Thursday, January 22, 2015

traveling abroad with kids (from China)

Family bathrooms are awesome, for reasons such as this!

We've been in the US for several days now and I'm still trying to get my bearings. Anyone who has ever gone home after living far away probably knows how hectic it can be. Leading up to the trip are all the preparations, then there is the traveling itself (which can be exhausting), and then dealing with jet lag. Of course you want to see everyone and do everything and there just aren't enough hours in a day! I've been wanting to post this for some time. Here are my tips for managing and surviving an international trip (particularly from China) with kids:

1. Apply for passports early. In China, it should take 2 weeks to receive your child's Chinese passport as long as s/he already has a hukou (household registration). Be sure to check what documents you'll need before applying at the local PSB. I believe we needed his birth certificate, hukou, proof of holder of the household registration (this is a special document that the head of the household should have) and photos. The same goes for you if applying for your child's passport at your embassy. The documents needed are very specific. The US Embassy has about a two week turnaround time for passports. You have to apply and pick-up in person, though you can have someone pick-up on your behalf.

2. Apply for visas early. If your child is traveling on a Chinese visa you'll need to apply for a visa for the country you'll be visiting. US visas can now be issued quite quickly, sometimes within a week, but you can't be sure. Give yourself ample time. It took us about a month, though we could have had it done more quickly if we lived in Beijing or had the time to make quick trips there. If your child is traveling out of China on a newly issued foreign passport, you'll need an exit visa in order for him/her to clear Chinese immigration. This has to be applied for at the PSB where the Chinese parent's hukou is registered (his or her "hometown").

3. Purchase flights early. If you can (though I didn't), get your flights sooner rather than later. This can particularly helpful if traveling with a baby.You might need to call the airline to request seats and you can even request a bassinet on most international flights (free of charge, good for babies up to about 10 kilos or 22 pounds).  We flew United and they were very helpful. I called the airline to request bulkhead seats with a bassinet. There are only a few places on an airline where they can place a bassinet so it is a good idea to request one early. I found a lot of good information on Gypsy Momma about the pros and cons of sitting bulkhead and using a bassinet. For us, I think it was the best option, though William was a tight fit in the crib! FYI: lap infants (kids under 2 who don't have their own seat) travel for free on domestic flights in many countries. For international trips, you might want to budget about 10-20% of an adult fare.

4. Bring a stroller or a sling. A stroller can be checked (for free) at the gate, though I believe that some airlines may have restrictions on what kind/size of stroller is allowed. I rarely use a stroller in China because I find it too cumbersome. I generally go with a sling, which is what I used at the airport. From what I read, most airport security will NOT require you to remove your baby from the sling while passing through security, although in Beijing airport they did make me take him out (which was pretty annoying. Security is stressful enough as it is!).

5. Bring toys for the kiddos. I guess this should be obvious; bring age appropriate toys for your kids. It's a long flight and it's hard to predict how much they will sleep. William slept like a baby. Ping slept one hour on a 13 hour, red eye flight. I am glad I let her bring her cell phone to play on because the movies on the plane were a bit crap.

6. Bring food for your baby. You can bring pureed or liquid baby food on your flight. You can also bring breast milk and a cooler. Breast pumps should not count as hand luggage since they are considered medical equipment. I am no longer nursing, but if you are and need special accommodation (especially if you need to pump or transport breast milk) be sure to call the airline and they can help you out. On flights to the US from China they do NOT let you bring ANY liquids (even water from the airport concourse) on board with the exception of pre-made formula or breast milk. The flight attendants will help you with whatever water you need once you are on the plane.

7. Make use of family bathrooms and other family friendly options. Now that I have a baby, I understand what an absolute blessing family bathrooms are. I was really excited that they had them all over Beijing airport. If you are traveling alone with a baby or small children, they are especially wonderful because they have special equipment for kids to use the toilet or for you to place the baby while you go about your business. Some airports have play areas and may have rooms for nursing mothers. Be sure to ask about what's available for families. These little conveniences can be godsends!

8. Be prepared for jet lag. If you've traveled internationally, you may know how hard it is to overcome jet lag. It can be just as hard for kids. Ping is still struggling to get on schedule. William, on the other hand, had a horrible first night (probably the worst night he's had in his life) filled with screaming, crying, and looking around in fits of terror. But he's been back to normal ever since overcoming that first, tortuous night. You can't predict how anyone is going to deal with a time change or even a change in environment. Obviously, it's important to be flexible. I would also prepare yourself mentally for a few tough nights. If you have a baby or young children, try your best to sleep or rest when they are sleeping. Be patient. Eventually their sleeping and eating will be back on track, as will yours.

I'm sure there are lots of other good tips for international travel with little ones. If you have any to add, please share! I'll try to post more info about our trip when I get a chance. We are heading from Milwaukee to Atlanta over the weekend. At least that's only a two hour flight!

William relaxing at Starbucks.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

First trip abroad

We're headed to (the United States of) America! And much sooner than initially planned. Ping's core exams (Chinese, Math, and English) are on Monday. After that she is free on winter break until the beginning of March. Next Friday, with bags packed, we will be on a direct flight to Chicago. I've wanted this for such a long time I almost can't believe it will happen.

As excited as I am, I think Ping is more so. It's interesting to view this trip through a 10-year-old Chinese child's eyes. She has already come up with some great questions, such as “Where does the stuff go when you flush a toilet on an airplane?” (answer: I don't exactly know and prefer not to think about it.) and “Can we go swimming in the lake?” (answer: Only if you are a polar bear, dear.). 

My first trip overseas, 2004

Ping is a lucky girl. I didn't get to travel internationally until I was in college. My first trip was to Ireland to visit one of my close friends who was studying abroad in Galway. I was incredibly nervous before I left. I couldn't imagine what life would be like in another country. Looking back, it's funny that I was worried at all. Ireland was the perfect country to get a taste of foreign travel. While it's certainly different from the US, the differences aren't dearly as stark as, say, China. The food is familiar, the language is (more or less) the same, and the people are friendly. It's also stunningly beautiful and not at all overwhelming.

I can tell Ping is a little apprehensive about some aspects of going to another country. I told her that many of my friends have children she can play with and she also has cousins. Among the kids she is oldest and as such is lǎodà (老大, the boss). Still she asked how well the other children speak English.

"Very well, of course; they are American," I explained to her.

"How about the two-year-old?" she inquired about her youngest cousin.

"Yeah, she can speak okay," I replied.

"I think I'll just hang out with her," Ping decided, assuming that would be easiest.

I think the language might be the biggest shock and I'm glad she's already giving some thought to it. I was naively optimistic about languages differences on my first trip to a non-English speaking country. During that same trip to Ireland, my friend surprised me with a round-trip ticket to Paris. My dream come true! And I was even studying French at university! I could use my newly acquired skills to flag down taxis, book hotel rooms, and order baguettes! Yeah, right. . . it didn't go down quite like that. Instead, I ended up sobbing in the Louvre when I got yelled at by a worker in a strange language that I thought I understood but clearly did not.

My first trip abroad was a mixed bag of emotions, but certainly one of the best experiences of my life. Obviously it left a lasting impression on me as I haven't stopped traveling since. I hope that Ping will enjoy herself despite the difficulties she encounters.

Have you ever been overseas? What was your first trip abroad like? Did you have to deal with language differences? How did you cope?