Being the new kid on the block

Maia learns to deal with the challenges of being the new student once again. Photo: Carley Hackney

TOKYO, August 25, 2011—After three years in an American school in Tokyo, Maia could not wait to move back into an international school. One choice she had was The American International School in Vienna (AIS), or the Vienna International School (VIS).

There was no doubt in her young mind. She was going to be a sixth grader at VIS. It is, after all, the sister school of UNIS, the United Nations International School. A Manhattan school that celebrated diversity in both its students and teachers. With a map of the world under the school playground, she travelled around the globe everyday.

Several times a day.

Vienna International School. Maia thought she was going back to UNIS. And so did I. Until the first day of school.

Like UNIS, VIS had students and teachers from many countries. And because it was a United Nations affiliated school, many of the children had parents working at UN offices in Vienna.

There were also many Austrian students whose parents were not connected to the UN.

Unlike UNIS though, not many students came and went. That year, there were only two new students in sixth grade. Maia and Nicey, an Indian girl whose parents were UN employees.

Everyone was nice to the new students. The teachers introduced them in class. The students showed them around. Everyone wanted to know if they could help. But there was one problem. Everyone had been in the same class since kindergarten. Together for the past five years, their friendships were set in stone. Everyone belonged to a group, and for the girls, it was the norm to have a best friend. One best friend.

The world becomes the child's playground

The world becomes the child’s playground


Maia and Nicey became best friends. They had no choice. They were put in the same class. The two new girls. What could be more natural. They had each other.

Just like all the other girls.

Maia liked Nicey. But she was miserable. She was having a tough time adjusting to the new school. Not surprising really. She was pre-pubescent. It would have been difficult even if we had not moved. To a new city. A new country. A new school. That is what I told myself.

Vienna. It was love at first sight for Maia. As we neared the center of the city, the grand circular boulevard known as the Ringstrasse, she felt like entering the land of fairy tales. She was mesmerized by the resplendent imperial buildings, by the massive stone statues, by the red and white streetcar. Everything was just like it was in the pictures. Everything was just as she had imagined.

Everything but the new school.

But she liked going to school. She liked learning French again. She liked learning a new language. German.

Maia started going to school from our apartment hotel in the heart of the city. She got on and off the U-bahn, the subway, at Stephansplatz. She passed by the Stephansdom cathedral and its Gothic spire at least twice a day.

She would go to school with Daddy in the morning. VIS was two subway stations away from his office. I would go and pick her up in the afternoon. And as she had done since kindergarten, she would tell me everything that happened in school. From the minute she let go of Daddy’s hand, and walked through the gates, to the minute she saw me in the school hallway.  

She always told me everything. Every single thing.

And I loved listening to her. Maia was a perceptive child, and she was very precise with her narratives. I had a clear picture of what the other girls were wearing. I knew exactly what conversations she had with whom. And I learned what the teachers taught that day. Maia had an excellent memory. It felt like I went to school with her.

As she reached the end of her narrative, we would be walking along the cobblestoned street leading to our hotel. And I would be asking her if the day was finally sunny, still rainy, cloudy, or cloudy with a little bit of sun.

I was not really asking about the weather.

Maia was so miserable during those first few weeks that she cried herself to sleep every night. Very, very quietly. It broke my heart.

Time for Mommy talk about life.

Mommy: Maia, do you remember the rainy season in Japan?

Maia: It rained every day. All day.

Mommy: Yes, it did. But on some days, the sun would shine. And on other days, it would be just cloudy


Mommy: And does it rain all year in Japan?

Maia: No.

Mommy: Let’s just say that you are going through the rainy season right now. A really bad day in school is a rainy day. A little bit of a bad day is a cloudy day. And if something nice happened, it is a cloudy day with a bit of sun. Let’s see what tomorrow’s weather is like.

And as we walked home along the historic streets of Vienna, I would be asking about the weather in school.

It stayed rainy for a while. And Maia’s cheeks were damp at night. And in the morning, as she put on her shoes, tears would leave small spots on her coat. It broke my heart.

Mommy: Maia, do you want to go and see what AIS is like? It may be like ASIJ (American School in Japan).

Maia: No.

Mommy: Do you want to stay home from school today? Spend the day with Mommy? Go to Diglas for schoko palaschinken?

Yes, I encouraged Maia to skip school.

Maia: No. I cannot miss German.

I silently thanked the German teacher.

The autumn wind grew colder. And it was still rainy at school. And my pillow was damp at night.

And then, Maia made a decision. The decision.

Maia: Mommy, it has been raining all week.

Mommy: Not a single cloudy day?

Maia: Um…one…

Mommy: Cloudy with a bit of sun?

Maia: Maybe.


Maia: I am going to cry tonight.


Maia: I am going to cry buckets.


Maia: I am going to cry very loudly.


Maia: I am going to cry for the last time. I won’t cry tomorrow.

Mommy: OK.

I was at a loss for words. No mommy words of wisdom.

And that night, Maia cried. Buckets. Sobbed. Loud. Very loud. And I cried. And Daddy cried.

It stayed rainy at school the following day. And it continued to be rainy for a while. But in our hotel room, it was finally dry.

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Cynthia Lim

Cynthia has lived, studied, worked and parented in more than a dozen cities in four continents.  Born in the Philippines, she is of Chinese heritage -- although she has never been to China, unless we count a few stopovers in Hong Kong -- and is now a Japanese citizen living in New York City.

She has a hard time answering the question, "Where are you from?"  She likes to think of herself as a nomad, or even a hermit crab, toting her home around on her back.

Even while traveling all over the world, Cynthia was able to raise a fantastic daughter -- kind, easy-going, and with admission offers from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, to boot!  Right now, she's looking forward to attending her daughter's college graduation in the spring, but in the meantime, she is keeping busy, taking classes at the French Culinary Institute, and offering seminars on international parenting and child-rearing in general. 

Contact Cynthia Lim


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