I watched my children peer out of the bouncing train’s window, absorbing the views and smells and sights of Sri Lanka. In a sense, it was not at all a ‘new’ place to them – we have traveled here to visit grandparents and aunties and uncles and cousins every few years since their infancy. But in another sense, it is a brand new experience every time we come because with each trip, they know more, understand more, process more.
The sites from the train whizzed past us, poverty violently contradicting beauty, and I watched my children’s reactions to this just as carefully as I watched the scenery passing by.
These were not views we saw regularly in our lives at home. On the train, their strongest reaction was quietness (which is significant if you know my chatty son), and they didn’t say much about it at all until we came back to the States.
Two days after our return, my son climbed in the car after school and commented, “Mama, I think I’m just really into the world,” he declared matter-of-factly.
“What do you mean by that?” I’ve learned it’s best to always ask him for further clarification. He has a bit of a history of mind-stretching conversations.
“Well, you know. All the kids at school, they’re really into video games and stuff. It’s all they talk about. Me, I think about other things, like poverty and stuff.”
The views from the train entered my mind, and I waited for more.
“I mean, can’t someone do something about it, Mama?” he asked the very question I asked every single time I see injustice. “Why do people have to live like that? Can’t Barack Obama help them?”
I rejoiced for the awareness he showed and smiled at innocence. Those train-views were sinking in, and he was starting to sort them out.
My intuitive daughter made a different kind of observation, “The people seem happier there, mama.” Already she senses the emptiness of accumulation and busyness, noticing the up-side of living without. My father-in-law used to say that it takes a long time to see the good in a place like Sri Lanka, but she sees it without delay.
Over the years, I’ve had my moments of wondering if we’ve been crazy to repeatedly take our children to a developing country plagued by war, dengue fever, and flying cockroaches. When they were babies and toddlers, I was nearly convinced we were crazy. Nine hour jet lag didn’t look too great on any of us except my energizer-bunny-of-a-husband in those years, and it would be a bit of an understatement to say we had some rough moments on those trips. So why do we embrace the difficulty, the seeming risk of it all?
One of the strongest lessons I learned when my husband and I were dating was to make decisions out of conviction and not fear. I’ve carried this concept with me into parenting, and it has helped clarify many decisions – especially the idea of traveling with our kids. Though we don’t always live close by, we value our families deeply, and want our children to have the opportunity to know and learn from them. This value of family connectedness held more conviction than my fear of bombs or dengue or flying cockroaches. While the conviction didn’t erase the fears, it certainly put them in perspective.
In the earliest years of parenting, our decision to travel with our children was merely a hunch that it would be good for them in the long run. “Start as you mean to go on” became our motto, for we wanted the world to be something that was as much a part of them as their hometown, and we knew that to do this, it should be something they had always known.
As they grow up, periodic responses like my son’s are confirming our hunch. Trip after trip, I watch them connect with bits of themselves that they can’t find here in the US. I rejoice quietly when I hear them use mulli and akka (the Sinhala words for little brother and big sister) for each other, when they call their father Thaathi with a Sri Lankan accent instead of an American one, when my daughter asks me to put her hair in a really low ponytail because “that’s how a lot of people wear it here”, or when they critique each other on proper finger-eating techniques. While these are small and simple details, to me they speak loudly that our children are embracing all sides of themselves, proud to be shaped by both sides of the world.
They are by no means walking this path between worlds perfectly – their penchant for pizza and entertainment rivals most kids – but they’re doing it well, leaning in with whole hearts and open eyes. It’s the sort of thing that brings a mama to her knees, grateful for the chance to walk alongside the unfolding of wonder and compassion.