“What am I doing?” I asked myself.
I was rolling primer over the interior walls of an apartment, but my question was neither a response to the fact that I was just covering dirt, grime, tape residue, and dead bugs with the latex rather than cleaning it off first nor the fact that I had agreed to move into a truly filthy place that would require at least a month of good fixing before it would be inhabitable.
No, I asked myself this question because travelers don’t paint apartment walls. It’s just not something we do — it’s just not part of our job description. We don’t do the heavy lifting to fix up apartments, this shit is for the sedentary. If an abode isn’t easily habitable we just move on to find another.
Hell, we shouldn’t even be moving into apartments to begin with.
What was I doing?
I knew exactly what I was doing, but acting like I was making some kind of erratic move along the game board of life just made me feel a little more comfortable. I was rolling on primer, getting ready to paint some walls, and make a home because the continuation of my travels depended on it.
The apparent irony here actually makes sense. Listen:
I knew one thing as I continued rolling that primer back and forth, back and forth: my wife and kid need longer term camps. If they don’t have this, travel is going to become very difficult for me.
My wife wants a life, my kid likes going to school, making friends, and learning languages. It’s good for them to be in places long term. With some noted exceptions (like in Colombia) we generally stayed in places for three month shifts for the first three years of our family travels. This worked out fine then. We moved around Central and South America, making camps in suitable locations. My daughter was learning to speak Spanish and English at the same time, she was real young and did not really need too much more that what she had.
When kids are small you can pretty much stuff them into a backpack like any other piece of travel gear. Then they get older and start wanting other things. Like friends. Like the ability to fully communicate in the dominant languages of the country they’re in.
The kid loves traveling but she benefits from it differently than I do. She is a little young to take a deep interest in cultural comparisons, current events, conversation, and many of the little observations, correlations, and impressions that make travel valuable for an adult. What my daughter and I find interesting is starkly different. Though she now often watches people and asks me what they’re doing, she really just wants to play with her friends.
Kids develop in stages. Right now the kid is developing the groundwork of life. She’s learning how to interact with people, how to speak their languages — how to become socialized. This work requires being in places longer than a few months at a time.
For my daughter, being in Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, or China for is just normal life. She’s been going around the world since the day she was born. The shock of being in another country simply does not exist for her, she takes it in stride and just naturally feels out her path. When she’s around one tribe of people she speaks a certain language and acts a certain way; when she’s around tribe she code shifts.
My wife told me a story about how her fledgling concept of tribes was shaken up recently when transferring flights in Korea. She was hanging out in a play area in the airport and approached a Mongoloid looking girl and, naturally, just figured that she could speak Chinese. She couldn’t, she was Korean. So she walked across the play area where a couple of Caucasian kids were playing. She took it for granted that they could speak English. They couldn’t, they were Russian. All of a sudden the world got a little bigger and more complex. Though she eventually found a little Chinese girl who could understand what she was saying.
My daughter can speak Chinese and knows how to interact well with Chinese kids because she had a solid base of operations in China for a year and three months where she went to school, made friends, and developed relationships.
You don’t learn language backpacking. You learn language by staying in places longer term, making friends, growing relationships. When you travel fast you often just have the same conversations over and over and over, the situational contexts that you are communicating in are often very much the same regardless of place.
This is part of the irony of travel: the faster you go the more you will see but the less you will learn.
If I drag my kid around the world, jumping language, cultural, and international boundaries with regularity, she just isn’t going to form the basis through which she could develop true international competency. If I allow her to stay immersed in cultures long enough she will learn their languages, habits, and tendencies. I’ve watched it happen.
Kids have an incredible sense of what is normal in whatever social context they’re in, and they seem to have the built in capacity to learn culture and language and conform. My daughter refuses to speak Chinese or Spanish when visiting her family in the United States because this is an abnormal thing to do in that setting.
In the USA it’s fashionable to view conformity as a negative thing. We are all brainwashed to believe that we’re all unique individuals who are somehow beyond culture. We’re not. We’re just as much robots in our social contexts as anybody else in the world, and we force conformity upon ourselves and those of our group as much as any other culture. We chose our tribe, match ourselves to fit its moral and value system, and then impose this upon those around us. Conformity is a normal thing.
Conformity is a good thing, as it means that you understand your cultural contexts and your place within the fray.
But being able to code shift is equally important.
International kids who are properly mainstreamed in various cultures (many families shelter their kids in international communities or otherwise keep them from blending in with the local culture when living abroad, so they don’t count here) have the natural ability to switch up their behavior/ language/ reactions in accordance to the social landscape they’re functioning in. It’s truly remarkable to watch. In China, my daughter acts just like a Chinese kid. Children are pliable, they can mold their characters to match the specs of the culture they’re functioning in. Adults can’t do this.
But even for my daughter gaining this ability takes time. The question here is how much time?
As of now, I have no idea. I’m only four years into this journey. I know that a year of deep social interaction is enough time for my kid to become competent in a language. But I also know that at this stage of her development she quickly forgets the langues that she doesn’t regularly use. But as she gets older her long term memory will improve, and we should become more at liberty to cross over language boundaries more frequently.
If the kid isn’t able to speak three to five languages and navigate through as many cultures like a native by the time she’s 10 then I would view myself as a failure for not providing her with the proper contexts to get a truly good international education. But as I want my kid to be socialize internationally, and not just be some kind of American-Chinese, I need to continually be devising new strategies and continue our journey through the world — however slowly we must move.
Perpetual travel is about changing strategy to meet changing circumstances.
So where do I come into this?
I had to compromise. While I would prefer to go back to setting up camps for one to three months at a time, I know that this would not be the most beneficial thing for my wife and kid. Moving the family this often also really began taking a toll on me as well. The work of travel is finding suitable food, shelter, transportation, education, and recreation. This is about 100x more difficult when a wife and a four year old kid are involved.
So I mostly travel alone. I travel fast. I travel for specific reasons as I do research for stories and report on various places/ current events/ pretty much anything I get the impulse to learn more about. It is not possible to bring a family along on these trips, they’re often pretty grueling endeavors — but, for some reason, it’s what I enjoy doing.
I have to travel or I will have no money to travel. No travel means no stories means no videos means no money. I can do my work on the road full time, but add in a wife and a kid all crammed together in a hotel room and this becomes incredibly difficult. I need to live two separate lives in order to keep on this dream alive.
50% of the time I’m running around Asia, traveling, asking foolish questions, collecting information to write about. 50% of the time I’m with my family, writing up stories, publishing blog posts, videos, and working on the network of sites that I’m constantly building larger and larger. So I have a research/ experience phase of life and a publication/ family phase. For the past year and a half it’s worked out relatively well.
Running these websites and publishing these articles takes an incredible amount of time. No matter how fast or slow I travel roughly 50% of my time is spent working. Whether I split this time up daily, weekly, or monthly doesn’t really matter: the input/ output ratio remains the same. So as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter much if my room is in a hotel or an apartment — though the latter allows me the advantage of having a family and far less chores to take care of.
If something isn’t working well I do something else. That’s the traveler’s way. Adapting strategy to meet changing circumstances is how you move through the world, how you move through life.
My wife doesn’t give me any flak when I wake up one morning and tell her that I’m going a thousand miles away and won’t be back for two weeks. She kisses me goodbye and holds down the fort.
That’s why I’m painting walls these days in Xiamen.