Not so many Western families travel to China with young kids for a vacation. That was the first thing that struck us as we flew to Shanghai a few weeks ago. If you don’t count the American-born Chinese newborn traveling with his nanny in economy class (mama sitting comfortably in business!), we were the only family with kids under the age of 10 aboard the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Los Angeles to Shanghai-Pudong. And we totally see why.
To Western eyes, China is a land of so much chaos. Shanghai is by far the most accessible and comfortable city on the Mainland for foreigners, but there is definitely still a lot of adventure to be had between noisy construction sites, large masses of people, uncountable food scares (40 year old meat, anyone?), scooters riding on the sidewalks or precarious potty arrangements. Having lived in the Middle-Kingdom before having children, none of this was new to us. And so, with little thought, we jumped on this chance of a lifetime to extend a work-trip and bring the family along! We packed light, and left the carseats at home. Besides our personal items, we managed with one umbrella stroller, one carry-on sized case and one larger duffel bag for our two week stay.
We flew from the Rocky Mountains in the United States to Shanghai-PVG with an ecstatic 3 year old, a curious 18 month old, a tired papa and newly pregnant mama. After just eight hours into our second flight, we were about “done” entertaining little children. Somehow though, we made it through 16 hours total flying hours and we at last broke through the yellow-tinted haze upon landing in Pudong. “OH! OH! IS THIS THE CHINA, PAPA?!“ Ayo yelled. What a breath of fresh air to the rest of us sleepyheads. And, that was pretty much the intensity of the excitement that he had during our whole stay. I vaguely remember an airport official grabbing odds and ends from Tall Mountain’s hand. He didn’t need to ask if he could help like in the West. It was obvious that this small gesture would be helpful. Ahh, we’d arrived!!
Oh how I love this vast and vibrant country and its generous, thoughtful and even childlike people who will always have a really special place in my heart. One Chinese word keeps coming to mind to describe my own experience with the Han Chinese. They are 热闹 – rè nào – it is that hard word to translate perfectly, which describes welcoming, the lively and the warm. My heart soared at the prospect of bringing my littles into this piece of our life and hearts. But first, my stomach leaped…for the vomit bag. How weary were we, after these sleepless flights (the other reason people don’t bring toddlers along!). I just couldn’t stop vomiting until the next morning when my head throbbed from the violence of it all.
Waking up, everything was so familiar. Errr…except for the unrestrained children in moving vehicles part! As for the kids, they were WILDLY elated not to be strapped into carseats during our couple of weeks in the “Hai” and they quickly got the hang of our hair-raising cab rides. “Nǐ hǎo Shī Fu” – “Hi, driver!” yelled my blond Ayo as he climbed into each cab.. Every cab driver got a kick out of his routine of greeting cabbies, thanking them and saying good bye. My son eagerly looked out of the cab window spotting new things, he counted other taxis, yelled “Nǐ hǎo!” to passersby out of the rolled down windows (get your head back in the car, boy!). Daughter took advantage of the distraction to get doors opened and to lick the headrest behind us. I noticed black filth from Délice’s lips to her neck and turned around to see the headrest, perfectly licked clean. Adventures in China, we were doing it!
Our first vacation week was spent meeting up with many lovely friends from our last season of life. We visited our old digs and quickly remembered our favorite places to eat. Workdays start and end late, dinners with friends were later than we are used to and the kids were troopers surviving on very little sleep while waking up with the sun at 4:50am. As a treat, we took them to the Shanghai Aquarium on one day (escalators that go inside the aquarium tanks, what!?) and the Artist Street on another (hmm, or maybe that was a treat for us?), but otherwise, we didn’t pack our time with things to do. There was so much to see for free! This week was also about a lot of new Shanghai findings that I hadn’t had the time to discover on my hectic solo work-trip just six weeks prior.
New discoveries: Rent had doubled in the past five years, the cost of living had skyrocketed, taxis were way harder to wave down (thanks a lot new App that allows people in the know to reserve them!), forget texting.. WeChat – the Facebook of China was the absolute best way to get in touch with everyone, the new builds of 2009 looked aged by about 15 years and the Chinese government had become really smart about people like us using VPNs to get around blocked websites. Companies were no longer just hiring a Western face to represent their brand but now required skilled professionals along with those ‘pretty faces’. Don’t worry, blond kiddos were clearly still the rage – err…where’s my kid, oh there she is!
We had some delicious Chinese food that week with our friends. Below, some Shanghai favorites: lotus root, Hong Shao Rou (red braised pork belly), Chinese white yam with blueberries and and and…
We also discovered a few extraordinary gems catering to the ever growing expat population, like Farine-Bakery Shanghai, that imports its flour from France to provide some of the most phenomenal pastries and coffee we have had in our lives. Later, we even stumbled upon a new Asian-American farm to table restaurant that opened in the past six months to respond to all the food scares with a creative offering of real food. Hunter-Gatherer Shanghai was like the American Chipotle of China but with more direct farm partnerships, more choices (squid ink noodles, lentils, roasted veggies, shredded zucchini rösti (and so on) bases with your choice of meats and greens), amazing smoothies and made-to-order juices and… a more expensive bill. You can get anything in this city.. at a price! Gulp.
The second week was a long and intense week of consulting for me, where I needed to be at the office. Coincidentally, it was also a work week for my husband, who attempted to work in the room next to where the kids would be playing. Talk about chaos. After asking around and doing some research, we hired a nanny for 2-3 hours to help out each morning at the going rate of about 5 bucks (USD) an hour and borrowed some toys from friends to fill in the long hours at home. Our temporary Airbnb apartment was perfect albeit small, Ayi had a lot on her hands dealing with TWO small children, and the outdoor humidity was just crippling. So, Tall Mountain did some research to switch it up a couple times during that week. He found a listing of the best indoor play areas in Shanghai. It’s a bit awkward to hire Ayi (“auntie”) for 5 USD and bring her along and pay the outrageous 32 USD to get two kids into an indoor playground, yet we were aware of the harmful implications of overpaying (and of course underpaying) in this society. No one was going to lose face on our watch. As it turned out, Ayi was perfectly happy to have a larger space to keep the kids entertained and safe instead of tripping on random iron rods sticking out from the pavement.
There is so much to reflect on from our first time bringing our small children to China.
Sure, it was chaotic, generally unrestful to vacation and attempt to work with little children in a developing country. It didn’t feel like your palm-tree vacation, and the kids did end up coming back with some tummy bug. Still, how thankful am I for this opportunity! Our 100% made-in-China Ayo just thrived in this environment. That kid comes alive with new experiences in general but I couldn’t believe how much he lapped up the Chinese sights and sounds and whipped out his Chinese, playing extrovert where he normally would have been shy. I am not quite sure how that happened. “What’s MEIYOU, mama? And how do you say ‘cucumber’ in Chinese?” Délice too, has grown so flexible with changing accommodations, sleeping times and foods on hand. As my own mama always says, this is how you are training them to be flexible. I never think of it consciously like that, but it’s not really fair to start traveling with teens hoping they will enjoy frog tendons the first time they leave the country, ya know?
We were also reminded of how charged China is spiritually. Spirituality is almost palpable as you enter an office where they hire a Feng Shui consultant to balance out the energies through plants and icons. The kids were particularly sensitive to the spiritual dynamics around us of fear, restlessness, confusion – that sort of thing. As a result, entering the expatriate church we used to go to (government requirement: foreign passports only), the spiritual shift was so dramatic in nature, it’s hard to even describe it here. Maybe entering that building is like breaking through a wall and having a heavy backpack taken off your shoulders. There is plenty more to say on this subject and things we experienced together, but I realize I am writing to a broader group of people, so ask me about it if you are interested!
Of course, bringing our most precious cargo along with us, we were confronted with our own insecurities and fears. How are we going to entrust our kids to a Chinese nanny we have never met? How will one of us travel by cab holding two kids? What will our kids eat when we are there? How often do they have to clean their hands so they don’t get sick? And the list goes on. The trip brought up so much that we didn’t even realize was there, and certainly never have to deal with when traveling to Europe.
In many ways, this voyage was as much a discovery of ourselves, of our value system and a re-ordering of our loves as it was about China and the Chinese people. So, you ask, was it worth us taking the littles across the Ocean to make these discoveries? For me, I can whole-heartedly answer: YES, it was!