“Make sure you paint it symmetrically,” I begged Nathan as he smiled mischievously with bright orange powder clinging onto the tip of his forefinger. “Remember, a person is perceived to be beautiful mainly due to the person’s face looking symmetrical!”
“Ha, ha, ha…” Joani, Olivia, and Annie laughed as Nathan stroked a streak of bright orange line across my forehead.
“Wait until it is my turn!” I threatened Nathan for making my face look like an exploding firework. “Use my phone to take a photo so I can see…”
It was a rare sunny morning at the Scottish highland of Glencoe. We were camping on a beautiful green lawn overlooking bay with snow capped hills behind us. The five of us were sitting cross-legged in a circle inside our faithful tent playing Joani’s favorite game, BFF Challenge, which stands for Best Friend Forever. The object of the game is for each one of us to come up with difficult questions related to our one year trip such that only our “best friends” might know the answer. We each took turn saying our answers to the questions. For every incorrect answer, we were punished by having our faces painted by color powders that we bought in India. Soon, each one of our faces looked like a chalk board with colors flying in all directions.
It was Joani’s turn to ask the question: “What did I search on the Youtube in Egypt the day that our cat Zoe died?”
“I have no idea…” mom relented.
“Cat videos that made you sad?” Nathan guessed with some hesitation.
“A song,” I guessed as well.
“The answer is ‘sad cat songs’,” Joani replied with the correct answer.
“Yes! I won!” I yelled out pumping my fist.
“No, you’re wrong! Your answer had no ‘cat’ in there!” Joani refused to give me the pleasure of winning the BFF challenge.
“No! No! No! It doesn’t count!…” everyone else protested as well as each was fighting for his own gain.
With such question and other questions, such as at what country did Olivia first cried from stress, at what city did Annie lose her tooth filling, how much money we spent per day in Paris, etc., we continued to paint colors unto each other’s faces.
While we were wrestling and yelling inside the tent, we were oblivious to the people walking around us in the same campsite. To them, we must had looked like a wild, noisy family with our painted faces and enthusiastic screams. Who could have known that that this Chinese family of five had backpacked for 365 days, travelled to 42 countries, visited 114 cities/towns, covered a distance of 58,000 kilometers, was at the end of their epic adventure, and was simply reflecting back on the one year trip by playing the BFF Challenge!
Two days later, we camped again after flying from Scotland to Ireland. This time it was next to the Cliff of Moher. Watching the sunset along the cliff was what I had imagined as the quintessential experience in Ireland. However, I didn’t expect to do that while playing on an 18 hole pitch & putt golf course perched on top of the cliff with the whole family. It was magical and immediately became one of our top highlight in Europe.
“I have a surprise for our Sunday Worship this week,” I told the family while we were camping in Ireland.
Without further explanation, I got them onto the car and drove them through several very narrow farm roads with short stone walls on both sides until we reached another coastal area. After s short hike to the ocean’s edge full of natural limestone pavements with criss-crossing cracks , I took out four decks of playing cards and announced, “Today, for our last Sunday worship as a family, we will pray through every single prayer item we had written on these playing cards! One purpose of our trip is to pray through the Nations. God had shown us so much. Now, we are to reflect and pray for one by one all that God had shown us and all the people God had brought into our travel.” ( As we traveled and met people along the way we would put down the names of people we met and prayer items on our playing cards and pray for them regularly)
“This is just like the TV reality show Survivor where the final contestant burn the torch of each person they had voted out,” Olivia laughed.
“Except we are not burning the cards but praying for each person,” I added.
Throughout our one year trip, at the end of each of our family worship time, we would write down on our playing cards prayers we felt God had laid upon our hearts. Sometimes they were for social injustice that we saw or for the political directions of a country. However, more often than not, the prayers we wrote on these cards were mostly for physical or spiritual needs of the local people or travelers that we had met along the way.
So we each took turn taking a card and prayed. Around and around we prayed. Often we would shout in excitement at the mention of certain people that really impacted us but had not thought of for a while.
“Oh…the Begz family at Mongolia…!” Olivia called out excitedly when the name showed up on one of the card. “They are an amazing family. Every one of their four children are so talented musically. That was a great start to our Couchsurfing experience.”
“Forough was such a fun person to know,” Nathan recalled when her name showed up. “She was the first Iranian person we met.”
“And Forough was the one you first shared with about your faith and personal testimony,” Annie added. “Wasn’t that amazing?”
It took more than an hour to go through and praying for each card. After each prayer need on the card was prayed for, the card was grouped on the lava rocks in different piles, such as ‘for national direction’, ‘for economic development’, ‘for physical personal needs’, ‘for spiritual personal needs’, etc. Afterwards, we counted exactly 170 cards that we prayed through, roughly one prayer for every two days.
“We have to celebrate our one year anniversary on June 12th in LA!” Joani reminded everyone. “Nathan and I recalled where we celebrated our anniversary for our first month, second month, third month and so on. I can’t believe we are now going to celebrate our 12th month. I am sad…”
Throughout our last few days of our one year trip in England, we spent time with our friends, the Lennard and Grace Hsieh, in London and with my cousin Edith’s family in Bath. There were both a sense of relief at wanting the trip to end as well as the sadness of not wanting it to end.
ENDING WITH WORSHIP
In Los Angeles, June 12th, the twelve month anniversary day we had anticipated, talked, and thought of, arrived.
In the morning, we drove to a church, the Epicenter, for Sunday worship. To our surprise, throughout the worship service, there were many references to places we’ve been during the past year. The church prayed for a missionary who was serving “on the silk road”. The church was sending teams to Berlin, Athens, Dusseldorf, and Turkey to help refugees from the Middle East. There were large maps of different parts of the world hanging to the right and left of the stage. The sermon that morning was on “worship”. I felt as if God had prepared this Sunday worship to celebrate our one year anniversary. He wanted us to end our one year journey with a time of worship.
365 days ago we left Kunming on a train. 365 days later we were worshiping and praising God in a church. What a perfect ending to give thanks to God for all that we have seen and experienced!
SHARING OVER SPICY HOT POT
We discussed about going to a Korean, Vietnamese, or Taiwanese restaurant to celebrate. At the end, we unanimously agreed that there was no more appropriate way to add the exclamation mark to our one year trip than to celebrate it over Sichuan hot pot!
“Congratulations!” we toasted as we clinked each other’s glass around the restaurant table. “We did it!”
“I have some statistics that I can’t wait to share with you,” I said with a big smile. “I had aimed for our budget to be 100 dollars a day for the five of us. Did you know that over 365 days, we spent exactly 100 dollars a day for everything! I couldn’t believe it myself!”
“You’re the planner, dad! Just like how you predicted that we will be in Poland in March 2016 three years before the trip and we arrived in Poland exactly in March!” Nathan congratulated me.
“Do you also know that we spent only 1 dollars per meal per person for food? That includes eating in expensive places such as Norway, Switzerland, and London!” I continued. “We spent 3 dollars per person/day for accommodation, 3.8 dollars per person/day for activities, and 9.3 dollars per person/day for transportation. I was surprised that transportation was half of the expenses but given that we went to 40 countries and 114 cities/towns it does make sense.”
“It comes out to be a little more than USD 7000 per person for the one year trip. That’s only about 1/5 of one year tuition in the US!” I shared. “By Olivia taking a gap year and not having to pay for college, we actually spent less money in total while we got to travel around the world for a year!”
“Hooray!” Nathan cheered.
“Out of 365 nights, we slept 21 nights on the train, 9 nights on the bus, 1 night on the plane, 6 nights in the airport, 37 nights in the tent, 2 nights on the sailboat along the Nile, 42 nights couchsurfing, 25 nights at workaway, 28 nights in inns, 42 nights in hostel/homestay, 66 nights in AirBnB, and guess what 87 nights with friends!” I announced excitedly. “Because we stayed with friends, Our expenses was the least (less than 40 dollars/day/5 person) in two of the most expensive countries in the world, Norway and Switzerland!”
When the food arrived for the Sichuan hot pot, we became silent. Each of us was busy eating and fighting for the nice Sichuan peppercorn spiced food in front of us. After 30 minutes, we were able to continue to share. We started with sharing about one highlight from each of the 40 countries which took more than an hour as there was just so much to talk about even for only one highlight per country.
We felt bad staying at the hot pot restaurant for so long so we decided to leave and continue our sharing at the kid’s favorite yoghurt ice cream shop.
I proposed, “Why don’t we go around and share three things. First, what is something new that you discovered about the world. Second, how have we changed as a family unit. Third, how have you changed personally during this one year.”
NEW DISCOVERIES ABOUT THE WORLD
I shared first, “One thing new that I learned about the world is to come to have an appreciation for Islam. Many muslims take their religion very seriously by memorizing the entire Quran and praying five times a day even if they are in the grocery store. I really admired how their mosque is decorated with simple geometric patterns and does not have images of living being that often become idols in other religions.”
“Yes, like Adrees who drives an hour to the Grand Mosque to pray each day,” Nathan added.
“And the muslims we met all hated ISIS,” I continued.
“Adrees also made fun of ISIS’s Youtube video saying, ‘What kind of weirdo would be doing that?’” Olivia added. “You feel like they have no affiliation with them. For me going to the Middle East changed my view of the people from “Muslim” people to “Middle Eastern” people. When I think of Middle East, instead of terrorists, I think of wadis, hospitality, and friends. After traveling to more than 60 countries, I felt like I can connect with anyone I meet: ‘Oh I been there. Oh I know someone from there…’”
Annie and each child took turn sharing what he or she had discovered about the world during the one year trip, such as the history of the diaspora Jews, new religions, how God is moving among the nations and the need for God in so many places, how the world became smaller and bigger at the same time, as well as more personal, and how Joani came to know countries she never new existed before like France (aka, Paris), Monaco and Liechtenstein.
CHANGES AS A FAMILY
“So how have we changed as a family unit?” I asked moving the conversation forward.
Joani shared first, “For me, instead of treating you guys (mom and dad) as parents like..ahh…rgg…yakk, I see you more as friends now. I tell you stuff that I normally won’t tell. I really feel like you guys are not my enemies, at least not most of the time. We have more endurance for each other. We can stand being in tight places (like the tent) together for more than 12 hours.”
“For me, the one on one date was a new revelation!” I shared next. “After watching Olivia grow up and living with her for 19 years, I assumed I knew everything about my children…”
“Ha…Ha…There is just so much they don’t tell you!” Joani laughed slyly.
“So one change is that I learned that there are more things that I can learn about my children,” I shared.
“So really quick, what is one thing new you learned about each person that you remember,” Olivia asked immediately taking advantage of the situation. “Pressure!…Pressure!”
“I learned that Olivia is a really good teacher. She plans, she strategizes, she motivates…very impressive. For Joani, if she wants to she can be really caring to people, like constantly asking me, ‘Are you happy?’ For Nathan, he is a very sentimental guy towards his friends. He spent a lot of time doing video, skypping them, sending emails, etc. I’ve never saw that aspect of you before. For mom, she has a gift of praying for people, especially strangers.”
Olivia also shared, “I felt like our speed for making up after fights, like, doubled. Before, some fights just left unresolved. But in order to live 24×7 for a year together, you kind of really have to resolve things or else it would be REALLY difficult. So I think we really grown in better at saying sorry, saying it faster, doing it right, and really meaning it. And maybe even stopping the fight before it gets too big. I also got to know Joani better…She was like my only friend around.”
“For me, the ‘no electronic day’ that we started in India helped us to be more aware of not playing electronic games or watching movies on our devices when we are together,” Annie shared. “That I felt made a big impact.”
CHANGES AS A PERSON
“So last question, how have each of you changed as a person?” I asked.
“I can share first. I feel that I am not as narrow minded compared as I first started out. I was more anti-Muslim about this and that. I was a very prejudice person about a lot of things. You can only relate to people as individuals. Each is a person with his own identity. You don’t put a big stamp on everyone, which is really stupid actually,” Annie shared first.
“Well, it’s like stereotyping someone as a Christian. In this trip, we realized that there are so types different types of Christians,” Nathan added after visiting so many different types of churches along the silk route.
“Or Americans,” Olivia added as well, thinking about all the different Americans we met along the way.
Annie continued her sharing, “This year was like doing house calls, literally door to door visitations. ‘Hey, can I live with you? Can I just learn about you? Can I get to know you, your culture, and your people.’ It just really grew me as a person. I feel I am a so much better human being going back to China…”
“For me, I’ve grown more mature…Ha…ha…Sometimes I think I am going to be too mature…I don’t really like that…” Joani shared as she thought about how she had trouble identifying her peers after all the things she experienced during this one year trip.
“Oh man…the words of a teenager: ‘I am way too mature’!” Olivia making fun of Joani’s response.
“You guys are mocking me about my actual concern!” Joani protested.
“Because you don’t have to worry about it, Joani,” Olivia responded with a big smile and we all couldn’t stop laughing.
Olivia, Nathan, and I also took turn to share about how we each changed, such as being more matured through learning patience and learning to balance between being a teacher and sibling, hitting puberty, and learning to travel as a lifestyle instead of as tourist. After we each shared about ourselves, we took turn to share about what changes we saw in each person. It was also enlightening for each of us to hear from the people who lived with us for 24x7x365 how we changed, which is often different from our own perception.
One amazing change that I saw in Joani started one day when we were in Dahab, Egypt, the famous backpacker haven along the Red Sea. One day I walked into our hostel room to see Joani and Olivia crying together. Apparently, they had cried for more than an hour. I was surprised and didn’t know what happened. Then Joani asked me, “Are you happy?” After what felt like a long time, Olivia finally stopped crying and told me what had happened. What happened was that Joani read the blog I wrote about the death of our cat Zoe. In the blog I wrote, “I lost another chance to show my love to Nathan….” In addition that “I was depressed that everyone was depressed.” When Joani read it, she suddenly realized that she couldn’t remember the last time I really laughed. She felt that I had been so focused on planning the trip to be fun for everyone else that I didn’t have fun for myself. After trying to remember all the times I really laughed, Olivia and Joani could only think of three times, and one of them was when I watched “Fresh Off the Boat” in Egypt. Joani suddenly felt that I was getting old, such that I had to take off my glasses when I try to read small prints. For many days, Joani was like a perfect angel. When I asked for her opinion on where we should go and what games we should play, Joani’s reply was always, “Whatever make you happy…” Throughout each day, she would also come up to me and said very sweetly, “Are you happy?” She even thought about “resigning” from being a “teenager”! After that day, Joani became more and more sweet and thoughtful to all of us.
FATHER’S DAY SURPRISE
A week after our trip, the children each gave me a Father’s Day card.
Joani wrote the following on the Father’s Day card she made for me right after the trip:
Happy Father’s Day! I just want to say thank you for being my dad 🙂 I really appreciate you and all the hard work you put into our travel plans…I love it that you, as a person and a dad, are improving day by day! Thank you for giving me this amazing chance and opportunity to see the world with you. And most of all, thanks for just being a fun dad! You really are awesome. I love you 🙂 P.S. We also make you more awesome too!
Nathan wrote the following on his card for me:
Happy Father’s Day! I must say you are one impressive Dad. It’s going to be very difficult to top your accomplishments, as a father. I am very thankful to have you as my dad, bringing me around the world to the four corners of the earth. It has been quite an adventure traveling with you seeing new countries doing all sorts of crazy adventures, and most importantly, eating all the delicious food. One special memory I had with you was buying my camera in India. It wa a long, hot, and tiring search for stores that sells cameras. hours of walking and endless talking. Despite all the tiring search, we finally found a suitable camera. I really enjoyed talking to you despite all the recent conflicts we have with each other. I’m glad we’re both able to make up. Thank you for being my Dad. I hope in the upcoming two years I have left, we will be able to create more memories and grow closer in our relationship.
Olivia wrote an essay about her relationship with me and read it out loud on Father’s Day. (click here for the essay content) I was so touched by her essay that I gave her a long hug afterwards.
Every time I think back to all the sights we’ve been, all the people we met, all the places we slept at, all the adventures that we had, and all the things we learned, I was dumbfounded. We’ve been to 42 countries and 114 cities and towns. We’ve made friends with the Mongols, Turks, Jews, Arabs, Indians, Tibetans, Caucasians, Arians, etc. We slept in parking lots, on grassland, and on top of sand dunes. We rode in hot air balloon and jumped on a running train. Even I couldn’t believe that we did it. I couldn’t believe we did it as a family with three teenagers! We met many backpackers along the way, but we only met few families that travelled for extended period, and none of those families have teenage children. We were the first!
Our epic journey through the Silk Road was originally to end in the Middle East. As it turned out, we spent almost three months in Eastern and Western Europe. Initially, I wasn’t sure why God added this extra leg of our journey. However, while we were serving at a refugee camp in Berlin, one of the refugee girl told me how her family got to Germany: “We left Syria and crossed over to Turkey. From Turkey, we travelled through Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Austria, and finally Germany.” When I heard what she said, something clicked in my head. Then I knew why God led us to Europe. The path that refugee girl’s family travelled through was exactly the same path the we took in Europe. As the Syrian refugees flowed from the Middle East into Europe, our leg in Eastern and Western Europe became the “New Silk Road” or the “Silk Road Plus”.
Why did we embarked on this adventure? There were three objectives: 1) Have a one year farewell party for Olivia before leaving home for college; 2) Know the Muslims as they are; 3) Pray for the Nations. For the first one, it turned out that it was Olivia who really creatively and deliberately connected with each one of us through one-on-one dates and through tutoring and discipling Joani. For the second objective, through couchsurfing and workaway, we lived and ate with them, being spoiled by their hospitalities and seeing the world from their perspectives. For the third objective, we felt the scars from the holocaust, witnessed the hatred between ethnic groups, saw the physical and spiritual needs of people we met on the way, and were able to pray for the Nations now with names and faces.
Before the trip, people often asked Olivia, Nathan, and Joani, “Are you excited about traveling for a year?” (see their responses at http://sufamilyadventures.com/are-you-excited-about-traveling-for-a-year). They each had their different concerns. They each were looking forward to different things as well. Now that the one year trip has ended, how did they feel?
In business, one of the best indicator of customer satisfaction is a repeat customer.
I was glad to hear Nathan and Joani saying to others, “I look forward to our next one year trip!”