5 Tips for Planning a Homeland Trip

Jan 10 2013

We adopted our oldest daughter from Vietnam and our next two kiddos from Guatemala, so we regularly consider ways to incorporate their birth countries into our family life.

Now, because I’m me and you’re you and we’re not good at facades around here, I’ll tell you I sort of suck at the more common or, shall we say, consistent ways other adoptive families blend cultures. None of my kids have had language lessons. We rarely remember to participate in adoptive family group gatherings. We once, ten years ago, celebrated a Vietnamese holiday but we’ve never managed a repeat with a Guatemalan fiesta. And we haven’t done well at participating in our local Asian or Latino communities. All of those are good ideas. I fully support them. I even intend to keep making attempts. But the current reality is, we don’t manage to do them.

The two things we do well, though, are eat and travel. My kids are familiar with Vietnamese and Guatemalan flavors, because, hello, yum!, and we’ve made it a priority to take them to visit the countries of their birth.

With a couple of these trips under my belt, I present to you my top…

5 Tips for Planning a Homeland Trip

1. Know Your Kid

The first step for any homeland trip is deciding when to go, and when to go is largely based on knowing your kid.

Greg and I took Abby to Vietnam when she was 10.

And I just flew home from Guatemala with Aden who will be 11 this weekend.

While it seems to be more common to take internationally adopted kiddos on homeland trips when they’re in their mid or late teens, the 10-year-old age was perfect for our girls. We chose age 10 because it’s a formative time for children. They’re old enough to remember significant experiences, pliable enough to be shaped by a broader global perspective, and, most importantly, young enough to see the wonder, beauty and warmth of their birth cultures and not just the poverty or the lack.

Both trips were affirming to our girls. And educational. And also just plain fun. Abby and Aden are both eager travelers who love new places and take great pride in their origins. If we can swing the expense, I hope to take them each again as teenagers, too.

You’ll notice, though, if you’ve been reading here for some time, that I didn’t mention a trip for our oldest son who’s 13 and was born in Guatemala, as well. It was only after months of discussion and agonized hand-wringing that Greg and I decided not to take him to his birth country for now. Or perhaps ever. It would be an understatement to say that Ian doesn’t like to travel. “Detests and abhors” would be better words. “Freaks the hell out and makes himself and everyone around him miserable” wouldn’t be inaccurate. Ian, you see, is the kind of kid who feels secure with regular routine and a reliable schedule. Traveling makes him extremely anxious. In addition, Ian is also sensitive to the plight of others and is likely to be haunted by tough situations he can’t change. Still, I felt terrible when we decided Aden was ready for this experience and Ian wasn’t. I felt guilty and torn. And yet I was determined not to hold Aden back for Ian’s sake. When I told him our plan, though, he wasn’t just OK with it, he was downright giddy. “Oh, thank you, Mom. Thank you!” he said. “Bring me back something really cool, OK?” As always, my worrying was time well spent.

My point is, plan what works best for your child. A trip when they’re 10. A trip when they’re 15. A trip when they’re little. A trip never. It’s OK to think outside the box and follow no one’s plan but your own.

2. Travel With Friends

On both of our girls’ homeland trips, we traveled with friends. During Abby’s trip, we traveled with her best friend, Katee, and her parents. This time, Aden and I were thrilled Heidi and Grace agreed to join us.

Aden loved showing Guatemala to her friend.

And I loved the camaraderie of having Heidi there, mostly because she’s an adventurous traveler who takes things in stride and it was fun to have some condensed time with her, but also a teeny tiny bit because I needed someone else to laugh with me at the funny things our kids said.

Plus, watching another mama delight in my baby?

Priceless.

3. Accept Hospitality

This one’s tough for those of us with deeply entrenched American mindsets. We want to be independent. We don’t want to put anyone out. We want to rely on ourselves. But folks in other parts of the world, particularly in the developing world, have a lot to teach us about gracious giving and hospitable living.

In 1998, I had my first lesson in the heart-connection of mamas at the hands of an elderly Vietnamese woman who stood creakily from her foot-high stool in the middle of a crowded market to offer me her place so I could more easily feed my brand new daughter who was fussing in her sling. I was embarrassed to take the woman’s seat as I watched her shuffle aside in her paper-thin flip flops. Who was I, a privileged American with a butt too big for the stool anyway, to allow her to stand uncomfortably so I could be at ease? But the woman reached up to pat me on the cheek and insisted with gestures that I sit, sit, sit. Her kindness was a gift to new mama me, and I think of her selflessness often when I look for ways to pay it forward to other new mamas who need just a minute of rest and, like me, are afraid they don’t deserve it. I didn’t know then how much one moment of grace — a moment I wouldn’t remember if I hadn’t humbled myself to receive it — would impact me in the years to come.

On this trip to Guatemala, Brennan and Mariajose invited us to stay with their family, although I’d never met them before this trip. Mariajose is Guatemalan by birth and an architect by trade. Brennan’s an American ex-pat and jack-of-all-trades who’s the brother of my friend, Jody. Together, Brennan and Mariajose subcontract with nonprofit and mission organizations to further the work of aid programs inside Guatemala. Their hearts for the Guatemalan people are evident, their work expansive. And by staying with them in their home and following them to work for a few days, we engaged with Guatemalan life in a way that would not have been possible from a tourist hotel.

Mariajose’s aunt cooked for us. Aden and Grace played with new friends. We slept in their home and visited their nutrition and construction projects off the beaten path. And, while I felt guilty at times for the burden we placed on their time and grocery bill, I worked hard to push my American impulse aside in favor of gratitude.

We left Guatemala with treasured new friends.

4. Make a Difference

Even without full-time hosts who are willing to let you tag along to their workplace for days at a time, there are ways to help people in very real, meaningful ways. Organizations exist in every country that help people lift themselves out of debilitating poverty and give them a way forward in life. Partnering with those organizations to make a financial donation to their work can be a wonderful way to provide meaningful help, particularly if your child helps raise the money. One of the things I love most about Americans is our generosity. Believe it or not, we’re one of the most charitable nations on the planet, and the people I know are always eager to do more. The trick, of course, is doing more responsibly and effectively. I encourage you to research organizations for fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency using Charity Navigator, and I’m always happy to recommend Medical Teams International as a top-rated charity that helps ordinary people make an extraordinary impact at home and around the world.

5. Have FUN

Compassionate people are wired to see struggle and poverty and pain. We ache to help alleviate suffering in the world, and we’re rewarded with fierce joy when we accomplish even a little. As a result, though, we sometimes miss the beauty and the FUN that’s right in front of us, and we have to remind ourselves to look, to engage, and to play.

Kids have more of the magic left inside of them, though, and they don’t wait to see whether it’s socially appropriate to laugh or play or smile at a stranger. They take more immediate delight in all that’s lovely. Traveling with kids is a privilege because it lets you tap into that wonder, too.

I’m always on the lookout on these special trips — for the big things that build lasting memories like my baby choosing her first Guatemalan dress in the market place,

and for the little things, easily forgotten, like a butterfly in hand

or a rich cup of Guatemalan coffee.

In the end, a homeland trip is about identity and community and finding pieces of ourselves along the way.

 Mission accomplished.

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Is there anything you want to know about a homeland trip? Let me know.

Or, if you’ve been on a homeland trip and have tips to add, please do.

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