In the fall of 2007, when our daughter was just 16 months old, my husband studied the fall semester of his two-year Masters of Business Administration program abroad in Beijing, China. He left in September, so he could settle in and get the majority of his fall semester completed. Then in November, my daughter and I planned to join him for the last two months.
As most mother’s know, traveling with kids can test your moral fiber.
So, imagine the daunting prospect of a solo, 14-hour, transpacific flight with a “lap infant” (meaning, in order to fly our daughter over for free, I had to risk traveling with her on my lap if the flight was full). My biggest tests were: my lap infant was actually an active and inquisitive toddler and the flight was full.
But desperate means call for desperate measures.
Typical toddler attention spans run about 5-10 minutes per activity. I anticipated our 14-hour flight would look something like this: 1 period of night-time sleep=8-10 hours; 2 meals=30 minutes; 4 journeys up and down the aisles=40 minutes; bathroom visits, diaper changes and miscellany=20 minutes. That left me with roughly 210 unaccounted for minutes to fill with activities.
I solicited friends, family, mom groups, pediatricians and educators for ideas. Since we hadn’t yet exposed our child to TV, I didn’t bother packing movies. Instead, I packed two carry-on suitcases.
One with diapers, toiletries and a change of clothes; the other with: lacing cards, crayons, markers, string, large beads, flavored O-shaped cereals, snacks, treats, magnetic books, cohesive play scenes (also known as Colorforms here in the US), stickers, snap beads, picture books, wind up toys, a few wrapped items and Children’s Benadryl (an allergy medication renowned for causing drowsiness and used, in moderation, ONLY under dyer circumstances).
Somehow we survived the flight.
For the first half of my husband’s semester abroad, he lived in a matchbox-sized dorm room on the campus of the business school where he was studying. In preparation for our visit, he had been scouring Chinese message boards for posts on short-term housing. He visited at least half a dozen before he landed on a gold mine. He found an affluent, older Chinese woman who had a one-bedroom apartment available for sublet in the Jianguomenwai Diplomatic Residence Compound.
This compound was where all foreign diplomats and members of the International Press Corps had to live during the post-Cultural Revolution years from 1980 to the early 2000’s. It is located in the heart of Beijing’s diplomatic quadrant, off the Second Ring Road within walking distance to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, parks, playgrounds and a multitude of international restaurants.
The apartment had a good layout with a large central living area, a master bedroom, a medium-sized kitchen and a large utility closet off to one side. The utility closet–with the addition of a child-sized travel bed (the Peapod by KidCo)–became a toddler room.
November in Beijng marks the end of smoggy, hazy fall with a precipitous slide into cold, dusty winter. Within two weeks of our arrival, temperatures plummeted from the upper 60s Fahrenheit to the 40s. When it was warm, I entertained my daughter on the large playground within the residential compound or down the street at the famous and beautiful Ritan Park. When temperatures dropped, I discovered other nearby and more modern Expat compounds with indoor playspaces and foreign amenities.
Though I met and saw a myriad foreign kids, it was hard to meet any of their moms because nannies, or ayis [aunties], as they’re known, are affordable and ubiquitous. By affordable, I mean even we could afford one.
By week three, I had secured the name of a reputable ayi service, interviewed, checked references of and hired an ayi. For roughly the equivalent of US$2.25/hour our ayi cleaned our apartment, did dishes, washed laundry and folded clothes. She watched our child, purchased our food and prepared outstanding, traditional Chinese meals. I got very spoiled.
I gained many insights from our experience in China including, the value of a packable travel bed, the importance of having childcare so I could explore our exotic locale, the impact that immersing a child in a foreign culture has on developing language skills and the priceless gift the experience had on all of us.
If an opportunity to go overseas for any extended (more than two weeks) period of time should present itself in your life, I hope you’ll seriously consider seizing the day. At the time, two months felt like a lifetime and certainly, in the life of an 18-month-old, it was 1/9th of hers. But, looking back, it went by in a blink. In many ways it was like any other part of motherhood, I suppose, when a day can feel like a year, but somehow a year flies by in a day.
Do you have any tips for traveling with children?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Kyla P’an of Massachusetts, USA. Kyla can also be found on her blog, Growing Muses.
Photo credit to Kyla P’an.