We are travelers, but we are first and foremost parents. Parenting anywhere in the world comes with its challenges – and they’re often the same wherever you are, depending more on your child’s peculiarities (they all have a schtick) than on your location at any moment. For some kids, they need constant running at playgrounds around the world. Others will only eat fries (listed as “chips” pretty much everywhere else). And some, like our kids, have a magnificently large “personal space bubble”.
America and many other English-speaking countries are friendly and welcoming places, but in a way that could be considered proper and likely derived from their status as former British colonies. Not only does the linguistic familiarity make these places easy to travel to with kids, but the cultural similarities mean that most American kids will feel totally at home. After all, in many American cities these days you’re barely likely to get a nod and a smile walking down the street… if a passerby looks up from the glow of the cell phone screen.
Having traveled to other countries and Ronnie being the son of immigrants from two other totally different cultures, we adults are fairly accustomed to some differing cultural norms. In particular, we know that friendliness has different forms in different parts of the world. When we first left America back in October, we gently advised the kids that people in Central and South America are friendly in a different way. For instance, they are more likely to greet visitors of all ages in a way that implies a level of familiarity – often with a few kisses or a hug, even from a total stranger.
Part of the reason we chose Panama as our first destination is that we knew it would offer our family a soft landing. Ronnie and I both speak Spanish, and our LA-born kids have at least a passing understanding. It also attracts a huge international presence, and some of the typical Latin American warmth is less intense than in points further south. Things mostly went according to plan, and we all had a great time. Our next stop, Chile, has a culture that we’ve heard described as “reserved” and “formal” compared to the rest of the region – and we found it to be largely true. Santiago itself could be a big city anywhere, with Starbucks and well-dressed business people filling the European-looking boulevards.
When we arrived in Argentina, however, things started getting a little dicey. We told the kids – more firmly, this time, that Argentinos are extremely affectionate even with strangers and that no one would mean them any harm, but that they could come to us if they ever felt uncomfortable and wanted people to leave them be. We also suggested that preemptively offering a mature, business-like handshake and introduction might avoid some unwanted forms of greeting (still working on that one…). While Ronnie and I were charmed by the country’s gushing hospitality, the kids were over it before our first 24 hours were up. They were hugged, kissed, tickled, wrestled with, picked up and touched constantly on their (in my opinion) beautiful hair. While our daughter is younger and only somewhat minded the attention, our son just positively couldn’t take it. No way, no how. He spent an entire evening when we were guests at someone’s home locked in a back bedroom, too afraid and perturbed to come out. While that early experience was by far the most intense, for the next month he encountered a barrage of well-meaning abuelitas who wanted nothing more than to get a piece of his beautiful copper hair and sometimes pinch a cheek.
Overall we had an amazing month in Argentina, despite the repeated intrusions on the kids’ personal space. We tasted wine in Mendoza, explored the colorful neighborhoods and learned to make empanadas in Buenos Aires. We met newborn penguin chicks in Peninsula Valdes, watched and listened to ice calve off of a mammoth glacier, hiked the spectacular trails of El Chaltén and sampled chocolates and sunsets in Bariloche. And yet, upon reflection, just about the only thing that sticks out in our son’s memory is how uncomfortable he felt all the time.
Some of the discomfort is surely just due to his being a hypersensitive child. That’s absolutely not the fault of of the lovely, warm Argentinos we met; it’s just the nature of our boy (and many other shy, sensitive kids out there). Sometimes a small wave from a passerby is enough to send him into hiding on our hips. We wish he could be a little more chill about well-meaning casual contact and we frequently discuss appropriate behavior – it’s ok to wave instead of touch, to say no (or motion “no” when language barriers persist) to photo ops, and in the event of intrusive contact it’s ok and encouraged to find us for comfort or protection.
And there are days and time when he’s thrilled to meet new people in any country and give out high fives like candy. He’s visited 15 countries in his six short years; he generally does well and finds the elements of travel with which he connects (hint: it’s not always the people). Walking back from the night bazaar in Chiang Rai, Thailand recently he skipped along joyfully waving and greeting every person in sight. It was enough to make my mama heart sing, and we heaped on the positive praise. Here in Thailand, the greetings are warm and strangers often attempt affection, but are usually willing to leave the kids alone when they’re clearly uncomfortable. We appreciate that very much.
And so where does that leave us today? We’ve been loving our time in Thailand and have one week left until our scheduled departure to neighboring Vietnam, with a month planned to explore from top to bottom.
So why the hell am I writing this post now?
I am a member of a number of awesome family travel communities in Facebook land (I even help to run one!). Unlike the rest of today’s scorched-earth of social media, these groups are respectful and insightful places to exchange ideas and share tips. After all, it takes a village. And thankfully, in the comfort of other globe-trotting parents, we can be very very real.
A conversation came up this week has shaken Ronnie and I deeply. It came to our attention that sometimes in some places in Vietnam, it is fairly commonplace and considered socially acceptable to grab young boys by the crotch. Some people have speculated that it is to ascertain gender, but the more common explanation that I’ve found is that “chim-ing” is basically considered good luck. Perhaps it’s all the better if the target is a foreigner because the discomfort is good for a laugh? It seems that the grabber often first ingratiates herself (usually it’s older women in the stories I’ve now heard) and then goes in for the “good luck charm” of a young boy.
The conversation that followed this revelation, from a mother whose 4yo son was a recent victim (and the mother even managed to fend off a second incident just days later), was wide-ranging. Her family is considering leaving the county immediately despite heavy financial losses (not sure if “my son was touched inappropriately by an old Vietnamese woman in a local market” counts as an allowable reason for cancellation under most travel insurance plans). Some parents suggested leaving since her son was feeling so uncomfortable in the country, while others suggested that it’s a good teaching moment about cultural diversity. There isn’t a right or wrong answer, only the one that works for each family.
There’s a lot to unpack. Travel is an amazing opportunity to teach kids about different cultures, and we’ve spent enough time talking about military juntas, mistreatment of indigenous communities and visiting Buddhist temples that I feel we’re accomplishing our goal of expanding the kids’ horizons through travel. It’s not a box that will ever be fully checked, and we hope that our family gap year will inculcate in them a life-long love of travel. We also believe in respecting the cultures of other countries, though we may not choose to insert ourselves in it. That said, we carry with us some pretty black and white views on some things (this post, which I found in trying to understand chim-ing, matches pretty well with my thoughts).
On the other hand, our first priority will always be the physical and emotional well-being of our children. No amount of wanderlust will replace that. After reading more about the practice of chim-ing, I do not believe that it comes with any malicious intent. My take is that the cultural view of children’s bodies differs fundamentally from our own. But all of that is theoretical. In practice, we are exploring the world with a child whose feelings about his body are at serious odds with what is considered acceptable in Vietnam. We’ve seen first-hand his level of distress when touched in ways that we adults considered “extra friendly” but not out-of-line… so what happens to the sensitive child if he’s touched in ways that we find absolutely unconscionable? His internal bar for these things is just much lower than ours. If being touched on the hair made him hate Argentina, how will having his genitals yanked make him feel about Vietnam? And about Asia? And about travel in general? And much more importantly, how would that experience make him feel about himself and his body?
To us, the potential risk of our sensitive kid having an experience that would traumatize or seriously upset him as a living, breathing, thinking person with bodily autonomy outweighs the potential benefits of visiting Vietnam at this moment in our lives. There may be kids for whom that sort of intrusion would be no big deal, and perhaps a valuable lesson in differing cultural norms. But the most important tool a parent can have for successful family travel is an awareness of your own child’s strengths and challenges. We’ve willingly undertaken some experiences that have pushed him well outside of his comfort zone, but to us this one is “beyond the Pale”.
So what now? Despite the update I posted just last week, we’re changing course and skipping Vietnam with kids… for now. Perhaps in a decade, when he’s well outside the apparently-acceptable age for unsolicited genital-grabbing and is hopefully less perturbed by other tamer forms of social contact, we can revisit the prospect and see the beautiful karsts and watch a water puppet show and release our own candles in the river for the new moon. We have mixed feelings about the decision – obviously there’s a financial loss, and we were really looking forward to so many experiences there. But we feel confident that the decision is the right one for our son (and us) at this point in our family’s life and travels.
And as they say, when one door closes another opens. We have a month before we’re due in Athens for the next segment of our adventure, so we’re frantically researching the many options. After all, the only thing limiting our plans right now is our own imagination.