When her kids were younger, Marty Merkt would fly them across the world each year from their home in China as soon as school ended. They'd arrive in the U.S. and spend a day or two sleeping off their jet lag. Then they'd pile in the car and drive several hours to summer camp in northern Wisconsin.
After 10 months amid skyscrapers in sprawling Shanghai, Merkt's children would plunge into a traditional American summer, hiking and camping and roasting marshmallows under the stars.
Some of those same experiences can be had in China, of course. But many American parents who are raising kids abroad see summer camp as a vital tool in helping their expat offspring feel at home in their country of origin.
LEARNING ABOUT AMERICA
Brief family vacations in the U.S. just don't connect children with American culture the way that a month of swimming and boat rowing and soccer playing with other American kids can.
For some, it's literally an introduction to America. Melanie Horton's son was an American boy by passport, but was born and raised in Okinawa, Japan, while she worked as a teacher in Department of Defense schools.
"This is basically home for him," she says of Japan. "This is what he knows."
An accomplished athlete, he now attends summer sports camps on the UCLA campus, learning about American life while doing football — American football — drills.
Expat kids deal with "not being hip to everything in the States," Horton says. When so much is unfamiliar, "you go to the mall and you're like, 'Oh, my God, wow!'" Time spent socializing with camp friends can help bridge that gap.
Liz Klimek's kids were raised in Japan and Korea, and their main experience of America has been sleepaway soccer camp in Texas and Missouri. Basic things like the size of portions at U.S. restaurants and the sweetness of American candy gave them culture shock. But camp has helped them connect with U.S. culture and forge friendships that will, she hopes, make any future move back to America less jarring.
THE ULTIMATE CHANGE OF PACE
American summer camp is also a powerful antidote to the controlled lives many expat kids live.
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Anh Ruwitch and her husband have raised their boys in Hong Kong, Hanoi and now Shanghai. The boys have always had nannies, she says, and are never without adult supervision. Many expat families also have housekeepers, so the kids rarely make their beds or do other household chores.
Last summer Ruwitch was excited to send her oldest, age 10, to the same summer camp that his father and grandfather attended in Wisconsin.
He has always been self-motivated, she says, but she "wanted him to have a little grit," get dirty and experience a month of life without too many conveniences.
At camp, he did his own laundry and swept his cabin floor. He had the freedom to plan his own day, choosing among a slate of outdoor activities. On sunny afternoons, he'd walk with a group of other kids — no grown-ups — down a tree-lined road to get ice cream.
He was also responsible for writing letters to his parents, and couldn't use digital devices or other screens.
Although three of his Chinese friends flew to the U.S. to attend the camp with him, his parents made sure all three boys didn't bunk in the same cabin. So he made friends with American kids, even as he deepened ties with his school friends from Shanghai.
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
Summer athletic camps also can help teens establish credentials for playing sports in college — something American kids do simply by playing sports in their towns or at school.
"We do the camps so the kids can be seen for soccer," Klimek says. This summer, their youngest son will go to California for an American football camp. "He wants to improve his skills, and the only football teams in Okinawa belong to the two American high schools," she says.
Horton's son, raised playing soccer in Japan, has quickly become a football star. But his camp experiences have been good for him even beyond athletics.
He has grown, Horton says, "so he's not totally dumbfounded if he decides to go back and live in the States."