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Sending kids abroad

Cheap airfare makes travel so much more affordable now, and I’m all for it for kids to broaden their horizons and intercultural skills.

But I do have some reservations about international travel, mainly about visitors seeing too much of the tourist-y side, often an artificial one, and then they begin to look down on the Philippines.

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This summer, I got to see two “case studies” with my children. The eldest one, aged 14, joined one of Xavier School’s annual summer immersion trips to China, somewhat like boot camps with students staying in dorms (aircon, two to a room).  They stayed on campus most of the weekdays learning Chinese language and culture.

Many of the students, terribly yaya-dependent, learned to take responsibility for themselves and to share rooms and get along with other students.

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My daughter’s feelings are mixed, though, about China.  She’s impressed with how advanced China is, especially with cell phones and connectivity, but she doesn’t have the faintest idea about the lives of Chinese youth.

Second case study: My younger daughters, aged 6 to 12, went off to Hong Kong, despite my determination to keep such a trip as very low priority because I feel it’s too much of a marketplace. It does have eco-tourism, but that’s somewhat more suited to older adolescents and adults.

An aunt had offered free tickets for her own kids and mine, so how could I say no, with the girls chanting Disneyland and Ocean Park?

They came back gushing with stories of… Disneyland and Ocean Park and McDonald’s offering burgers too spicy for them.

I didn’t realize how little they had learned about the place until one of them asked me what language people used in Hong Kong. They saw the Chinese characters but couldn’t understand the Cantonese.

Then, the other day, one of them asked when I would bring her to China. I answered that she had just been to China, but she retorted, no, that was Hong Kong! This led to a long discussion about Hong Kong being a special administrative region of China, about British colonialism, all the way up to capitalism and socialism. I gave the pros and cons of each system and showed her photos of Hong Kong “cage people” who rent, literally, a cage where they  sleep and store their belongings. I told her about her Lola’s father, who fled the poverty of Fujian in China, seeking, and finding, a prosperous life in the Philippines.

She was shocked about the cage people, and asked how people could be so cruel. I had to point out how we’re cruel as well to the poor in the Philippines. She’s not sheltered, mind you, but she hasn’t seen our poorest of the poor.

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There’s the dilemma with overseas tourism: Your senses are bombarded with things strange and new, but you don’t really learn. I also worry listening to other young people who have been overseas talking about how every other country is so much cleaner, so much more disciplined, and, as one rhetorically asked: Why does everything work everywhere else but not here?

I don’t usually have the time like I have for my children to explain things, especially about how the Philippines used to be the most developed country in the region, right after the war and into the 1970s.

I have to be careful to talk about problems like graft and corruption and economic inequities, without making it sound like it’s in our DNA. I tell the kids how Filipinos do well, incredibly well, here, and how neighboring countries would send their officials to learn from our development and governance models.

At UP, we have an expanding international mobility program where students go overseas for a semester or a year and truly live the local life, build friendships, understand culture. It’s harder to do that as tourists, although I’ve been able to do that with my son, 13 at that time, who tagged along to the Netherlands last year and lived with me in a B&B and with professor friends, all of whom adored him.

He got to swim in Amsterdam’s harbor and in a small village river, tour places on his own on a bike, visit windmills, see (and smell) lots of sheep and cows. He loved Dutch modernity, but was just as captivated by the low Dutch skies and fiery sunsets and bike racks, stuff tour guides don’t point out.

He’s envious at not having gone to Disneyland (which is not Hong Kong, by my book), and his sisters are envious that they haven’t been to the Netherlands.

All are happy we still take off, at least once a month, for some of the world’s greatest places, beaches especially, right here in the Philippines.

mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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TAGS: Abroad, airfare, China, Hongkong, Kids, Michael l. tan, Pinoy Kasi, School
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