Don’t Separate, Assimilate: Thoughts on Getting Your Kids in School as a Foreigner


To understand my situation, you should know a bit about children.

Kids are great. I have three of them. Many expats say that children are the single greatest way to break into the local community and meet people. If you can get your children into a school, then they automatically have friends in the neighborhood, they begin to learn the local language, and the whole process requires you to learn a lot about your environment that you otherwise would never know.

When I lived in the United States, we had the experience of meeting a few foreigners who used their children as translators. They had moved or come as refugees, and while they had no formal knowledge of English, their children were immediately enrolled in school and acclimated quickly.

The situation for us is different, I imagine, than it is for people coming to the United States. In general, foreigners in the United States must send their children to a public or private school (if they can afford it) — there is usually (usually!) no option for school in their native language. In their situation, some level of assimilation into U.S. majority culture is guaranteed through public or private education.

For people in our situation, however, there often are an array of options that offer alternatives to local public schools, and do not require any significant level of assimilation. In Sarajevo alone, where we lived for 5 years, there was an American international school, a French school, and a Turkish international school,  in a city of just 500,000. All of these schools offer an English-language curriculum, and most of the students are from foreign countries. We also knew a few families who chose to homeschool, and others who chose to place their children in Bosnian public schools. Regardless of the location, there is rarely a clear-cut frontrunner for childhood education, and most parents struggle to know which situation will be best for their children.

No Easy Decisions

It must be acknowledged that just underneath the surface are a multitude of difficult issues of assimilation, education standards, and demographics, none of which will be done justice in a simple blog. This issue has been studied extensively; a map from the NY Times offers a snapshot of the situation in the United States with public education and English-learners.

There are so many factors involved. Foreigners who move to a large city in the U.S. are more likely to have an option for education in their native tongue than those who move to a small city. However, these options would be private, and cost-prohibitive for refugees. For those who place their children in U.S. public schools, there are vast differences in school quality. But for a country with no national language, the United States has done a remarkable job in setting the expectation that everyone learn to communicate.  A relatively high level of assimilation is guaranteed, just through education of one’s children.

The Last Thing On Their Mind

What I have observed is that people learn the language and assimilate into their new culture as much as they want to. And most U.S. Citizens simply do not want to. Many Americans don’t think of themselves as partaking in a “culture” in the U.S.; perhaps the most obvious evidence to the contrary is how reluctant most of us are to assimilate into a new one when we move abroad.

There are many factors involved. The most important one seems to be the necessity of assimilation. When people come to the U.S., some assimilation is necessary for survival, depending on the country of origin. Yes, we have all driven through communities where it seems no one has learned English, but for people who come from Russia or Lebanon, for example, the chances of living in the United States, never learning English, never interacting with Americans, only interacting with fellow immigrants or expats, and never assimilating at all are fairly low.

But the words of the last sentence seem to describe the lives of many of us Americans who have become expats. We simply do not need to assimilate — we have our community, our schools, our cars, our jobs, all already planned out before we arrive, and most of us don’t venture outside this bubble. And even for those who chose their country of residence, living away from home is simply hard. We don’t feel we have the requisite energy required to invest in the local culture. For most of us, assimilation is the last thing on our minds.

We might as well keep going…

Assimilation also is a hard pill to swallow, especially for U.S. citizens. Why is that? Perhaps because it is hard to imagine taking on new things without losing something meaningful. Culture is meaningful: wrapped up in the memories of the culture and community in which one has matured is a significant slice of one’s self, and the idea of losing part of that self is often unthinkable, even for those who every day are wrapped up every day by a culture that is foreign to them.

In this whole discussion, it is obvious that there are a lot of questions but very few answers that are true for all people everywhere. Everyone must do what is best for their own family, their own locations, their own culture. But it is apparent that assimilation is a concept that is seen as negative by those who are foreigners, and is seen as a necessity by those who are natives.

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