This was in 2009. My husband, Jeff, and I were on our way to Berlin, and a toddler a few rows ahead of us was voicing dissatisfaction with his sudden corporeal confinement by making the sorts of noises Janis Joplin might have produced had she lived to accidentally stick her hand into a garbage disposal.
I rolled my eyes and returned to my US Weekly and Delta-issue merlot. “I know. What an asshole.”
John Lennon once sang of instant karma. But in my case, it took three years.
My friend Aileen, who is Filipina, got engaged while I was pregnant. When she announced that the wedding—to an outdoorsy Minnesotan she met at business school—would take place in her homeland, the terror of such a trip avec bébe did not immediately dawn on me. When we bought our tickets, of course, the baby was infinitely portable. The only accoutrements he required were a strip of black elastic that served as a table leaf for the waistband of my jeans and a thick roll of Tums.
But then he was out, squirmy and squalling and requiring approximately twice as many accessories—and even more diapers—than the Kardashian sisters go through during a weekend trip to Vegas. And we were headed to an archipelago almost 9,000 miles and 28 hours of travel from Manhattan, which is like the MTA equivalent of hopping on a weekend subway shuttle bus to Baton Rouge. The 16-hour flight to Hong Kong (followed by another, three-hour flight and a two-hour ferry ride) seemed less like a madcap National Lampoon-esque adventure and closer to a total fucking nightmare.
He could cry nonstop, a fate worse than an in-flight movie menu limited to Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls and Grumpier Old Men, which I actually experienced in 1996. He might shit uncontrollably (as of boarding time it had been three days, which I feared might land him on the no-fly list as an explosive). Fellow passengers might whisper obscenities about my child. In two languages!
“Don’t worry,” my friend Angie (who is Chinese) told me a few days before the trip. “There will be Asian babies on the plane, and Asian babies are the worst.”
I was confused. Everything I know about Asian children, I learned from Amy Chua. Wouldn’t they be too busy practicing Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit on the xylophone to fuss?
“Oh no,” Angie assured me. “Asian babies are spoiled. They’ll make yours look good by comparison.”
As it turned out, there were a number of crying Chinese babies on our planes, all of whom seemed strategically clustered around a tetchy middle-aged British woman who was slowly and visibly losing her mind. And Angie was right; our portly American infant was generally unmoved by the change in scenery and air pressure. He divided his time between eating, napping, and balancing precariously on a pad atop the junior-sized toilet as I frantically applied my limited grasp of 10th grade physics to the task of changing his diaper without actually touching anything. Tiger Mothers may get standardized test results, but Sloth Babies allow for uninterrupted in-flight viewing of Downton Abbey’s second season. So, apples and oranges, really.
The flight, it turned out, was relatively easy. Feeling at ease, approximately twenty minutes after we arrived on the island of Panglao—hair buoyed by the humidity and spirits buoyed by the $2 margaritas at the hotel bar—I decided to take a walk.
It was at this point I began to feel as if I were trying to kill my son.
We’d schlepped the stroller all the way from JFK with the New Yorker’s naive expectation that sidewalks are a universal law instead of a regional whimsy. But steering around a stream of stop light-free traffic that might best be described as “clusterfuckish” made me feel like I was playing a live version of Frogger while pushing a wheelbarrow.
Just as I started to feel like a truly deficient caretaker, a motorcycle whizzed past bearing an entire family of four, the smallest child—who couldn’t have been more than two—essentially streaming behind the bike like a windsock.
Aileen had warned me that parenting in the Philippines was much less neurotic than it is in the U.S., but still, it wasn’t easy to adjust to a country so free of fear. “I don’t think we have car seats,” she said confusedly when I asked how I was supposed to transport my baby in accordance with the latest safety laws. Back in Brooklyn, I’m a negligent mother for placing a blanket over my son while he sleeps (in January!); in Panglao, I’m smiled at while leaning out the side of a tuk tuk—a three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaw—going 25 mph with Sam strapped to my chest. “Hello beh-beh!” the women called out, waving.
By week’s end, I was with the relaxed Filipino program, and I’d engaged in at least three additional behaviors that would have given my fellow Park Slope parents grand mal seizures: riding seatbelt-less in an over-capacity standing-room-only bus; peering over the edge of a sheer rock cliff; brushing my teeth with tap water.
But alas, one had to return to the Elysian Fields of the Slope, where a battle was raging on the message boards about whether to ban ice cream vendors from the playground. Perhaps feeling the neurotic vibes tightening around him—or perhaps as penance for his parents’ sin of traveling halfway around the globe and absorbing little more than watermelon mojitos, the ensuing jet lag did turn the baby into a dick.