09 May 2009

travelling with minor celebrities

John was talking to an acquaintance (Brad) the other night about Brad's family's experiences of living in Ethiopia. When they were last there, their young son was rather pale in complexion (as he's grown older his hair has darkened). Apparently they would have strangers come up to them on the streets and kiss their son, just because he looked so intriguingly different.

We know what this is like.

Bendy has VERY blonde hair, and a very pale complexion. The Bookworm has hair that in some lights looks a little reddish, and again has quite pale skin. We have taken them to quite a number of countries around the world, some of which they blend in like the natives and others where they definitely do not.

In Asia, our children were treated as minor celebrities - which we were completely unprepared for. Australia is a very multicultural place, and we're used to seeing people that look very different to us. In fact, when we were in Asia, I felt much more at home than when in Europe, because I am so used to seeing Asian faces around me in my home environment. However, some of them obviously didn't see us in quite the same familiar way.

We'd have people picking them up and cuddling them, calling their friends over to jointly marvel at them, having their photos taken with them etc. It can feel rather creepy some times, and also by the end of a whole day's worth of it, it can be rather tiresome. And it can make the kids themselves feel extremely uncomfortable, and uncertain. While once or twice can be funny, all day isn't.

Usually its the adults that are the main culprits for this in-your-face-ness, probably because kids are usually a lot more accepting of the way others look. Many of our children's school friends are from Chinese, Korean, and Indian families, so they're very used to kids who look different and have other cultural practices. One of Bendy's best friends at school has very dark African skin, so she just takes such differences in her stride.

So, what can you do to prepare for it? While you can dye hair (which seems a little drastic for taking a 5 year old to another country), there's not much you can do about their skin colour. Probably one of the most helpful things is to make sure the children wear hats, to cover up as much of their hair as possible.

In future, I think that we will warn our children that they might need to expect that others will find their hair and skin colour (and in some places, even their eye colour) interesting. We will need to teach our children to politely say NO when they feel too uncomfortable, and we will need to be careful to read their body language to know when they have had enough, and that it is time step in as their protectors. At other times, I think we'll all just have to put up with it to some degree.

Its made thinking about long term travel a bit interesting for us. We'd very much like to do some volunteering or mission work in another country at some stage in the future. And it is likely that at our destination Bendy in particular could be quite an object of curiosity, simply because of the way she looks. Really, there isn't much we can do about it, but at least we can all expect it to happen, and be pleasantly surprised when it does not.

Do any of you have ways that you have handled such things on your travels?

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