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The Bad News About My Bilingual Teens…And the Good News, Too

The Bad News About My Bilingual Teens…And the Good News, Too

I know I haven’t posted anything at this blog in a while, but there are two very good reasons for this…

1. I was waiting for the final results of my 18-year-old daughter’s college applications to universities here in Japan. This month would have marked her first month as a college student and the conclusion of my bilingual journey with her. (Uh-oh, I think I just hinted at an unexpected outcome!)

2. I launched my new private coaching program in January and I’m now working closely with more parents than I expected! And because I’m committed to providing my strongest support to every client, so every family can experience the greatest success and joy possible at their bilingual or multilingual aim, it’s been a busy three months! (Still, I have room for 2 or 3 more clients this spring and I’d love to help your family, too!)

On top of the situation with my daughter, which has been extremely preoccupying for many months, we also abruptly faced a distressing development involving my 16-year-old son.

So I have two family tales to share with you today, but first, let me begin with another story, a short parable from old China. Trust me, this story will help us make sense of the other two, which will then follow.

The Farmer, His Horse, and His Son

A Chinese farmer had a horse that helped plow his fields. One day the farmer woke up to discover that the horse was gone—it had run away.

His neighbor told him, “Oh no! You lost your horse! That’s bad news.”

The farmer replied simply, “Bad news, good news, who can say?”

A few days later the farmer’s horse returned, and his horse was accompanied by another horse.

His neighbor told him, “Two horses! How fortunate! That’s good news.”

The farmer replied simply, “Good news, bad news, who can say?”

The farmer then gave the second horse to his teenage son. But when the son was riding this horse, it threw him off and he broke his leg.

His neighbor told him, “A broken leg! I’m so sorry! That’s bad news.”

The farmer replied simply, “Bad news, good news, who can say?”

Not long after, the emperor’s men arrived in the village and took away every able-bodied young man to fight in a dreadful war. Because of his broken leg, the farmer’s son was spared.

His neighbor told him, “Oh, what a relief! That’s good news indeed.”

The farmer replied simply, “Good news, bad news, who can say?”

The Bad News

The Bad News About My Daughter: Every Waking Moment

When I was in high school in the US, which feels like several centuries ago, I spent very little time studying. I even somehow prided myself on the fact that I could avoid actually reading the books that were assigned by my teachers by simply scanning summaries and writing semi-coherent essays about them.

Instead, I spent most of my time, outside of school, playing tennis (I was on the tennis team) and “partying” with friends.

The fact that I was even able to graduate, and in the top 10% of my class, is hard to explain. Clearly, the high school I attended, in a small town in Illinois, wasn’t particularly demanding.

My daughter, on the other hand, went to a high school here in Hiroshima, Japan that’s considered one of the top high schools in this city of 1 million people, among dozens of public and private schools. (By comparison, there were only two high schools in my hometown back in America: one public—that’s the one I lazed my way through—and one private.) And not only is the school she attended quite rigorous, this is made even more extreme by the whole high school system in Japan, which is geared toward taking onerous exams on a wide range of subjects and culminates in the most onerous tests of all: the dreaded university entrance exams.

This is why, for the past year, my daughter spent nearly every waking moment studying—and I’m really not exaggerating. I felt very sorry for her (and I now feel the same toward my son, who attends this school, too!), but she was neck-deep in a “sink or swim” system where she essentially had to study like mad in order to get into a desirable university.

The Bad News About My Daughter: The Odds of Success

It’s also true, however, that she could have avoided at least the past several months of stressful studying by applying early to her chosen schools. And by applying early, her bilingual ability would have given her application more weight and she would have avoided competing against the nationwide pool of applicants during the regular selection period. In short, the odds of acceptance, for early admissions, would likely have been much higher.

However, by the time she had made up her mind about which schools she wanted to apply to…it was too late. Moreover, she had no “safe school” at all: she chose only three very competitive public universities.

In a way, she unwittingly created the toughest sort of circumstances for this process, with the lowest odds of success.

At this point, you’re probably wondering: How about a little more guidance from her parents and teachers?

The truth is, I was concerned, especially when she chose not to move forward and apply early to a couple of schools that had originally been higher on her list. But even though I felt that not applying early to these schools, or any others, was a strategic error, I still believed that her determined efforts and her strong English ability would produce a positive result. And it seems my wife and her teachers felt the same way as they didn’t sound any loud alarm bells over the situation.

The Bad News About My Daughter: High-Stakes Exams

In hindsight, though, this belief was naive. I suppose that couldn’t be helped because it was my first experience of Japan’s very complex college admissions process. (And the fact that the information is mostly in Japanese makes all this even harder for me!) Yet I clearly didn’t do enough to prevent what became an almost inevitable outcome.

In the end, after a series of high-stakes exams in January, February, and March…she wasn’t accepted by any of the three universities she applied to. Each time the results were released online, and her test-taker’s number didn’t appear on the list, I was there as she wept. These were very painful moments for her, and moments of great regret for me.

It wasn’t that she had failed in her quest to enter these schools—places where she probably could have been accepted if she had applied in a more strategic way. It was that, as her father, I felt I had failed her.

The Bad News About My Son: The Day Before

Meanwhile, in March, my son was scheduled to go on a week-long class trip to Canada, an adventure he had been looking forward to for many months. As I mentioned, he attends the same high school that my daughter just graduated from—in fact, he’s in the same English-heavy program, the so-called “International Communication Course,” too. For my daughter, the pandemic unfortunately prevented her class from taking the trips that are traditionally part of this program, but these travels have begun again with my son’s class.

And so, after all the preparations we made for this exciting trip to Canada, just one day before his class was set to fly to Vancouver…there he was, flat on his back in bed with a high fever and a very sore throat.

Was this just a quickly passing bug? Would he wake up the next morning feeling fine enough to travel? Or had he suddenly come down with the flu, or even COVID?

To make matters worse, that day was a holiday in Japan and our doctor wasn’t available so we had no good way of determining what the problem really was. We could only address the symptoms and cross our fingers.

The Bad News About My Son: The Day of the Trip

We woke him up early the next morning, still hoping that he could somehow make the trip with his classmates, who were gathering at the train station to board a bus to the airport. His fever had gone down a bit, and he said he was feeling better than the day before after taking a quick shower…but he was still clearly ill and didn’t have the strength for such a long, tiring trip. In addition, of course, we still didn’t know what exactly was wrong with him and we didn’t want to expose the rest of the group to a contagious illness like COVID or the flu.

So there was no choice: we had to cancel his trip. This sudden turn of events was a crushing disappointment, and my wife and I felt awful for him. But he could only crawl back into bed and go to sleep as his friends headed for the airport.

The Good News

The Good News About My Daughter: The Gap Year Ahead

It’s true, the whole protracted experience of university admissions was terribly stressful and deeply disheartening for her. And though I was concerned about how this unexpected outcome might impact her young life, I was relieved to see that her positive spirit soon returned after the bitter shock of the admissions results had worn off.

In fact, by the time we sat down for cups of green tea at a local cafe to reflect on the lessons learned and look ahead to the possibilities for the gap year ahead, we had basically come to the same conclusion…

A gap year after high school wasn’t an outcome that either of us had originally wanted for her, but it’s actually what was needed.

In Japan, young people typically graduate from high school in March and then immediately enter college in April. The truth is, she wasn’t really ready to begin university now, and this was reflected in the indecisive steps taken through the admissions process itself: despite studying madly to enter college, she didn’t have a clear idea about which schools she wanted to apply to and what she wanted to study.

As we talked over tea, it became apparent that, as painful as the process was in getting to this point, the outcome was actually a “blessing in disguise” as a gap year will offer a range of positive opportunities, among them…

  • She’ll have another year to continue maturing and clarifying her interests and her direction for the future.
  • She can take a calmer, closer look at possible colleges and programs and make firm, strategic decisions in order to apply early to her favorites. (And you can bet that I’m now actively guiding this process!)
  • She can get a part-time job—or even try several different jobs—in order to gain more experience out in the world and start earning some money of her own.
  • She can engage in volunteer work, too, at a local NPO in Hiroshima that’s involved in a variety of peace activities. (The woman who runs the organization is a family friend and her wise, sunny nature will be a very positive influence.)
  • Instead of studying endlessly for entrance exams, she’ll now also have time to resume other interests, like learning Spanish, playing guitar, and playing tennis.
  • While entrance exams in Japanese won’t be necessary—because she’ll be applying early to English-medium programs in liberal arts or international studies—she does have to prepare for standardized English tests like the SAT and TOEFL. (But this will help stretch her English ability! Yay!)
  • If this early admissions process concludes by the end of the year, she may also have at least a month or two to travel abroad before entering college next April. (She says she wants to go to Australia!)

The Good News About My Daughter: A Bonus

For all of these reasons, I now feel that a gap year—which is less common in Japan than in other countries—is the better, if unexpected, outcome. It would have been hard to consciously choose a gap year from the start, considering the weight of expectations, from all angles, to enter college right after graduating from high school. But, in the end, it seems fate has handed her what is needed.

Frankly, this has been a twist for my expectations, too, because I had been gearing up, psychologically, to let her go…and now she’s with us at home for another year. This requires some reorientation, in terms of my own areas of focus: though I didn’t anticipate continuing to emphasize her needs in this way, she’ll naturally remain one of my highest priorities. What’s more, the happy advantage of still having her here—and with less hectic days—means that we can again spend time together. Once our kids become busy teens, it’s so much harder to spend time with them, so this twist is truly a blessing, a bonus, for our relationship. (Yesterday we played tennis together for the first time in two or three years!)

The Good News About My Son: Two Options

Later that morning my son woke up, feeling a bit better, and I took him to the doctor. She tested him for both COVID and the flu, and the results were negative for each. Instead, she determined that the cause of his fever and sore threat was tonsillitis.

At that point, with a less-serious diagnosis and some medicine to address it, I began to wonder…

Is there any chance he could fly to Canada, by himself, the next day?

I didn’t want to prematurely lift his hopes, though, so I didn’t mention the idea just yet. When we got home, I whispered this possibility to my wife and she quickly agreed to call the travel agent who had organized the entire trip. It took several hours for the travel agent to get back to us, but when she did, she offered two options: take several tricky connecting flights, for a reasonable fare; or take the same two flights that his class had just taken, but one day later, for an eyeball-popping amount. (Because we canceled the trip with little notice, we basically lost the fare for the scheduled trip and had to purchase another ticket.)

While the cost was a consideration, the idea of our 16-year-old son, who had never even ventured outside our city by himself, traveling halfway around the world and needing to make several challenging connections—including one in Dallas, Texas, of all places—seemed like a risky and stressful option. And so we swallowed hard and chose the other one, which, still, would be stressful enough for both him and his parents: flying from Hiroshima to Tokyo; taking a bus from one airport in Tokyo to another; then flying from Tokyo to Vancouver.

In fact, before we told the travel agent to go ahead and book the ticket, we presented the plan to him and it took him several long minutes to decide because the idea of making the trip by himself felt so daunting. Finally, though, he agreed and the plan was confirmed. And fortunately, his journey the next day was mostly uneventful…with one major exception.

The Good News About My Son: Excited Messages

Early the next morning I shuttled him to the Hiroshima Airport, located in the countryside about an hour outside the city. I bid him farewell there, at the security checkpoint, but could continue to coach him along, as needed, through text messages.

In Tokyo, he was able to safely retrieve his suitcase and board a crowded bus which took him from Haneda Airport to Narita Airport. (This is an unpleasant, two-hour transfer that I always try to avoid, but which sometimes can’t be avoided.)

Then, as he was awaiting his overnight flight from Tokyo to Vancouver, he heard his name over the public address system, requesting that he return to the check-in counter. In his mind (as he later told me), he was worried that he was in trouble for some reason and would miss his flight, or even wind up in jail. But it wasn’t bad news, it was good news—it was very good news…

Because the flight from Tokyo to Vancouver was overbooked, he got bumped up to business class!

Once he boarded the plane, I received several excited messages from him, with photos and video, showing me the luxuries of his business class seat.

When he arrived in Vancouver, he was met at the airport by his teacher and a representative from the travel agency. He then spent the next five days relishing a fun, enriching time in Canada with his classmates and his friendly homestay family.

Yet as memorable as I’m sure those experiences were, the greatest thrill of all was still undoubtedly that seat in business class from Tokyo to Vancouver.

“Bad News” Becomes Something Better

Like the Chinese tale of the farmer, we can never really know how the twists and turns of our days will play out over the continuing course of our lives. As stressful as such unexpected developments may be, perhaps this wider perspective can enable us to see these events with more patience, more grace, even amid the very moments of strain.

This is the lesson offered by the recent experiences involving my daughter and my son. And hopefully they, too, have absorbed at least a bit of the same wisdom and now realize how the ongoing flow of life may eventually spin “bad news” into something much better (even business class).

As for me, the bilingual journey goes on with both kids, at least for another year. And I’ll continue to share it at this blog, as I’m able, with the hope that my own experience can benefit yours.

At the same time, the greatest benefit I can potentially bring to your family is through personal, customized coaching support that lasts throughout the life of your bilingual or multilingual journey. The honest bottom line is: Whatever the amount of success and joy you’re able to experience on your own, you can be certain that my long-term commitment to your family’s bilingual or multilingual dream will enable you to experience more of this success and joy over the months and years ahead—even much, much more.

How about you? What are your thoughts after reading this long blog post? (And thank you for making it all the way to the end!)

18 Responses

  1. When one door closes, another opens… Good luck with the gap year for your daughter–it really can be a fantastic year for her, one she can only experience now. (Peace Boat is a great volunteer opportunity–both my older kids went on it, and loved it. They could do this as they were in university in Australia and NZ and somehow the dates worked.)

    1. Louise, thanks for your encouraging comment! It’s always good to hear from you! Her gap year is already off to a good start so I expect the months ahead will bring a range of enriching experiences. And it’s funny you mentioned Peace Boat, because she raised this possibility with me just the other day. While the timing likely wouldn’t work this time around, I did recommend that she think seriously about pursuing it in the future. I bet it was such a memorable adventure for your kids…and I hope the whole family is doing well these days!

  2. What a great read! Excited for all of your family’s upcoming adventures and all the blessings undoubtedly in store after all the hard work you’ve all put in. Great job to you all!

    1. Dani, thank you for your kind words! Shifting gears was certainly a challenge, but now it’s full speed ahead! I send best wishes back to all of you!

  3. Love this post, Adam! It can be so hard to see the benefits of a perceived bad situation when we’re in the thick of it. I’m glad your son got to go on the trip after all, and I’m sure your daughter will make the best of her unexpected gap year! Benjamin is going to college in Missouri this fall so we’re in the “how to let him go” stage…what a big change it will be for all of us – and a major step for his bilingualism as well!

    1. Alisa, it was great to hear from you! I still vividly recall our walk through your lovely French village…nearly four years ago! It’s hard to believe that “suddenly” our kids are now ready for college. I wish Benjamin all the best in Missouri! You may remember that my hometown is Quincy, Illinois, not far from Hannibal, Missouri, and my artist-father lived for many years in the wilds of Monroe City. Please tell all your big boys that I say hello from Japan!

  4. A gap year! Oh how fun! Has she looked into WWOOF? I wonder if she can participate from Japan. I know when I lived and worked in Australia, many other I met were on that program. I got a work visa and, as a US Citizen could work and earn in Australia, NZ, England, Ireland… great opportunity that I took advantage of after working a few years after graduating from college. If she’s up for writing about her gap year, we’d be happy to receive her submission at Motivos bilingual magazine!

    1. Jenee, thank you for mentioning WWOOF! I’ve heard of it, but don’t really know all that much so I’ll definitely look into the details. And I’m grateful for your offer regarding your magazine. I think this would be a good challenge for her and I’ll gladly talk to her about it. So if she’s game, I’ll get back to you! But again, thanks a lot for your helpful comment, Jenee!

  5. Very inspiring post. I was very happy to read how the bad news turned into good news. I think the gap year will be a great experience for your daughter and also for you a great chance to still enjoy her being with you more time. If she feels like visiting Germany, she is mostly welcomed to stay with us.

    1. Thank you, Marta! It would be wonderful if she could pay a visit to your family, as her father was so fortunate to do! I really appreciate your kind invitation and we’ll see what happens as the year continues. Tell everyone I say hello!

    1. Alex, I’m glad to hear this, and thank you for your encouraging words! Cheers to you and your family!

  6. Thank you for sharing this story. I think that a gap year for any child, including your daughter, can be very constructive. I was in a similar situation like her. I used that year to travel; get to know new cultures; noticed that Italy is very interesting country for me (+ I had some relatives there); I attended an Italian language course; traveled around Italy; fell in love with Italian cuisine; worked in an Italian restaurant…all in all, that experience opened up new perspectives for me. In the end, I decided to study in Italy (which was at the beginning not part of my mindset at all). I never regretted this decision. 🙂

    1. Siena, many thanks for sharing your positive experience of your own gap year. I relayed your story to my daughter, and she found it reassuring. It’s always hard to know where the twists and turns of our lives will take us—and this requires a lot of trust in the larger flow of life itself—but I think it’s wonderful that your gap year gave you so many meaningful experiences and a very promising new direction for your future.

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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