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Getting Comfortable with the Unfamiliar

Last week, as I deplaned in an unfamiliar faraway city – Beijing – without a way to contact the person meeting me, I was immediately reminded of another airport arrival in another faraway city a long time ago. It's been many years since I was 17, arriving in Egypt, scared and furious with my mother.

We'd come to Cairo a day earlier than our tour began. Our travel agent had made a mistake so of course it was my mother's fault. As we made our way past armed military guards, we saw no American Express tour guide holding our surname on a cardboard plaque. Egyptians greeting arriving passengers thronged against a fence that barely held them back – their outstretched arms straining.

In my mind, the airport is filled with the high-pitched trilling of women as frantic- seeming as the crowd. But this is a trick of memory. The celebratory ululation that discomfited me didn't happen until we arrived at the Nile Hilton where several weddings were taking place. I sat in the lobby sulking as my mother went to see about a room. But the Hilton, whose American name was a beacon to me amidst all this strangeness, was fully booked. She was told to return the following day when our stay was to begin. Which is how we ended up at a perfectly fine hotel with me refusing to do anything but sleep fully clothed on top of the covers. I was shutting down like a toddler who will walk no further and sits down until a parent scoops him up. It's a wonder my mother put up with me. Maybe only a mother would have.

At the time – over three decades ago – if you were American, traveling abroad was still something of a rarity. Mostly for the rich, the retired or backpacking college students. We were none of these. My mother and I had been traveling together – always in Europe – since I was eleven. She saved her vacation days and we went for five- and six-week stints. Our Egyptian tour was not the usual M.O. but rather my mother's nod to being a novice on a non-Western continent. Normally, she planned our itineraries on her own. Her fun for the year. Later, we abandoned tourism all together, renting apartments, taking language classes, forming circles of friends.

My trip to Beijing was not my first time in Asia, but my first in China. I was there to work on a new bilingual school project (about which I will write more in future posts). As I explored non-tourist neighborhoods, took taxis with only the hotel's address card in Chinese characters to assure that I find my way back, and found myself the only Westerner more than once, I was grateful for the global experiences my mother gave me. Grateful that she ensured I would become someone willing to turn outward and face the world despite the fact that at times the panicked girl arriving in Cairo still exists within me.

That first night in Egypt is emblematic for me of what is meant by clichés like lifelong learning and global education. I was the exact age of many teens in school today who take their first service-learning or study abroad trips.  Some lean into these adventures. Others resist and need coaxing out as I did. If they are lucky, they will get used to experiencing the unfamiliar as a familiar rather than scary sensation, paving the way for another cliché – lifelong learning.

It's ironic that what scared me the most that night I spent in the Shepheard's Hotel (at one time one of the most celebrated hotels in Egypt) refusing to get under the covers, was my worry that my mother was not up to the task of keeping us safe. Everything was too unfamiliar for me to see beyond my own panic at how beautifully she'd managed. I couldn't see that despite the fact that we didn't know the language, we had no transport, no hotel, looked the odd man out or in our case the odd women – my mother embraced the experience undaunted.

What surprised me most about my recent experience in Beijing was to find my mother's confidence and capability living within me. As I explored the Temple of Heaven on my own, climbed the Great Wall, met new Chinese colleagues, interviewed Chinese parents about their hopes and dreams for their children’s education, I was thankful that my own mother had been determined to engage the world and to take me right along with her. She’d put up with my childhood objections to yet another museum, my fainting spells in Greece and Italy, my fears over men who tried to pick her up – in every city, my missing a train and getting lost for nearly a day (a whole other story) and more. She knew she was changing my life for the better. And even then, despite my protestations, I knew it too.

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