Leaving mom to go to college in the mother country

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Leaving mom to go to college in the mother country

"After so much moving around, there is a sense of security in knowing where I am going to be for the next five years," said Natasja Nielsen, 17, a senior at Seoul Foreign School.

Ms. Nielsen is headed to Denmark this summer to start her college career at Denmark's Technical University. Although she is technically returning home, Denmark being her country of birth, she might as well be returning to a foreign land. Since leaving Denmark at age 2, she has lived in Brazil, Portugal, Thailand and Korea, moving around with her family as her parents got different job assignments.

While she speaks Danish, has an extended family in Denmark and lived there from the first to the fourth grade, Ms. Nielsen knows she isn't going to be completely at home in Denmark. When she meets up with her old friends during summer holidays, she feels a little alienated. "My Danish friends find it a little difficult to relate to my experiences," she said.

Anxieties about fitting in socially top her list of concerns as she gets herself mentally prepared for the re-entry. "It is going to be a challenge to get myself to fit in again to the Danish way of life," she said.

Ms. Nielsen's worries are quite the norm among adolescents when they get ready to return home. "Kids have difficulty readjusting to living in a country after having been out of it for many years," said Gina Jamieson, a clinical social worker in Seoul. "Although it may be their parents' home, it really isn't their own culture." In fact, children who often move from one culture to another during their development years have a third culture created within them.

"One of the toughest things they may have to face is answering 'Where are you from?'" said Chuck Krugler, academic counselor at Seoul Foreign School, where 75 of the 91 graduating seniors are returning to their home countries. Many American students who return to attend colleges in the States, for example, find that they do not fit in with the international students on campus because they look American, and yet do not feel fully American. "They often find that they speak a different vocabulary from American students who have never been abroad," he said.

Choi Young, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Chonnam University Hospital, agreed. "Faced with new social roles and having to deal with how people view them, these adolescents can experience an identity crisis," he said. The issue is difficult enough to resolve even in a stable environment but there is an added challenge when the individuals are separated from their families, because families act as a buffer between the individual and the society, Dr. Choi said.

What can the parents do to help their children prepare for the move? "The best thing the parents can do is equip them with autonomy so they can be independent and self-reliant," Dr. Choi said. Also, do not assume that because it is the parents' home, the children will instinctively know the culture and know what to do in different social settings. "Prepare them for the new environment, collecting information and practical guides together," he said. For example, safety is a common concern among parents. "Seoul is a safe city, but the crime rate in Copenhagen is relatively high, so we have been discussing personal safety issues with Natasja," said Ms. Nielsen's mother, Jo Nielsen.

Even after much preparation, do expect a few bumpy rides. Sometimes the social conventions are so worlds-apart that you just need to learn by trial and error. "If you have been brought up in Korea where it is regarded as an act of defiance to look directly at an elder's eye when speaking, you are bound to be misunderstood in the United States where not making eye contact means you have something to hide," said Dr. Choi.

However, many of these globally mobile adolescents are often more mature than their counterparts who have never lived abroad, possess cross-cultural skills and high flexibility, qualities that will serve them well as they adjust to yet another foreign place called home.

Over the years and over many moves, Ms. Nielsen has found her family to be the only constant in her life. And to help Ms. Nielsen settle into her new home, the whole family will go to Denmark with her. Mrs. Nielsen said, "I told her that I won't just buy her a one-way ticket to Denmark."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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