15 June 2010

Family-friendly airport guides

The big children's playspace in Terminal 2 at Chicago O'Hare Airport.

For many families, the adoption trip to China may be their first time across the Pacific or even out of the country. Even for experienced road warriors, a flight home from Asia may take them into an unfamiliar airport. Combine that with serious sleep deprivation and taking care of a new little person whom you've just met and are still trying to bond with, and you may not even be able to find your way through your own hometown terminal.

We're starting a new series of articles at weninchina.com to guide you through the primary North American gateways to Asia. We'll talk about your arrival, how long it will take to get through Customs, where your connecting flights are, and the features of the airport from a family-travel perspective. How are the restrooms? Where can we sit quietly and decompress? Where can the kids blow off excess energy?

This season, we've already posted guides to Seattle/Tacoma, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Chicago O'Hare, with Portland OR, and Vancouver BC next on the list.

If you have suggestions, feedback, or want to share your stories with other travelers, please leave a comment here or email us at weninchinainfo (at) mac (dot) com. Hope you find these new guides useful.

11 June 2010

Gotta disagree with Anthony Bourdain (in one small way)

My wife and I went to listen to Mr. Bourdain a few weeks ago as he swung through the Twin Cities on a speaking tour. In person, he's the same guy as he is on the Travel Channel and in his books; intelligent and inquisitive, the 'bad boy' who really does care about ideas and words and authentic work.

Most of the hardcore foodies, restaurateurs, and hospitality workers of our city were in attendance that night instead of being on the job. They were looking for a good time from their hero and he certainly delivered, with frank talk about the compromised state of the food and media businesses, meditations on what it means to do something meaningful, and crazy travel anecdotes.

He advocates forcefully that the whole point of travel is to know a place and its people as they are, not as mere entertainment, and that a traveler shouldn't be plastic-wrapped from his or her surroundings, fed only the familiar food, media, and interpersonal interaction.

That means you as a traveler need to take people and experiences as they come. And getting back to food (it was a food talk), eating what the locals eat, where they eat it, and not demanding your familiar foods from home.

We liked his analogy of "when you're at your grandma's house, even if you don't particularly care for her cooking, when she makes you dinner, you eat it, because you love her and want to show respect." He also points out that you're much more likely to get better quality and safer food from the local cook sweating it out at the stand down the street, who serves his neighbors every day the foods they like to eat, than at the international hotel, where the  local staff doesn't have the familiarity with Ceasar salad, and they know you're gone in two days.

(The only time I got sick in China was from an undercooked room-service shrimp and pork stir-fry, so I'm nodding my head in agreement.)

He also delivered indictments of the fast-food industry regarding factory farming, marketing to kids, and nutritional deficits. From that he was adamant about never patronizing fast-food chains, ever.

And there's where the headline of this post kicks in. I'm pretty sure that you, reading this blog and the articles at weninchina.com, do patronize a McDonald's, Taco Bell, or Burger King on occasion. I do too.

And I know you may be anxious about the food you'll encounter on your trip to China. Tony and I would both encourage you to be brave and "just try it;" if you've gone to the trouble of flying halfway around the world it would be wrong not to experience food the way your hosts enjoy it.

But in our time in China, my wife and I witnessed numerous families - bright, intelligent people who triumphed over homestudies and government bureaucracy - utterly afraid of walking two blocks down the street to McDonald's to get a cheeseburger. Not because of thoughts of what was in the burger, but anxiety of figuring out how to order. Would they make fools of themselves in a big crowd?

My belief is that if I can help you walk those two blocks and order something you're familiar with - and interact with local people - then you're a lot more likely the next day to walk one block further to that little bakery or noodle shop, or stop at the grocery store. So yes, my little language cheat sheet definitely gives you the words you need to order Combo Meal #2.

Getting out of your hotel and onto the streets is the best possible way for you to soak in your child's local culture, and every interaction will give you more memories and experience to draw upon as you work with your child to help her learn who she is as she grows up.  I think Tony would agree with me on that one.


Since we are talking about Chinese food, I have just posted new articles about Chinese Noodles (the original fast food) and Bao, those steamed buns with the great fillings.  There's also a great article in this month's issue of the travel magazine Afar about xiao long bao, the "soup dumplings" famous in Shanghai and Taiwan.