Life in Transit – Lena and Brian

After a roller coaster year that involved losing our jobs, moving four times, and a pandemic – we can finally exhale. Against all odds, we have made it to our new home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. 

Departure

After a flustered farewell to Mexico, we waited in limbo for several months in California. We hunkered down in homes that our family and friends graciously lent us, as sickness, sadness, and uncertainty raged outside. Within our carefully constructed social bubble, we relished reconnecting with Lena’s family and immersing ourselves in nature. By July our new school began speculating about the Uzbek border partially re-opening, so we rounded up all the stuff of our transit life. Camping gear, winter clothes and most toys went into boxes that Brian drove to Phoenix on a sprint to get our shipment sent off. It had been sitting in a storage unit since August after being intercepted in Hamburg on its way to Moscow. Now it would head back to Europe and then south via train from Eastern Europe through Central Asia. Our Kitchen Aid mixer is extremely well traveled. The stories our stuff could tell. Meanwhile, our passports had been sent to the Uzbek Consulate in Washington, DC with extra fees and followed up with phone calls begging to expedite visas in case we were asked to jump on a last minute flight.

The flurry of preparing to leave coincided with preparing to teach remotely on a twelve hour time difference. We were attending Zoom staff meetings that began at 8:00pm and lasted until 3:00am….and then we had to wake up and function as parents of very young kids. We splurged at Target to create virtual learning spaces where we could record lessons and instruct our own children. As soon as we set up our office, we got an email from the school asking us if we could make a charter flight departing from New York in 24 hours. This entailed packing, saying goodbye to family, purchasing last minute flights from San Francisco to New York, and uprooting the kids with minimal notice. Of course we said yes. We just needed to confirm that our permission to be on the flight had made it from Tashkent to New York City. Just as we began to strategize the ultimate departure plan, we got word that the permissions hadn’t arrived. We were off the flight and would likely not have another opportunity until the border opened up to commercial flights in a month or two. 

Until a week later. We were squeezed onto a repatriation flight technically for Uzbeks moving home during the pandemic (which makes sense because Uzbekistan’s COVID response relies on science and social responsibility), and it departed in five days. But we were now emotionally prepared and had anticipated logistics ahead of time. Best of all, we had visas and permission to enter the country. After previous experiences trying to get visas for other countries (and not always succeeding), we were pleasantly surprised at how logical and pleasant our interactions were with Uzbeks. For example, we called the Consulate and spoke to a person….a person who was friendly and helpful. Amazing. 

The flight to Tashkent left from New York City, but New York had just instituted a self-quarantine requirement for people arriving from several states, including California. No one could really tell us more than transiting would probably be ok. So we booked a nonrefundable room at the only hotel actually at JFK. We were questioned by authorities from the NY Health Department when disembarking our flight from San Francisco, but they waved us on when we explained that we were only staying one night and leaving the country in the morning. Getting to the retro TWA Hotel in Terminal 5 was as to be expected when pushing three teetering carts stacked with 16 suitcases in and out of elevators and on and off the AirTrain. There were some harrowing mishaps of tumbling luggage nearly concussing our wayward children. Brian also discovered that he was not what one might call “in shape.” 

The Flight

We got to the check-in counter exhausted from the trek only to find out that we must pay cash for our baggage overage fees. We were expecting the fee part but not the cash part. After several trips to the ATM and unsuccessful calls to the bank to waive withdrawal limits, we were still short. The incredibly helpful Uzbekistan Airways employee went out of his way to try several work arounds, but without the cash we were stuck. We had used up our built in time cushion trying to solve this fiasco. It did not look like we were going to make the flight.  Then Brian pulled out several money orders that the Uzbek Consulate had returned to us because we hadn’t needed to pay expediting fees for our visas. This would be the first but definitely not the last time that we encountered this type of humbling honesty. In the whirlwind of packing, we hadn’t been able to refund the money orders for cash. It was a Hail Mary for the win. The money orders, totaling the exact amount we needed, were accepted as payment and we sprinted for the security gate.

Security was a nightmare. Crowded. Understaffed. Nothing to protect from COVID (ok, the officials wore gloves….the same pair of gloves to protect themselves but no one else). Multiple rescans of luggage for no reason. By the time we were finally through, the flight was boarding. Naturally, our gate was as far away as possible. We raced through the terminal with overstuffed carry-ons, dragging Bug and Noodle on their Trunkis. We arrived panting at an empty gate and looked at each other in panic. Realizing it had just relocated a few gates down, we quickly spotted the well-masked but definitely not physically distanced crowd. We joined the line and caught our breath for the next hour before we were able to board the delayed flight. 

Our introduction to Uzbekistan Airways was the flight attendants greeting us dressed head to toe in full protective gear. The flight was completely full. We hadn’t seen this many people in months and the close proximity with recycled air was beyond stressful. We weren’t the only ones though. Many people, including us, pulled out packets of bleach wipes and scrubbed down every inch of their seating areas. The flight was relatively uneventful, although the unmasked young boy sitting in front of us continuously leaned into our space to try and play with Bug and Noodle sent Lena into a mild panic attack mixed with guilt. In any other situation, she would have encouraged the kids to play. But a potential super spreader breathing in our food was too much. Brian made gestures that the child needed to wear a mask. The family graciously complied and did their best with the cute little wiggler for the rest of the flight. On the other hand, Bug and Noodle did amazing. They kept their masks on for all twelve hours – even while eating and sleeping – and never objected to being doused in sanitizer each time they went to the toilet. However, Lena trying to rub an essential oil concoction in their nostrils was a step too far. Brian’s biggest complaint was his broken movie screen that kept him from watching any of the five Uzbek or Russian movies available. Oh, and the food was terrible.

Arrival

Watching the map was mesmerizing as we passed over the Arctic, through Russia and over numerous “Stans” that were complete unknowns in our mental imaging of the world. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Tashkent. Passport control was slow but undramatic. Luggage collection was another story. The carrousel was packed with not only passengers and airport employees but also drivers and employees from hotels where people would be quarantining. At that time, all passengers arriving into Uzbekistan were required to quarantine for ten days either in a hotel or at a government quarantine facility. As bags began to appear, Brian jockeyed at the non-distanced carousels and Lena corralled the kids in an empty corner of the hall. All the bags must have been sprayed with disinfectant because they were wet even though it was a bright sunny day. Despite Brian’s masterful skill at building suitcase Jenga towers on rickety luggage carts, we did have one small mishap on a crowded ramp. 

We were excited to meet another teacher from our school who had also made our flight, and not only because she helped push a cart. A friendly presence and easy conversation amidst the chaos and uncertainty quickly calmed our nerves. Also, while loading into the hotel van, we caught a glimpse of school staff who came to wave at us from across the parking lot. It was another warm gesture that really made us feel welcomed. 

Our new colleague pointed out landmarks and local bazaars as our police escort darted through the empty streets. Although normally congested with traffic, the government had restricted cars on the road to control movement and curb COVID’s spread. After a short drive through the city, we arrived at the Miran International Hotel, where we would would exist in limbo for nearly two weeks. While checking into the hotel, the school director appeared outside a window, waved enthusiastically, and snapped photographic proof that we were on Uzbek soil. We were so touched to see him. On top of everything our school had done to get us to Tashkent during a pandemic, these small gestures really set the tone for what type of community we were entering. 

Bewildered and exhausted, we were escorted past military guards and down a dim hallway lit with disinfecting UV lights to our surprisingly spacious and bright room. Noticing the megabed that had been made by pushing two double beds together, all four Thomspers quickly changed into comfy jammies and promptly fell asleep.

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Parenting Not Sharenting – Brian

We have had serious discussions about the role our children would play in the evolution of this blog. Their very existence underpins all our decision-making, and this blog is essentially about the decisions we make as an expat family, so clearly they need to be acknowledged. Using pseudonyms was an easy agreement, and if you know our kids, Bug and Noodle are apt names. Yet we did not so easily agree on how to visually represent them. Photographs are integral to a blog, as the images capture readers’ attention and create an immediate stimulus to accompany text. If we are writing about our kids, we need to show them in some way. 

We ultimately decided not to show our children’s faces but were uncertain about exactly how and what impact it would have on the blog. Can mood be created without seeing their faces? How much emotion is lost? What if we blurred them? Would that be distracting? Is blurring enough protection? How about putting shapes over their faces?

But wait. This isn’t only about our amateur blogging aspirations. Our children’s identities will be impacted by having an online presence. Each time a photo is uploaded to the internet it leaves a digital footprint that can never be fully erased. How will this affect our toddlers? Or their future selves? What could happen to a photo once it is downloaded off our blog and we’ve have lost control of it? Consider the Tweet we shared about losing our jobs. It was seen by nearly 12,000 people and almost 1,500 did something with it. Do Bug or Noodle want that many people seeing a photo of them playing in the park? 

As veteran teachers, we have well-resourced “toolkits” to pull from when making parenting decisions. To tackle this challenge, we chose to lean on the International Baccalaureate Enhanced Primary Years Program, which centers learning around an agency framework of voice, choice and ownership.

They deserve ownership of their sense of self. It is important that we allow them to develop this identity outside the confines of a forced online one that they didn’t create. We want them to have the freedom to explore and experiment without worrying about how they appear to others. That is the innocence of childhood, and we don’t want to steal it. We do capture precious moments and occasionally share them on our closely controlled personal social media accounts, but that is not the intention of this blog.

We also want to give our children voice and choice about how they are portrayed to the world. It is unfair for us to make this decision for them, and they are too young to give informed consent, so we are including them in deciding which photos they are comfortable using. Although they may not fully understand the significance of the choice, they are learning that it is a choice that exists and we feel it is important. Hopefully this understanding will stay with them as they grow older.

The term sharenting has been coined to describe this act of posting children’s lives online as they grow up. With so many established parenting blogs and celebrity moms and dads with millions of followers posting constantly about their children, the phenomenon has now come to a head. Now-teens are expressing strong feelings about discovering the photos of themselves that their parents have been posting. To protect these children, France has actually passed laws allowing parents to be fined or jailed for posting pictures of their children online.

The immediate dangers go beyond disrespecting the kids’ ownership of and autonomy over their identities. There is also a very real risk of online role-playing and digital kidnapping, where photos are stolen from social media and used for other purposes, such as advertisements or on explicit websites. The Thomas family experienced this when they found their family photo being used for a local political campaign without their permission, which then led to them discovering its use in ad campaigns in many different countries. They have never consented to or received compensation for the photo’s use, and getting companies to take it down has been a nightmare. Even more concerning, the BBC warns that photos easily linked to an abundance of personal information could make our children vulnerable to future financial fraud

Research for this post made Lena and I realize that we needed to check out our own media footprints to ensure that geotags, contact information, and location-identifiers in photos were removed enough to keep the children safe. We started by self-Googling and were comfortable with the results. Except for one picture. We had originally opted to blur the kids’ faces, but seeing it appear in a Google image search gave us pause, so we decided to re-edit the photo and add shapes over their faces. Perhaps more distracting and detracting but better for our children. As an additional safety measure, we will also watermark the photos.

Not our favorite option for concealing faces

Parents make a million decisions every day in the best interest of their children. We try to be as informed and intentional as possible, but ultimately we go with instinct. Are we perfect parents? No way. Do we make mistakes? Most definitely. Are we comfortable with the level of anonymity that we’ve attempted to maintain for our children? We think so. 

We can’t prevent “right click, save,” but we can take measures to protect our images and the people within them. What decisions have you made regarding your own, your children’s or students’ digital footprints? We’d love to hear your thoughts.