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Shanghai To London: What It's Like To Raise A Family Overseas


NPR's Frank Langfitt and his family are moving to London this summer. He'll take over as our correspondent in London after five years in Shanghai. Frank and his family have been packing up their high-rise in the heart of Shanghai. We thought this might be an opportunity to talk with Frank about the personal side of being a foreign correspondent. How do you raise a family overseas? Frank joins us from what sounds like a cacophonous, empty apartment in Shanghai. Frank, thanks very much for being with us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Frank, so I don't have to tell you London's a plum spot. Might be the most exciting city in the world. Is your family excited?

LANGFITT: They're very excited, yeah. My wife, Julie - she's a veterinarian. My daughter Katie's 14. Our son Christopher is 12. They had a great time in Asia. It's been wonderful traveling around this part of the world. But, you know, the U.K.'s going to be - culture's going to be a lot closer to U.S. culture. And, you know, frankly, they are looking forward clean air, some free speech and uncensored Internet.

I mean, right now I'm looking at my apartment - my empty apartment, as you said. You can probably hear the echo on our line. And right now I'm looking out at a bridge, and I can barely make it out. It's only a mile away, but it's a really polluted day. So that's something they won't miss.

SIMON: You were based in Nairobi before you and the family went to Shanghai. We often talk about some of the drawbacks. What are some of the advantages of living overseas for a family?

LANGFITT: You know, I think for us one was just sort of the incredible diversity. My kids here in Shanghai, but also in Nairobi, have had friendships with kids from all over the world. When we were living in Nairobi, we lived in this old British colonial-era bungalow. The closest friends, our nextdoor neighbors, were all Kenyan kids. And so we would have Friday night movie nights that would sort of rotate from house to house every week. And we'd grill burgers outside. And the kids just - they had a great time. And these were some of their closest friends.

Now when we were getting ready to come to Shanghai, the kids were very nervous, and I wasn't quite sure why. And so I said, you know, what are you worried about? And they said well, you know, everybody in China's going to be really different than we are. And we're not going to fit in and feel really isolated. And I said to Katie - I said, Katie, all your friends actually are black. And she said, oh yeah, that's true. And it was like she had not really processed that. I mean, of course, she knew she was - they were Africans. But they were really - Kavese (ph) and Wambui (ph) - they were her close friends. And it's just - for them, I think, difference is really normal, and it's very different than the world that you and I grew up with in the U.S.

SIMON: I want to get back to what you said about the Internet 'cause your family has been living in an authoritarian state. The Internet is censored. All information is sequestered, in a sense, and censored. How do you think this system under which they've been living have shaped your - the view of the world that your children have?

LANGFITT: Well, I think the experience here with the Internet's been very frustrating. At one point, we were talking about just going for a short visit to Seoul, and Katie just wanted to go just because it has incredibly fast Internet.

SIMON: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: And sometimes it was so bad here - no, I'm not kidding.

SIMON: Yeah.

LANGFITT: She was like, yes, let's go to Seoul. It's so bad here, sometimes they couldn't even do their homework. But, you know, with something like authoritarianism, it's also a great opportunity to teach kids about different political systems. So if you remember back in the fall of 2014, there were these big democracy protests in the heart of Hong Kong. And these were the biggest since 1989 - the Tiananmen Square uprising. And I was down there a lot, covering it. And I was showing kids pictures, and they were very, very interested, so one weekend, we just flew down. We spent a Saturday night in the protest camp amid hundreds of tents in the middle of a highway. And I gave Katie a microphone and let her go out and interview people.

And as you remember, they were fighting for the right to directly elect the city's leader, not someone chosen basically by the Communist Party. And one woman that Katie interviewed, this woman named Kelly Chan (ph) - and one of the first things she said was how much Americans take voting for granted. And she had brought her own kids to see the protest because she was worried that if the Communist Party ever tried to delete this from textbooks, at least her kids would know that it happened. And here's how she explained it to Katie.


KELLY CHAN: So I bring them here to witness what they have really seen. And I hope when they grow up that they won't forget what really happened in here. And they can't erase history. And I hope when they grow up, they will continue with our democracy movement.

LANGFITT: And, you know, Scott, it was the kind of civics lesson I felt like they could never get in a classroom. And it did make an impression on the kids. And here's Katie.

KATIE: Everyone knows that protests don't - aren't exactly successful in this country, but it's amazing that they've stayed out this long. I mean, this is history.

SIMON: Frank, she has a very nice voice. I'd be looking over your shoulder if I were you.

LANGFITT: (Laughter) I will. I probably only have a few years left before she, you know, gives me a run for my money.

SIMON: Frank, sounds like you've had wonderful times and more ahead. I'm so glad we could talk about this.

LANGFITT: Thanks, Scott, I appreciate it.

SIMON: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.