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I Take My One-Year-Old Around The World, And It’s Both Brutal And Inspiring

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Forgive me for stating the obvious, but traveling across the world with a one-year-old is hard. Our daughter has a phenomenal and consistently happy demeanor, and yet even that is no match for 24 straight hours of air travel. During our flight from Tokyo to Chicago, the longest leg of our journey to the States last month, there was a point, about 3 hours after when EJ would have normally gone to bed, when she was so overstimulated and overtired, and screaming so damn heartbreakingly loud, that the only thing I could think to do was to lock the 2 of us into the bathroom at the back of the plane. And so that’s what I did.

I bent my tall frame to fit into the phone booth-sized space; I let her look at her miserable, snot-streaked face in the mirror; I apologized for the hard time she was having, talking evenly yet firmly in an attempt to be heard over her cries. I sang to her and rocked her and rubbed her back: all the soothing tricks I had accumulated from when she was a baby. I tried to get her to play with the faucet and the soap and the paper towel dispenser. Nothing worked. She wouldn’t stop crying. I envisioned us stuck in that tiny bathroom forever, suspended and frozen some 30,000 feet above the International Date Line, never to sleep or touch land again. Needless to say, it was a dark time.

Jenny eventually took EJ from me, traded places with me the bathroom, and somehow, through what I can only describe as the hard-earned magic of motherhood, she got our girl to fall asleep. Later, when the plane finally touched down in the time zone I used to know best, I thought: we made it. Holy shit, we made it.

My feeling is that she’ll carry these early journeys with her always.

I didn’t go on my first flight until I was 13. My parents and I flew from Ohio to Florida, to visit my Gammie and Papa, and to go to Disney World. We’d made the same trip almost every spring ever since I was little, but we had always done it by driving, 20 hours in our rusted cranberry red station wagon, which would hum down I-75 while I lay on my back on the mildewed carpet and searched the night sky for constellations with my brother and sister. After I boarded that airplane and listened to it idling on the runway, its engines whining low as its crew readied for takeoff, I remember being excited and nervous, looking up at the ceiling of the cabin and wondering how we would survive, separated from the rushing clouds by what seemed such a thin membrane of steel. And when we finally took off, when the engines roared open and the sudden acceleration thrust the back of my head against the soft fabric of my seat, I was elated. I decided immediately that flying was, by far, one of the coolest things I had ever done.

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Like EJ, my wife was only a few months old when she took her first flight. In an early passport photo, taken when she was a baby, you can see her father’s fingers at the bottom of the frame, holding her up in front of the camera. She was off, flying to the Philippines from Texas before she could even walk.

EJ first flew at 4 months old, from Chicago to Denver. Eight months later she was off to Vancouver, and soon after that, to Hong Kong. Since then she’s flown to Seoul, back to the U.S., and again back to Hong Kong. Next week we’ll fly to Singapore. After that, Taiwan. Then, in no particular order: Manila, Melbourne, Shanghai, Bangkok, and who knows, maybe even Copenhagen, just to mix it up.

“It’s too bad she won’t remember any of it.” More than one person has said this to me about our daughter’s overseas adventures, specifically about our choice to live in Asia for 2 years. These people may be right; EJ may not remember any of it, but I still think that’s a bullshit thing to say. She may very well remember all of it — it’s simply that the remembering will feel differently to her. It will look differently, and not just to her, but on her. As a good friend of mine said to me when I told him about our move, some of our daughter’s very first memories will be of Asia, and her whole life will come to be marked by that fact.

I tried to get her to play with the faucet and the soap and the paper towel dispenser. Nothing worked. She wouldn’t stop crying.

But what does that mean? How exactly will our daughter be marked by this experience, and by all of this travel? Of course it’s not entirely for me to say — the answer I’m more intrigued by is the one I will never hear, the one that, god willing, EJ herself will come up with, as an old woman looking back at the end of a long and bighearted life. Still, my feeling is that she’ll carry these early journeys with her always; she’ll wear them on her face like an expression, a way of smiling or wondering with her eyes as she walks into a room. It’s a look I’ve already seen in her eyes, just above the inside corners that, just like her mother’s, curve down towards the bridge of nose ever so slightly, like the suggestions of teardrops.

I saw the look last week, when we were in Cincinnati visiting 2 of our best friends, who themselves have 2 wonderful children. Their son is 4 years old and hilarious, and as he flew circles around EJ like Peter Pan (he was actually dressed up like Peter Pan, and it was awesome), I watched as our daughter studied him, clearly amused and yet content to stay on the edge of the action for a few minutes while she assessed the situation. This boy, she might have been thinking, is different than so many of the kids where I live. Perhaps she was trying to wrap her mind around his blond hair and blue eyes, his language that resembled the language of her mother and I.

EJ was already accustomed to seeing mostly people with darker hair and eyes, to hearing primarily Cantonese words from the kids next to her on the swings at Victoria Park. Could it be that the people from where we used to live were already appearing foreign and yet still familiar to her, as they were to us? Whether or not she considered this familiar difference in her way, there among the toys in that living room in Cincinnati, she didn’t let it keep her from eventually acting upon what may be one of the purest and most universal of desires: jumping in and having fun with a new friend who wants to play.

I think everyone who has ever traveled with a child has their own version of that nightmarish airplane bathroom. Even if you take your kid outside of your comfort zone by only a block or 2, you risk emotional, mental, and physical stress, all of which are heightened by the natural urge to keep your family safe. Along these lines, I can only imagine what my parents endured on some of those early trips down to Florida, and what they might have had to give up in order to get my siblings and I to a place that was different than where we came from, if only marginally: a state that had warmer weather, an ocean, grandparents, and (speaking of stress) an amusement park centered around a big-eared mouse with fuzzy white gloves.

If our parents were anything like us, they considered all the risks and the costs of traveling and yet were not stopped by them. They saw, way out in the distance perhaps, a look in our eyes when our eyes fell on something new, and they went for it.

Here’s to seeing the curiosity and the open-mindedness that shines out from that look. Here’s to going for it.

Jason Basa Nemec’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review Online, Slice, and numerous other magazines. He lives in Hong Kong with his wife and daughter. He is currently writing a year of stories and ideas about fatherhood at www.sensitivefather.com.