We are quite the spectacle here in Asia: a family of five fair-skinned, blue-eyed members, three of whom are too young to pay for public transportation. The kids are getting used to posing for pictures, having their cheeks pinched by strangers, and using gestures to communicate a few simple ideas:
· Yes, there are three children. Yes, we are very lucky family.
· No, the oldest two are not twins. (“Same-Same” here in Vietnam). The children are 6, 4, and 2.
· And, Girl, Girl, Boy in response to confusion about the gender of our children. I have been surprised to find that traditional gender signifiers (though we aren’t the typical pink-and-blue family) don’t hold the same relevance in some of the countries we’ve visited. Simone can be dressed in clothing that (in the United States) is very typically feminine, but she is mistaken for a boy. I suspect it is her short hair, though I’m not sure.
We are a spectacle for another reason, also. Many people don’t travel with small children. I can understand why! Traveling with young children can be challenging: finding bathrooms for a newly-in-undies-two-year-old, sightseeing with children who need spaces to be loud and run, and packing!
But traveling with young children is also incredible. I consider myself a fairly seasoned “family traveler.” We have logged thousands of air miles traveling to visit family, we lived for a brief period outside of the United States while our girls were 2 ½ and 1, this summer we moved across the US, and we are currently sailing around the world.
I am fortunate to do this with my children, and here’s why:
1. Children give us access to foreign cultures in ways that we would not normally get to experience. Everywhere we travel, people seem excited to see children. In Japan, an older gentleman approached us in a temple to show our kids this incredible Japanese spinning top. Without any common language, we played together for 20 minutes.
In a Vietnamese market, the vendors taught our girls how to open their newly-purchased fans with a flick of the wrist, and while Ezra and I bartered for some souvenirs, a woman at a neighboring stall shelled peanuts and fed them to Tekoa.
These little windows into a new culture are one of the unexpected treasures of traveling with young ones.
2. Children are universal. When we travel with our kids, it is as if they bridge the cavern that exists between different cultures. We speak different languages, dress differently, eat different foods, have different body types and skin tones, move from home to work on different modes of transportation, but we all have children! We raise them differently and care for them differently, but simply by their presence, our children represent unity where tourists and residents alike so often fall into suspicion and mistrust of the other.
3. Children force a different traveling pace. We balance a morning exploring a local market with a trip to a local playground, or a hot walk across town with popsicles. We have adjusted our expectations; some days, simply disembarking the ship and wandering the new terrain is sufficient! The changed pace is a welcome one. When I have traveled in the past, I have felt pressure to see everything I could in a short amount of time because who knows when I’ll be back! This may be my one and only time to visit this country! Traveling with kids provides a nice alternative to the frenzied and stressful “leave-no-museum-unexplored” pace.
4. We can always find a bathroom. Adult patrons are often asked to use the public W.C.s, but if I walk to almost cashier in any business with my young children and ask, imploringly, about the toilet, I am usually ushered to a staff-only area where we can use the bathroom. I will admit that once or twice, knowing the power of suggestion, I have asked my children, does anyone need to use the bathroom? because I, in fact, did not want to walk the distance to the public facilities.
And, just so you know it isn’t always roses…
Two Reasons Why Traveling With Children is Hard
1. Meeting their basic needs can be a challenge. My three never seem to have the same needs at the same time. Hunger, fatigue, a full bladder – they always stagger in their onset. And just because the two not-so-hungry children ate a snack while the third really-hungry child ate doesn’t mean the first two will be any less hungry in twenty minutes.
2. Access is difficult. Rough cobblestone streets, crowded market alleys, subways systems with no elevator or escalator, and the busy intersections in Ho Chi Minh City: none of these are easy to navigate with a stroller. While we have managed spectacularly well, the one night that Ezra and I left our children on the ship in the charge of a trusted friend and explored the nightlife in Vietnam without our young entourage was dreamy.
So far, we have visited Yokohama and Kobe in Japan, Shanghai and Hong Kong in China, and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. We have found the people delightful and the food delicious everywhere. Singapore next!
Photo: Shanghai, China. Our ship is the white and blue one at the back.