Before you leave, you need to think about life after you return home with your new child. When you arrive home after this emotion-charged whirlwind trip of a lifetime, you’re going to be tired – probably more tired than you’ve ever been in your life. You’re also going to be hungry. Cooking will be the last thing you’re going to feel like doing when you finally get home. So, before you leave, make some meals ahead of time and freeze them. If you can manage it, put about one week’s worth of meals in the freezer. That way, when you finally step over the threshold with your precious new child and your spouse says, “Hey, I’m starved. What’s for dinner?” you can maintain a grip on your sanity.
The phrase “good airline customer service” doesn’t have to be an oxymoron. To get the most helpful airline customer service agents, find out the exclusive customer service phone number for the high mileage customers. (Ask your frequent flyer friends or business associates if they are members of the airline’s frequent flyer medallion club. If they are, ask them for the phone number that they use to contact customer service.)
The agents who deal with high mileage customers are specially trained to go way above and beyond, and here’s a secret: They’ll help you even if you are not a member of the high mileage club! This works even if you are not trying to get a free trip. Chat up these agents and make sure they know you are traveling for an adoption. You never know when the agent on the phone might be an adopted person or the parent of adopted children, and they might just get you a killer deal on your airfare.
Some airlines offer adoption “specials” on their airfares. Be very careful when checking out these so-called specials, because these deals may not be all they initially appear to be. When we were looking into airfare to travel to bring our son home, one airline advertised an adoption special of 60 percent off their regular fare. The catch was, the 60 percent off only applied to “unrestricted” fares – which was much more expensive than the cost of “restricted” fares that you see posted on the various travel Web sites. Of course, there are some benefits to unrestricted fares – they may allow you free itinerary changes, full refunds if you need to cancel your trip, or extra luggage allowances. So, don’t rule out a discount on unrestricted airfares. Just don’t automatically assume that it will be the best deal out there.
If you are traveling with your children, or if your new child is a toddler or older, arrange for children’s meals on the airline once you have a reservation. The kids meals usually offer a choice of chicken nuggets, pizza, or spaghetti. And don’t forget, you need to purchase a one way ticket for your new child if he is a toddler or older. And make sure the ticket is in the name listed in his passport.
If you are working with an international adoption agency, they will probably have a specific hotel where they want you to stay, and they will likely have special rates arranged. If you are not working with an agency, find out which hotels the adoption agencies use and contact them directly to see if you can get the same rate. Being around other adopting parents and hotel staff who are used to serving adopting parents not only makes your experience more pleasant, it provides you with a built-in support group. Plus, the agency may have chosen the hotel for other good reasons like proximity to the embassy, department stores, or grocery stores.
One important thing to remember is that foreign hotel rooms are usually smaller than U.S. hotel rooms. If you are traveling with your children (unless you enjoy constantly climbing over luggage, cots, and dirty clothes) arrange for adjoining rooms or a suite.
Before you leave the U.S., find out how to get from the airport to your hotel. If at all possible, arrange for transportation from the airport to your hotel ahead of time. When you are weary after 30 hours of traveling and you are 12 time zones from home, it’s a lot easier to walk up to someone holding a sign with your name on it and let them take charge than it is to find and arrange transportation with a luggage cart or two full of baggage (and perhaps a sleeping child in your arms).
Before you leave, have the hotel fax or mail you a map or an instruction card in their language with directions to take you to that hotel. Most hotels will have these cards readily available. Once you arrive at the hotel, be sure to safety pin one of these cards to your child’s clothing every day. This can be a lifesaver in the event your child gets lost!
If you haven’t already been listening to foreign language tapes or reading phrase books, now is the time to start a crash course. Get recommendations of useful phrase books from other adoptive parents from your child’s country. Some parents on the Web groups may even be willing to loan or sell you their copy.
These phrases will help you communicate with your new child. Make a cheat sheet with the translation spelled out phonetically so you can (at least try to) get the pronunciation right:
There’s only one problem. How do you ask a small child if they have to use the bathroom? Even if you find out ahead of time how to say all of the recommended phrases, odds are the words they’ve learned are not the words you learned from the phrase book. Ask! Ask the caretakers at the orphanage, ask the foster family, ask the social workers – ask anyone who may know – what phrase your child is familiar with.
Also, be sure you know what your child’s caretakers have been calling you. Are you “Mommy” and “Daddy” or “Mama” and “Papa?” We learned the hard way that it makes a very big difference! When we met our son for the first time, we told him in Thai that we loved him – and we used the traditional Thai words for mom and dad. Well guess what? He started sobbing – loudly! The Thai social worker then told us that we were using the names he called his foster parents. We had just reminded him that the people he would never see again loved him very much. Oops! Although true, it was not quite what we intended to communicate! Lesson Learned: If your child has been in foster care, find out what he calls his foster parents. Then make sure you call yourself something different!
Will you need a large amount of cash for the paperwork at the U.S. embassy to process your child’s visa paperwork? This is unlikely if you’ve already gotten your I-600 approved. If you are going to be getting approval at the embassy, however, then you need to plan to bring extra money (and plan to spend extra time in the country getting the approval).
Learn the conversion rate for the foreign currency and figure out quick tricks for doing the math in your head. One thing to remember when exchanging money is that the currency exchange houses will give you better exchange rates for larger bills. You’ll end up with less cash if you exchange five $20 bills and more cash if you exchange two $50 bills. Strange but true! And speaking of large bills, families adopting from China (and other countries) who are expected to make a large donation should do so only with crisp (new, if possible) $100 bills. Smaller and old bills simply won’t do.
Find out ahead of time what customary tips are. Don’t automatically assume that people don’t tip in foreign countries. And try to get some of your currency exchanged at your departure airport. You’ll need local currency when you finally arrive, and this will be one less task you have to accomplish after jet lag has set in.
When you fly halfway around the world to bring your child home, chances are you will get to experience the wonders of jet lag. Jet lag occurs because rapid changes in time zones confuse your body's inner clock (also called “circadian rhythms"). Jet lag is the name for a wide range of physical effects that occur when you fly across lots of time zones. If you’re jet lagged, you probably feel some (or all) of the following:
Jet lag is worse when you fly west-to-east (eastward) than when you fly east-to-west (westward). Traveling north and south within the same time zone doesn’t result in jet lag – it’s only the crossing of time zones that causes trouble. Some sources say that it takes your body 24 hours to adjust for each time zone that you cross – which means that you could be feeling out of sorts for a majority of your trip. Also, age and personal habits can increase the nastiness of jet lag – babies barely notice when they travel across multiple time zones, while adults will probably feel quite bedraggled. And drinking alcohol only compounds the effects of jet lag.
One of the secrets of seasoned international travelers is to book flights that arrive at night. That way you can go to sleep as soon as you get to your hotel. This helps you get adjusted to local time – you go to bed late at night once you arrive, and then wake up the next morning and fall in step with the local time zone.
During your flight, get up and walk around every few hours. Take a tour of the plane. (I know, there really isn’t much to see on a jumbo jet.) Not only will this little bit of exercise help alleviate jet lag, it will also ward off blood clots (a very dangerous, although rare, side effect of long distance air travel).
It’s also a good idea to stay well hydrated during airline travel. Drink lots of water both in the airport and on the plane. In addition to helping your body fend off jet lag, good hydration will help your body resist the nasty germs that are inherent in the re-circulated air on planes.
Some international travelers swear by melatonin. Available over-the-counter, melatonin is a hormone your body naturally produces at night. Supposedly, melatonin tricks your body into resetting its sleep/wake cycle. If you take melatonin in the morning it will delay your bedtime; if you take it at night, melatonin encourages your body to sleep. (It’s probably wise to consult your doctor before taking any dietary supplement.) Furthermore, researchers have found that taking supplements of vitamin B-12 and vitamin C can help you fend off jet lag.
Have you ever noticed how it’s harder to pack your clothes back into your suitcase at the end of a trip when you’re ready to go home? Dirty clothes seem to magically expand and take up more room. Solve this problem by packing one or two extra checkable bags inside your suitcase. (You’ll need an extra checkable bag for your new child’s things, anyway.) The soft-sided bags that can fold up into another suitcase work great for this.
Make sure you save some space in your luggage for souvenirs, too. Remember, these souvenirs will be more than just cool reminders of a neat trip – these souvenirs will be cultural links for your child to his birth country.
When people travel to other countries, they encounter both food and water that is strange to their digestive systems. This can lead to what is euphemistically called “traveler’s tummy” – a nice way of saying diarrhea and abdominal cramps. While never welcome, this type of ailment will be especially inconvenient when you’re trying to get to know your new child in a country where you (probably) don’t speak the language.
To try to ward off this nasty affliction avoid ice, tap water (use bottled water even when you brush your teeth), and raw fruit that is eaten unpeeled (the offending microbes and germs congregate on the peel of the fruit, not the inside, so eating fruit that has been peeled should be safe). Hot beverages, such as tea and coffee, are generally safe since the water has been boiled. Bottled sodas are also a safe bet. And wash your hands – a lot! It’s a good idea to bring small bottles of instant hand sanitizer with you, since soap and water may not always be nearby when you want them.
As unpleasant a topic as traveler’s diarrhea is, an equally distasteful subject is that of the stereotypical “ugly American.” We all know people who, having never before left the borders of their state, much less the U.S., decide to travel abroad. And from the instant their plane lands abroad until the moment their plane touches down again in America these folks do nothing but complain because the country they are visiting is nothing like the U.S.A. Makes you wonder why they bothered to travel in the first place!
So, try to bring understanding and patience when you’re visiting the land of your child’s birth. You are not just there to get your child, you are also acting as ambassadors for all future adoptive parents. Learn about and embrace the culture of your child’s birth. You’ll not only grow as a person, you’ll help your child develop a strong sense of self – a sense of what went into making him who he is.
So just how are you supposed to make a good impression when you can’t even speak the language? Here are some tips:
Credits: Excerpted from "International Adoption Guidebook," Mary M. Strickert