The Ultimate Endurance Test:
Trans-Pacific Flight With Kids January 5, 2007
Please forgive me if my words lack a bit of zip or even coherence. I am writing from deep within a daze, which is both hard earned and hard to shake off. It is the product of round-the-world travel with three kids and it is as inevitable as it is brutal. No matter what I do or don’t do, it will take about four days to begin feeling fully human again and a week to be about back to normal.
As I write this, I’ve been back in China for less than 12 hours and I haven’t had a proper night’s sleep for something like 48, though I’d have to take out a pad and paper to calculate the specifics. We left Bay City, Mich. on a 10 a.m. flight on New Year’s Day and flew to Chicago O’Hare, where we boarded a United 747 for the almost 14-hour flight over the North Pole and into Beijing. This is a huge improvement from the recent past, when all flights had to fly West rather than North and most trips from America to China required a change of planes and took considerably longer. But it is still quite a haul.
Things got off to an auspicious start when my Chinese-made and bought “Ecko” hiking pants badly ripped before we even boarded our first flight. That was shortly after checking eight bags filled with all our clothes in addition to puzzles, Hot Wheels, Legos, Bionicles, Superman walkie-talkies, Cabbage Patch dolls, endless books and two bottles of Manny’s Texas Weiners habanero hot sauce. I bent down to shove three travel-ready boxes of Fruit Loops into one of our four bursting carry-on bags, heard a tear and looked down to see the pants shredded on the right side of the crotch seam.
I had meticulously placed a change of clothes for everyone into a rolling carry-on bag, but my own alternate wardrobe only included a shirt and socks. I figured I would get a new pair of pants at O’Hare, but once there I realized that while Bears garb, Uno’s pizza and Chicago-style Vienna hot dogs are plentiful, there isn’t a single clothing store in the huge airport. I opted against fashioning a loincloth out of a Bears sweatshirt and boarded the plane for our long journey home with a gaping and growing hole in my pants. The only upside was that it provided intense amusement to my boys, coming in handy when I needed a distraction. And you’re never far from needing a distraction when flying 14 hours with three kids.
People often ask how we make the journey, apparently assuming that after a few times you learn some sort of cosmic secret to lengthy air travel with young kids. If only it were so. We still end up dragging way too much stuff onboard while lacking enough properly charged DVD-viewing options. The one tangible thing that experience provides is the knowledge that you will eventually make it alive to the other side of the world, by hook or by crook.
That’s an obvious point but one that becomes invaluable when things are at their bleakest — when you find yourself somewhere over the Arctic Circle, seven or eight hours from landing and contemplating whether or not it’s possible to unscrew your head and place it in the carry-on compartment.
You board the plane feeling weary but optimistic, ready for combat and reminding yourself to stay calm, that the race is a marathon and you will eventually cross the finish line. But you always reach a point of crisis, after you have watched a couple of DVDs and put away the portable player with a dead battery. You have read a few books and eaten a few meals. The kids have played Game Boy and befriended the kid three rows back. They’ve run up and down the aisles, charming some passengers and annoying others. You have received a few warnings from the flight attendants about your junk falling into the aisle and blocking the way. You have survived it all and feel pretty good. Then you look at your watch and a panic emanates in your gut and creeps through your entire body. Your insides turn to mush and you want to scream, “We have seven more hours and there’s nothing left in my bag of tricks!” It happens every time.
I boarded our flight from Beijing to San Francisco already exhausted, a result of two nights of little sleep as I stayed up late and woke up early scrambling to finish my work. I wanted nothing more than sleep but Anna and Eli had other ideas. Jacob slept halfway through the trip but the other two were up for hours. (This is typical.) As I carried Anna up and down the aisles on my shoulder, hoping she would fall asleep, I became irrationally angry with the childless people flipping through magazine or books. I wanted to scream at them, “You can sleep and yet you choose not to! Fools! Don’t you know it is going to be 8 a.m. when we arrive?”
I avoided that kind of insanity on the return flight by making sure to not start out too exhausted at the start, a trick we managed in part by celebrating New Years with the kids at 9 p.m. Even a relatively uneventful trip like yesterday’s has its moments of existential dread. As usual, Eli had a hard time falling asleep and, as his exhaustion grew, he started wriggling and tossing and turning, growing agitated and cursing both his fate and me. “I hate this flight!” he screamed. “Why did we have to move to China?”
Another round of Game Boy soothed the savage beast and he eventually passed out on my lap. I was happy, though I felt bad for the poor guy sitting next to Eli, crammed up against the window and getting kicked in the ribs.
Though we made it to Beijing with no further incidents, we’re not exactly on the other side yet. As much as you count down the minutes on the plane, the endurance contest is hardly over once you walk off. It takes nearly a week for everyone to get back on schedule and at least half of that to even approach normalcy.
We got home at around 5 p.m., unpacked a bit and ate a light dinner. Everyone was asleep by 8:00 and awake for the day by 11:30 p.m. Rebecca and I took turns being up as the kids alternately drew, watched movies, played on the computer, tried to go back to sleep, woke each other up, ate cereal and finally, fell back asleep. By 6 a.m., as I struggled toward the coffee pot, I had no idea who had been up for how long.
We are certainly left a bit dazed and confused by our 16-day trip to four destinations, involving eight flight legs. But I have no regrets. One advantage of packing so much into such a short time is it makes it feel like a long time, in every possible way. Therefore, it doesn’t feel like too short of a trip. It’s quite remarkable that we were only gone about two weeks. We really did a lot and saw a lot of people. Of course, with almost everyone we saw, we could have spent twice the time with them, and there were many things left undone and people left unseen. That’s just the nature of our lives for now.
We are exhausted but unbowed, happy to have reconnected with so many people we love and glad to be back. Embrace the chaos!
* * *
Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, about deciding to head home for the holidays.
* * *
Imagine this: the busiest travel day (Dec 17) and week at Heathrow and a luggage conveyor belt breaks down. Allegedly some 10,000 bags pile up. Then fog strikes for most of the week and here we expats and UK visitors to US sit with no luggage and no information on what is happening for a week. They should have called in the US Army!!!
— Naneen Neubohn
Sorry to hear your horror story. We dodged a few bullets but made it through our journey amazingly unscathed, only losing our bags from Denver to Newark for a couple of days. It was a miracle we made it through Denver and into NJ in the first place so it was easy to shrug off.
* * *
I see the logic in your trip home each year, but maybe one of these years you should turn it upside down. What if you helped bring some family members to Asia one year? I spent a Christmas in Singapore once and it was a wonderful time.
— Edward R. Blessman
I would love to bring some people here one year. We may well do it sooner or later, but we both have large families and we see a lot of people on these trips.
* * *
Your words describe my current experience perfectly. Our family also makes 2 home trips per year, largely for the benefit of our young children. I myself make the US trip 8 times per year, so I would gladly stay in Shanghai – but for their benefit and for their grandparents, we make a similar grueling expedition.
I depart today [Dec. 22] for two weeks: with stops in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charlottesville, Virginia Beach, and Indianapolis. The journey is always grueling, but I am always glad at the end. The concentrated family time helps maintain a sense of identity that is easy to take for granted until you transplant yourself to distant frontiers.
— Doug Wright, Shanghai.
I hope you’re having a great trip, which sounds even nuttier than ours was. I’m sure you know the drill already, but I still hope you don’t read this week’s column until you’re back.
* * *
Your article brought back memories of the eight years I spent living in England. I came home for just one Christmas, several years after I had left. While it was great to see my family and friends, I didn’t really fit in anymore. I had been gone long enough that neither country’s traditions really were mine. The same thing happened when I came back to the US, and returned to England the following Christmas.
I blend my traditions now. I serve traditional American holiday food, but dessert is Plum Pudding with Brandy Butter. My American friends think it is “quaint”. I send gifts to my friends in England – and they enjoy telling their friends that they came “all the way from America”.
I wouldn’t trade the fact that I had the opportunity to live in another culture, and I think we would be better off as a whole if more people did the same.