I haven’t traveled abroad since my children were born. Even so, I often struggle when cultures collide. Today, it’s within the borders of my own home, when my own values conflict with the cultural microcosm of my preschool children. Wearing pants, for example, is a value that is not shared by the youngest members in this household. We are constantly debating over what is OK to eat, throw, and climb as I help my children learn to navigate life in our family and the culture at large. My dream is that someday my adult children will neither eat stray Cheerios from the floor nor stand on top of their dresser: cultural assimilation at its best.
When I was in college, I spent a summer teaching English in China. One tenet of Chinese culture, we learned, was the idea that the smallest unit of survival is the family unit. Although I tried to be open-minded, I just couldn’t fully grasp this belief. As much as I liked my family, I reasoned that it was possible for me to go out on my own and build a lean-to in rural Montana, surviving on bugs and jackrabbits and wild berries. (Ok, honestly, probably not. But my lack of survival would be due to the fact that I possess no wilderness skills. Are jackrabbits even native to Montana?) Anyway, perhaps not me, but surely someone could survive on their own.
My one-year-old son is a great sleeper. When he’s tired, he finds his favorite things – his blankets, his stuffed owl, and his pacifier – and he snuggles into my shoulder. It’s bliss. Sometimes he actually laughs out of happiness as we approach his crib, and he falls asleep without fussing. But if we’re anywhere but home, he has a terrible time. He fights sleep with every bit of his tiny being until he succumbs out of sheer exhaustion, hours past his bedtime. We’ve tried everything we can think of, but it is a very difficult and traumatic experience for him.
While traveling last month, we tried tucking him in the same bed as his three-year-old sister. He whimpered a little, but we could hear them talking quietly, and eventually they both fell asleep. A few hours later, he woke up, sobbing and disoriented. I went in to reassure him; I told him he was safe and he could lay down and go back to sleep. He saw his sister sleeping soundly and crawled to her end of the bed. He curled up next to her, so close that their foreheads touched, and fell asleep.
The smallest unit of survival is the family unit. I get it now. Sometimes, survival means lean-tos and wild berries. And sometimes, survival means having a person who shelters you when you are sobbing in the dark. Sometimes, survival means resting in the warmth of the people who love you, forehead touching forehead, breathing in each other’s breath until, finally, you find rest.