“The air con is too cold!”
“Don’t talk so loud in the room!”
“I can’t stand having all the shoes scattered across the room!”
“Don’t go around in your boxer shorts! We got girls here.”
“No talking during quiet hours means no noise, including organizing your bags.”
“It is common sense to talk to your friends outside the room, not here.”
And the list goes on…
The first leg of our one year “COVID” trip starts with traveling inside China. We call it THE EXPERIMENT. Will we be able to REALLY travel as 5 adults, each with our adult habits, need for personal space, and own ways of doing things? Olivia has left home for 4 years and En-Li for 2 years. No longer are they the same teenagers that we travelled from 2015-16 during our second gap year.
Within a few days, tempers began to flare, eyes rolled, and shouting matches started. Everyone’s patience was tested. There were moments where we wonder if traveling for a whole year like this was worth it, especially in the midst of global pandemic.
Having personal space was probably number one on the “must have” for the 3 adult children. Sharing a 6-person hostel dorm room to save cost made it very challenging to do devotion, talk to friends, listen to music, or taking a nap by oneself.
“I am going to sleep early tonight as I am tired,” Joani told everyone in the room one night. “Please try not to make noise even though it is not quiet hour yet.” However, even with her earplugs, she can’t sleep with the noise in the room.
On another night, Joani wanted to call her friend inside the dorm room because her skin gets itchy when she goes outside of the room into the humid air.
“You shouldn’t make phone calls inside the room,” Nathan protested. “When I call my friend I always go outside. Why do you think I wake up 5am every morning?”
The Blow Up
“We need to sit down now and talk. Or else this is not going to work,” urged Olivia.
Once over breakfast in a street side noodle shop, we brought up our issues with one another. It wasn’t pretty. Joani tried not to keep herself from screaming by breaking bamboo chopsticks and tearing tissue papers. Nathan decided to leave the table and walked outside to defuse the tension. I was feeling very defeated.
“Maybe we should call off our one year trip,” I resigned. With the pandemic, traveling in already very difficult. Adding interpersonal conflicts, I don’t know if I feel like traveling anymore.”
“But isn’t the most important purpose of the trip is to build our family relationship? If we give up and don’t spend time together and build memories, then the relationship will always be broken. I feel we function better as a family while traveling as compared with just staying in the house,” Annie shared.
“Okay, instead of biking together as a family of five. Why don’t I bike with just En-Li and the three girls bike as a second group. This way we can defuse the tension and it would be an opportunity for me to have a one-on-one date with En-Li,” I suggested.
It turned out to be a wonderful day for all of us. Although we didn’t bike as a family we each enjoyed the company that we had. En-Li and I swam across the Li Jiang River of Guilin, ate rice cooked in bamboo, and discovered a nice biking path along another river. The girls biked in the opposite direction having fun getting lost as well as swimming in the river. We all came back in a better mood. Over dinner when we shared what we were thankful for during the day, everyone had something to say.
Like what Olivia wrote on her Instagram:
🎼Oh, I’m gonna fight for you, even if I have to fight with you.
That’s what you gotta do when you love someone, when you love someone🎼—Fight For You by Plumb
You don’t get to choose family. Family is my greatest blessing and also one of my greatest challenges. They bring the greatest of joys and the deepest heartaches. It’s because family is our greatest treasure that we can never lose, so we take it for granted. They challenge me, make me grow, make me laugh, and make me a better person. They tell me my flaws in the face and tell me to be quiet when I’m too loud. They cause my tears but they also wipe them away.
My family fights all the time, but by God’s grace we’ve learned to understand and love each other better with every fight.
As we “followed our hearts” (deciding as a family where we want to go next after each leg) from July 2nd to 17th, we backpacked from Kunming City to Zhangjiajie National Park to Changsha City to Yangshuo (Guilin) to Nanning to Puzhehei and back to Kunming City. Along the way, we learned to bond in new ways day by day.
Eating is probably our strongest glue. At Zhangjiajie, we eagerly tried the Tu ethnic dishes of 三下锅 or laugh at all the funny English translation of the dishes. At Changsha City, we head straight for the famous Taiping Old Street and ate its famous Changsha Stinky Tofu as well as the hilarious Stinky Tofu Museum where you can voluntarily sniff puffs of stinky sprays. At Yangshuo, we kept ordering Snail noodles until we were sick of it. To top it off, an MBA friend gave us a generous KFC gift card which basically is our children’s dream come true as we hunt down every KFC we can find.
One family tradition that we started in 2015 was playing cards and watching Korean drama together. Five years later, we had not stopped. We each have a deck of cards with us and we also have a list of Korean dramas waiting to be watched. Every night after dinner, we still eagerly come together to have these family times.
We also continued with our tradition of one-on-one date that we started in 2015. After intense negotiation, I agreed to cover 50% up to RMB 50 and the children cover the other 50%. In Changsha, Joani and I were paired up randomly after spinning a spoon on the table. We found an electric share bike and drove it along the river and everywhere in town.
“Dad, since you are so big on planning, how does God’s plan fit into your plan?” Asked Joani as she clutches my waist from the back on the electric bike.
I was surprised by the spiritual depth of her question. In 2015, she was still struggling with just believing God exist. Five years later, she is learning to include God in her daily living. After a good discussion on how to align with God’s plan, we had some fun dress each other up in funny hats and together built something together – a lego figurine of 小叮当 – while sipping cold drink in a shop.
Joani and I also played a conversation game during our date where we asked each other questions pretending we were strangers: “So do you have siblings?”, “Where have you travelled before?” “What is one of your biggest regret?” As we played, we found out that we “have” a lot in common!
Olivia wrote about her one-on-one date on her instagram:
I’m so glad that we got to go on a one on one date, walking across the breezy bridge across the water and talk. Real talk. Like you often mention, we were buddies since I was born—sleeping, eating, buying grocery, and the daily stuff things. You were my mom, my math crying buddy, my street-food partner in crime, my friend. You taught me to read, to dance, to pray, and to not take myself so seriously. But somewhere along the way, I grew up. I learned to use the building blocks life gave me to build up the person I am today. You were a piece of the building block, and so were many other people, experiences, and life lessons. Along the way, I built walls to discern the genuine from the friendly. Type Sevens tend to build up walls that are different than other types in the Enneagram. “They’re walls are beautiful and warm. Many find them approachable and easy to connect with. As a result, only a few take the time to really get to know them.”
Through your bleary eyes, I saw your genuine heart. I know you want to know me more and I see how hard you are trying. I do too. Here are the keys to my heart: Ask me questions and listen. When I feel like I have the space to I can paint you stories of my life, I can show you my world and the nick and crannies inside my brain. Sometimes I’m just not ready to talk unless someone asks. Sometimes my “I don’t know” are “Ask me again. I need to know you really care.”
You listened. Thank you for waiting to let me share, thank you for not giving up, for taking the keys, and taking the time to build this bridge together.
Sometimes bonding together also means doing things apart. It is through alternating periods of being together and periods of being apart we give space to each other to develop into healthy independent adults, developing relationship with ourselves, with those outside of the family, and with God. Now that all three children are adults, we give them more freedom to choose and to take responsibilities.
One experiment we are testing is to have a rest day once a week, usually on Sunday, where we can wake up anytime we want, spend time alone, read books, go for dates, or set up calls with friends. Doing things separately on rest days is much easier now that they are all adults.
“I want to go to the river, dip my feet into the water, and read a book on my Kindle,” said Olivia.
“Annie and I will continue listening to the audible book we started call ‘Created for Connection’,” said I.
“I want to go to a cafe and do some drawing,” said Joani.
“I have set up several calls with my friends already,” said Nathan.
Living in hostels means we also can meet other backpackers like us. Many hostels organize events for travelers to do things together. In Zhangjiajie we joined a “group dinner” with other travelers and staff. In Yangshuo, we made dumplings together with others as well.
En-Li especially enjoys talking to other hikers on our trail, but our children are most excited to stay with their friends while on the road.
“Can we visit our classmates in Nanning?” pleaded Joani.
“I can plan the Nanning trip,” volunteered En-Li enthusiastically.
In Nanning, Guangxi, their classmate took them out to a huge urban park, biked for miles along the river bike path, and ate at the famous night market. I was especially excited to know that they enjoy wild camping. Quickly a plan was formed to camp for two nights in Puzhehei, Yunnan.
Although Annie, Joani, and I had recently visited Puzhehei, I was excited that this time we will be doing “wild camping” for FREE and best of all a chance to test out our camping equipment. The place we camped was only a 15-minute hike from the busy tourist village but we had the whole valley to ourselves as it is a government land set aside for restoration. There is a lake there where we swim morning, afternoon, & night and there are two leaky boats for us to paddle to the lilies. We caught fish by using a fishnet. We cooked with branches and just enjoyed doing nothing for two days. At night, we laid down on the field and watch the galaxy and shooting stars.
The children really enjoyed hanging out with their peers. Annie and I are usually tired after a day of swimming and cooking, so we retired to our tent. But our three children together with their friends talked late into the night, toasting marshmallows over the fire or listening to music.
Growing Spiritually as a Family
“I feel that as Christians we grow the best when we support each other as a community,” Olivia proposed one day. “Since we will be traveling as a family, I suggest we can read the same book together and then share what we have learn as a community.”
“That’s a great idea,” I agreed. “What book do you all want to read together?”
We each listed our favorite Christian authors, such as CS Lewis, Max Lucado, and Philip Yancy. At the end, we agree to start with a book that Olivia just adores and wouldn’t mind reading it again called “The Knowledge of the Holy” by Tozer.
In addition, on our rest day, each person would take turn to lead our worship time, sermon, discussion, and prayer. I feel my devotional life can have better accountability so Joani invited me to join her Bible reading plan, the Proverbs. Through the You Version app, we can text our thoughts for each chapter and read each other’s comment.
“A family I know has a great tradition of sharing 3 things they are thankful for during meal each day. Even though their children are in different countries, they still try to do this online,” I shared. “Let’s try as well.”
So during this trip, we started this tradition of sharing what we are thankful for during each dinner. Sometimes it can be hard to be thankful when there are conflicts, but I was surprised how everyone is still able to see past the circumstances and shared thanksgivings from God’s perspectives.
“What a miracle to received KFC gift card right before we got to the Zhangjiajie Station where the only restaurant open was KFC!” shared Olivia.
“What about almost being kicked out of the hotel in Changsha because we are foreigners after we had already checked-in,” I shared. “As we were about to leave the hotel without another place to go, the lady at the door called the owner of the hotel to reassure that it is okay for us to stay.”
Thank you God, for your wonderful and unexpected provisions. We need an extra measure of Grace traveling during this pandemic time. We wait in expectation of where God will lead us and what doors He will open and close. Most important of all, let us be light and salt to each other and to those we will encounter on this gap year journey.