Under Pressure

A second life for two large coat hangers

For those concerned readers of ours who may have come under the impression that our little traveling band’s definition of a pastime these days solely consists of the following activities in any particular order; A) scaling treacherous mountain ranges in their tourist off-season, B) traversing the uncharted forests surrounding contested international borders, or C) circumambulating Buddhist temples until the soles of our Rainbow sandals have worn down to nubs; well, I entreat you to think otherwise.

Throughout these months abroad, Oliver has found unique ways to remind us time and time again that he is still a two-year-old. A two-year-old who poops in his shorts the second we foolishly assume he is mature enough to go without a diaper, a two-year-old who barrels through airport customs lines despite the cadre of officers shouting at him to stop, a two-year-old who throws gut-wrenching tantrums on public buses in rural China while Ryan and I are wedged between sour-faced, spitting Naxi grandmothers.

More often than not, Ryan and I have found ourselves stripped and deprived of many of the useful (read: CRITICAL) crutches most parents depend on during their children’s early years (i.e. highchairs, cribs, babysitters, spoons, bathtubs, washing machines and occasionally hot water), and as such, we have been forced to consider alternate means to cajole our son into doing whatever thing he doesn’t exactly have a mind for doing, such as sitting through a meal or going to bed before 1am. And while the methods we’ve devised are equal parts ingenious and…shall we say…untraditional, that is another subject best explored at another time.

But how best to address Ollie’s signature unrelenting energy? His never-ending, indefatigable drive to run and keep running, to jump on hotel lobby furniture, or to maraud the kitchens of restaurants we dine in in search of their freezer (it is, after all, where they tend to keep the ice cream). Ryan or I frequently pull muscles in our efforts to catch him as he vaults from the plinths of Buddhist stupas as horrified UNESCO officers watch from below.

Some would call us bad parents. Some might say that we are just desperately out of shape. But one should consider that Oliver is equal parts Ryan and Emily; which is to say that he combines my husband’s athleticism and whip-crack mental powers with my precociousness and penchant for living a little too close to the edge. Add to all of this the occasional petulance that is the calling card of any two-year-old and a measure of large, watery blue eyes that could charm the pants off a South American dictator. This is Oliver.

Fortunately for us, Asia is full of children. Children of all kinds; big, small, chubby, malnourished, educated, isolated, wealthy, desperately poor. H’mong children, Akha, Karen, Khmu, Dayak, Malay, Sundanese, Kinh, Khmer, Han, Tibetan, Uygur, Brahman, Tamang, Gurung, Tharu. Muslim children draped coyly in white hijabs. Children from the highlands of Laos, naked from the waist down and professing animist beliefs in the spirits that inhabit the forest. Children in Singapore clutching Smart Phones and children in Northern India, nearly four years old but still nursing from their mothers, seeking nourishment. Oliver has never met one of them that he did not like, aside from perhaps the sweet little French-Canadian toddler that yanked his hair on the overnight train from Vientiane to Bangkok.

We have quickly learned that in this part of the world, where there are children (which is everywhere) one can almost always find some form of diversion for the little ones. Regardless of the average income of the local population, nearly every city we’ve visited hosts a festival, night market or at the very least, a small pedestrian footpath that leads us by a slide or a swing. And no matter how decrepit the equipment, Ollie always has a go at it.

Why he chose the peacock over the motorcycle is a mystery to this day

In China, he was serenaded by the toy train whistle at Dianchi Park in Kuming and attempted to sink a little kid’s paddleboat in Xi‘an. In Rach Gia, Vietnam, he frolicked alongside the silty tendrils of the Mekong Delta and sat astride a peacock on a hand-pushed carousel. In the south-Indian hill station of Ooty, we visited “Jolly World”, which might best be described as the place where Disney rides are banished to in the event that they ever maim someone in the United States. In Siem Reap, we rang in the Mid-Autumn Festival amidst the smoking generators used to power a contraption that twirled tricycles suspended from oversized coat hangers. In Singapore, we spent an entire mind-numbing afternoon marooned on the island of Sentosa where children from all over the world galloped from one overpriced attraction to the next. And of course there have been the zoos, the acquariums, the night safaris and the tiger and elephant breeding centers. On a Tuesday morning in Vientiane, Oliver had an entire water park all to himself.

But the single greatest fail-safe we’ve most consistently relied upon to channel Ollie’s energy has been that most sacred totem of youth: THE BOUNCE HOUSE. Ollie’s affection for the “Bouncey Castle” or “Moon Jump” as it is alternatively called, knows no end. Like some Pavlovian creature, he hyperventilates at the alliterative repetition of vowels and begins wildly gesticulating at any large, colorful, synthetic-looking structure spotted by the side of the road. He becomes stark, raving mad at the sight of a windsock, and even passersby wearing vinyl pants have caught his eye.

While this inflatable form of entertainment is no stranger to folks in the United States, the tendency for these things to reach phenomenal proportions sits squarely within Asia. Driving through the rural countryside in northern Thailand, we encountered one specimen that loomed as large as half a football field. I found that it quite resembled some kind of Technicolor mosque, in that a twenty-foot slide spiraled down from twin minarets that jiggled in the dusk as a stream of children flung themselves from its heights.

The sheer proliferation of the bounce house throughout Asia seems fitting with the dense populous. Every mall from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur features a “kid zone”, replete with a ball-pit, climbing maze, video arcade, and of course, a bounce house. Just the other afternoon, at the Marlioboro Mall in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Oliver nearly blew a fuse as the primary colors came into view when we rounded the corner from the escalator bay. As our son ricocheted around, Ryan and I stared vacantly off into the far reaches of the adjoining food court and let the few moments of peace wash over us amid the din coming from the air hockey tables and karaoke stalls.

There is always the local child that collapses in hysterics as they are stripped of their shoes and shoved through the gate by their parents. I can somewhat sympathize with these kids who perhaps view the entire experience as if they are being thrust into some kind of pulsating padded cell. This concept never seems to occur to Oliver, whose eyes practically roll back into his head with delirious pleasure every time he slams face-first into an outer wall or is clothes-lined by another bigger kid.

At times Ryan or I are jolted out of our stupors by an attendant whose frantic signaling suggests that Ollie has been discovered somewhere in the bounce house putting the sleeper hold on some hapless kid. At that point, Ryan, who between the two of us is usually the one wearing socks, is sent in after him. Oliver reverts to a seething, kicking, snarling mass; something akin to a cross between a pit viper and a rabid koala bear, and when Ryan finally hauls him out under his arm, I remind him that the Catholics a likely considering him a candidate for canonization.

Our evening at Malioboro concluded on a similar dramatic note. After climbing six feet up a flight of wobbly steps, Oliver surveyed his small crowd of onlookers and a wild little grin crept across his face. Muslim grandmothers gasped in unison as he triumphantly swan-dove into the ball-pit below, sending a small tidal wave of colorful plastic into the air as shrieks carried around the room. Having made a trip to the bathroom, I had missed all of the theatrics, though I arrived in time to see Ryan hurling threats at Ollie though the yellow, inflated columns, lest he ever pull a stunt like that again.

Needless to say, we all slept well that night.


  1. You guys are super parents. We couldn't even make a shopping trip into town without a snack from Starbucks and a stuffed animal at BabyGap. It's amazing what you guys are doing as a family. It's an experience to last a lifetime in more ways than one.

  2. Liz, I have casually mentioned to Oliver that friends of ours in CA actually OWN a bouncehouse anc that it is known to make frequent apearances at b-day parties, etc. You'll have the opportunity to witness firsthand the effect they have on our son. BE, thanks for the props! The real credit should go to our son, who is the most adaptable 2 yr old I've ever known.

  3. We'll have the biggest bouncy house in Northern California delivered to our house if it'll guarantee us a visit from the three of you as soon as you return. We miss you dearly.

    Love to you all.

    Jason, Ginelle, Natalie, Gracee and Lindsey

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