Xiao Wu

Chinese Youth Enjoy a New Western Import: The Gap Year

A Weibo user with the handle “nobodies are happy” tweeted this image while expressing a longing to take a gap year. (Via Weibo)

Eat your heart out, Jack Kerouac; wanderlust has found its way to modern China. On November 14, a 27-year-old woman from the coastal city of Ningbo made headlines in a local newspaper after coming back from a four-month tour around China. The article describes how she spent 14,000 RMB (about US$2,200) on the whole trip; her online travel journal received over 60,000 hits.

The young woman, who remained anonymous, says her goal was simple: “Work has made me more temperamental. I started to hate myself. I thought about going travelling for a while, so I did it. Sometimes if you don’t do what you really want to do now, you probably won’t have a chance to do it later in life.”

The websites of Chinese News and People’s Daily also picked up the story on November 14. It then spread even further on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, with over 5,000 shares and a whopping 3.68 million comments. Some Web users shared similar stories, while others showed support and expressed their desire to take time off to see the world.

The Chinese characters say: No turning back. (Via Weibo)

This is not the first time a young Chinese has hit the road only to make nationwide news. In May 2012, a group of 11 “post-’80s” Chinese—that is, Chinese born after 1980—joined one even younger Frenchman on a journey to travel around the world. They quit their jobs, sold their houses and cars, in the process accumulating over 8 million RMB (about US$ 1.2 million) that they used to buy two RVs for their road trip. They plan to visit 60 countries over 647 days. According to their travel journal on Weibo, which they share with their 81,000-plus followers, they have covered 26 countries thus far.

These stories are part of a growing trend in China. Unlike their parents, many younger Chinese are no longer satisfied with a secure job and a stable life; they want adventure and variety.

In 2009, Sun Dongchun, a travel lover from Guangdong, published a book entitled My Belated Gap Year about his year of travel and volunteerism throughout Asia. The book triggered heated discussion about gap years, with over 12,000 comments on Douban, a Chinese social media platform featuring discussion of books, music, and movies popular among the country’s young intelligentsia.

In Dec 2011, another book titled Quit Your Job, Hit the Road  became an instant hit. Liang Chunxue, a former journalist with Southern Metropolis wrote the book based on her own travel experience in 42 countries.

The grandfather of this emerging genre of Chinese travel logs is likely Xiao Peng, one of the first professional travel writers in China, now considered the Chinese Jack Kerouac. He quit his job in 2001 and became a backpacker. He later became a professional travel writer and now has over 371, 000 Weibo followers. His most famous book, Ten Years of Backpacking, published in 2010, records his painful yet fulfilling journey as backpacker over the years. After selling 500,000 copies, he published a new book called Why We Travel two months ago.

It’s not just about books. A television drama called “Beijing Youth” that first aired in August, 2012 now tops the “hot list” on Youku, a Chinese video-sharing platform. The show depicts a man named He Dong who quits his job as a civil servant and breaks up with his fiancée in an effort to relive his youth. Zhao Baogang, director of Beijing Youth, told Beijing Evening News that his intention was not to convince young people to quit their job, but to encourage them to see more of the world instead of rushing toward conventional success.

On Douban, a group called “take a gap year, quit your job, and hit the road” reached 150,000 members since its founding in April, 2008, the maximum number the site allows. The front page of the group reads: “In this age a monster called ‘job’ was born. Japanese writer Sawaki Kotaro once said: ‘Living the same life in the same place makes me feel bored, I need to go abroad to see the world before I turn 26.’ This was 20 years ago. Monk Tang started his journey to the west when he was 26, that was perhaps over 1,300 years ago … We may not be able to travel around the world before 26, but at least we should be able to travel around the country.”

Founder Yi Lang says he started the group after coming back from his own tour around China when he was still a college student. “It was and still is very difficult to take a gap year in China; another problem is parents. Most parents don’t support this idea and think it’s crazy,” Yi Lang explained. “So I did it behind my parents’ back. They still don’t know about it.”

Yi Lang sees a larger social issue behind Chinese youth’s newfound wanderlust. “Young people can feel lost nowadays living in a society where different values and pressures are bearing down on us. Sometimes we need a few months, or even a year to take a break from all of these. Travelling is a great way to find ourselves, to see the world so that we can have a better idea about what we really want in life. “

“The gap year, a Western concept born in the ’60s, is now becoming a booming trend in China. It’s interesting to see how we Chinese are doing it,” he adds.

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  • joshyang

    Such stories are not uncommon in China with only a few made to the media. Almost every young (and not-so-young) folk wants to travel at large. It’s a born human crave. The central questions are (i) whether your finance can support a long trip and (ii) whether you have an irreplaceable daily duty.