When we moved to Cuba two years ago, I was excited about our new adventure. My husband and I had met in China and lived there for more than a decade. We’d traveled extensively through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. But moving to Cuba was a totally different proposition since it was no longer just the two of us. I had reservations about bringing our two young children, then aged 1 and 3.
On our move to Havana, we had to take a charter flight from Miami, since commercial flights from the United States had yet to begin. We got bumped to business class, with my husband and son on one side of the small plane and my daughter and me on the other, each of us with window seats. My daughter and I happened to sit next to an Ecuodorian-American anthropologist who studied the history of dance in Cuba. “How lucky you are to be moving there!” she said. “How do you feel about it?”
I shared my reservations about bringing my kids. She blinked with a great measure of surprise and replied, “There is no more kid-friendly place you could take your children. Cuba was made for children!”
She explained that, especially compared to many other places in Latin America, Cuba was extremely safe, with low crime rates. Children went to school (as opposed to the situation in some other Latin American countries). Child labor was prohibited. Cuba had free education at every level, even university. And if children ever got sick, they also had free medical attention, like all Cubans on the island. “Your kids are going to love it!”
Our arrival at the airport in Havana seemed to confirm her assertions. After we climbed down the stairs onto the tarmac and entered the customs area, a custom officer spotted my son in the Baby Bjorn strapped to me. He waved us to the front of the line, something that would have never happened in the United States. A gorgeous young woman in uniform checked our passports, stamped our visas, and smiled and cooed at our children.
In our new neighborhood, I found that when I took the kids for walks in our bulky double stroller, young men rushed to help me when I got to an uneven curb or bumpy section of sidewalk, of which there were many. Women and men of all ages smiled at my children, waved, and christened them with new nicknames “Chinito” and “Chinita.” (Yes, they translated into“little China boy” and “little China girl,” and with time, it stopped bothering me. I realized gradually that anyone who has dark hair and dark eyes is assigned the name “Chino” or “China” or its diminutives. And in our case, our children actually did have Chinese heritage.)
In Cuba, I quickly learned that we did’t have to worry about taking our children anywhere. We took them to restaurants of all types, and they were welcomed at every establishment. Recently, my husband and I went to a Cuban comedy show with some friends; across the room, we saw a family with a newborn and a young girl. It was 11pm. In Cuba, many new restaurants have playgrounds, trampolines, or just very friendly staff who are happy to make friends with young guests.
It made me wonder how we got so unfriendly to kids in the United States? Why did we get looks of disdain at even the most casual of restaurants in the U.S. if my kids happened to be a bit louder than usual? How was it that ready assistance for children and strollers rarely happens in the U.S.?
Whether Cuba was really a paradise for children was something I still had to ascertain, but in those beginning few months, my guilt about bringing my children to Cuba to live diminished with every encounter we had with locals.