“I am actually feeling very discouraged this morning…because none of you guys are here,” Olivia bursted out in tears.
She continued, “Here we are traveling for one year together as a family, but I feel like we each are just doing our own thing. Mom writing her Chinese blog, Dad is on his phone, Joani on her iPad. I feel like none of you exist. Or I don’t exist…”
Olivia got our attention.
We were sitting in the non-air-conditioning sleeper train on our way to Varanasi, the heartbeat of India, where Hindu pilgrims come from all parts of the country to bathe and to be cremated in the holy Ganges River and to pray at the Golden Temple.
Other passengers in the train were staring at us, but we ignored them. We knew that we needed to listen carefully to the feelings that Olivia had just poured out.
Olivia looked at Joani and said, “You know what it feels like to just be with your family and without any friends. I delayed college for a year so I could be here with you — with all of YOU. I want to get to know you guys better, to build that personal relationship with each of you. I want that second chance, Joani. That’s why I delayed going to college. I want to know all you better so badly. Do you think I like tutoring you in your school work? I did it because I want to spend time with you. I don’t care about the money I get for tutoring. But you ignore me so often.”
Joani put down her iPad. Her face was stiff. Her lips shut tightly.
“You know, this is hard for me too! For a whole year, I am away from my friends. Everyday all I see are you guys. I need my own time to do my own things without the family,” Joani bursted out as well.
Olivia shared, “To be fair to Joani, she used be the one that always had to beg for ‘family time’ everyday after dinner. But we were all so busy with our own things.”
“So I gave up. I started to stay in my room and do my own things. Then I got used to. I like to do things alone,” Joani followed angrily.
“…Joani, I am sorry…Can you give me…give us a second chance?” Olivia pleaded earnestly.
“Olivia, thank you for sharing your feelings today. You brought up a good point. Although we are traveling together everyday, 24 hours a day. but often we were not really ‘there’. We are all together but not ‘all together’. This defeats the purpose of why we are doing this,” I concluded. “So, how can we be better?”
“I have an idea,” Olivia looked at us with a big smile. “Why don’t we ‘fast’ from electronics for a week. This way we can spend more time one on one with each other and really get to know each other as a person.”
I was surprised at Olivia’s proposal. So far, laptops, iPhones, iPads has been such an integral part of our trip that whenever we arrive at a new place, the first thing I would do is to set up a ‘charging’ station to charge all our iDevices! I wasn’t sure how practical was her proposal. But to my surprise, Annie, Nathan, and Joani seems to be okay with it.
“How about we first try for one day? If it works, we can ‘fast’ for more days,” I counter-proposed. “And to give everyone an incentive, I am willing to sponsor rupee 500 (USD 8) for expenses for an one-on-one date.”
“Wow…” everyone’s eyes lighted up.
Rupee 500 is more than what we usually spend for a meal for the five of us. The children quickly figured what food they can order for rupee 500 at Megu Cafe, their favorite restaurant, and they all had big smiles.
It was then I started to regret proposing rupee 500 but it was too late. At the moment I blurted out the proposal, I was moved by the our pouring of true feelings from everyone and lost control of my usual budgeting prowess. But when I saw how the children were so excited about this ‘generosity’ from dad, I decided not to disappointment them.
“Ok, make sure that you really are talking about real deep things to really get to know each other when you are on the one-on-one date. Or else you have to pay for yourself! No shopping or playing games. They don’t count,” I warned them, wanting to make sure that this rupee 500 is really worth the big bite into our budget.
So on our third day in Varanasi, we embarked on our bold experiment. I actually felt very insecure. The night before Annie and I slept late to use our electronics before the day of the ‘fast’ trying to finish up trip planning and blogs. Olivia pleaded to delay the ‘fasting’ start time to 9AM, after her skype meeting with her important friend. We finally relented and gave her special permission.
At 9AM, we put down our iPhone, iPad, and laptops.
“Where is Olivia?” I asked everyone. “Is she still on Skype?”
When I went to the lobby I found that she was still on skype and she went past 9AM for 30 minutes. I became really angry at her for not doing what she proposed herself. Nathan wisely pulled me away to help me clam down. To Olivia’s credit, Olivia apologized sincerely afterwards and willingly volunteered to wash the dishes from our usual breakfast of fruit and instant soups.
“So what’s our plan for today,” Joani asked.
As I brainstormed, I felt like we were just starting our trip again because it was a new experience to plan our day without electronics.
“Why don’t we have family time in the morning and then have one-on-one date in the afternoon? For family time, let’s play BFF challenge (Best Friend Forever). Joani told me about it and it sounded fun!” I proposed.
“Ok. But you need to think of a good punishment,” Joani told me.
“Hmmm…what about whenever someone answered the question incorrectly, we get to draw on the person’s face!” I blurted out surprising myself at this excellent idea. “We can use the bright florescent red, orange, and purple powders that the locals use on their forehead when they go to the temple. It will be hilarious!”
With that crazy idea, we dived into the BFF challenge. Each one took turn to ask tricky questions about themselves for the family to guess.
“What age did I loose my first tooth?”
“How much did I earn from my first job?”
“What was my most embarrassing moment in Chinese school?”
“The scariest moment in my life?”
“How many friends did I have in school?”
We had fun laughing at the questions and also the answers. But the funniest of all was of course using the powder to draw faces when we answered incorrectly, which is most of the time!
“Let’s give dad a red eye shadow!” Olivia laughed.
“Put powder on Nathan’s lips,” Joani proposed.
“Oh, be kind…make them symmetrical,” Annie pleaded.
Initially, our face paint looked somewhat artistic, especially when Nathan blended two colors together to create a mix color effect. However, after several rounds of BFF challenge, we looked worse than clowns. Most importantly, the game made us realize that there are still many things we don’t know about each other, even as family members.
For lunch, Annie and Olivia went on an one-on-one date while Nathan and I kept Joani company by enjoying instant noodles together in our nice air-conditioned room. During the girl’s one-on-one date, they talked about their writing styles, how the styles developed, and how writing affected Annie’s identity and completed her dreams, while Olivia also shared some of her proudest moments.
“I enjoyed my time. After talking to so many people on our travel, today for the first time, I felt I talked to mom as a friend,” Olivia reflected.
Nathan and I went on a date as well, while Annie, Olivia, and Joani went out to buy scarfs they had been eyeing for several days already when they walked back and forth along narrow twisting lanes in the Varanasi alleys.
Our destination was, believe it or not, McDonald’s. After 20 days of eating mostly vegetarian meals, we were dying for some meat. And Big Mac sounded really good to both of us. McDonald’s can’t sell beef burgers due to the cow been held as holy deity for the Hindus. So we ordered the Chicken Big Mac. To our surprise, the Chicken Big Mac had no chicken meat. The two patties were imitation chicken! We lost again
But my time with Nathan was not a lost. I was surprised by Nathan’s first question.
“What was your favorite memory with your father?” Nathan asked.
“My father was busy all the time, but once a year he would plan several months ahead to go on a family road trip. I enjoyed the time we traveled together in our old gray Ford sedan visiting different national parks,” I recalled.
“What was your favorite memory with me?” I asked in return.
“When I was eight, we sat on the roof of the truck watching the volcano eruption in Ecuador, just you and me. It was the first time I remember that we did something together without mom, Olivia, and Joani. Also, when we search for geocache in Sapa, Vietnam for more than two hours and the joy when we finally found it after the pouring rain. That was special!” Nathan replied.
Like this we continued for awhile really concentrating on knowing each other better. There was no iPhone or iPad to distract us from looking at each other’s eyes. I even took off my Apple Watch that day. Afterwards, we went all over the city looking for a replacement camera for Nathan and finally found one while riding on the cycle rickshaw. It was an early birthday present for Nathan who has an uncanny eye for unique photo perspectives.
“I really want to take a photo of our time,” I lamented. “Do you think it is okay?”
“Go ahead dad, I think it is worth it to break the rule,” Nathan encouraged.
“YES!” I said happily, being a shutter happy guy.
To celebrate our first electronic “fast”, we ate dinner at our favorite restaurant, Megu Cafe, where the Indian cook who married a Japanese served the most authentic Japanese food we had tasted.
Over dinner we reflected on our “scary” day not using our electronics.
“It was totally fine for me,” Joani said matter of fact. “I can live without it. I think dad is the one who can’t live without it.”
“Yea…I admit it was tough for me. I do everything on my iPhone, from keeping bills to booking tickets. And of course lots of photos,” I said sheepishly.
Annie responded, “It was fun to see each child’s uniqueness while we went shopping. Olivia is really good at bargaining, while Joani is more relational and doesn’t really have to buy something because she just enjoy spending time together. Olivia really shows her common sense while Joani is more motherly. I like to go to Joani when I need to be comforted. Nathan is good at listening and asking very reflective questions.”
“Let’s do this regularly,” Olivia proposed. “Let’s try one week next time!”
“Noooooo…That would be impossible. Why don’t we do it every Sunday, on the day of rest. It makes sense, no?” I counter-proposed again.
So with nods from each one of us, that day we started our new tradition of “electronic fasting” every Sunday.
Of course, it did not mean that everything was “happily ever after”. Although Joani and I shared some very deep conversations during our one-on-one date the next day, the day after we still fought with each other over trivial matters as before.
It can be deflating sometime to see our relationships with each other going well one day and badly the other. But I am learning to count each victory and to forget each defeat. And, ultimately, to trust my children in God’s Hands.