T-Minus 27 days before we depart!

There are so many things to do! One of them is to give the kids some information about our trip that I hope will help them adjust as we travel.

Tuk tuk: Thailand

I spent the better part of my early twenties wandering the globe, so I have an idea about what we are getting ourselves into on this upcoming trip. My kids have not yet traveled internationally and so, as we prepare to embark on this trip, they seem to be filled with equal parts excitement and hesitation. I’m hoping that giving them some information about what we are about to experience ahead of time will help to smooth the transition of traveling to developing countries for the first time.  My youngest is five, and while some of this will be helpful for him to hear, I think for the two twelve-year-olds it will contribute hugely to their happiness and ability to adjust. Here are a few things that I plan to talk with them about before we go:

1. Culture Shock

Talking about culture shock before the trip will give us a frame of reference for talking to them later on during the trip if they are struggling to adjust.  Much like there are recognized stages of grief that a person progresses through when dealing with a loss, there is a typical emotional process that happens when spending time in another culture. If the kids understand that they might experience these sorts of feelings before they even begin, they will be much easier to confront as they happen.

I will explain to them that a person typically starts off excited about their adventure. When the initial feelings of excitement wear off, some people begin to miss home and feel frustrated with or confused by the cultural differences they are experiencing. But over time they adjust and begin to enjoy and appreciate the new culture.

There tends to be a similar situation upon returning home.  The initial excitement about being home and seeing friends and family again eventually wears away. A person who has returned home after a long trip in another culture can feel disoriented, which is often unexpected. They can feel as if they have changed and no longer fit in. They may also be bothered by aspects of their culture that they did not notice before. Eventually, these feelings resolve and people are able to integrate their experience into their life at home.

2. Cultural Etiquette

The nuances of cultural etiquette will be an entirely new experience for the boys. I will explain to them that so many of the things that we think and do automatically may seem natural to us, but are actually culturally derived. People tend to be pretty forgiving when it comes to dealing with cultural blunders made by well-meaning travelers. However, attempting to learn and follow the cultural norms of the place you are visiting can go a long way towards making connections and showing respect for the people whose home you are traversing.

Because we will be starting in Thailand for the first two months, I will introduce the boys to a few aspects of Thai cultural etiquette first. We will read up about cultural etiquette in other countries together before traveling there. Below are the things that I will introduce them to before we leave:

  • In Thailand, the King is beloved and sacred. You will see images of the King everywhere in Thailand. Be respectful regarding the King and the Royal Family at all times. This is actually a law. Disregarding it can get you in trouble.
  • People’s heads are considered the most sacred part of their bodies. It is rude to touch a person’s head, especially the head of someone that is of higher status (for the kids, this means any adult).
  • Feet are considered the lowest part of the body. Make sure you don’t step over or point your feet at a person or a Buddha statue. When you are sitting, put your feet behind you.
  • The wai is a traditional greeting in which you put your hands together in front your chest and bow your head. You won’t be expected to initiate the wai, but it is polite to return a wai to someone who is of higher status (i.e. adults).
  • There is certain expected behavior when inside Buddhist temples. Dress in long pants, with your shoulders covered. Take off your shoes outside the temple. Don’t climb on or touch a Buddha statue. Stay calm and quiet at all times when inside.
  • In Thailand, people don’t express extreme emotions in public.  An anger outburst is seen as “loss of face,” or a sign of weakness. Don’t do or say anything that might make someone look bad in front of others.

3. Money / Wealth / Poverty

Kids who have lived in a major city will be familiar with poverty. But we live in a pretty small, middle-class town. If we see someone begging with a cardboard sign outside the Fred Meyers, it is somewhat of an event for the kids. They do not have any intimate knowledge of or experience with poverty. They are about to be shocked.  They will see poverty like they have never seen before.

I want to help them understand that they will be seen as rich, just because of the place that we call home. I want them to understand how relative the term “rich” really is. According to a Gallup metric, the median household income in the United States  is $43,585. Now look at the median household income for the countries that we will/may visit:

  • Thailand: $7,029
  • Vietnam: $4,783
  • Laos: $3,379
  • Cambodia: $2,308
  • Malaysia: $11,207
  • Indonesia: $2,199
  • Singapore: $32,360

With the exception of Singapore, the median household income in the US is four to twenty times more than the median income in the countries of Southeast Asia. Though we are unarguably middle class while home in the US, relative to the average citizen in the countries we will be traveling, we are rich. This reality will effect our experience in an emotional way, as well as in a practical way.

For one, we need to be aware of this disparity and how it colors our interactions with people. We need to be street wise in our wandering. In order to be safe and respectful of those around us, we need to be aware of our belongings and when it is and is not appropriate to pull out our electronics and other expensive equipment. Just as important, we need to have a soft heart for those around us who are struggling. We need to be prepared for experiencing begging and seeing people who lack basic human needs. We will not give to beggars on the street, for reasons I will cover in a future post (in the meantime, read this), but we will look for other ways to be sure we are contributing in a positive way.

Alright, Southeast Asia. Ready or not, here we come!