“Ching-Chong” shouts Werner at Cheng. And he laughs.
On the playground, a few students raise their head and sneer.
It’s not the first time it happens.
In this new school, the other children seem to avoid him.
Cheng’s smile has vanished. His grades have dropped.
Every morning, he stares silently at his cereal bowl, a knot in his stomach.
How is he going to make it through the day?
Since his family came to this new country, everything’s gone wrong.
Dad is barely home. Mum often withdraws in her room. His little sister is glued to the television.
In his home country, even if Mum was at work, he could go to grandma. She would notice he was pale and gaunt. She would listen.
But this Monday, Cheng feels sick. His parents have an appointment with his teacher.
When they come back, he knows he’ll be in trouble.
Bullying happens in school playgrounds all around the world. But when families are in transition and children are uprooted, those incidents can blow out of proportion. Add the stigma of racism and the cocktail is potentially explosive.
In this fictitious story of an expat family, we take a close look at the potential complexity of these matters.
We’ll attempt to unfold the many layers buried under the surface and decipher how parents and children can make the best choices.
Cheng’s dad looks angry.
“How come you’re performing so badly at school? Do you plan to ruin your education? Do you know how much this school costs my company?”
Cheng is taken aback. He looks at the floor. His cheeks redden.
His father turns to his mum: “What are you doing all day? I’m working like a dog and you’re not even following up on the children properly. You weren’t aware he didn’t hand in any homework? No wonder he’s now the last in the class!”
Cheng can’t hold it any longer. He bursts into tears “But they’re all against me!”
His parents are looking at him stunned. “What did you say?”
“They call me names, they laugh at me, they talk behind my back. When I open my mouth, they make fun of my accent. Everyone hates me.”
“This is absolutely unacceptable.” Cheng’s dad is furious. “I’ll go to school first thing tomorrow morning and have a serious talk with the principal.”
Cheng is devastated.
If his father steps in now, he’s doomed. He’ll be stamped by everyone as a snitch!
Let’s now take a step back and reflect on the situation for a minute.
This is the first of 5 points for parents to consider before taking action.
Point #1 – Strong identification with the child
As parent, you’re often tempted to fly to the rescue of your child when they’re deeply hurt with the belief that you can save them. The pain you feel is a strong urge to act impulsively and forget the child’s perspective.
For sure, you can’t remain passive. But can you find a way to regain some serenity in such troubled circumstances to allow you to hear your child?
This might lead to define together an action plan — one which also empowers them.
Now, back to our story.
Cheng’s mum is sobbing nervously.
She can’t help thinking “If only we hadn’t moved…
If Cheng had stayed in Korea at the local school, this wouldn’t have happened!
It’s all my husband’s fault. And stupid me, why did I follow?”
Point #2 – Guilt
For families in transition, guilt is never far away.
You made the decision to move and you’ve put your child in that situation. You feel responsible for what’s happening and you think it’s now your duty to repair the harm that’s been done.
But in wanting to do good, you may escalate the situation.
Guilt is a strong trigger for action, but a dangerous advisor.
What does your child want? What does your child really need? Those are important questions to ponder.
In the meantime…
10 am the next morning at Werner’s house. The phone rings. Heidi, Werner’s mum takes the call.
“Hi, I’m the principal. I’d like to talk to you about your son, Werner. Could you come to school this afternoon?”
It’s during that appointment that Heidi hears about the incident in the play yard.
She’s totally dazed. And mortified.
Coming from Germany, English is obviously not her first language. She needs an explanation: she has no idea about the derogatory meaning of ‘Ching-Chong’ and its racist connotation.
She heard Werner saying it a few times at home but she thought he was practicing his Chinese!
Point #3 – Language plays tricks on you
Third culture children attend a school where they may not speak their mother tongue. Even if they do use their home language, cultural differences make them take on different meanings.
They hear a funny word (ching-chong), repeat it, see that it produces a strong effect on their schoolmates and think thus to gain acceptance in the group. After all, they want nothing more than to belong!
Parents raising children abroad deal with language nuances that they often don’t grasp!
If your child says a word and isn’t corrected because you don’t perceive its connotation, he/she will assume that it’s perfectly acceptable, possibly fueling further misunderstanding.
But let’s go back to Heidi…
Heidi doesn’t know what to do. Her husband is on a business trip as is so often the case. He has no clue about the school dynamics anyway. He’s totally absorbed by his work.
Heidi fears his reaction. “You spoil this kid too much,” he keeps complaining.
Heidi doesn’t want to confide in her parents either. They were against the move and will be too happy to prove her wrong.
She’s ashamed to talk to anyone else. Her friends back home are busy and can’t relate to her situation. To top it all, Cheng’s mum here is a friend with some of her acquaintances. If she gets in conflict with this family, she may end up totally isolated.
Point #4 – Isolation
Cut off from all your usual support networks, you’re isolated during the first months — at least! — of a relocation.
Who can you turn to for emotional support?
There are different possibilities depending on your location and your circumstances: attending local expat meetings, making new friends, even seeking professional help.
I’ve found that online peer support groups can be a precious addition to the previous possibilities, providing a stable anchor in the ever changing world of expats.
Back to our story…
Werner’s father, Ali, is of Turkish origin. He grew up in Germany and was teased all his childhood with racist insults. Learning that his child does it to others is a terrible blow.
He reacts violently and Heidi is terrified.
The whole family is shaken.
On the other side, Cheng’s dad is angry too, but for another reason. His company just lost a very important contract in Germany where he played a key role in the final negotiation.
His ego is at stake. “I’m fed up with those Germans!”
Point #5 – Beware of unsuspected ripple effects
When national pride kicks in and/or previous childhood trauma is revived, the situation can quickly get out of hand. In this case, it’s important to take steps to de-escalate the conflict and keep in mind the child’s best interest.
One suggestion is to differentiate the elements in the situation that belong to your story and are painful to you because of your past from the other elements that belong to your child’s story.
Treat them separately and give each of those elements their right place in crafting your answer.
Curious to know what happens to Werner and Cheng?
Werner’s mum, Heidi, is stunned by her son’s behaviour and the ripple effect it has on the whole family.
She decides to look for outside help to support Werner in his identity search so that he can learn to place appropriate boundaries and limit his urge to hang out with the naughty boys in the class. It’s the right moment to tackle this situation, too — before the teenage years where he may not be so easily influenced. She also wants to work on herself to explore her ‘spoiling’ behavior with her son.
In Cheng’s family, the situation is quite different. The dad thinks he solved the problem after his visit to the principal. The mum pays more attention to her son and indeed for a while, the kids at school seem more cooperative towards him. But Cheng remains fearful and insecure. What if the other kids start to bully him again?
Now, over to you: Have you already faced school bullying with your child? What did you do?