immigrant experience

Notes from the Road 2

* I am in one of the most famous and most beautiful cities in Europe. I have visited it before. It is a lovely European city. It is not unlike the city I was born in.

I find I have no desire to live here, ever. I find the buildings are old, the apartments small. Everything is very expensive.

It’s interesting how a place — the US, for me — can start to feel more like home by way of every other place becoming less and less appealing by comparison.
When I first moved to the US, I longed for home. Then for a while I imagined I could live in a more prosperous version of home, somewhere in the first-world countries of Europe.
Now I don’t long for my ancestral home, and I don’t envision myself anywhere in Europe.  I have been irreversibly and thoroughly Americanized.

But I admit, I would not mind coming here or elsewhere for a sabbatical, mostly to improve my German, which has become quite rusty. I used to be able to carry a conversation or watch TV in German; now I fear my limit is ordering food or getting transportation.

* It is very hot outside. As I seem to keep forgetting, air-conditioning is far from ubiquitous in Europe. My hotel had it, but the seminar room where I spent most of the two days didn’t and neither did the restaurants we went to. I have felt sticky non-stop. The airport is judiciously cooled — e.g. not in the toilet stalls, but yes around the sinks (because we really want that $hit to stink, don’t we?). The check-in and gate areas are air-conditioned, but still pretty warm by most US-airport standards.

* I had forgotten how numerous the immigrants from the Middle East are in Europe. I look at those poor fully draped and veiled women roasting in this heat and humidity, and then look at their male “guardians” in shorts and short-sleeved T-shirts… Inhumane.

* Having lived in the American Midwest for over a decade, I have access to very good and varied local beer; I am very particular about my beer. Yesterday’s trip to a Biergarten (in case it’s not obvious, it’s a beer garden, basically the restaurant part of a brewery) was disappointing beer-wise, but very fun company-wise.

* I gave a talk and spent two pretty intense days at a technical workshop with several people who work with a very niche technique, one that I also work with (among others). I really enjoy this aspect of science, where we really get together and openly share what we think the problems are, and we brainstorm ideas and talk about real solutions. We actually managed to tease out a few technical nitty-gritty details over food and drinks. I love when that happens. There may be some collaborative papers emerging from the workshop, which is what I would consider travel money well spent.

* The older I am, the more I enjoy talking about science. I think it has to do with me knowing more and, perhaps more importantly, with me believing I know a lot, having very specific opinions, and being confident about articulating and defending them.

* Whenever I think I am hot stuff, or when I think I am a worthless piece of turd, I should make myself fly somewhere, preferably far away and with a long layover. As much as I hate the hassle of travel and generally being on planes, I love airports and engaging in a favorite sport: people watching. So many folks, all different, all so important and yet so unimportant. It reminds me that I am just one puny human. I could vanish this instant and the world would keep spinning; no one except my immediate family would give a $hit. I personally spend too much time in my head, taking myself too seriously. Being reminded of my own irrelevance is strangely liberating.

* As has always been my experience, even when I was a student, graduate students magically become more productive when the PhD advisor leaves town. Sadly, this phenomenon does not take place when I am in town but ignore them. Thus far, I have received 2 revised drafts to look at while traveling and I will be Skyping with two students today and tomorrow evening.

* Off to board a flight to another European metropolis, where I am to give another talk and attend another conference. And I am very much looking forward to the excellent beer!


Teeth, that is.

I grew up in a country where fluoride in water was not the norm. Also, I have to admit my primary family probably did not instill very good oral hygiene habits. I ended up losing a couple of permanent teeth as a preteen or early teenager to decay. By the time I was out of my teens, I had realized on my own that I should be doing much more for my teeth, I learned what I could, and adopted better preventative practices. The dentists I saw were not warm or fuzzy, but rather unpleasant, brutish, and condescending (as were the medical doctors where I grew up). I didn’t know there was such a thing as teeth cleaning until I came to the US; none was ever offered to me by any of the dentists I saw. I don’t think it was even part of the practice back then, I am not sure if it is now.

When I came to the US as a graduate student on crappy bare-bones covers-nothing insurance, not even getting cleaning or X-rays were covered and were thus very expensive out-of-pocket expenses. Since I’ve had a proper job, I have been extremely vigilant about my teeth and the teeth of my kids. As a result, while I don’t have the perfect American teeth, they are in decent shape, especially considering their initial condition. I am lucky that my teeth are nice and straight (no braces); I also have all of my wisdom teeth.

My vigilance extends to the teeth care of my kids, who brush and floss religiously, and I am proud to report that none of them have ever had any cavities.  Eldest will be 15 in couple of months; by that age I had already lost a couple of molars to decay, which is a real shame.

While dental care is in principle phenomenal in the US, the costs are exorbitant and not as accessible as it could or should be. I must say that I really dislike US dentists as a profession, but for different reasons than those from my ancestral home country. Sure, American dentists (and I saw dentists in 3 states) are pleasant and polished, if hurried. What I hate is that they all seem like ruthless deceitful sharks the moment we discuss anything other than routine cleaning, pushing costly and perhaps unnecessary procedures that help line the pockets of their specialist brethren.

Here’s an example. When Eldest was little, maybe 7 or 8, the dentist said he had too much room in his mouth for all the teeth so he would have to go to have his jaw surgically treated to reduce space. Husband and I thought that was stupid and didn’t do anything.

It’s years later, Eldest grew and is probably nearing his final height and head size. Now that same dentist says that his wisdom teeth don’t have enough room (see the irony of supposedly having had a too-wide-a-jaw previously), that the bottom ones are impacted and need to be taken out.

I am no dentist, but I looked at the X-ray and it looks the top ones will be out fine, and the bottom ones seem like they are not terribly impacted, the teeth are not completely formed, and he is still growing.

When Eldest had his latest X-rays (why once a year? All those X-rays seem really unnecessary), then there was half-an-hour of relentless propaganda between the dentist and even more the hygenist who worked on Eldest, about how 98% of all kids have their wisdom teeth removed, how everyone’s doing it, when you don’t have wisdom teeth then there are no issues with cleaning them that far in the back, they are prone to decay so you need to be out with them. Of course, conveniently across the parking lot is a dental surgery center.

Am I the only one who thinks this is idiotic, doing surgery to pull out the teeth of a not-yet 15-year-old while they are still in the bone? I did some research, and while the recommendations seem to be more along the lines of leave them alone in Europe, the US practice is to preventatively take them out. I generally believe strongly that getting rid of body parts without a good reason (a good reason being that they are diseased, causing pain, endangering well-being) is just wrong.  Why don’t we just cut out everyone’s  appendix? [Yes, I am also very strongly against circumcision. People in the US sure circumcise their boys supposedly to help prevent urinary infections, but that’s bull$hit for any developed nation (continental Europe rarely circumcises), and for most people the real reason is tradition more than anything else (either religion or the simple “dad is circumcised, so the son should be too”).]

Oral surgery is serious surgery, I cannot believe it’s a good idea to do routinely. The problem is that I don’t trust my dentist’s recommendation, but it’s not like any other general dentists I have ever seen in the US have been trustworthy. I always feel they are trying to pull a fast one. Several times, this happened to my husband “All is fine, (6 mo later) all is fine, (6 mo later) all is fine, (6 mo later) oops we need a root canal here, and since you have a root canal the tooth is brittle so we better do a crown too.” And you are out a few thousand dollars and thinking WTF, why didn’t they catch it sooner before it became so bad to need a root canal? What’s the point of these 6-month visits and stupid goddamn X-rays all the time?

Based on my experience, general dentists definitely seem to be a little to happy to lean towards the costly procedures. Similarly, I have no doubt oral surgeons advocate for routine removal of wisdom teeth from every human, because that’s a steady revenue stream.

So how do I get an opinion on my son’s wisdom teeth from someone who is not just looking to rip me off or enable their colleague across the parking lot to rip me off?

What do you say, my American readers? Do you have your wisdom teeth? How about your kids? Do you regret keeping them/taking them out? What made you decide one way or another (for yourselves or your kids)? 

A Regularly Scheduled Rant on Being Bugged about Foreignness

Long-time readers know that I passionately hate it when people with whom I share a fleeting interaction cannot curb their rudeness and curiosity enough to stop themselves from either inquiring about or making stupid assumptions about my origins. This post has been brought to you by the three separate incidents  that happened between Thursday and today. This is a high frequency even for me; something must be in the water.

1) Today, I was leaving daycare with Smurf. One of the office staff came to us and asked about Smurf “Does he speak Vulcan?” (I wish she had asked that. No, it was a certain Earth language). I said “No, and neither do we.” She laughed like what I had said was the funniest thing ever. This led me to suspect that she didn’t get my point, so I explicitly said “We are not Vulcan.”

WTF? This is not the first time people assume we are from Vulcan. In fact, my planet is not even a neighbor of Vulcan. We are from Romulus and share perhaps only the most distant past with the Vulcans. We live on Earth and my kids speak only the Earth language known as English.

The woman who asked, by the way, is an Earthling from Thailand (I only know that because some info on her was in the newsletter some months ago, where she was introduced as a staff member). I would have never asked her where she was from. Never.

2) Last Thursday: My husband usually picks up Smurf from daycare in the afternoons. Near as I can tell, nobody asks my husband anything ever, perhaps because he looks like someone who doesn’t want to talk. (No unnecessary eye contact. Smart man. I should learn from him.) When I picked up Smurf last week, the afternoon teacher, with whom I had interacted 3 times in my life for 5 seconds each time, absolutely had to use the 5 seconds to ask me where I was from. I took a deep breath and gave her my canned response in a robotic voice. That’s the best I can do not to pop a vein and to try not to embarrass the person who was asking. Then she asked about where my husband was from, and then she proceeded to tell me about the erroneous assumptions of  where she thought I was from; I am not sure why sharing her thought process about my origins was supposed to be interesting, informative, impressive or anything to me.

Why? Why does she have to know? That has nothing at all to do with any of our interactions. Tell me about what my kid did, or what other kids did. I will tell you that the roads are bad because it is snowing or whatever. I promise I will not ask what godforsaken village in this fair state you are from.

3) I saved the best for last; this one happened on Saturday. Eldest has been swimming non-stop, and the winter boys’ swimming season was  kicked off by a 2-hour breakfast for parents as well as swimmers. There was information, but mostly food and mingling (parents and swimmers separately); I was nursing my coffee in the corner, only surfacing to top the cup off or checking out team apparel. Of course, I was asked where I was from a few times, after I shared my name; I didn’t mind it too much as I was expecting it and was psychologically prepared with my trusty canned response. But one dad made my day (not). First, he interrupted the conversation as I was saying my name to someone else, then proceeded to tell me that when he usually hears my name it is pronounced differently (because I do not know how to pronounce my name and I need to be set straight by a random dude; what you are familiar with is a different name with a different spelling, a$$hole, which explains the difference in pronunciation). Then he asked where I was from, told me all about his trip to a country in the neighborhood when he was 13. The discussion was mercifully cut short by the coach who started with the announcements. Unfortunately, the dad managed to corner me twice more with questions thereafter, such as which town I was from, surprised that I was from a big city (I was close to telling him that we shockingly had indoor plumbing and electricity, too). Then he asked me what the main industry in my country was. Then he asked me what my parents did — are you fuckin’ kidding me? How is that an appropriate question for someone you just met? (I said they were middle class.)

Why can’t we talk about our kids swimming? My kid is a freshman, his is older, how about tell me about your experiences on the team. That’s why we are both here, right? If you are making small talk, have mercy and stick to the subjects that you know are of interest to the other person (such as school and boys’ swimming for a meeting of parents of the boys’ swim team).

As I wrote before, having a hard-to-place accent is like being perpetually pregnant. People badger pregnant women with all sorts of intrusive questions all the time, some even touch the belly. Random strangers think it’s fine to ask you when you are due, if it’s your first, if you are having a boy or a girl, and then proceed to give unsolicited advice. If you were pregnant once, maybe you found it endearing. With multiple pregnancies, it gets old. Now imagine being perpetually pregnant and FOREVER having to endure the inquisitiveness of strangers, whenever, wherever, without regard for what you may care to talk about instead. FOREVAAAAAAH…

Usually when I complain about this, I am told to lighten up because people are just making conversation. Why is it my job to satisfy everyone’s curiosity? Why can’t people stop to think that, while the fact that they noticed the accent and don’t know what to do with it may be riveting to them, it is likely completely unimpressive to me?

Lastly, I may be cynical, but I am not sure that people are so well meaning. There are a great many people who really just want to emphasize that they have noticed I have no business being where I am. I wonder when one of them is going to ask me to show them a valid visa. They ask because they want to remind me that I am Other and to let me know that I have been spotted.

I have taught veritable hordes of undergrads over the past decade. Only very, very infrequently does it happen that a student asks where I am from, and only after they have been coming to office hours for months. Most never ask, even if we have spent a lot of time chatting, even if they have had multiple courses with me. How is it that the students don’t care, or care but don’t want to bother me with their curiosity, while the grownups, who should know better and presumably have more experience, cannot bear not knowing exactly which stupid compartment to put me in?


UPDATE 11/26/2014:

Here are some old posts from Academic Jungle on the same topic.
Accentuating Deflection
The Return of Where are You from
So Where Are You Really From?


I am usually not one to wallow in nostalgia. In fact, I purposefully avoid reminders of my ancestral home and country. I cannot spare the emotional energy needed for thinking about what was or what could have been. Unfortunately, that means that I also avoid thinking about my parents and sibling; I am not a very good daughter or sister. I avoid listening to music that I liked in my youth, I don’t look at photographs, and I don’t read anything in the native language. My DH, however, follows the news and even listens to the music, and is much more in touch with goes on over there. I just can’t. A combination of helplessness to do anything with how emotional every such engagement leaves me just makes it much better if I keep everything safely tucked away and far from thoughts and feelings.

Today, my DH snatched my apron to wash it, so I was apronless when the time came to do my Sunday cooking extravaganza (nothing fancy, just cooking in bulk for most of the upcoming week). The point is that I needed an apron.

The last time DH went to our home country, he bought me a very nice apron at a well-known downtown gallery/gift shop in the city where we both grew up, the home country’s capital. The apron is beautiful, black, with words of love for the city, and a very tasteful image near the hem. I am a pain in the butt to shop for, but DH is excellent at getting me stuff I will like and use. Unfortunately, the apron was not meant for the tall likes of me, the top bib part is far too short, so the strings would have to tie under my armpits as opposed to around the waist. I put it away, much to DH’s disappointment.

Today I had to find a way to use it, so I folded the bib part and tied it around my waist. It did great for the several hours I spent cooking.

But seeing the name of the city written on the apron made me very emotional. I remembered where the gallery was, the downtown, the time I spent there rushing to class or meeting friends by a landmark statue for a night on the town. And I felt a wave of deep sadness, probably equal parts missing my city and missing my early twenties.

Then one of the kids started asking me for something, and I was back being middle-aged and in American suburbia, with my memories seeming like they were from another life, belonging to someone else.

Stupid apron.

Xykademiqz Drowns in Swimming

A few weeks ago I posted on my disorienting foray into the Twilight Zone world of high-school athletics at Eldest’s new school.

It’s all very macho. The swim team recently went on a dads-and-boys daylong canoeing trip; some dads went, but DH didn’t go. (By the way, it’s not even clear that the kid will make the team as they haven’t had the tryouts yet, but everyone who showed interest was supposed to partake in these bonding experiences.) There was canoeing and apparently eating tons of burgers/hot dogs, with a side of hazing of the freshmen. Nothing  too nefarious: older boys stole the freshmen’s canoes, tipped them out into the water, later filled canoes with sand or water or mud or something, but I found my gut tighten as I was listening to my kid tell me about the day. Apparently, this is all common manly bonding Scheisse, and if movies are anything like the real stuff, fraternity hazing is infinitely worse. Being the gentle, kind-hearted mom that I am, I found myself wanting to punch someone’s lights out. I think I am way too high-strung, protective, and just socially anxious to survive my kids going to high school. And I really hope none of my kids attempt to join any fraternities.

But the boys’ high school swim season doesn’t start until the winter. In the meantime, Eldest has been swimming at a local club.

Freakin’ swimming has taken over my family’s life.

During the first week of September, they still wanted to swim outside, starting at 4:15 daily. So DH or I had to leave work early, pick up Eldest after school at 3:40ish then drive him to the pool, then organize the pickup of other two and go get him again two hours later. There are older boys who drive, but for younger boys apparently there will always be a parent available to chauffeur — because we’re in the 1950’s and women don’t work.

After the first two weeks things got better. They swim in a different pool every day, but at least it’s in the evening.

Here’s the kicker: at every home meet, parent volunteering is mandatory. That’s alright, take all the time you need to let the giant italicized oxymoron sink in.

I don’t want to volunteer. I work all the time and the weekends are the only time I get to spend with my kids, my husband, my vacuum cleaner, and my washer and dryer. That’s when I do grocery shopping and cooking for much of the week. Our weekends are the time to do chores and relax a little so we’d have the energy for the week.

I know there are people (unfortunately, mostly women) who don’t work or who work part time, and who are able and willing to volunteer at these events. I am not one of them and I detest the fact that so much depends on women’s unpaid work. And I hate it even more that I am expected to put in such unpaid work myself.

I am already paying good money so my kid would swim. I am paying extra for the equipment, team apparel and each meet. I will pay more if they need me to, but I DO. NOT. WANT. TO VOLUNTEER because what I do NOT have is time.

I played a team sport in middle and high school, I don’t think my mom ever came to see me play and dad came occasionally. That suited me just fine because it was MY activity, not theirs. I don’t understand this need for incessant involvement in everything kids do. Mandating parental involvement is just maddening. So I asked if I can buy my way out of volunteering; if not, I guess we won’t be signing the kid up for home meets, or may have to switch clubs.

Xykademiqz Attempts to Socialize

Disclaimer: This post was not meant to be obnoxious, but might have ended up being so anyway. It illustrates the experiences my husband and I have had with the arguably very limited number of Americans who happen to be our friends or acquaintances, so for us they do represents Americans. Why we have had such experiences is probably a complex interplay of the fact that we are immigrants, how we are generally as a family (we might be very crappy people indeed and oblivious to it), the part of the country we live in, the fact that we are middle-aged and married with kids (as opposed to young and/or single and/or kidless etc.), and the fact that we hang out with people whom we mostly meet through work at a university or through our kids, i.e. with generally middle-class parents like us who live in this particular area of the country. I understand the US is big and there are many different kinds of people here. But these are our experiences, and being a scientist I have tried to distill the general patterns based on experiential evidence. If you feel something I wrote is too harsh or not representative at all of anything that you have ever experienced, then I say good for you! You are very fortunate and enjoy your awesome social life! 

I have been in the US for 15 years, of which 10 where I am now. I believe I am well assimilated. Socialization with the local Americans still feels quite unnatural to me, as there are a lot of aspects of it that are very different from where I grew up.

1) All build-up, no main event

This is a phenomenon I have now come to expect of nearly every event for which one doesn’t have to pay through the nose. Whatever is free or cheap — a 4th-of-July parade, a concert in the park, Halloween trick-or-treating — starts with many weeks of relentless propaganda, be it on the radio or via emails from the neighborhood list, followed by the main event that would generously be characterized as ‘meh.’

I remember a few years ago a colleague made a really big deal out many of us professorial moms making it to her neighborhood for the 4th of July parade. There were many emails, texts, a whole lot of activity to schedule us meeting and decorations. In reality, it was a 10-min walk, followed by a fun-and-games carnival consisting of literally two lawn games and a beer stand. The colleague who was the organizer left after 45 min.

Anything that the schools organize are weeks and weeks of relentless emails and colorful flyers, followed by the event that is very brief, very cheaply organized, crowded, and generally having a very poor fun-to-hassle ratio. So I no longer go. My husband doesn’t mind as much, so he occasionally takes the kids.

The same holds for individual events. I have been at a number of parties where the person spends a lot of time on colorful invitations, sends numerous emails infused with the list of all the fun things that will be happening, and then the main event is 2 hours long, there is nowhere near enough food or drinks, the party activities are very brief and very lame, and the whole thing is… underwhelming.

I understand the underlying reasons — everything is expensive, and nobody wants to spend money on anything.  But what’s all the pre-event hullabaloo then? It just raises everyone’s expectations (or perhaps just my expectations, cause I am naive), and then the poor execution is a real let-down.

2) Dinner parties

When you have dinner guests over in my home country, there is a great emphasis on food as food=caring, so it’s assumed that you will put in the time to prepare some of the most delicious things you can make. When we have people over, I spend a lot of time cooking and usually make the food that takes longer to make than my usual repertoire, something people don’t have a chance to eat every day. Also, in my culture guests are king, and having people over generally means you spend a lot of hours eating and talking and having fun.

This has not been my experience here. Again, I apologize in advance if this feels like I am offending anyone, but this has been occurring very regularly.

Here goes…

2a) Food

Outside of Thanksgiving, I have never been to anyone’s house where I felt they went out of their way to prepare dinner for the guests. It’s usually something very quick, like what I would make on Tuesday night after work. The portions are limited and it is not expected that anyone would want seconds; only the amount expected to be eaten is prepared.

This is something really unheard of in my culture, where it is imperative to make sure your guests have had enough (or more than enough) to eat. If there are no leftovers that means I have failed as a hostess and didn’t make enough. In contrast, when visiting my American friends, the hosts routinely decide how much everyone eats and that is exactly what gets made , and no more (e.g. 2 hotdogs per kid, without a chance that an adult maybe wants one or a kid would want three). For instance, at some point we had one of my Eldest’s friends over with his dad and brother. The friend was quite astounded at the food that was left over and made a snide remark about us not being able to count. The dad tried to save it by stating that people often made enough for leftovers, but it did make me feel very uncomfortable. What is considered being a good host where I come from appears to make me a dumb waster of time and money here. It is also interesting that some  friends who are careful about having no leftovers and restricting portions at their place are happy to go for seconds and thirds at our place.

(This has not been the case when I visit my Chinese friends, where there is generally plenty and a variety of food, and the attitude towards hosting is similar to my own native culture.)

2b) Overstaying One’s Welcome

Another aspect of entertaining over dinner is how long these events are supposed to last.  In my home country, having guests over is an entire-evening ordeal, with hours of talking and fun. Alas, not here. It took a while to get used to, but now I  consider it a rule: assume that Americans want you out of their house in no more than 2 hours, no matter how fabulous of a time you feel you are having; after 1.5-2 hours the hosts start cleaning up, which I consider a cue that we should really get going. (The same people might stay at our place considerably longer.)

I was really disappointed a few months ago, as we traveled as a family. In the city where we went on vacation lives a very good friend of mine from graduate school, whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years. He’s married with no kids. We went there with drinks and ice-cream (which is what they told us to bring), they ordered takeout, and still after about 2 hours they started to clean up, so we helped and then left. I was really disappointed, because I hadn’t seen him and his wife in a very long time, and god knows when we will meet next, and the most important thing was apparently to not have us over for too long or to not have their routine disturbed or what have you (in case you are wondering, the kids were angels, watched a movie the whole time).

Conclusion: Basically, my impression is that Americans with whom I have had a chance to socialize are happy to entertain (in general, or possibly just me and my family) as long as they don’t have to spend much time or money on it, or perturb their routine. But they really like to decorate flyers and Evites. And they don’t seem to mind us spending both time and money on entertaining them; they might think we are really stupid and wasteful for doing it, though.

What say you, blogosphere? Are these common features across the US? Do they vary with age group/part of country/when you met your friends (young and single vs old or partnered)? Any other immigrant experiences regarding mingling with  the natives? 

Xykademiqz Goes to Athletic Department Kick-Off

My eldest is starting high school in the fall and I can already tell it will be tough. Not for him — for me.

A stereotypical high school athlete is very competitive and usually participates in more than one sport. Eldest has some very stereotypically athletic friends, but is not one himself. However, he has swum for many years and all his strokes are very good. But, he does not like to compete and he had never wanted to partake in swim meets before. But now he wants to get on the swim team, so we went to the athletic department kick-off.

Oh. My. God. A new and terrifying world opened up, one that made me feel like I should go back into my cave and never get out.

We first gathered on the football stadium [not to be confused with the baseball field (ballpark, is it?) or the field where the track and field folks practice] to be introduced to So. Many. Coaches… For so many sports! It’s a huge athletic department, near as I can say, but what do I know; maybe it’s really a teeny-tiny smaller-than-average barely-worth-mentioning department. Then we were promptly informed that they are — clap if you saw this one coming —  underfunded!!! And we need to raise… $100k. (Am I the only one who thinks this number is just outrageous?) Which is going to be done by making every athlete peddle coupons.

Now, I hate hate HATE it how seemingly everything in the US has to be funded by people walking door to door, asking for money. And now you can’t be on a team without shaking your neighbors for some dough or, as I am sure many end up doing, just giving the money yourself (it’s a lot, each kid is supposed to bring in $300). But-but-but… It’s a team effort! We are looking for the best team! Best at forcing useless coupons on the people we know! Whichever team collects the most gets some sort of “prize”! At a banquet which I am sure will be paid from these funds!!!

Then we go inside the school and go to different classrooms, according to sport.

I have to say here that the interactions with the locals en masse, such as when going to my kids’ school-mandated orientation or celebration events, make me acutely, profoundly anxious. In part, I am sure it’s because I never went through the school system here, so every aspect is new, different, and disorienting. I am supposed to be a grownup, yet I feel like I am a really really dumb fish out of water. I think I should just send my husband to these events instead, because I get so very uncomfortable, but I don’t want to transfer my anxiety to my kid, who is blissfully oblivious and generally unruffled.

Also, I am white, but, as I keep finding over and over and over again, I am not  really white, as in the right kind of American-born-and-bred white. But I certainly look as white as they come, so I keep getting approached by local moms, who start chatting with me, quickly get disappointed when they hear I have an accent (alternative theory is that I bore them to death in 10 seconds, which, if true, would be a superpower of sorts), decide I am not really worth their time and immediately start looking around for someone else to talk to. And this happens several times on every such occasion. I should just frown more, so people would avoid me.

You know how I feel the impostor syndrome at work, as a woman in a male-dominated discipline? I assure you that’s nothing compared to the feeling of not belonging that makes me want to flee whenever I have to interact with other parents at my kids’ schools.  (Or with teachers! Teachers scare me and I always feel like a child who’s in trouble.) I have no idea how it must be for other international folks; I know there are many immigrant families from South and East Asia in the neighborhood, very few at the athletic department kickoff, though. I wonder what percentage of immigrant families send their kids to high-school sports. Maybe they are all terrified shitless like me.

So we get to the classroom for boys’ swimming. It doesn’t start till the spring, and the coach gives us the dates (and the stupid coupons), talks a little more, then asks for questions, and I stupidly ask if there is going to be any practice in the fall, which was a really really really bad idea and a really really stupid question.  I need to keep my mouth shut, always. Apparently, my kid is supposed to already be swimming and competing with a club and, since he doesn’t, and they asked us where he swam and used to swim, my question and their follow-up ones embarrassed him in front of everyone. We were told to go join a competitive swim club in the fall; of course, now he has to try for that one, too.

One mom who was late to this revelation came to me and introduced herself as the mom of the team captain, and asked me what meets my kid  had competed in. When I said he didn’t but that he was good, she gave me a nice condescending smile.

As I know now but didn’t then, the swim team is very good and very intense and very competitive; in season, they do 8 practices per week. Apparently everyone knows that and us coming all uninformed was really silly. I am a little worried about the intensity of the team and how it’s going to sit with my laid-back kid, but I am perhaps even more alarmed at how much all the parents seem to be really invested in all this.

That’s another aspect of the US education that I cannot come to terms with — how much parental involvement (time and money and chauffeuring) is expected. And how intense the parents get about all the activities that their kids do.

I don’t understand the reasoning: most of  these kids will not be doing whatever they are doing sportswise past high school. A handful might do it in college, a very rare one might turn pro; among the rest, a minority will continue to do it casually. But it still holds that most kids’ abilities don’t warrant that much fuss about their competitive athletic pursuits. These are all s0lidly middle-class families, the kids will go to college, why not spend more energy and money on academics or languages or something that they can actually benefit from past the age of 18? How about enable more kids to participate in sports for fun instead? I tried to get a way for my eldest to swim noncompetitively and it’s impossible: you can go swim laps at the YMCA once you turn 18, but as a teen you either compete as part of a club or nothing.

What is it with sports in the US, honestly? Sure, sports attract audiences, money, endorsements etc., but the scale of production at the freakin’ high-school level?

I remain shaken by the glimpse into the world of high-school athletics.


I wanted to call this post something like “A Post on Cost”, which would only be awesome if “post” and “cost” rhymed… Looking at their spelling you’d think they do, but one of the mind-boggling properties of the English language is that spelling and pronunciation are like two second cousins twice removed: sort of related, but few people can actually explain how exactly.

* DH and I got our parking assignments. We will be paying nearly $2k pre-tax for parking for our two cars, nearly $500 over last year’s cost. Seeing the number made my heart sink, but we have tried carpooling and it’s too much hassle. We have multiple kids with various schedules, someone always has to leave early or late, and the parking garage is adjacent to a building where major events take place so it is often full and you can’t get in unless you are a permit-holder.

* In an attack of boredom mixed with anxiety over my kids’ future, more specifically DH’s and my financial preparation for the college aspect of said future, I went online and looked at college costs for about 3 min. My entirely unsystematic search revealed the following pattern:

Private schools (tuition plus cost of living) are $55-65k. Harvard and MIT, total cost  is circa $60k (they hilariously differ by about $30). There are places that cost slightly more than Harvard, like Vandebilt (!), by about $850, or Northwestern, by upward of  $3k. Swarthmore is Harvard+$1.6k, Dartmouth equals Harvard+$4k. I wonder what it is that you get for $65k.

Large public schools are about $20-35k, total cost, for residents. Then they diverge in terms of how much they cost for nonresidents. One the one hand, you have places like UC Berkeley and UCLA, where the cost for residents is $32k but for non-residents it’s additional $23k in tuition, so it ends up costing just like a private school. On the other hand, you have places where the in- v. out-of-state tuition differential is not that huge, like the University of Minnesota at $26k for residents, plus $6.5k for nonresidents. UIUC is in between, with $30k for residents, plus $15k for nonresidents. Florida State university is $21k for residents, additional $15k for out-of-staters.

I am sure I am surprising no one who’s been through the US college system or has had kids in it with the fact that these are all huge amounts of money. There is no way DH and I can pay for private school for our kids, that would be like paying off another house per kid. And that’s not even counting that by the time the third is out of daycare, we will have paid about $250-300k in total daycare costs (about $20k per kid per year) . Kids cost a lot of fuckin’ money. There is no way we can pay three more times that for them to go to a private or even many out-of-state public universities.

If we can help it, we don’t want our kids to be saddled with debt before they even start their life. The system where I went to school was such that college admission was extremely selective, but those who got to attend did so for free, and I am in hindsight very grateful for that, even though I took it for granted at the time. The prices people are supposed to pay here are just ridiculous. Even a good state university requires $100-120k for 4 years, which I am sure if well beyond many people’s abilities. DH and I are not poverty-stricken, but we are definitely not rich enough for Dartmouth. Or its apparently lesser cousin Harvard.

Sure, you pay for the name brand and connections, and you pay for shiny gyms and residence halls, but do the kids really get so much more in terms of education at a $60k/yr versus $25k/yr school? Is freakin’ Vanderbilt worth $61k per year; do these overpriced schools give one so much of a leg up in the world? These are huge sums of money we are talking about for anyone from the middle class.

What do or did you do to pay for college, or your kids’ college? Did you/do you pay for the kids, combine loans with parental funding, have kids work along with loans? Pros and cons?


Xykademiqz Goes to Electives Night

I live and work in the US and am an American citizen, but I am not US-born; I came here to go to grad school. I spent my formative years in a small European country and had the equivalent of K-12 and undergrad education in a system considerably different than the one in the US. As my kids progress through American public schools, I get ever more aware of how many differences there really are between the systems.

My eldest will start high school in the fall, so I went to parent orientation and later to Electives Night with my son. Allow me to just say — Oh. My. God! So many awesome choices!

But let me start by describing the high school system I went through. I have no idea how the system looks now, but when I went to school you picked a general area of interest/specialization when you were entering high school and then picked a school that was strong in that area and that would take you (besed on GPA). There were also a number of vocational schools, and those on the academic track. As an example, I picked “Math and Natural Sciences” and my childhood BFF picked “Humanities and Social Sciences”. We both ended up going to a neighborhood high school that happened to be very strong in both areas, and it enabled us to continue playing volleyball, which was very important to both of us in high school. But once you picked the area and school, the curriculum was set for you. For instance, both my BFF and I had the native language, math, science, foreign languages, gym, art, history, etc., but the difference was in how much of each we had. For example, I had the native language 4x  per week all 4 years; math 5x days per week all 4 years; physics, chemistry, biology I think 4x  per week each  all 4 years; gym 2x per week days all 4 years; art 1x per week for maybe 2 years; geography 2x per week for 3 years; history 2x per week for 2 years; sociology 2x per week for 2 years; I think 1 year of philosophy (I loved it so much!) 2x per week; I had Latin 2x a week for a year, and I had one foreign language 2x per week all 4 years (that was one language out of 2 that we had in grades 3-8, I had to keep learning the one that I started in grade 5, which wasn’t English). At some point we got a computer lab maybe 2x per week; it would be laughable according to today’s standards. In contrast, my BFF also had math all 4 years but not 5x per week, maybe 3. She had most of the natural sciences for 2 years, but instead had much more social sciences and history, had 2 foreign languages all 4 years plus Latin for 2 or 3 years, I forget;  multiple sections of native language, courses in world literature, also what would here be advanced keyboarding. And she had a lot more art. I don’t think any of us had music in high school.

The state in the US where I currently live with my family has good public schools, and we also live in a good public school district. In my son’s soon-to-be high school, to graduate he has to have 4 credits of English, 3 credits of science, 3 of math, and 3 of US history, 2 credits of a foreign language, 1.5 credits of gym, and 0.5 credits of health, and a certain number of electives. [0.5 credit = 1 semester of class meeting every day (5x per week).]

OMG the electives! They are so awesome! First, I cannot get over how amazing the art department is. They have 0.5-credit (semester-long) courses in Art Appreciation (you get to choose different media, paint, draw, sculpt, photograph etc for 2 weeks to see what they like), Drawing (levels 1-3), Sculpting, Photography, Glass/Metal class, several courses in Digital Art (one one Adobe Photoshop, one on Adobe Illustrator, one on making animation — from storyboarding to the final movies…) How fuckin’ awesome is that?

Now, as you may have noticed, I doodle. I have no training whatsoever beyond the 2x per week in class during K-8 and the 1x per week in high school. I drew/sketched a lot in (the equivalent of) middle school; there was a period when I drew comic books and I was always an avid comic book reader (more on that some other time), but these were always regarded as frivolous pursuits. I doodled when I wanted but I never considered putting concentrated effort into it and wasn’t really encouraged to. I pretty much stopped drawing in high school, when it was first and foremost academics, then volleyball, then boys. Also, I was really into physics competitions so I spent a lot of time just doing problems, practicing. So I am not kidding when I say I probably draw as well or as poorly now as I did in high school, because I basically completely stopped drawing afterwards. I have no idea why, and I have no idea why I am getting back into it now, but it’s fun, even though I am oh so rusty. But it makes me happy somehow! I think this new place inspired me to experiment a little…

But I digress. OMG the art department! I started imagining how awesome it would have been for a kid like me to be able to take some art courses! That would have been such wonderful relaxation and a chance to perfect the craft. I so wish I were my kid taking one of these awesome courses… So many things to do!

Next we went to the business/IT department. They offer courses from keyboarding, intro to programming, as well as courses focusing on software (Excell, Word, etc), some that are open to upperclassmen like accounting, marketing. The computer lab is gorgeous, well equipped.

Then music — I had no music in any form in high school. These guys have chorus, band, and orchestra. Every kid gets to play an instrument! In my home country, the only people who played any instruments were the kids who passed auditions for music schools when they were in grades 1-3, and then attended these pretty serious schools extracurricularly; music in public schools K-8 did not involve anyone touching any instruments other than a recorder or a xylophone; we sang a bit and listened to music and sort of learned to read notes, but not much. My Spouse is gifted in music and did have a strong music education (had 12 years of music school); alas,  not me, as I didn’t pass the music school audition when I was in 2nd grade owing to the lack of natural ability and that was it. A few years ago at a party at an American colleague’s house, I was the only one who had never played an instrument, everyone else had, at least for a little bit; I felt really crappy. Now I know that’s because here in the US everyone has to play an instrument in middle and high school, regardless of talent, which does make me feel a little better.

Then the World Languages Department — so awesome! They offer Spanish, French, German, and Chinese. You can pick 1 or 2, perhaps even more, anything you like! I was kind of salivating. Where I went to school, a school taught English grades 3-8, then another language depending on the school  (German, French, Russian, more recently Italian) in grades 5-8. But by going to a certain elementary school you were locked into a specific language. Here, in my son’s school, languages are 1 credit courses, which means they meet daily all year. I would have loved to have daily instruction in 2 foreign languages…

There were departments of Family and Consumer Science (learn how to cook, sew, interior design,  healthcare leadership courses), then the Engineering/Automotive department (body shop, woodworking shop, and a pretty cool engineering design department where kids who are thinking about engineering can get a head start with pretty serious project-based courses).

My kid is taking several required honors courses and has 2.5+ electives credits to choose from. He  wants to take 1 credit of French, 1.5 credit of band/jazz, and is leaning towards 0.5 credits of digital art/animation.

I am also amazed at how helpful, open, and responsive all the teachers are. There are a number of young energetic ones, a whole bunch of counselors (we never had anything like that when I was growing ip), and generally a good network of adults keeping checks and balances. I can see why kids may find themselves a little bewildered when they go to college, especially to a big R1 like the one where I teach and where they are pretty much on their own. Sure, there are academic advisors, but professors mostly mind their own business and are probably nowhere near what the students are used to from K-12.

I have newfound appreciation for the US school system. I still stand by my opinion that the middle school curriculum is pretty vacuous, it seems like everyone just expects the kids to be busy growing, sprouting hair and zits while drowning in hormones, and that’s about it. But it looks like high school will be serious and a lot of fun. While there may be places in the world where kids get a better hard-core math and science background, a US public school in a good district seems, at least for the moment, like it will do a pretty good job. I don’t know of other countries where the public school system offers so many choices — my kid actually told me “For the first time, I can actually choose what I want to do!” When I was his age, I never missed such options because they were never available. In hindsight, it would have probably been awesome to explore a little bit off the academically rigorous math and science path.