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Book Review: Bringing up Brits

This article first appeared on Bringing Up Brits on 20th November 2017. I highly recommend the website and book for any expat parents raising children in Britain. I was not paid for this review.

Only by chance, very recently, I have learnt about the existence of Meghan Peterson Fenn’s book Bringing Up Brits, and I’m glad I did! As an expat and mother myself, I’m almost relieved that someone has been brave enough and passionate enough to examine the difficulties that come with raising cross-cultural kids in Britain, from an expat parent point of view. Reading the experiences of others made me feel more at ease knowing that I wasn’t on my own going through some of the struggles; even though it now seems such a long time ago.

I came to the UK over 20 years ago, fresh-faced and ready for an adventure that was supposed to last 6 months! I thought that living in the UK would enable me to improve my English, but quickly realised there would be lots of other challenges ahead. It’s not just about the language barrier – which clearly doesn’t spare even Americans whom I would automatically think would have no problem adopting the British-English language/terminology – there is a myriad of differences to contend with, such as culture, traditions, customs, identity and the British system.

In the book, Meghan very eloquently describes not only her own perspective but the views of numerous expat parents who moved to the UK from a range of different countries; exploring different real-life experiences and opinions directly from her contributors.

As Meghan clearly puts it “raising and parenting your children in a different country to the one in which you grew up can be difficult, challenging and often lonely and confusing!”

I loved the friendly tone of the book, and have learnt a great deal of American terminology whilst reading it. With this book, Meghan has achieved her goals of not only understanding the common experiences linking expat parents living in the UK but on a more personal level, exploring her relationship with her children and her English husband. There is no doubt I can relate to this, although my experience might be a little more compounded in that my husband is Turkish/British making my household tri-cultural!

Being an Italian living in Britain for the last 20 years, I can empathise with Meghan – I too went through a multitude of experiences, some positive, and some not so positive, which made me undergo a roller coaster of emotions. However, the way I see it is that the invaluable knowledge, wisdom and maturity I have gradually acquired by coming to the UK are very precious to me and I will never regret my decision to relocate here!

I was so captivated by the book that I read it in less than two days – which is quite a big accomplishment for me! The experiences I most related to were;

  • Loneliness/Isolation (when I first became a parent – now my daughter is 10 so things are very different!)

  • Which culture to instil (British, Italian, Turkish or a mix? This is the question??)

  • Which traditions to pass on (same as above)

  • Which education system to adapt to (extremely different from the Turkish and Italian systems – with both advantages and disadvantages)

  • Language barriers (Mono, Bio or Trilingual? What’s the best way to NOT confuse a child?)

  • TCK (Third Cultural Kid) parents – (Is mealtime an issue? How about the British education system? How can we help the children since our methodology is very different? Where do they belong?)

  • Discrimination (Presented in all forms – needs to be explained at an early age! Is she seen in a different way at school and with her friends?…)

  • Is my child 100% British?

That being said, I came across a couple of opinions in the book, from both the contributors and Meghan, which I struggled to agree with, in particular, the NHS and the benefits of antenatal and toddler groups.

The NHS The overall consensus in the book seemed to be that the NHS is an amazing system and that we are lucky it exists! And yes, of course, we are, but anyone’s opinion on this is only relative to the country one comes from. For example, both in Italy and the UK the NHS is free (arguably, but let’s stick to this belief!) so for me personally, this aspect is a given, whereas for someone coming from the USA or India it’s a completely different story! With current cuts and austerity measures, the NHS is becoming very stretched, with extended waiting times, lower standards of care as a result of over-stretched budgets across hospital and surgeries, and in some cases, poor medical knowledge resulting in some GPs Googling symptoms to make a diagnosis! So as ‘Amazing’ it might be (as per the contributors’ descriptions), this is far from being an amazing healthcare system. Nonetheless, it is absolutely a system that should be protected and safeguarded against the political and private interests and preserved as an invaluable public service as it is meant to be.

Finding Identity Find your identity and isolation were described as challenging to contend with as a non-British parent since not having your family or friends around makes it really hard – even more once you have children. However, I felt that the resounding opinions in the book (apart from Meghan’s) was that these unconquerable challenges suddenly became more manageable when they became parents. As per one of the contributor’s opinions; ‘A whole new era started!’, referring to ante-natal classes and the toddler groups/nurseries afterwards.

Drawing from my own experience, unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky. In fact, if anything, all that I had achieved up until then (friends, work satisfaction, a sense of fitting in, etc) started to crumble with the realisation that this was a completely new world to me and I had to start all over again! I share Meghan’s view completely in that my antenatal course was not exactly a place to start making some long-time friends and even after that, the toddlers’ groups were even more tedious with small talk and the only thing we had in common was that we happened to have a baby at the same time. I didn’t feel a sense of belonging – with most parents not really interested in speaking to me, and all-new ‘baby language’ to contend with i.e. lullabies, e and routines, etc. OMG! I did not enjoy that stage at all, which is a shame because that’s when I needed the support and a sense of belonging the most. Like everything else it comes down to personal experience I guess, and mine has obviously been very different from the other contributors.

The overwhelming feeling of becoming a parent, the responsibility and the physical strain on having a child are big enough factors but when you add the language barrier, the different humour and customs (to name a few) of the country you now live in, for me it was a recipe for disaster! Thankfully, those years have long gone, being adaptable and making compromises is part of life but most importantly top requirements for expats. It’s hard enough to live in our own native countries so we can’t expect to move to a different country and change it to our liking. Tolerance should be a given but the identity of the adopted country should not change – Try to change me and see what happens!

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In the end, I agree with all the contributors in Bringing Up Brits that my child is very lucky in that she will grow up with a multicultural mentality, with her being a bit of our two nationalities but ultimately, British. Perhaps she has an advantage in the experience and knowledge that comes from the combination of all the influences she grows up with (traditions, opportunities, cultures, languages, customs, etc.); ultimately becoming a ‘Citizen of the world’ and the best she can be.

I am very grateful that I come from, and currently live in, a country where your voice is heard, where there are a lot of opportunities and the freedom to read a book such as this without any repercussions. The balancing act of the different cultures is challenging nevertheless, to quote one of the contributors: “Bringing up my children in this country makes them more aware with the diversity of its people. Hopefully makes them more rounded as a person, a more tolerant to other differences” (Nining)

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