoy Zumba classes and other sports like hiking where I met other people but never found somebody to call a friend. Nevertheless I had enough work from clients I coached via Skype to have a balanced life and feel happy.

Then March arrived and my husband had an offer to relocate to a totally new country, for a very interesting position, while here in New Jersey, many big companies were keeping laying-off people massively. We had two choices: staying in the US where we are considered as local foreigners without the benefits of having an international community or jumping into a totally new adventure in a developing country. We took choice #2 and then my perception of my situation went from pink to grey.

I don’t know if many expatriates experiment this but it was like I was trying to justify the pain of leaving after less than one year by trying to focus on all the negatives. It is really true, you are what you think. Then I engaged in many interactions via social networks and phone calls to get information about the new country I felt understood by expats that kindly gave me great tips and share their stories.

So time to go back to the title of this post: Today my son was finishing grade 4 and having a graduation ceremony celebrating the end of the primary school to go in 5th grade in middle-school.

I felt lonely when I arrived in the auditorium with parents and family of the 150 4th graders. I recognized barely three families there. I felt like a total stranger when everybody sang the American anthem and made the pledge to the American flag. Yes, it is a shame, but actually I did not have the opportunity in my daily activities to learn  those things. I am wondering how many Americans who live in France know  “La Marseillaise ” ? Even me I don’t know all the words of the French anthem. We don’t have to do the pledge to the French flag every morning or any flag for kids in international schools like they do in America. ,

The 150 kids had their name called,  marched on the podium to receive the diploma and a concert of applause followed each kid except my son. My heart really hurt and I felt so sad, I never felt more stranger than today in 20 years of expatriation.

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About Anne Egros, Expat Life, Career & Executive Coach

Zest and Zen is a blog about Expat Life Challenges, Global Leadership, Intercultural Communication, Health and Wellness, Nutrition, Change Psychology, Life Transitions
This entry was posted in American Culture, Cross cultural, culture shock, parenting and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Graduation Day In America From An Expat Perspective

  1. ExpatAussie In NJ says:

    I also live in NJ but not in such a small town. I am also teary reading your story and feel for both of you. It’s so sad and hard to understand why the other parents didn’t clap for your son. It is true that many kids bring extended families so they get an extra loud shout (which I find really sweet) but at all our school functions, the parents always clap everyone. Your son is amazing and I get the feeling he won’t be permanently hurt. You are not only a very brave and courageous lady but through your writing, you are helping people like me who have had their own versions of not-so-good expat experiences. Reading your blog makes me feel a lot more positively about what we have been through in knowing at the very least we are not alone. I truly wish you well in your next adventure and trust this experience will only make you stronger. Best wishes to you and your family:)

    • ExpatAussie, thank you so much for your kind words and I am glad that sharing my story helps other expatriates. I agree with you that this experience helps me a lot too to better manage our move to the new country. I have made extra efforts to get closer to my son’s friends and their parents for the last weeks before leaving. I think it is very important for chilfren to say goodbye and allowing them to go through the grieving phase in the culture shock process. I have registered the family to the municipal pool even if it was for few weeks only, put my son in a YMCA camp even if it was for 7 days, organized playdates and got really nice conversations with parents that now I can call friends 🙂

  2. Tears are flowing for you and your son. We just finished the first year and half of our first expatriation. It is horrible not to be welcomed. I am so sad for you and your son. Wish I was there and could take you for a cup of coffee. This story will stay for me forever and will hopefully always stand as a reminder to welcome newcomers with open arms, a smile and a cup of coffee.

    • Thanks for your kind words. I think it is very cultural the way people deal with new neighbors. In France actually nobody cares, and you can stay 10 years in the same street and not knowing who lives there. There is no sense of “community” compared to Americans but my understanding is when you arrive in an already established neighborhood in the US, the tradition to welcome newbies with cookies or inviting you for a coffee is not as strong as before. I guess in Morocco you get plenty of attention and support as hospitality is something very serious in North-Africa.

  3. Veronique says:

    Hello Anne, I am very sorry to learn what happened to your family, especially your son. As a french expat in the US (I have been living in Chicago for four years and my two daughters attend a public American school; so we have a lot in common), I really understand what you mean. My daughters were younger than your son when we arrived and I think it makes a huge difference. But it doesn’t mean it was easier though (the two first years were very hard for my youngest one). I have a very different experience here, maybe because it is Chicago, maybe because I stayed longer. There are a very small community of expats within our school. Still the culture shock (mainly about education and school) was huge.
    Even if your post is sad, I think it is important and good that you express it. It shows another side of the expat life. Our way of life is often seen as easy going especially for the accompanying spouse. It showns that there are also pitfalls, even for those, like you, who know their subject and have a lot of experience.
    I wish you all the best for your new adventure abroad. Take care.

    • Thanks for your comment Veronique. Yes we do have a lot in common and I enjoy reading your blog. You are right about the different issues we have depending on the types of neighborhoods. I have always lived in very international cities like Tokyo or New York, Brussels and even Atlanta where big companies like Coca Cola have many expatriate employees. I worked in every cities and my son always been at international schools, where I was involved, especially in new comers groups. So it the first time for me to live in a small town (7,000 inhabitants) more than one hour away from a big city and where you need a car for everything. It is not different from Paris suburbs or small towns in France and I would not be surprised if many Brits that are living in Normandy or South of France are finding difficult to adapt, especially to the French school system. In comparison our school here is much, much better, teachers are caring, classes have about 20 kids, in grade 4 they have access to one computer for each student. So yes there are definitively very positive things about living in a “gentleman farmers” area. I think it is also a good thing to share via a blog how I feel even when I am down or frustrated by something that my expat friends will understand.

  4. Anne, so sorry that you and your son had that experience. Surprising too – in the small US town where I lived for a couple of years, everyone would have applauded every child. Sounds like your son handled it admirably 🙂 Living in community with few expats definitely makes settling in a longer process – I’ve no doubt that if you had been staying longer, you would have found your place and some like minded friends. Its interesting that you say that being a short-timer has coloured your view – I have a couple of friends who are leaving Brussels this summer and they are suddenly finding that they are being inordinately annoyed by things that they would have shaken off in the past.

    • Thank you Evelyn, “turning pink to grey” and sharing coping strategies when we leave a place for another new destination or returning back home could be a very interesting topic for the next meeting: “Expat Partner Online Coffee. Thanks for initiating that group!

  5. Oh Anne, what a difficult moment. Being American and having been at a couple promotion ceremonies I do know that some families/friends shower their student with cheers and clapping, but usually most parents and teachers clap for every child. As a parent that would cut like a knife, but what a wonderful perspective your son has – it seems that he really has embraced living in your neighborhood and going to his school, and has settled in well. As for your pink turning to grey, it is very common. As you suspect, it is a coping mechanism to help you look forward to your pending move and encourage you as you work out the daunting array of details. It’s also why Ruth Van Reken and the late David Pollock were so adamant about RAFT (reconciliation, affirmation, farewells and only then thinking destination) to ‘leave well to enter well’. If we aren’t careful, we start to shut down with regard to our current place and miss the opportunity to value it for its positives and negatives, and make peace.

    I know that it can be difficult to break into social groups and make friends in a few months, especially if it is in a non-expat, established environment. I love Rachel’s idea of setting up a welcome/contact group for new students & families, especially internationals. When you see a need, helping to fill it helps you AND others. I’m reminded of two women who moved from here in The Hague to a Middle Eastern country. Both had been active in expat welcome/settling in programs, so were surprised that the new international school their children attended had virtually no such program (supposedly because so few new people arrived each year). Their point was ‘all the more reason’ to create a program to include new families! I wish you could have had that in NJ, or someone to tell you that volunteering in your son’s school is a standard way for new people to become involved. Good luck with your pending move, it sounds very exciting. And yes, your cyber friends will be there along the way.

    • Hi Linda, Thank you for your understanding and caring words. The teachers and few parents did applause, just compared to other kids it was very quiet. My reaction could also been explained by the fact that my son did not get invited to any birthday party during the whole year and for me that was weird as about 10 kids from school and neighborhood enjoyed our son birthday party last September. We also had to go through some bullying in the school bus. For sure that’s disheartening when you focus only on the negatives. Regarding the psychological process, I am glad I can put a name on it “RAFT” and I will for sure dig on the literature you mentioned. It is kind of funny because I did wrote several posts about the grieving process for expats and culture shock. I actually apply my own medicine: first acknowledging emotions then allowing me to feel sad or angry, then sharing them with people who have been through the same process and putting things in perspective. Thank you for helping me dealing with this difficult transition, “cyber” friendship is real and virtual communities like the Expat Partner Online Coffee Facebook Group are really helping.

  6. Judy says:

    They didn’t applaud your son? That’s dreadful! My heart goes out to you, it sounds like you’ve had a difficult year. But thank you for sharing this because it’s important for people to know that sometimes expat assignments aren’t easy even for those who are experienced and know what to do. Good luck with your move.

    • Thanks Judy, good to have you here to support me. My son is smarter than me he just said that other kids had plenty of family members so he thought he got enough applause. Everything is perception and it is a good lesson as parent to be careful how we project our emotions on our children. I felt bad but he enjoyed it, so I should stop worrying this could make him anxious and that the last thing I want.

  7. Maria says:

    This is just too sad. I’m hoping it will be the absolute nadir of your expat life, and that things will get better soon for you and your son. It’s tough to break into those established groups, especially in communities that aren’t used to having expats in their midst. If it helps, a lot of us are sending good vibes your way.

  8. Oh Anne that’s heartbreaking! We expats can usually take most things on the chin but when it comes to how things affect our children it’s harder to dodge the bullet. You don’t need any advice from me – you know all the tips already – but I just wanted to let you know you’re not alone and remind you in whatever way you might feel your son has missed out, he will have gained in many other areas. Stay strong xxx

    • Thank you Aisha, I appreciate the support and true, it doesn’t matter how many years we have been expats or where, there IS such a thing as “culture shock” or “reverse culture shock” whatever you call these emotional ups and downs some of us experience between, during and after moves. Hopefully, overall, my son enjoyed his school year made terrific progresses academically and was socially pretty well integrated with kids in his class and in our street.

  9. Oh Anne, I am so sorry you had that experience – it is just miserable. If it’s any consolation, I had a similar thing happen when my son graduated from Middle school here in the US. He has never been as social as my daughter, so while I knew some of his friends parents by sight, none of them knew me well enough to spot that I had no idea what an event middle school graduation is here. In the UK, graduations only happen in college.
    He arrived wearing his normal shorts and T shirt. Every single other child was wearing smart casual or formal wear. Despite three years of living there, and numerous local friends, it was a huge mistake that I just didn’t see coming, and I had to find somewhere quiet to cry with frustration, anger and humiliation.
    It taught me a valuable lesson about making sure I had both local and expat friends, and never, ever assuming that just because the language is the same, that I understand the social rules. And on a positive note, we are setting up a school welcome group for new (and especially international) parents to help all of the incomers avoid those awful moments.

    • Thank you Rachel for sharing your story and support. Hopefully my son was dressed adequately because the school sent a note and I knew what “smart casual” meant= formal in French. We do need special classes for expat parents because no matter what, we will never become locals, there will be always something in the etiquette and social rules that our parents did not teach us and that everybody locally knows. Having plenty of local friends is great and usually I do have a good mixture with international ones but it takes usually more than one year. On the good side my son enjoyed the ceremony, he said other kids had siblings and family who were there to cheer and shout their names.

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