When I was growing up, a vacation meant two weeks in Florida visiting my grandparents. Delray Beach, with its palm trees, warm beaches in midwinter, poolside restaurants and hibiscus hedges, seemed like another planet to this suburban NY kid. Most of my friends also visited relatives over school breaks; some of the more affluent went skiing in Vermont or Colorado, or on a Caribbean cruise. Only occasionally did we hear about someone going to Europe or Israel. Africa and Asia really were like other planets, as far as we were concerned.
Partly as a result, I grew up without a very developed sense of how the rest of the world worked. Of course I read books, studied French and Spanish, and saw the occasional foreign film, but in terms of actual human interaction or understanding, I was as provincial as they come. Examples:
I was once arranging to meet my friend Julie, who was originally from Taiwan. Going down a list of mutually convenient restaurants in my head, I said to her, “Do you like Chinese food?” (There was a thoughtful silence followed by cackling.)
In my early twenties, I worked with a couple who were from Thailand, and lived in Jersey City. One evening as we boarded the elevator after work, I noticed that they were dressed more formally than usual, and I asked, “Going someplace fun?” Nitaya responded, “Our queen is in town, and we’re going to a function for her.” I was bewildered. “There’s a queen of New Jersey?” (Similar reaction.)
My husband and I agreed that we didn’t want Ben to be like that, and so we started taking him on foreign trips when he was around ten. We try to go away every year, sometimes twice a year. We haven’t made it to Asia or Africa yet — our budget doesn’t stretch that far — and generally our destinations are dictated by the availability of cheap deals, so we tend to travel at times when everyone else is anxious to leave the country we’re visiting. But Ben is now fairly comfortable in London, Paris, Dublin, Rome, Florence, and, as of this past Thanksgiving, Munich and Salzburg.
When we arrive in a city for the first time, he is the one who immediately figures out the metro system and where the center of town is. When we return, even a year or two later, he remembers the location of his favorite restaurant and the place where he bought the cool t-shirt for only 3 Euros. He’s good at deciphering foreign menus and picking up, and using, new phrases. I’ve grown to rely on him as a de facto tour guide.
His comfort is aided by his Internet skills. He practices French with Parisian buddies in chat rooms. He shares music with other musicians all over the world. He is Facebook friends with the young-adult children of the friends we visited in Munich last week. There is no “other” to him; no country seems really foreign as far as I can tell.
And it all came home to roost this week, when we received his SAT results. He did well, and his response was, “Hey, this means I can apply to McGill!”
I had no idea he was considering McGill. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I just didn’t think I could get in, but this changes things. Look, I could practice living in another country — and then they have a two-year study-abroad program!”
“That’s great, honey,” I said weakly.
I moped for the rest of the day, flashing back on previous separations — the first time I left him with a sitter; his first day of preschool; his first sleepover; his first session sleepaway camp. I hated every one of them. I was anxious and distracted until he’d returned safely. And now this.
But it’s what we wanted for him — comfort in the world, a sense of adventure, confidence in the face of the unknown. Whether or not he ends up attending this particular school (and, as I keep reminding myself, he’s only in 11th grade; there’s more than enough time to start worrying later), I’m proud of his ability to consider navigating another system, to stretch so far from his comfort zone. It’s a good thing, really.
MULTIPLE: President, Los Angeles Harbor College, President, Los Angeles Southwest College, President, Los Angeles Valley College