September 2021 Alumni News Spotlight: Traveling the World in 2020 - Annie Wu Su ‘89’s COVID Family Gap Year
Connie Ma, Alumni and Community Outreach Officer

Who would take their family with three children on a travel gap year around the world in 2020? Maybe only a family that has already done it twice. Last year, Annie Wu Su ’89 and her husband, Jonathan Su, took a leap of faith repeating what they began with their children in 2008 and 2015. This team of five survived multiple quarantines, Covid tests and uncertainties to make it through 13 countries, four continents, and the pandemic throughout 2020 and 2021.

Why A Family Gap Year?

“When I look at my life story, the concept of traveling began at TAS,” recalls Annie. “During my three years as a Tiger, I joined IASAS and traveled to the Philippines for the first time in my life. The sights, sounds, culture, food and people left an impression. Joining 'Journeys into Asian Culture' organized by Mr. Arnold impacted me for life, sowing the seeds to see the world from a new lens. Over 35 years, this seed developed into my own expanded edition: Journeys into World Culture—Becoming a Global Citizen.”

“As I reflect on my experiences backpacking and parenting on a shoestring budget, I realize that the cross-cultural experiences at TAS stayed with me,” admits Annie. “I had no idea how much those three years at TAS and living in Taiwan as a TCK defined me until I fell in love, got married, moved from Vancouver to the Bay Area, missed the multi-cultural environment and felt lost in an Asian immigrant bubble. Often my in-laws and their generation felt I was too loud, too colorful and too ‘white’. I felt lonely, little, and lost.”

In 2001, Jonathan quit his consulting job to pursue his childhood dream of helping the poor and the marginalized by doing community development. The family moved to Kunming, China so Jonathan could work for World Vision. “It was an intriguing but exhausting season for me raising three young children in a new country while Jonathan had extensive work trips either to the villages or doing urban projects for the rural migrants,” Annie remembers. “What I did enjoy was finding out who I was. I was treated as a foreigner despite looking Asian and given the grace to be different. We found our tribe in the local expat community: people from around the world, converging in China to do something meaningful and significant while building our families cross-culturally.”

The idea of taking a family gap year evolved out of necessity for Annie and Jonathan. “Our marriage crashed by 2003. We were fighting all the time and had to make hard decisions: either divorce or get help. In 2007, our counselors encouraged us to create our own marriage and family vision statement, just like companies have their vision statement.” Annie wanted their marriage to be a safe harbor for emotional healing and spiritual growth, while Jonathan envisioned a family life of fun, adventure and shared life experiences. Due for their first sabbatical after working on the field for seven years, they decided to try developing a new family culture through a shared gap year.

Annie (center) with children Nathan (left), Joani (center right), and Olivia (right) on their first family gap year in 2008. (All photos courtesy of Annie Wu Su '89)

“In 2008, we spent our first family gap year together: three months in South America, three months home schooling in North America, and 6 months living in a Yi village near the Lijiang region,” Annie recalls. “Our children were 11, 8 and 6 years old, and we had the time of our life! Despite having the least amount of resources, we thrived. In the village, we cooked out of a fire pit in the ground, shared the outhouse with the pigs, and took showers at the police station next door. Our 8-year old son was tasked by the Grandma the job of starting the fire, like any other kid in the village.” For entertainment, the family read Chronicles of Narnia out loud at night by the fire pit and huddled in bed together watching 《三國演義》(Romance of the Three Kingdoms). “Even though our kids had the least, both Jonathan and I were there living a simple family life with them full time.”

For their second gap year in 2015, the family chose to explore the Silk Road together on a budget. “We used to invite backpackers to our home when they passed through our village. They introduced us to Couchsurfing for backpackers, Warmshowers for cyclists, and Workaway, which is volunteering in exchange for room and board,” explains Annie. “In Egypt, we worked at a hostel near the pyramids of Giza. In Kazakhstan, we worked on an organic farm, where we helped them harvest organic tomatoes and chili peppers. In India, we served at the orphanage that Mother Teresa established.” Throughout their Silk Road Journey, the family broke bread and shared life with their hosts who are now a part of their family too, from Sudanese and Palestinian refugees to Jews, Jordanians, and many more. “We lived and ate with locals, benefiting from their hospitality and seeing the world from their perspectives We also felt the scars from the Holocaust, witnessed the hatred between ethnic groups, and saw the physical and spiritual needs of people we met on the way. We are now able to pray for the nations with names and faces.”

Annie (center) with daughters Olivia (bottom) and Joani (top) in India on their second family gap year in 2015.

In 2015, with the encouragement of families and friends, Jonathan and Annie published a book on their first gap year experiences from 2008, entitled “不上班,不上学,陪孩子穷游到地” (No Work, No School--A Family's Journey to the Ends of the Earth). Now they are working on their second book about the Silk Road trip and the gap year experience with teens. “We had a lot of family counseling and coaching to help our children through this second gap year. My youngest Joani left China for a whole year at 13, and her friends were mad at her for ‘ditching’ them. She didn’t know how to talk to them when she came back after hanging out with adults for a whole year. My older two Olivia and Nathan discovered when they went to college, they could connect and relate to anyone in the world, because they’ve traveled to many countries. That was like me attending TAS. I was able to relate to people in India, Israel, Europe, all over--the merit of doing life in different places around the world is a sense of community and kinship.”

Why travel in 2020? 

Originally, Annie and Jonathan thought 2020 would be the best time for a final gap year, because “our oldest Olivia would be graduating from college, our youngest Joani would be graduating from high school, and our middle son Nathan could take a gap year between his second and third year of college.” Despite the pandemic, the family decided to go ahead with the gap year in order to prioritize their mental and emotional health as a family. To come back to China, Olivia and Nathan both did a total of 45 days of quarantine between Taipei, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

For a big change, the family could not choose where to go. “We went to whatever country was open and would take our passports,” admits Annie. “In August, we started by flying to the United Kingdom, staying at vacant homes of friends and family in Bath and hiked Hadrian’s Wall. We camped in Wales and stayed in Stamford and London. When the door to Portugal opened, we stayed in Lagos and played spike ball on the beach. We harvested twelve tons of grapes as Workaway volunteers at a vineyard in the Dao Valley, and walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain.” Finally, they were able to fly to Africa in October. “We were invited to volunteer at the British Language School in Morocco teaching conversational English. We were able to visit the Sahara Desert, walk the streets of Fez and Marrakesh, and make friends with street vendors in Casablanca. In late November, we flew to South Africa to meet many old friends.” In Africa, they spent a memorable few months trekking through Johannesburg, seeing penguins in Cape Town, volunteering at refugee camps in Uganda, stay on Mfangao Island in Lake Victoria, and visiting Chinese communities in Nairobi, Kenya, just to name a few adventures.

Annie and her family on the beaches of Portugal on their third gap year in 2020.

In February 2021, Jonathan started feeling unwell and received emergency care at Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. Battling severe malaria, he suffered kidney failure, and almost died. “Our medical insurance just expired, and evacuation wasn’t an option. Due to Covid restrictions, we could only take turns taking care of him in the hospital, cooking and bringing him food, playing games with him, and keeping up his spirits,” Annie recalls soberly. “Thanks to the prayers and financial support of friends and family around the world, Jonathan’s kidneys came back after six rounds of dialysis.” Annie is grateful to the many Tigers around the world who helped out with their medical bills. In April, a fresh round of COVID lockdowns and Jonathan’s health condition made them decide to return to the US to receive COVID vaccinations, receive trauma counseling, and rest and recover. By May, they felt ready to finish up the gap year and made one last five-week trip to Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.

 “According to Jonathan’s calculations, during this gap year, our family traveled for 341 nights to 69 cities and towns in 13 countries,” Annie sums it up. For a full recap of these adventures in their own words, check out Annie and Jonathan’s blog at sufamilyadventures.com! As of fall 2021, Annie and Jonathan are based in Vancouver, busy seeing their children into the next phase of their lives and planning their own next chapter perhaps in the Middle East. “We both feel this calling to work on community development and refugees.”

Reflecting on family, the past, and asking for help

For Annie and Jonathan, travel has changed from a form of marriage counseling to a form of family building and now into a family lifestyle. These gap years have helped them share their faith with others around the world and bring their children into adulthood. As a Third Culture Kid raising her own TCK children, Annie is fully aware of the pitfalls. “I told my kids, you’re not a one-shot drink, you’re a blended fruit shake of cultures. Don’t let anyone tell you what to be. That was the mindset I had with my kids from elementary school until now. They’re still trying to define who they are and find their voice, but they have our support. It’s just important they realize they’re global citizens who love people and love God and want to be kind and respect people as they are.”

Annie and her family in Vancouver after finishing their third family gap year in summer 2021.

Annie hopes that fellow TAS alumni will consider cross-cultural counseling. “Please get help. Don’t believe the lie that you can figure it out and do it all by yourself. The misconception is that sick or mentally ill people have counselors, but in reality, counselors empower you to have the tools to problem solve and understand how to talk to yourself in a healthy way and not a punishing way.” Annie believes that getting counseling for her marriage, her children, and doing it together as a family has been the key to their flourishing. “The key is to better understand your children’s temperament and work on understanding them. And that might raise issues in your marriage and relationship. It’s how you build intimacy to conflict resolution, and without conflict, our stories would be very boring.”

 “The season at TAS isn’t easy for everyone,” Annie remembers. “But it’s priceless because it gave me a way to understand my children’s experience as TCKs and to know there’s a community of people who will get you. Especially during this season of my life when I’m going through menopause, I need support. There’s a safety net of Tigers that will do anything. I’ve seen so many of them around the world in Turkey, Europe, Los Angeles. There’s genuine care because we shared a piece of existence during the most tender part of our life. Tigers can help each other through whatever happens.”