How Our Gap Year Changed (and Didn’t Change) Us

I started this post two weeks after we returned to the United States from a year of traveling South America. Now, six months later, I’m finally sitting down to finish it. Life has been full, but that’s only part of the reason.

Reflecting on our transcontinental journey is bittersweet. It makes me miss the people and places we encountered. It also forces me to face the fact that a change of scenery didn’t change the things about myself that I wish were different. That transformation takes a deeper, harder journey within.

A Different Sense of Time

Latino time is no joke. We already knew this from our years attending a Spanish-speaking church in the Chicago suburbs. Church took hours. A meal with a friend was an all-day affair.

Latino time often grated on me back then, perhaps because I had babies who behaved way better when they stuck to regular nap schedules. Perhaps because as a younger person it felt more painful to let go of my own agenda. Perhaps also because my Spanish was so rudimentary that I could only handle so much immersion before my head hurt.

But on our family gap year, the fact that people were willing to shoot the breeze for hours with us felt like a gift. We had nothing better to do, being strangers to a place and relying on the kindness of locals and hosts. If people were willing to pause their own tasks to open up their lives to us, this made us feel that we mattered. That they were glad that we were there.

It makes me realize how much I want to offer that kind of hospitality to others, my children included—the gift of my unhurried presence, without constant glances at my phone to check time and messages.

It’s not always possible with our schedules and the necessary responsibilities of daily life. But I’m thinking of the times after a meal with our friends at Fundación Retoño in Chile. Chileans call this time the sobremesa, not to be confused with the Portuguese word which means dessert.

We lingered around the table and talked about nothing in particular. Matt and I flubbed up our Spanish but improved tremendously after two weeks. We laughed about words in Spanish that mean totally different things country to country. (Look up what “bolsa” means in Ecuador and the video “Qué dificil es hablar el español.”)

Often, by the time we got up to clean the table, it was already time to think about the next meal. But first, a meandering walk around the farm.

That is the kind of time I want to have more of.

A snapshot before a meal at Fundaciòn Retoño, which was always capped off with a leisurely time of sobremesa, the after-meal conversation.

More Aware of Our Wealth & WEIRDness

Sometime through our gap year, our oldest son became obsessed with how much money people made in comparison to his dad. When we found out how much the Ecuadorean farmworkers we picked coffee alongside made in a day, Oliver blurted out, “That’s like five times less than Baba makes in an hour!” It was embarrassing, really, to face the obscene wealth differences between us and the everyday folks we encountered in South America.

But perhaps “wealth” isn’t the right word. Many of the people we met were wealthy in ways we are not. Fausto was the chief farmhand during our time at the Ecuadorean coffee farm where we volunteered for two weeks. He comes from an Indigenous community up the mountain about five hours hike from the farm. He is one of the leaders in his community, helping arrange tourist housing and activities. His family has lived in this place for generations. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him.

Maybe that’s why he’s so keen on leaving Ecuador to pursue his “American dream” in the United States. Sometimes it’s nice to be an anonymous, free agent.

As we picked plump red coffee berries under the shade of native trees, Fausto shared that another foreign visitor to the farm had invited him to work at her business back in the U.S., but it fell through.

One of the former farm owners, an Ecuadorean, moved to Miami to work as a limo driver. “Sometimes people give him $50 for a tip!” he told me, in awe. What does it feel like to have nearly twice your daily wages be thrown around by someone in Florida as pocket change?

Fausto rinses coffee beans after they have been separated from the peels and fermented.

Recently Fausto messaged me to wish our family Merry Christmas and ask if I could find him work in the United States. I didn’t repeat what I already told him as we picked coffee together: The American dream isn’t as dreamy as it seems. For many Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, especially first-generation immigrants, it’s really the American nightmare. You’re on your own, stripped from your networks of relationships and support. You don’t know the language, or how the system works. You’re taken advantage of for cheap labor (though wages still seem dreamy compared to Ecuadorean wages). You hope your children’s success is worth your sacrifice.

I want to tell Fausto that what he has in terms of community and living close to his roots is worth way more than the extra money. But who am I to impose my ideals? I, too, chafe at the social obligations foisted upon me by family members. It’s why I chose to go to college and settle across the country from my parents. And why, though we’ve toyed with the idea of joining an intentional Christian community, my husband and I have never made that move.

Our money offers us a level of independence from others, real or not. It’s not enough to be F- you money. But it’s enough to where I can hire a nanny rather than have to ask my family or neighbors to help with child care. Or get chicken noodle soup from Panera when I’m sick instead of telling a friend and hoping she’ll bring me some. Our money allows us to keep others at arms’ length, and I’m not sure we’re better off for it.

Each international adventure lands me back at the same realization with greater force: the United States of America is weird. It’s weird in terms of our cultural psychology, which the Harvard prof Joseph Heinrich has described. Arising out of European, Christianized societies, people with Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) upbringings “grew to favor the cultivation of greater independence, less deference to authority, more guilt, stronger use of intentions in moral judgments, and more concern with personal achievement. Success became less bound by tradition, elder authority, and general conformity. WEIRD individuals have to ‘sell themselves’ based on their personal attributes, specialized abilities, and dispositional virtues, not primarily on their friendships, lineages, or family alliances.”

The U.S. is also weird in terms of our excessive consumption, wastefulness, and breakneck pursuit of “success” over other values like living close to family, getting decent rest, and caring for the earth that sustains us.

Being a 1.5 generation Chinese immigrant, I’m not entirely WEIRD. But each time I leave the United States and come back, I see anew how strange American ways are compared to the rest of the world. The more time I spend living in other places, the greater determination I have coming back to the U.S. to push against the cultural grain.

We Still Have the Same Personalities

Matt and I both hoped that when we cut loose from the daily grind, we’d suddenly be 100% present and available to our kids, playing Legos and pointing out bird species in the jungle for hours on end without tiring. But it turns out that the same things that pushed us to withdraw into ourselves and look at our phones still existed on our sabbatical, even amplified at times.

The kids got loud and crazy. They complained incessantly. We snapped at them. I nagged Matt about small stuff. Matt blamed me for “hiding stuff” from him. I told him he wasn’t looking hard enough.

We both felt the itch to “do something productive” with ourselves. We wondered what else there was to life. The most stunning scenery became a backdrop to our quotidian woes.

In other words, we brought ourselves along on the trip. Our interpersonal conflicts, inner angst, and bad habits didn’t vaporize over the course of the ten-hour plane ride from Houston to Rio de Janeiro. They just showed up in new contexts. I supposed I knew this to be true from the start, but I was secretly hoping it wasn’t true. That we would emerge from our trip transformed, like a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis.

I did have some sublime moments of clarity on the trip, where what really matters in life crystalized in my view and left me shaken. But these probably occurred no more frequently than in our regular life back home.

And as always, one has to come down from the mountaintop and re-enter the daily grind. Sleep. Wake. Groom oneself. Procure food. Cook food. Eat food. Clean. Procure food. Cook food. Eat food. Clean. Procure food. Cook food. Eat food. Clean. Groom oneself. Sleep.

What matters more than a jolt out of your regular routine, I’ve realized, is your routine itself. If I want to become a kinder, more joyful, more courageous, and more awake human being, I need to practice these postures regularly. I need to cultivate spiritual habits that allow me to stare my own inner demons in the face. I need to surround myself with people who will walk alongside me in the journey. I need to pay attention.

In short, our gap year made us more aware of our own foibles. Perhaps awareness is a good enough step forward on the road to personal transformation.

We Haven’t Found “Our Thing” in Life

The other thing we were hoping for when we left our home in suburban Chicago is that somewhere out there we’d click with a community we were visiting and decide to make it our “forever home.” That we’d find some project and want to go all in.

We did visit some amazing groups of people over our gap year who were doing important ecological and social work. But nothing felt compelling enough to make us come back and sell our house, pull our kids out of the school they love, and uproot for a new life.

Maybe some of that’s because we’re getting set in our ways, unwilling to give up certain creature comforts or the independence of living in a single-family home. We are WEIRD, after all.

But I think it’s also because as we get older we realize that no place, or group, is perfect. Every choice is a tradeoff between current goods and potential future goods. As much as we gripe about the our boring life in flat-as-a-pancake West Chicago, Illinois, and as much as we see the dystopian elements to it, there are still good things about being here.

Like the fact that our kids love going to school. That we have a wide network of friends and neighbors to invite to backyard shindigs and do white elephant gift exchanges with. That Matt’s family lives nearby and my parents are in the country. That I’m getting to know how this community works through my local reporting and slowly figuring out how to play my part in making it a better place.

Who knows? We may yet find that group of people or project that gets us stoked enough to leave all this behind. Or maybe, when we look back, we’ll find that the thing we were looking for was right here, under our noses, all along.

  • Liuan

    Liuan is an author and journalist. Her favorite topics to cover are spirituality, embodiment and environmental issues. Her favorite snack is dark chocolate.

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Liuan is an author and journalist. Her favorite topics to cover are spirituality, embodiment and environmental issues. Her favorite snack is dark chocolate.

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