The week before Thanksgiving I was in Tokyo, Japan, with my husband and son. My husband had been invited to speak at a conference, and we joined along (free flight for him, free hotel for most of the time for all of us!). This was the first time since my son was born – and the first time since leaving academia – that that I have traveled abroad. In this post I want to spend a little time reflecting on how different my experiences were this time around.
First, though, a bit more about going to Tokyo more generally for those who have never been. Simply put, it’s amazing. Vibrant, energetic, beautiful: it’s a city dense with history and culture, yet experimental and playful and youthful too. The city is more cosmopolitan than many people I’ve been talking to realize, which makes it a great place to explore not just Japanese culture, but cultures from all around the world (including an intriguingly hipster version of the US…and my personal favorite, the most delectable of European pastries).
It’s also a great place to take kids! Yes, it’s one of the largest cities in the world, which means it’s packed with people (many of whom don’t speak my own language of English) but the city’s transportation system is organized in a way that makes it legible (especially with the modern tool of google maps), and many people will go out of their way to help you if they see you fumbling about. Plus, given all those crowds, the city never seemed as overwhelming as I imagined it to be, partly because it’s a pedestrian and bike city. That incessant buzzing noise of vehicles that one finds in New York – or, in Europe, somewhere like Rome – is largely absent. The city is also well signed in English. Plus, because of the affection for fantasy and play (whether in the form of cosplay, anime, kabuki theater, or video games), it’s a city where kids can feel especially at home.
It goes without saying that traveling with a kid abroad requires a different perspective than going with a spouse or going alone. One has to let go a little. This sometimes means more time in a hotel room than you’d like. Or it means sacrificing an appealing sounding Japanese meal for noodles again, or pizza.
Whenever I found myself at an American style place instead of at a sushi bar, I tried to use it as a moment to practice the skill of comparison. This is probably one of the most accessible ways for an elementary aged kid to learn about their relationship to world outside their own neighborhood. How is pizza different (or not)? How are the menus different? How much does it all cost?
My son loves math and was especially interested in the process of monetary conversion between yen and dollars, so this was a form of comparison and contrast that we did a lot. While there, we bought fake money at their version of the dollar store and gave him our receipts whenever he expressed interested in them. He was also fascinated by the written language (which he described as symbols), and would spend time trying to write it down in his journal.
Going to another country also seemed to deepen my son’s sense of empathy and perspective for others at home. He has a few kids in his class that speak English as their second language, and before we left he mentioned that going abroad would help him experience what’s it has been like for some of them to try to communicate and learn at school. And perhaps because he goes to a culturally diverse school, he also seemed more at ease at Japan than I had thought he would.
Traveling abroad with a kid also means reprioritizing what constitutes a tourist destination. On past trips, I’d make lots of time for art museums, and very little time for what I’d think of as more “tourist trap” kinds of destinations. This time, the only absolute MUST for our family was a trip to the Pokemon Center. Our time at museums was comparably minimal.
One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about since returning from the trip is how often those museum trips were shaped by a certain sense of academic “duty” that wasn’t there this time around. In the past, I’d go to museums to “cover the bases,” so to speak and check in on those scholarly “must sees”…sometimes “just in case” I might want to teach them in a future class.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with scholarly focused tourism. One of my favorite experiences abroad was exactly that: an art-filled trip to Italy made while in grad school that deepened my love for the Renaissance. But sometimes, the agenda driven trip could start to feel like a set of responsibilities more than pleasures – places I’d feel guilty about missing if I didn’t get to check them off my to do list. One can start to feel a lot of pressure when traveling if they are also constantly experiencing academic FOMO.
Going this time around with a kid helped me realize that the simpler – and sillier – experiences that I used to pass on for murals or altarpieces instead, are rewarding on their own. They are rooted in a kind of wonder and vulnerability we adults don’t often allow ourselves. One poignant example: whenever my son would see a statue of a Pokemon, or Mario Brother, or a Lucky Cat, he’d feel compelled to play make believe and replicate their pose in front of them. How wonderful to feel so uninhibited – so filled with wonder and joy – to let a statue transport you into an imaginary land.