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Oh China, Part One

We discovered that the airplane is its own amusement for a lot of the trip (courtesy Laura Bond Williams)(This is a guest post by Austin-based writer and editor Laura Bond Williams; it’s Part One of a series about taking her two children to China, with tips for long-haul travel with young kids and impressions from her time in the country. Thanks for sharing, Laura!)

“Are you going to take the kids?”

That was the most popular question I got when I told friends and colleagues that our family was going to Beijing, China, for most of April.

(The next question was “Why China?” I’ll get to that another time.)

But the answer to the first was simple: “Yes, we’re taking them.”

Our daughters are 3- and 5-years-old. I was a little surprised that the prospect of a long haul flight (~14 hours) to a non-English speaking country with 2 small children was clearly beyond the comfort zone for many people.

I am here today to say “Fear NOT,” dear travelers. You TOO can make a 14 hour flight with a 3 hour connection, nearly 22 hours of door-to-door travel, with your kids. Just follow these 5 easy steps, and you too could be sitting pretty in a Shunyi Starbucks, observing the glistening haze of pollution overhead and watching cottonwood puffs swirl around you like a crazy springtime snow.

Of course, getting there is only a fraction of the vacation. The real work to prepare kids for the flight and the experience starts weeks in advance. So here are my five easy steps to embarking on a successful long-haul trip with little kids. Some are strategic, and some are practical. Mix and match them to make the perfect trip for you!

A little bit of familiarity can be a good thing for kids in a foreign country (courtesy Laura Bond Williams.)

1) Build curiosity. From the moment we bought our airplane tickets, my husband and I talked about China with our kids. Everywhere we went, we’d say “What do you think the park is like in China?” or “the grocery store?” or “the mall?” “Do you think they have Starbucks? Chick-Fil-A? Target?” “Do they have Chinese restaurants in China, or is it just food?” You get the idea. Build curiosity (including your own) with constant questions.

2) Tell everyone. We told EVERYONE that the girls were going to China. I mean everyone – including the woman at Costco who took their passport photos. Questions from friends, neighbors, classmates and even strangers helped us build our kids’ enthusiasm for the trip. My daughter’s teacher involved her preschool class, and they made a book of questions for her to investigate while in China.

3) Set expectations for the time change. Even though our kids are too young to understand time zones and the concept of the International Date Line, we began talking about the time in China. While our daughters were eating breakfast, we’d talk about our friends eating dinner in China. About a week before we left for Beijing, I started talking about the long flight. I explained we would eat dinner, then a snack, and then breakfast on the plane. And wouldn’t that be FUN?

4) Don’t underestimate their ability to understand. Maps and globes are a must when talking about travel. We also got a great book from our local library, “Me on the Map.” It shows a child in her room, and the room in the house, and the house on the street, street in the city, city in the state, state in the country, country in the world. It helped them understand the radical change of place they were about to experience.

5) Overpack for the flight. I seriously overpacked amusements for the flight. I had sticker books, coloring books, dominoes, card games, pipe cleaners and beads, story books, an iPod with my kids’ favorite songs on a playlist, a small finger puppet theatre…and more. Truthfully, they didn’t need all of that. My 5-year-old watched “Kangaroo Jack” 4 times and was happy as a clam. But it made ME feel prepared for anything.

But what about the flight, you may say. The actual sitting-on-the-plane part? What did I do about that? Well, I really believe that building enthusiasm and anticipation helped make the flight bearable.

Watching your 3-year-old climb the Great Wall is an incredible reward for a mere 14-hour flight (courtesy Laura Bond Williams.)

Okay, so here’s some practical advice, too. My quick list:

  • Order kid’s meals from the airline in advance.
  • Drink lots of water. No juice; it doesn’t rehydrate you well.
  • Take walks around the plane every 2 hours at a minimum.
  • Ask your doctor about over-the-counter medication that can be used as sleep aids, (and yes, I did use those, too). Children do need their sleep, if it’s only a fitful 6 hours.

At the end of the flight, I watched our daughters’ shining, excited faces as we landed in Beijing. They beamed – and I knew they were happy to be there. They were eager to see China.

If they had to sit on a plane for a day to do it, that was okay with them. And it was okay with me, too.

© 2008 Laura Bond Williams

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