Awaiting Orbiter Reentry (Or, Challenges For Expat Kids and Their Parents)

January 7, 2008
I’m so old that I can remember the early days of space flight.  In fact, I grew up in a world where there was neither internet nor even satellite communication, a world where air travel was a once or twice in a lifetime event.  With this in mind, I sometimes can hardly believe the distances our family has traveled and the fact that we are able to maintain communication in remote places like islands in Thailand or jungles of Cambodia.  Though not cheap, rocket and jet engines, satellites and (now) inter-continental fiber optic cables, have made both communication and travel possible.  This year, having Sarah home for her three week winter break was a big treat — and financial splurge — for our entire family.  It was our main Christmas present to ourselves.   
I’m sometimes amazed to think that each of my children, even the youngest one, has flown around the world several times.  They know the ropes of how to go through Immigration and Customs, what’s allowed on planes and how to find their departure gate.  Sometimes when traveling, I write Munchkin’s passport information on her back in indelible marker.  One time Clarissa was incensed when an airline required her to be treated as an unaccompanied child, though she saw the value as she was put at the front of every line on a close connection and personally escorted to a waiting plane. 
In Cambodia                                                    Four Hours in Immigration        
Hitching a Ride                                   In a Train Station

But in another sense, though air travel may seem routine, it never is routine to send a child alone to a different continent, is it?  Never quite natural to put a child on top of a rocket engine and hope for the best.  There’s a duplicate of the Apollo Rocket at the Kennedy Space Center.  One thing that’s simply amazing to me is the scale of that thing.  The orbiter and its human component, sat like a tiny cap on top of what was, essentially, a giant missle filled with rocket propellant.  I once watched a television interview in which one of the early rocket scientists gesticulated with wild glee about the power of this or that missle, explaining in the end that he was really something like a glorified pyromaniac.  (Cowboys.  I guess every culture needs them.) 
During the early days of the space program in the USA, each space capsule journey and reentry was followed by the news media with minute by minute coverage.  During each flight, there was a several minute delay as the space capsule reentered the earth’s atmosphere when there was a complete blackout of communication.  The blackout occurred right during the most dangerous time of reentry, when the capsule was reentering the earth’s atmosphere and at highest risk of being burned up in the intense heat.  There were always several tense minutes of waiting to see if radio communication could be reestablished or whether, instead, the worst had happened (as exactly happened to the space shuttle Columbia).   There was always a visible sigh of relief when the astronaut’s voice was heard reconnecting with mission control. 
Similarly, every time I send a child on a trip alone to another continent, there is a tense period of time when I wait with baited breath to make sure that everything is okay.  Those hours when there is no contact —  when one’s child are above the earth somewhere out of touch and facing unknown things — are somewhat tense.  We always await anxiously for that first re-contact.  At the moment, I am still in "waiting" mode.  I have a child who is traveling alone between continents.  Like a concerned Mission Control manager, I am holding my breath to wait news of successful orbiter reentry. 
In this case, my child had to travel through four unfamiliar airports in four different countries.  The transit involved Immigration and Customs procedures in two countries.  She had to uncheck and recheck bags at least once, maybe twice, and there were narrow connection times in each airport.   I won’t know if everything has gone well until she calls me.  If something goes wrong, communication is difficult or, possibly, impossible, and she will have to rely on her own resources — resilience, creativity, intelligence — to solve whatever problems may arise.  We always hope that no news is good news, but one never knows what might happen. 
Three years ago, I sent Clarissa alone on a United Airlines flight across the USA.  We were both flying on the same day, from and to the same city; but because of the way our flights had been booked we were on different airlines.  Just after she had gone through airport security, leaving me behind, I realized I had forgotten to give her the cash I had planned to give her.  "What can go wrong," I thought, "it’s a direct flight and her grandmother and I will be waiting for her in the next airport."  Well, what could go wrong was that her plane was rerouted.  There was a six hour delay, during which she could not get off the plane, and the only food available on the plane was by cash purchase.  She did arrive — fourteen hours later — a very hungry, tired, and grumpy teenager.   
Last summer, we had another nasty surprise, thanks to China Southern Airlines.  We sent Clarissa on a plane journey alone to America, with a two week stopover in Europe at a friend’s house.  Our friend in Europe was going to give her Euros as soon as she arrived, so all she needed was money for whatever needs she might have on the plane.  After her bags were checked, we made sure that she had 1,000 RMB in her pocket, far more than she might have needed for meals or drinks.  Anxious to avoid a repeat of the earlier experience, we thought she had more than enough to cover any congingencies that might arise during transit. 
Clarissa’s initial, international flight was from Guangzhou to Amsterdam, but it involved a plane change in Beijing.  In Beijing, she was told that her baggage did not qualify for international treatment (and the higher weight allowance) because the initial leg had been inside the country.  She was told she had to pay a 3,000 RMB over-limit baggage allowance.  All she had was the 1,000 RMB we had given her, plus another 25 RMB she could scrounge in her pocketbook.  Many tears and much pleading later, the airline official with China Southern in Beijing relented and agreed to take what she had.  He took every last cent of her money, not even leaving her enough to buy a soft drink or fast food meal!  (That was just one of many "Customer Service" experiences that has convinced me that China is NOT ready for the Olympics!)  Her ticket was booked as a flight from Guangzhou to Amsterdam, the flight was clearly international, and to this day I believe that cash must have ended up lining the pocket of some airline manager (though Clarissa says she appealed all the way to the top manager in the office). 
In both instances, when faced with some huge challenge, the child had no way to contact a parent.  The good news is that, as a result of experiences like these, children of expats tend to develop a lot of traveling savvy early in life and also to become very resilient and creative in how they handle challenges.   The book Third Culture Kids (see book list, this blog), which I highly recommend, talks about the way the expat experience fosters resilience, creativity, and common sense in expat kids.  (I’ve definitely noticed the common sense, too.  Though these young people know how to have fun, they also seem to stay very grounded in reality and aware of their environments, which are not always friendly.) 
As a matter of fact, I recently witnessed a conversation that amazed me.  During the holiday break, we had a small gathering at our house to welcome back our daughters’ friends who had come home from their respective universites overseas.  All of them were children of expats.  At some point, their conversation turned to immigration, customs, and airports, and the children began discussing which airports were the best and worst.  Not many adults have this kind of exposure and experience, and I was amazed at the collective knowledge of this young group.  Because the group had young people who had home bases on several continents and who had all traveled extensively, the knowledge base for such a young age was phenomenal. 
So, now Sarah has left, and for the last 30 hours I have followed the journey of the orbiter mentally.  My daughter’s journey did not begin well.  In October I booked her an Air France flight directly to Paris.  I was thrilled to get this direct, nine hour flight.  But something went wrong.  When we arrived at the airport at 10:00 PM on Saturday night, two hours ahead of scheduled departure, the flight seemed to have been overbooked by about 30 passengers.  Even though she had a seat assignment, even though she had ordered a special meal to meet her dietary needs, and even though she had a connecting flight six hours after her first leg, she was bumped.  It took four hours for the Air France personnel to work their way down the list of bumped passengers to Sarah’s turn, then to figure out an alternate flight itinerary which would get her to her destination by 10:00 PM Sunday night. 
We left the airport at 2:00 AM with instructions to return at 8 AM to catch a Finn Air flight on the first leg of a circuituitous, 19 hour route involving flights on three different airlines, but it would get her there.  They gave Sarah a hotel room at the airport hotel, and Clarissa stayed with her, but David and I went home for a few hours of sleep.  Unfortunately, I was so unsettled that I couldn’t rest.  When we arrived, bleary eyed, the next morning for check in, there was already a very long line at the Finn Air counter.  When they found out that Sarah was one of the Air France passengers, we were told by some very unhappy Finn Air personnel to take a seat and wait.  Air France, it appears, had just been getting rid of a problem at 2 AM.  The Finn Air flight had already been full before Air France added 11 more people to it.  
One of Sarah’s friends was also on the flight.  Very fortunately for us, his mom was able to talk to them in Mandarin and convince them that the two young people needed to travel together.  In response to her pleas, Finn Air finally agreed to put Sarah on the plane.  I was thrilled, though I noticed that other passengers around us, who also had been bumped for the second time, didn’t seem so happy that my daughter was getting on the flight but that they weren’t.  And then the bad news. 
Though the literature said the baggage allowance on Sarah’s ticket said 23 kilos and the bag was exactly 23 kilos, because it was an Air France booking Finn Air would only permit 20 kilos.  Sarah’s bag had already been strapped shut by the airport strapping machine.  After managing to pull some stuff out  without cutting the straps, Sarah ended up within the baggage allowance.  To do so, she had to carry a pair of boots in her hand, along with her 40 pound backpack, a tube of artwork, her pocketbook, and the bag of food I had prepared since it was too late to order a special meal.  When we parted, she was worried whether they would allow her carry on stuff. 
To make matters worse, Finn Air refused to check her bags through to the final destination because the second two flights were not on Finn Air.  In fact, said the Manager, the ticket was insane and stupid because there were three different carriers.  Finn Air was unwilling to ensure safe delivery of her baggage by any of the other carriers.  I asked if we could waive the liability and get her bag checked all the way.  Impossible.  The Finn Air manager, red in the face, was still yelling irately at me about the insanity of Sarah’s ticket and the foolishness of Air France as the plane was making its last boarding call.  So we left him and ran quickly away, David running her bag separately to the overweight baggage check, one last hug, and Sarah saying goodbye to me at the immigration departure counter, running for her plane.  Too much stress for one under so much stress already.  She was saying, "this is terrible, this is simply the worst." 
"No," I attempted to reassure her, "this is not so bad.  You will make it, it is not the end of the world!  Even if you have to sleep in an airport or are late getting in, or if your bag doesn’t make it, you will survive.  If you have problems, go to the Air France counter and let them fix it.  There will be a long line, it is peak travel season, but be patient and things will get worked out.  Don’t panic."  With those words, I left her, and she ran away to try and catch her plane.  She had to run back to me to retrieve her departure card, which was still in my hand.  Then the final sight as she left immigration. 
We waited in the airport to make sure we knew when she had gotten on the plane.  She had no cell phone to let us know if she ran into any problems, but her friend called his mom and told that mom that Sarah had arrived.  Thus cleared to leave, we went home for a long nap and to wait out the communication blackout while she traveled.  As the day progressed, I mentally followed her flight path, typing into google "local time helsinki" or "local time amsterdam," wondering if we might get a frantic call during a layover in one of those places. 
After she ought to have arrived at her final destination, I tried calling her cell phone but the phone wouldn’t ring.  I surmise this meant she hadn’t put her SIM card into her phone yet.  A few hours later, the number would ring but there was no answer.  Then, I remembered that she probably would need to charge the battery before she could use the phone.  This morning, I couldn’t call because it was the middle of the night.  And it’s still the middle of the night there.  So, I’m still waiting.  I hope and assume things went okay.  But I’ll have to wait to see. 
Having a grown child leave, now, makes me much more sympathetic to my own parents.  I asked my sister in law one time how they were coping with having all their children leave the nest.  She replied, "The only thing worse than having them leave, is having them stay."  Now I can truly relate!  We are glad the bird can fly and that it does, but reunions are nice.  And we still wait with baited breath every time to hear of the orbiter’s reentry.  "Sarah, do you copy?" 
Whatever may happen, it probably will make for a good story sometime in the future, after the upset has worn off a bit.  After all, if we can’t laugh about things we’d surely be worse off.  But it’s usually not too funny as it’s happening. 
Our small celebration of a big birthday —
The orbiter is launched! 


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