Family Travel Problems: The Meltdown

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Jamie's reflection: Family Meltdown in Chiang Mai with kids

“I want to go home!”

The walls were fairly thin in our building, so I’m sure everyone on the floor could hear.

“I HATE traveling, I HATE homescholing, I HATE Thailand…”

He paused. I was pretty sure the next words would be “…and I HATE YOU, too,” but he reconsidered and looked away. That’s when I walked out, leaving him to shout at his mother instead. I closed the door and stormed down the hall, my hands shaking. The entire week had been like this — after a month of family travel problems, I needed an hour alone.

Once out of the building, I skulked across the street and bought a beer. No, make that two. Two tall-boys. I cracked open the first one and started guzzling it on the sidewalk (you can do that in Thailand). Then I lit up a Marlboro (you can do that, too) and took a long, deep drag. I had quit smoking ages ago, but this pack was bought two days before under extraordinary circumstances.

My dreams were crumbling, you see. I had big plans for our family: me, Keiko and our two indomitable kids, teaching and learning from each other as we roamed the globe, drinking in the richness of the world around us. Just one maverick family, doing it their way, navigating the earth with a laptop and a dream.

It was an ambitious dream, to be sure. But it was dying in front of me, and quickly.

Hold on. Perhaps I should mention that this exchange was four months ago, and I’ll spoil the ending for you: our nomadic dreams didn’t die. In fact, we’re actually doing pretty well now, recovering from that dark patch and moving towards a better travel lifestyle. But at the beginning of 2014, our dream took a serious hit — one that could have proven fatal. I’ve been wanting to write about family travel problems and our own near-meltdown for some time, but the words just wouldn’t come. It was too painful, and I was too busy to give it the attention and reflection it required.

So let me start over. When we started this adventure, it was everything I wanted it to be. Our first months were my dream realized: we were active and involved in our surroundings, we were connecting with people (old friends and new) and we were learning so much as we went along. And best of all, I believed that I was closing in on an ideal balance between work, travel and family. Our next stop was Thailand, and I just knew that we would love it. Thailand was an old favorite of mine, and Chiang Mai, our destination, was often cited as the “Digital Nomad Capital of the World,” which would make things easy for remote working. What could go wrong?

Family Travel Problems: The Meltdown

Our two months in Chiang Mai was a slow descent into anguish. Not because of the place really, but because of a special set of circumstances that created a perfect storm of familial grief. It’s quite possible that everything would have been different with a few small changes, but the truth was that I had made a series of mistakes that sent our dream into a death spiral. I’ll lay my errors out here as best I can, in the hopes that someone might learn from them. Here’s what I did wrong.

I didn’t research enough

This could also be called a case of optimistic ignorance: once I found some good news about accommodation in Chiang Mai, I just stopped researching. I know many travelers don’t research at all, and they don’t need to because they are just passing through, or have no set obligations or requirements.

I, however, had a very specific set of requirements. I was expected to be on-call to my clients during regular business hours (mostly a two-hour time difference to Tokyo). I also had two children who needed ways (and locations) to entertain and educate themselves while I worked. I should have kept this in mind when consuming the glowing opinions of other travelers.

I had read and heard from other traveling families that there were hundreds of open apartments in Chiang Mai, and they were all dirt cheap, even the ones with wifi. This turned out to be true, actually, but the only plentiful accommodation option was studio apartments. This  was no secret. The info was out there, mind you, but I found out too late. If I didn’t need a place to work, we could have stayed anywhere, but because of my jobs and the kids’ schooling, we were going to be indoors more than we were out.

Also, as I mentioned before, kitchens aren’t always included in Thailand apartments, since cooking is traditionally an outdoor activity and eating out is so cheap. Many people just don’t cook at home. So we wanted an apartment with at least two rooms so I could work in silence, and we also wanted a kitchen so we could cook at home. And wifi. And a pool. Also air conditioning would be a nice bonus. And did I mention wifi? We wanted all of this, and we wanted it cheap. During the high season. This limited our options considerably, which led to the next mistake.

We chose housing hastily

The rush was on. I had clients waiting for a webcam — clients that wanted a discreet meeting, not a Skype call from a loud cafe. I needed my own space for this, and after a week of looking at apartments, I felt desperate. All the apartments we saw were either really nice (with a price to match), or a total dump — somewhere we’d stay for a night or two, but not sign on for eight weeks.

We should have kept looking for another week and paid a co-working spot like Punspace for a private room when I needed it. Another option would have been to just fork out more cash for a nicer place. We’re not talking thousands of dollars here.

Instead, we chose Huay Keaw Residences, which ticked every box mentioned above. I should say up front that it is not a bad choice if you want somewhere simple and close to downtown. It was basic, but clean. We paid TB 14,000 (USD $430/JPY ¥44,000) a month, and if I was single, this place would have been more than enough. But as a parent, it was tough. There was nowhere for the kids to play, and despite having a living room and kitchen, the place was small enough that we felt like we were on top of each other for two months — no privacy, and no place to go to blow off steam if tensions rose. Which made the next mistake even harder.

I had no homeschool plan

It’s taking us a while to figure out what homeschooling methods work for us, which was probably inevitable. We are still refining how our kids learn on the road, tinkering with iPhone apps, computer programs, traditional curriculum and more ambiguous unschooling methods.

However, while in Chiang Mai, we pushed them to accomplish hours and hours of fairly conventional coursework every day: boring math drills, forced reading, dry worksheets. No fun. We didn’t have an agenda or a solid schedule for it all, either, so every day was an improvised mess. Not that you need a hard and fast schedule, per se, but if you say you’re going to have one and you don’t, then you’re just unreliable. The kids never knew what was coming next, and it frustrated them.

I underestimated my workload

All of the above problems would have been minor without this one. If there had been just a little free time in my schedule every day, we could have made it work. We could have thrived. But by the second week of January, I was buried in work, with near-impossible deadlines running into early February. I frequently worked from eight in the morning until close to midnight, six or seven days a week, which put serious strain on everyone.

Keiko had to do everything for the kids some days: feed them, school them, take them to soccer and art classes (all three of them on one scooter) and everything in between. But certain things needed to be done by me, namely teaching them to read and write in English. Keiko is not a native speaker, and since the kids grew up in Tokyo, their English abilities were still not on the level they needed to be. Then, all of a sudden, I go missing for nearly five weeks, locked in the bedroom, shushing the kids when they get too loud.

Worst of all, the kids said they felt hurt and unwanted. It’s bad enough when you work too much in some office on the other side of town. It’s another thing entirely when you’re still in the same small apartment, telling everyone to stay out and leave you alone because you have to finish X, Y and Z by dinner time.

I misread my child’s needs

This was my worst offense, really. Not that parents should know everything, but in this case, I should have known how this would turn out. I knew better. I should have known that, with no place to practice soccer and no friends around, our boy S would slowly go insane. I should have known that after half a decade in the Japanese school system (or any conventional school system), any child — especially someone like S, who craves rules and order — would have difficulty adjusting to a new way of doing things. He had always been told what to do next. He had always had a clear protocol to follow, and now it was gone. I should have known just how much that would freak him out.

I should have realized how hurt both of our kids would be when I told them to leave me alone and let me work, over and over, day after day, week after week. I should have known that cutting them off mid-sentence to answer a Skype call would have fomented hurt feelings.

They knew that I loved them, and they knew that this was coming, but that didn’t make them feel any better. I had warned them many times about how tough January was going to be, and I had patiently explained that I needed to prove to my bosses that I was just as dependable, even when I wasn’t sitting at my old desk.

I told them that I needed to jump on every call and answer every email immediately, so my clients knew their access to me hadn’t changed. I had talked about this repeatedly, but I should have never expected primary-school children to comprehend what that would actually mean. I overestimated their ability to understand the situation. I was on a mission to prove my worth, I told them, and they nodded like they understood. They believed they did. So did I.

I was a fool.

The pressure built in that little apartment until it started to blow, day after day, night after night, from the end of January into mid-February. S was lonely and stressed and miserable, and it was starting to rub off on all of us.

If there were just a few neighborhood kids for him to play with every day, all of this might have been avoided, and Keiko and I had done everything in our power to find kids once we didn’t find any nearby. We drove him all over the city to play on various soccer teams, at his request. But we never found kids he connected with, and he was still reeling from leaving Tokyo, the only home he ever knew.

I spent the end of February doing as much as I could with him: hiking, fishing, ziplining, fruit carving. We had a great time, but I felt like a deadbeat dad trying to make up for years of neglect. It sucked, and it will never happen again. Ever.

Fast-forward to the present

We returned to Penang, and Jamie was able to reconnect with some of the kids and soccer teams he enjoyed last year. I’ve renegotiated a particularly arduous work contract, and now have more time with the family. We’re also making headway toward a homeschooling practice that all four of us can agree on (more on that as it develops).

Sadly, I don’t think we’ll return to Chiang Mai any time soon. It’s a great city, with lots to do, but the kids associate too many bad memories with the place, even though our meltdown could have happened anywhere. If anyone is considering long-term family travel while working, my advice would be this: be realistic about your needs. I mean your professional needs, your housing needs, and most importantly, your children’s needs. Family travel problems come in many different forms, but if you’re prepared, many can be avoided. Let there never be another meltdown like that one again.

Comments

  1. Oh Jason!
    Had I only read this BEFORE we made the same mistake.

    Our big melt down was in Barcelona, but involved bed bugs, a very happy little boy in the public school system, an unfortunate money scam which lost us $1,000 USD for nothing and all of us on top of each other in a 40 sq meters apartment trying to launch a location independent business from the futon/kitchen/living room! It was one long month, and I had the MOTHER of all meltdowns : )

    I wrote about it here, for the same reasons as you, hoping to detour other families from making the same mistake. I bet you’ll laugh at our naivety. http://wildchildtravels.com/reverse-full-throttle/

    We’re actually headed home for a short spell, until we have the business solidly in place. That way we can be more present for our kids the next time we are in all new surrounding–just having fun, enjoying the local life. The good news is, our kids are actually excited about travel again, as once we gave up, we’ve spent the last month just enjoying the best of Spain.

    Excited to find your blog! We found you through the Wireless Generation FB page.

    Cheers!

    • Oh dear. Yes, it is an arduous undertaking getting this life right, and even more so when you want to be active and involved in your children’s lives. I’d love to tell you that I’ve finally figured it out and bestow some of my newfound wisdom on you, but presently I’m locked in a back room editing audio for an upcoming project. Sequestered from my family once again. It’s not permanent, but that doesn’t make it feel any better. The payoff is that I’ll have present deadlines knocked out before we have our own visits home: first Osaka and Tokyo, and then the US for my brother’s wedding and a road trip or two before we head into Latin America with a new work/life balance firmly in place. I can’t wait. Hope all goes well on the return, and you get what you need to take the next step forward.

  2. Jason,

    Thanks for the reality about trying to do it all. It’s nice to hear the unvarnished truth from someone who has actually lived it. Thanks for sharing what I’m sure is a painful memory.

    We’ve just arrived in CM, but we’ll be starting the homeschooling thing for the first time, so I’m a bit worried about content, scheduling, etc.

    I hope we get to meet in person some day. Safe travels!

  3. We are in your exact shoes now! I even think our kids our similar to yours. We too will be staring our homeschooling while we are here in Chiang Mai. We do plan to stay a month longer than you did. We are currently looking for a place to settle for that time and are torn between in city and slightly out. I think the kids would do better in a house with yard etc, but we too wanted that cultural experience in the city. It is tough trying to feed our travel needs and keep the kids sanity in mind too. 🙂 Thanks for this.

    • Hi Heidi. Yes, where you live plays a HUGE role…even more than I initially thought, especially if it serves as your indoor classroom, too. Learn from my mistakes and take your time setting up. Wait for the right place to present itself. If the kids aren’t happy, then you aren’t either.

  4. Hey Buddy,
    That was nicely put together. I am sure it wasn’t easy to put yourself out there like that; acknowledging the shortcomings and whatnot, but you’ve learned a lesson and moved on and seem very intent on making sure the lesson was, in fact, learned.

    I admire you a lot for doing this and giving your children and your family this opportunity. I think I am much too much of a Rooted person to be ever be able to do something like this. I am enjoying following your journey.

    Take care!

    • Hi Thomas! Thanks for the kind words. I know it’s nearly 4 months since all this went down, but I simply couldn’t write about it while it was happening. So glad it’s over. We still have hurdles, but I know we can find the right path. Keep in touch!

  5. You’re all brave for trying it and then sticking to it through thick and thin. Not sure I’ve got that courage. I’d probably make life easier by stopping work altogether.

    • Stopping work altogether might have worked short-term, but it could have caused longer-term problems. Perhaps a better solution would have been to actually be prepared…which I wasn’t.

  6. Such a moving story Jason, thanks for sharing.. Life lessons for us all.

    • Thank you, Eddie. It was really tough to write about, and I don’t think I covered all of the moving parts involved (emotional, logistical), but I felt I needed to write *something* down while memories were still fresh enough to put myself back in that place. I appreciate your kind words.

  7. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for the link. It’s good to hear that everything is working out better in Penang. Don’t give up on CM though. 🙂

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