The Expat Dilemma: Local vs. International Schools for Kids

“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” ~ Plato

On a warm Utah day, back in 2009, eating home-made hamburgers in the backyard of our St. George home, my husband decided that the economic crisis was bad enough to push us so further West that we would end up East. The following week our garage sale was on fire, and it only took us 1 month to get to China (yes, that far West!)

My son was 4, I was finishing graduate school online and this presented as a great opportunity for my husband to experiment business in a completely new and booming market. Spending 1 year in China was a no-brainer. We arrived to Shanghai with the last few things that we owned, all packed in 5 bags. After 10 days, we learned that the best place for traders and business people was in the south, in GuangZhou. The 17-hour train ride put us right where we were supposed to be: At the main port of the maritime Silk Road.

It took us 2 weeks to get used to a 12-million people city, meet our interpreter (a former colleague with whom we made contact through my translation business), find an apartment and the most important issue of them all: a pre-school for my son. La pregunta del millón, the million-dollar question was whether he would attend an international or a local school. Decisions, decisions. A bubble or full immersion into the Chinese culture? The decision wasn’t too hard but the fear was there; fear of sending our child to a school where we wouldn’t be able to communicate with the teachers and, most likely, we would have a hard time understanding their customs. But, hey, we just sold everything we owned and moved to a different continent. It was a challenge we were prepared to face!

International Schools 


Upon arriving to China, I realized that I attended an international school my entire life… all 14 years of elementary and secondary school! The International Educator (TIE) states that “to be considered an actual international school, it is widely agreed that a school generally follows a national or international curriculum different from that of the host country. Additionally, an emphasis is placed on international education (with such programs as the IB) and global citizenship. Taking your children around the world knowing that, when they come back home, their schooling would be up-to-speed sounded more than tempting. In the particular case of China, there are 3 types of international schools: 1) sponsored by foreign governments, accepting foreign students exclusively; 2) funded by overseas Chinese and people from Hong Kong and Taiwan, aimed for students of those areas; and 3) bilingual schools run by locals.

This is what you don’t know until you actually start doing some research (I can assure you that Asia and Latin America are WORLDS apart!):

  • Tuition is simply outrageous! (This probably varies from country to country; in Uruguay my school could be considered moderately priced for any U.S. family)
  • The principal of one of the schools requested an initial “donation” of $9,600
  • Children of diplomats were the utmost priority

All these “requirements” paired with the fact that many of the kids that are sent to these schools do not have full contact with the culture of the hosting country (obviously, actually living IN the country is an added-value for them), made our decision rather easy.

The Local Kindergarten


We found a Montessori school (doubtful!) right around the corner. Richard was the only “white” together with a set of twin girls from a Serbo-Croat/Mexican family; and a “half-breed” kid (this is how people refer to mix kids in China!), with an Australian father and a Chinese mother. Other than that, all the kids were local. The other expat that would come and go was the English teacher (from Portugal).

In a month or so, my son had both local and international friends, understood basic Mandarin and was eating [real] Chinese food. On top of all these benefits, he simply stole the show: he was the head singer for his class Halloween play; he “won” the school’s photo contest -yes, the U.S.A. and the soldier pictures were his school portraits!- and more. Moreover, my son wasn’t the only who benefit from a local school; I learned the complexity of the Chinese culture simply by having to deal with the day-to-day school issues (even having to explain to our 4-year old son that his teacher had to spend 2 weeks in the hospital due to a government-mandated abortion). From learning not to use chop-sticks as toy swords, to the one-child policy… we experienced it all during our time there!

Looking back, I’d do it all over again. Nevertheless, if I was in Latin America, my child would most definitely attend an international school. But that’s a story for another time.

What about in the U.S.? Do you know anybody who is attending an international school? What is the situation of these schools in this country? If given the choice, what would you do?

[This entry was initially published in my blog,]

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