The Attachment to Places
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico- The kid says she doesn’t want to leave. We tell her that we are going to China with big, intentionally constructed smiles on our faces. We act excited about China.
But she knows exactly what China is: another place.
She knows exactly what the Chinese are: another people.
And when we tell her that she is going to have to talk to people in Mandarin she knows exactly what she is in for: more kids who don’t understand what she is saying, a third language to learn.
“I don’t want to go to China,” she says. “I don’t want to meet Chinese people.”
More vehemently she added:
“Mommy and daddy go to China, leave Petra here.”
But the kid is a traveler, she adapts well, takes the road in stride. It is true that she stresses out about changes in location, it is true that she misses her temporary hubs, the people she meets, the family in Maine and New York that she loves.
But it’s also true that Petra yells and screams when we take her out of the apartment for a walk saying that she doesn’t want to go outside and then yells and screams when our walk ends and she says she doesn’t want to go home. Petra is two and a half years old, a period of development that’s called the terrible twos for a reason: most all transitions are met with opposition, it’s the time when people first really start exerting their independence.
Petra is exerting her independence full force, if her mother says yes she says no and vice versa: a trend that will probably continue well into young adulthood. Whether it’s going from Mexico to China or to the store for more rice, she yells, “I don’t want to! No, I don’t want to go!”
This is normal.
Petra is a little young to appreciate her travels. She is in traveler’s purgatory, as the benefits of travel often reveal themselves in retrospect, in deep knowledge, in skills learned, farther and further down the road. Someday Petra will wake up and appreciate her upbringing. Or so that’s the hope. Someday she will realize that her way of life when growing up was not ordinary, that most of the people she meets will not share her experiences, her background, her story — but they also will not have her abilities, will not know what she knows, will not have experienced what she has. My daughter will speak at least three languages like a native by the time she is five years old, will have grown up into at least three radically different cultures, made friends around the world. And this will be just the building blocks of her childhood.
But there is also a certain attachment to places that comes into play. I neither want Petra to be overtly attached to places or completely detached from everywhere. I’m aiming for a middle road. As a family we stay in places for months at a time and return to the places that have provided well for us. In China we should be holding down an apartment for a year. I will have a base of operations to travel out from and Petra will have a home for a period of time previously unknown to her.
What is interesting though is no matter how much Petra gets upset about leaving one hub for another as soon as we roll out of town she looks in only one direction: forward.
This is the only life she has ever known. Leaving, moving, traveling is 100% normal.
TAIZHOU, China- “What is your name?” a young Chinese woman asked Petra in English.
“How old are you?”
“Two and a half.”
“Where are you from?”
“What do you like?”
We have been in China for two weeks, and my daughter Petra seems to love it. She has her own room, everywhere she goes people talk to her and gives her gifts. Being treated like a celebrity is normal for her, but the attention she is showered with in China is unparalleled. She steps out in the streets and the people fall all over themselves to take her photo and to place little Chinese kids in front of her to play with. She is learning to speak Mandarin and nails the pronunciation with little effort.
In point, Petra left San Cristobal de las Casas and didn’t look back. Just as she has every place along her path across this planet.
April 11, 2012- Petra Shepard is two years and eight months old. She has been on the road for 30 months, and traveled through eight countries on three continents. She knows this game, it’s the only one she’s ever known.