For much of June, we were in the U.S., visiting family and friends. This series of articles offers observations of that trip in connection with raising bilingual children.
The journey abroad, between our house in Japan and my mother’s home in the U.S., is always long and tiring, even when it goes pretty smoothly. Sometimes, though, as was the case when we were returning to Hiroshima this time, it offers a series of unexpected challenges.
But before I share these incidents—and how this all connects directly to raising bilingual kids—I have to tell you that I’m not a very good traveler these days. I’m almost constantly on edge, my mind whirring with little worries:
Should I run to the bathroom before I get on the plane? What if the other passengers start boarding and we don’t get space in the overhead compartment? I hope our carry-on bags will fit. Are they too big? Will they stop us at the gate? Maybe I’m carrying too many bags. Should I have Lulu carry something? Lulu should probably go to the bathroom now, too…
It’s not exactly relaxing.
So you can probably imagine the wide-eyed shock on my face at the sight of our first stumbling block, just before we left my mother’s house for the airport. It was 5 a.m., our flight to Chicago was departing in less than two hours, and as I zipped up our last bag—a cheap carry-on stuffed with food and other items for the trip—the zipper part came straight off, detaching entirely from the bag. The bag was now zipped permanently shut.
“Stupid bag!” I snarled, setting another mature example for my children.
So I clawed apart the carry-on, grabbed a big shopping bag from my mother, and dumped everything into it. Then, not wanting the shopping bag to tear open from the weight and spill out its contents as we hurried from one airplane to the next, I reinforced the bottom with strips of packaging tape.
When we arrived at the Memphis International Airport, it seemed we had plenty of time to spare, but I hadn’t counted on facing the next difficulty so soon.
“Why don’t you repack?”
Because we were returning to Japan with many more things than when we first arrived—clothing, books, games, food, souvenirs for friends—one of our suitcases was well over the weight limit set by the airline.
And the excess baggage fee was a hefty $100.
“You still have time, though,” said the woman at the check-in counter. “Why don’t you repack your suitcases and then bring them back?”
Repack our suitcases? It took us all day to pack them yesterday!
But we dragged them off to the side, opened them up, and began furiously repacking.
Fifteen minutes later, finally managing to lighten the load of our heaviest bag, we checked our luggage and boarded our flight for Chicago.
“Go get someone!”
In Chicago, waiting for our flight to Tokyo, we faced a third unexpected dilemma—something that hadn’t even crossed my jumpy mind as a potential problem.
Roy, already worn out from waking early that morning, was lying across the two seats next to me. I was eating an onion bagel when he suddenly sat up, turned toward me with a helpless look in his eyes, and threw up all over himself.
It could have been worse, I guess. The mess was limited to his own clothes and the area around where he was sitting, but still… Now what? I wondered, adrenaline surging. What do you do when your child throws up in an airport?
I mean, I’ve read a lot of books about child-rearing, but I had never once come across this valuable piece of information.
So I just did what came naturally: I panicked.
“What should I do?” I asked my wife (in English).
“Go get someone!” she replied (in Japanese).
Get someone? Who do I get? A doctor?
So I hurried off to find someone—someone with an official-looking badge would be good, I thought—as my wife tended to poor Roy.
After collaring a woman with a badge (and a walkie-talkie, which seemed even more promising), and telling her in my panicky, high-pitched voice, “My little boy just threw up,” she flagged down a member of the cleaning crew.
The cleaning woman, with her rag and spray bottle, wasn’t exactly a doctor, but I motioned for her to follow me and led her back to where we were sitting. As the cleaning woman attacked the seat with her spray bottle and rag, my wife took Roy to the bathroom to wipe off his clothes.
When they returned, Roy was sporting a brand-new T-shirt—a bright red “Chicago Rocks!” T-shirt that was too big for him but was the smallest size available in the airport gift shop.
It cost $25. (But since we saved that $100 in Memphis, I figure we came out $75 ahead.)
Dry your eyes and go on
I share this story with you today to make a simple, but important point. (Besides the importance of always traveling with a change of clothes for your children in case they throw up at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.)
The bilingual journey is very much like taking a long trip: both will present difficulties along the way, but if you do what you must to address those difficulties, you’ll ultimately reach your destination.
After all, if I had just sat there on that heavy suitcase in the Memphis International Airport and cried, we might never have made our way back home to Japan. There’s nothing wrong with sitting on your suitcase and crying, mind you, but if that’s your only response to a problem, you’ll never make it to your destination. Finally, you have to dry your eyes and go on. You do what you need to do to move forward and finish your trip.
The bilingual journey is no different, really. You have a destination—your goal of good bilingual ability for your children—and you’ll likely experience an ongoing series of challenges as you proceed. But you have to meet those challenges head on, you have to persevere, you have to endure, if you really wish to reach your destination. Despite your worries, despite your fears, you deal with each difficulty as it arises. Sit on your suitcase and cry a while, if you must, but then stand up again and soldier on.