During the summer of our third year in Beijing, we arrived in America for a two week visit. While we were chatting with some of my parents’ neighbors, one asked where we were living. “We’re in China, actually!”
She took a physical step back, her face a mask of concern. “Oh! Oh, I’m so sorry!”
Although we often encountered different versions of this response, this one was the most extreme. “We love it, actually,” I said, and then someone else pulled me away. But I think about that moment a lot.
I think of all the things I could tell her, and all the parents who are considering taking their children for a trip to another country or even a different region of their own. I think about how few American kids have ever experienced a way of life other than their own, and I mourn for what they are missing. I reflect on all the ways our family’s life has been expanded and enhanced by experiencing the world around us, firsthand. What would I say, if I could talk to her again?
“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” –Mark Twain
I would tell her how my kids have learned to make new friends almost instantly, leaping over language and culture barriers with a single bound. How the skills they acquired on Greek playgrounds and Spanish beaches have found a home deep in their souls. How the ideals of acceptance and openness are not ideals to them, they are facts of life. And I would tell her how the result of all this is a near-constant stream of notes from teachers praising my kids for their inclusiveness, their compassion, and their ability to welcome newcomers with open arms.
I would tell her how kids who have seen more than their own little corner of the world recognize privilege when they see it, especially in their own lives. How giving those “starving children in China” flesh and blood can profoundly affect the way you view your own life. When you have seen the real poverty that lives in shanty towns and apartment slums around the world, it’s a lot harder to complain about sharing a bedroom.
I would tell her how international travel builds flexibility and patience in children (and adults). How things as simple as figuring out how to communicate with the person making your dinner or trying to locate the nearest subway station on your (not-available-in-English) map builds kids’ problem-solving muscles and helps them become observant, adaptable and unflappable. Older kids will find pride in their ability to navigate strange places and strange cultures and younger ones will gain perspective and patience.
“Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have traveled.” –Muhammed
I would tell her how when you stop thinking you know everything, you find out just how much there is to learn. This is one of the greatest gifts of travel to the young: they are acutely aware of how much there is to know and they can’t get enough.
But most importantly, I would tell her how just a few days experiencing another culture can shift a child’s perspective for a lifetime. How letting the world soak into your bones makes you love that world in a way that nothing else can.
One of the most difficult things for we humans to learn is that other people in other cultures are as real as we are. That there are entire continents full of people who fear their fears, and love their loves, and believe their beliefs as strongly as we do ours. Many of us never fully learn this, even as adults. And as long as we fear the unknown, we are unable to learn from it. When children identify the “realness” of others at a young age, they have an enormous advantage over their peers. Compassion, fairness and kindness can only come from a place of understanding.
Let your kids discover that our differences are not what define us.