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UPDATED: May 19, 2015 NO. 21 MAY 21, 2015
A Year Away
Gap years are becoming more and more appealing to China's recent graduates
By Yuan Yuan

Two cyclists travelling to Qinghai Province rest by Qinghai Lake on October 5, 2014 (XINHUA)

Sun Dongchun's The Delayed Gap Year made waves in China, as it is believed to be China's introduction to the concept of a "gap year."

Sun heard the word "gap year" in 2006 and months later, he embarked on his own, with a plan to go to India via Thailand to do volunteer work.

At first, he planned a three-month trip but ended up extending it to 13 months. After the trip, he published his book.

On March 19, Sun was invited to be the spokesman for the China Gap Year Plan, launched by the China Youth Development Foundation.

The plan, which aims to help young Chinese graduates explore the world, will financially support 10 college students, selected from candidates aging from 18 to 28, to complete their gap year plans.

"It is great that many can plan their own 'gap year'," said Sun. "But with the popularity of the term increasing in the past few years, it has been explained in various ways, some of which are far from the original meaning of 'gap year'."

Heart of the road

Sun's gap year started on December 1, 2006, with 21,000 yuan ($3,387) to his name. At that time, he had been working in a company in Guangzhou, south China's Guangdong Province, for two years.

Sun initially wanted to quit his job, but his boss gave him a three-month vacation. "I had no idea what would happen during the trip," admitted Sun.

However, after three months, he was still in Thailand, having not yet made it to India. Despite this, his determination to finish the trip made him decide to continue and resign from his job.

In the 10 months after, Sun traveled to Laos, Myanmar, India, Pakistan and Nepal. In India, he met a Japanese woman who later became his wife.

"Many people use Sun's experience as the quintessential example of a gap year and define the experience of others by how they compare to his," said Wu Sumei, a freelance writer who met Sun in southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. "They might think a gap year is just random travel. If you carry on your gap year with such expectations, you may be disappointed."

Wu, 36, started her travels in 2008 and has published three books since then based on her travel experience. "There were many unexpected accidents on the way and it is natural to have some bad moments," said Wu, "but this is travel. Different travelers have different experiences, you have to go and see for yourself."

"I don't think a gap year is a must for everybody," said Sun. "It might not be what you expect, and it is not just limited to travel. If you want your gap year to be more meaningful, you should do something specific, such as going to remote villages to be a volunteer teacher or making a documentary."

In India, Sun worked as a volunteer at The Mother House in Kolkata for months. Witnessing people struggling desperately before death has helped him think more about life and how to care for the other people.

"There is no list of must-do things for a gap year," said Sun. "It just takes you out of your normal routine life or comfort zone to figure out clearly what you really want and follow your heart."

Cai Lulu, a graduate from China Central Academy of Fine Arts, also worked in Kolkata as a volunteer during her first trip to India in 2011.

Cai quit her job in Shanghai and started her gap year trip with 30,000 yuan ($4,840).

"It was just a simple idea to go abroad and travel and choosing India was something that came from my gut," said Cai.

In 2012, Cai came back to China, having lived in Dali, a town in southwest China's Yunnan Province, for several months. She then kept going.

"After traveling for a long time, it is tough to return to a 'normal' life," confessed Cai. "Travel made me more tolerant and modest. I accepted that the power of the individual is limited compared to the vast world, while the motto of working in big cities is to compete, compete, compete. It feels like an individual can do anything."

This difficulty readjusting is not rare among those returning from their travels. Hu Binbin began her travels in 2009 as a college graduate, but it took her three years to finally reintegrate into society after she came back to China in 2010.

"Some of the friends I met during the trip couldn't return to the lives they lived before," said Hu. "They couldn't stop. They only wanted to be on the road. Some just became depressed after coming back."

Wang Chen's gap year began in the summer of 2010 as a college graduate. After a year of travel, she returned to work. "I spent half a year trying to get back into a routine. It was so different from traveling," said Wang.

Wang said that fresh college graduates have some advantages in the job market, while after the gap year, you will lose the best time for job hunting.

"Not everybody needs a gap year. You have to give up a lot," said Wang. "You need to take all the negatives into consideration and decide whether it is worthwhile."

"You can't expect that much from the gap year," said Sun Dongchun. "It is not a solution to all issues in your life. You have to face them after travel and you need to know that before you set out."

Now Cai lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and has no plans to leave. She sells Thai products to China, and this is her main source of income. "As long as you can support yourself, you are free to choose your own lifestyle, be it traveling all the time or not."

Beyond horizons

Yang Qi graduated from a college in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, in 2007 and traveled to Tibet with his limited savings.

Yang didn't give it much thought until he was running out of money in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. Then he found a job in the local TV station as a cameraman.

After four months, he quit the job and went to Ngari, also in Tibet, where he met a local man who made and sold Tibetan musical instruments. They worked together to promote the business and this led Yang to start his own business instead of finding a job after the trip to Tibet.

After he went back to Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province, he set up his own company. Even though business was not good in the beginning, he said all the difficulties were nothing compared to a gap year in Tibet.

Yu Yue was a college student in the United States and his gap year plan was to come back to China and start his own business with friends. Within one year, their company expanded from five employees to more than 30. After this year he could be financially independent.

"It was a natural decision to leave college for a year. It wasn't a big deal as I just graduated a year later than the others," said Yu. "My parents support me as well."

But Yu mentioned that his mother's friends in China couldn't understand Yu's decision. "I think this is a problem many Chinese students who want to take a gap year face. Parents have a fixed plan for their kids--primary school, middle school, college, job, marriage, and having children--which appears to be the only way to live your life."

There are other sources of pressure too. "The job market is too competitive. Finding a job is a priority for all graduates," said Liu Jiang, who is going to graduate from college this July. "I want to have a gap year, but my reality just doesn't allow it to happen. It is impossible for employers to keep the job for you for a year."

Another issue facing those that follow the gap year trend is losing focus or overthinking. On Douban.com, a popular social networking website for young people, there are dozens of online groups dedicated to gap years. "If you think too much, you will never have your own gap year. Being young means being brave and free to do what you want" is a common motto for such groups.

Popular travelers, who seem to be always on the road, are often the focus of such groups. They post pictures and share their travel stories almost every day and have many followers.

"These people are mostly the products of business travel brands," said Zhao Xing. "With too much business involved, the idea of a gap year strays too far from its original purpose."

"Travel is definitely not always as beautiful as shown in the pretty pictures," said the freelancer Wu Sumei. "Life itself is a journey. As long as you love to be who you are, you don't have to be somewhere else."

Copyedited by Kieran Pringle

Comments to yuanyuan@bjreview.com

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