Monday, February 20, 2012

Travel Tips: Packing

I was a little hesitant to post about this, as everyone's travel experience and level of comfort on the road is different. I also realize many people traveling to China to adopt may not be adopting their first child -- so they may need to pack for other children on the trip -- and most aren't vegan like we are, so our food choices will be different. Adopted children all have different ages and ranges of ability. The last thing I have to admit is I didn't use anyone else's packing list when we made ours... we just considered what we thought we might need for the two of us the whole time, and for our new daughter most of the time.

That said, in case they're useful, here are my retrospective thoughts about how we packed and could have done it differently. It is far from a comprehensive list.

Technology. Both Lindy and I have iPad 2s. They were perfect, for blogging, email and Facebook, and a little bit of entertainment for the youngster on the way home. We downloaded the VPN Express app from the App Store and signed up for a month of unlimited use. We were able to use this on both iPads, to bypass the censors who don't want people in China to use Facebook, Blogger, etc. We also used FaceTime and Skype to talk to our parents. I downloaded the Blogsy app to post to our blog, and found it very easy to use for both text and photos. We also downloaded a few episodes of Kai-Lan from iTunes.

Each of us has a digital camera, and we bought a $5 card reader from Amazon that worked like a charm. By contrast, Apple's $25 model didn't work at all. Glad we tested it before we left! Neither of us felt any need for an always-on mobile device like an iPhone or a BlackBerry, or even a cell phone. We brought our phones but left them in the bag to use on the way home as needed. Neither one of us missed our laptops. In fact, there was a computer in the room of our Guangzhou hotel, and we never turned it on.

The last essential piece in our tech arsenal, which was always the first thing I unpacked and the last thing I packed up when leaving a hotel, was our travel router. This gizmo is what allows you to change a hotel room's wired Internet service into a wireless connection you can use with your iPad. None of the hotels we stayed at in China had wireless -- all were wired. We chose the Zuni instead of an Apple AirPort Express because it's cheaper, lighter, and has connections to charge two USB devices while it is running. We used it at a hotel in Illinois before traveling to China, and then in Beijing, Langfang, Changchun and Guangzhou. It worked flawlessly. You will want to set it up at home using your laptop first, so you can establish a network ID and password. The default is unencrypted. Then all you have to do is log onto it from your iPad once, and you're all set every time you travel. We used the Zuni to charge both of our iPads and an iPod Touch. It doesn't usually generate enough current to charge an iPad, but the 220 outlets in China made this possible.

Food. As I mentioned, we're vegan. A friend of ours gave us the text in Chinese for "We are Buddhists, we don't eat any meat" and something along the lines of "Please don't cook our food in meat sauce." I turned it into a little laminated wallet card for each of us. I can't say with certainty that we didn't consume something unintentionally that we would have avoided, but the card served us very well. We also found a number of Buddhist restaurants, which are typically vegan or specify if they use eggs, and ate very well there. On the whole, the food experience was great and very inexpensive for us.

Nonetheless, we left for China determined to be prepared for the food situation. Lindy had the bright idea to buy a whole case of 24 Primal Strips, which are jerky made of wheat or soy protein and come in a whole bunch of different shelf-stable flavors. We brought an 8-pack of individual servings of Jif peanut butter. We also took a box of instant oatmeal packets, some Clif and LaraBars, and some fruit leathers for our daughter. Rounding out the collection were a ton of packets of Starbucks VIA instant coffee and some powdered soy creamer for Lindy. In China, we bought gallons of bottled water a couple of times, a few instant noodle bowls, and some soymilk boxes for Xiao Ya. In the end, the oatmeal wasn't necessary and we gave most of the peanut butter to another traveling family in our hotel. But it was great to have the other stuff just as an extra snack source on the road, or to serve as an in-room meal once in awhile. The coffee was a godsend, because the instant stuff in the hotel rooms was pretty bad and the version at breakfast, even though often served out of fancy espresso makers, wasn't much better. We went to the Starbucks on Shamian Island once and paid a fortune for two cups. The mermaid isn't my favorite coffee in the States, but the instant stuff made for a pretty respectable cup on the road.

Clothing. We were in transit or in China for 17 days. Jilin Province was quite cold, Guangzhou was moderately warm and humid for February, and Beijing was right in between. We brought quite a few layers and decided to pack enough clothing for 6 days, then do laundry twice. This worked out pretty well, with a few little changes of plan:

  1. The hotel laundry in Changchun was frightfully expensive by Chinese standards, and there wasn't a good service nearby. So, while Lindy was the only one Xiao Ya allowed near her in those early days except for feeding, I spent the better part of one day washing all of our clothes in the giant bathtub and carefully hanging everything on every single hanger and flat surface in the room. We sent two pairs of jeans out for laundry and one of my shirts for pressing, and paid close to $25 US.
  2. The laundry in Guangzhou was so convenient and inexpensive that we actually ended up doing it twice there. The second time was so we could have mostly clean clothes and not have to worry about doing a ton of washing when we got home.
  3. Somehow, I managed to bring more clothes than I needed anyway. After repacking the entire suitcase to leave the country, I found socks and underwear I didn't realize I had.
  4. The heavy winter snow boots were a waste. It didn't snow in Changchun at all and wasn't cold enough for them to make a difference. Meanwhile, I'm a size 12, and had to wear them every time we flew to avoid taking up space in our luggage. Luckily, we consumed and gave away a bunch of stuff, so I was able to pack them on the trip home and wear my comfy sneaks on the plane instead.

We probably brought a little bit too much clothing for our daughter, as we weren't sure her exact size and she came to us, as is typical, bundled in a bunch of layers. Her original winter coat got ruined when she threw up on it and we tried to wash it off, not realizing there was a down filling inside, but we had given the coat we brought for her to the foster care center in exchange. So I was able to buy her another one at the Walmart for a little less than $20 US. Also, none of the shoes we brought were a good fit. The good news is that she'll grow into them. The other good news is that cheap, Chinese-made shoes for little kids are even cheaper in China. We got one pair at Walmart and two more on Shamian Island. I probably spent a total of $15 for all three. Some American parents of Chinese children like "squeaky shoes," which traditional Chinese parents apparently used to put on their kids so they could hear them walking ahead and behind. Personally, things that squeak drive me crazy. But we did find a pair on the island that we thought were pretty cute, and they fit her, so the shopkeeper helpfully showed me how to remove the squeakers.

I prefer a shirt made out of the softest material possible for the plane, and jeans. We dressed Xiao Ya in her pajamas underneath some warmer clothes for the way back. We also packed a change of clothes for each person traveling, in our carry-ons, in case something gets stained or ruined or the luggage gets lost or delayed.

The only other advice I would offer is that you're not likely to need much by way of clothing nicer than jeans. Some families like to dress up a little for a consulate appointment because of its significance, but the ambiance is very similar to an American DMV. Also, some folks like to go to a fancy restaurant to celebrate before their adoption, while they still can. We didn't. I wore khakis and Lindy wore cords to our appearance before the provincial authorities, but that was it. We found ourselves consistently outdressed by the local folks in Changchun, but part of this was because we were staying in a hotel attached to a very upscale shopping center. When we got to Guangzhou, all the Americans were basically wearing athletic clothes and jeans.

Gifts. A lot of folks obsess over what they should bring from the States for all of the folks along the way who help them in China. We packed a big box of donations for Harmony House, mostly toys and cereal, and paid our adoption agency about $200 to handle all tips for guides, drivers and bellmen during our trip. We also gave:

  • Some nice chocolate and a reusable shopping bag for the head of Harmony House and two of our three guides; and a nice trail mix, two Primal Strips and a reusable bag for the third guide.
  • A DC coffee mug and a nice trail mix for the provincial official and the notary.
  • A DC coffee mug and reusable bag for our friend's parents who hosted us for dinner.

I have no idea how well these gifts actually went over, but the people who opened them seemed appreciative, and I've heard from several folks that you want to focus on items that are unique to where you live in the States.

What we're absolutely glad we brought.

  • iPads, Zuni router, $5 camera connection kit.
  • Primal Strips and various food bars.
  • Gallon and quart-sized Ziploc bags. The gallon ones are amazing for squeezing the air out when you pack your clothes. The quart ones are good for leftovers and souvenirs, and for keeping your liquids from leaking in your suitcase. Important note: on domestic Chinese flights, you cannot bring any liquids in your carry-on. It all has to be checked.
  • Smaller backpacks inside the suitcase, for day trips.
  • Reusable water bottles to fill up from the big containers in the hotel, so we wouldn't feel as guilty about drinking bottled water.
  • Small containers of Play-Doh. She loved the stuff on the plane and in the hotel room.
  • Magna-Doodle. Super light and easy to slip into a bag.
  • Child-size fork and spoon. She loved these and still does. Harmony House had not taught her how to use a fork, and she's picked it up since coming home.
  • Stacking cups. She used these for drinking, and for playing in the bath.
  • Ergo Organic baby carrier. Even though only Mama is allowed to use this with Xiao Ya, it's been a lifesaver. We've still never had her in a stroller and don't own one.
  • Ginger chews for Lindy, who gets motion sick during some ordinary, calm car rides. The taxis in Changchun were like being in a video game.
  • Small container of laundry soap for the hotel.
  • Reusable nylon tote bags. These are great for shopping and for holding your laundry, they're washable and light, and they barely take up any space.

What we wished we had, but easily bought in China.

  • Different shoes for our daughter that actually fit.
  • New winter coat for our daughter.
  • Dish sponge for the hotel room.

What we wished we had, and didn't have.


  • Good chocolate. The Chinese stuff isn't very good. You can probably get imported chocolate at some outlets in Cina, especially in a big city, but much easier and less expensive to bring your own.

What we could have done without, but are glad to have brought anyway.

  • An entire package of pull-ups, as Xiao Ya is potty trained save for the occasional night-time accident. But good to have them just in case. We did use a couple over there, and have used a couple since coming home. The rest went to our tour guide, who was hosting another family whose son was not as potty trained as they had expected.
  • Peanut butter.
  • Instant oatmeal.
  • Sippy cups and kids' water bottles. She preferred a regular cup and our adult-size water bottle.
  • Kid headphones. Great suggestion from our friend with several kids, for the plane, but she just wasn't interested this time. We'll try again later.
  • Snack catcher. Once we realized the hard way that our kid will not part with this if there are still snacks in it, we also knew it was a good way to make her feel safe and occupied.

Complete waste of space in the suitcase, but we had no idea.

  • Most of the toys, games and books we brought for Xiao Ya. She had a few favorites such as her photo album and comb, but spent most of the time playing with found objects such as boxes, cups and spoons. She had little interest in dolls and stuffed animals -- both of which are bulky. Note: all adoptive parents say the same thing about the toys when they come back from China. Also note: she is starting to get into the dolls and stuffed animals now that she's home.
  • Books for BaBa. Yeah, I didn't have so much time to read.
  • Outlet converters. We bought a couple of cheap ones from Amazon and have used them when traveling internationally in the past. But they were almost completely unnecessary. For starters, all of our electronics have dual-voltage chargers and indicate as much on their power adapters. So the only issue for those would have been the plug shape. But all four of our Chinese hotels had outlets that would accept an American two-prong plug without an adapter. And we didn't bring any razors or curling irons that would need a voltage transformer. Even if we had, the bathrooms had 110 outlets with American plugs for these. I say almost unnecessary because we did use one of the converters to charge Lindy's iPod the night we were in Hong Kong. But the hotel would have given us one if we'd asked.
  • Swim diaper. Potty trained daughter; no indoor pools in province or in Guangzhou.
  • Over-the-counter cold meds for adults and kids; pain relief for kids. Xiao Ya didn't have so much as a sniffle when we were there, and the Chinese pharmacies seemed pretty well-stocked anyway. They gave us what I'm pretty sure is a prescription anti-diarrheal over the counter when we were first in Changchun.

Final thought. It's pretty easy to obsess over the details of a packing list, or to stay up the last few nights worrying that you forgot something. Don't worry. China is a really civilized country, and many if not most of our consumer goods in the States come from there anyway. It's very easy to buy what you forgot or didn't realize you needed -- with a few key exceptions. For example, I'm glad I brought three different kinds of shoes and too many clothes, because they don't really sell things in my size that often in China. But especially when it comes to packing for your new son or daughter -- really, don't sweat it.





Amy said...

Thanks for posting your travel tips, I am finding them very helpful. And, glad to hear that I don't need snow boots, since I don't own any. Please keep posting your tips.

MarthaB. said...

I wish you had traveled before us, all of your tips are so helpful and of course we waaaaay overpacked!

Our Family said...

thanks so much for this info. Although we have traveled to China before in 2009 this is great. I was especially interested in your info on the IPAD. I am trying to convince my hubby that this is the way to go. Appreciate your help!

ianjohnson said...

Your post have the information that is helpful and informative. great tips . I would like you to keep up the good work.thanks

Korinna Bauer said...

All packed and tribble checked - me and DH are leaving for Beijing tomorrow :-)

Travel said...

Excellent post.I want to thank you for this informative read, I really appreciate sharing this great post. Keep up your work.

Travel Tips

Michelle Courtney DeFiore said...

Aside from reservation and other stuffs, packing is another important matter. It's one of my problems actually so I'm having a hard time. Thank you for sharing these tips.