A world of family adventure

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-8 5:03:03

The Zhai family. Photos: Courtesy of Zhai Feng

The Zhai family. Photos: Courtesy of Zhai Feng

An ex-railway maintenance worker, who has already made the dream of traveling around Southeast Asia by sailboat a reality for him and his family over the past year, is preparing to embark on another trip with his wife and child early next year - this time to Australia and New Zealand, before heading west across the Indian Ocean.

Zhai Feng, 36, and his wife, Sun Hongyan, 35, returned home to Yanzhou, Shandong Province with their 9-year-old daughter in June, after voyaging across some 4,000 sea miles, visiting six Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Myanmar and Singapore - tapping out all of, but 15,000 yuan ($2,460) of their savings on the eight-month adventure.

Despite strong opposition from their parents for their actions, Zhai and Sun, a former railway data entry clerk, quit their secure jobs that brought them a combined annual household income of roughly 96,000 yuan.

They gave up their envious lifestyle - selling their 128-square-meter apartment and their car - after Zhai couldn't bare to struggle through a life meaningless to him any longer.

"We were just like everybody else - a screw in the machine," he told the Global Times. "What's worse is that we all believed that was life, and that we couldn't change it."

Zhai Feng, along with his wife and daughter, seize the day atop their Rainbow Warrior. Photo: Courtesy of Zhai Feng

Zhai Feng, along with his wife and daughter, seize the day atop their Rainbow Warrior. Photo: Courtesy of Zhai Feng

Fate calls

But one day in 2009, Zhai went to one of Zhai Mo's art shows, when the painter, also China's first sailor to make it around the world in a sailboat, impressed Zhai (Feng) and encouraged him to teach himself how to sail.

Two years later, Zhai finally decided to quit his monotonous job and leave his empty life behind, to chase his dreams into the horizon.

At first, Zhai proposed to take half a year to himself to learn the ins and outs of life at sea before bringing his family along.

But Sun, who had grown a love for travel early on with her husband during previous family holidays, bicycling and motorcycling around China, wouldn't have any of that.

"We're a family and we have to stick together," Sun recalled, saying that they decided then and there to prepare for their trip together.

So, with the nearly 400,000 yuan they collected from selling off their home and car, they took off for Malaysia, where they bought a $55,000 yacht, an 11.8-meter cruiser with a kitchen, bedroom, toilet, four beds, three power generators and a 500-liter storage unit for petrol and water. They named it Rainbow Warrior - and never looked back.

"Every day out on the boat is a fresh day and there are so many new things to discover and tackle," Sun told the Global Times. "It's much more meaningful than sitting in front of a computer doing boring work day after day."

No easy ride

The ride at sea started off rather bumpy, with the family running into storms and Sun struggling to cope with seasickness - not to mention the time their boat nearly struck another fishing boat.

Adapting to life on the water also took some time, while navigating their routes also proved a tiring and endless job. But once the family got the hang of things, life on the boat was very comfortable, said Sun, who said the family often spends their days reading, drawing or fishing.

With just thousands of yuan left in their pockets by the summer, they docked in Hong Kong, and decided to return home to relax and gather funds for their next adventure. But, they weren't well-received by their parents upon returning and wide media coverage of their journey has greatly divided the public.

While some have praised Zhai for the care-free and adventurous life he has brought his family, others have heavily criticized the family for their selfish ways, which they say are ignoring the developmental needs of their daughter.

The headmaster of his daughter's school said that "having her miss out on a proper education could cause her to drift from society as well as delay her studies - and her life," said Zhai.

But Zhai disagrees. "I've no plans to let my daughter sit the gaokao (national college entrance examination) or study abroad," he said. "I'm not forcing her to do what everyone else does - go to college, get a job, buy a house and get married.

"I just want her to learn to be independent and live a happy life on her own," he said.

Others, meanwhile, have suggested that Zhai and his family continue their travels, but by taking a more balanced approach, making room for both work and adventure - but Zhai said that's not what he wants.

"What I want is not to simply travel, but a real life," he said.

Adventure ahead

Since running low on funds, Zhai and his family have had to put their heads together to come up with fund-raising projects to support their worldly excursions. Their sailboat maintenance fees alone are expected to cost upwards of 100,000 yuan.

While the family has received sponsorship opportunities from commercial interests, the offers have all come attached to terms and conditions that Zhai said that he just could not accept in the end.

"Some demanded we change our boat's name, while others wanted to choose our route," he said. "What people don't understand is that we're not trying to commercialize our voyage; we just want a unique life of our own."

Zhai has since reached out to supporters online, charging 10 yuan for people to have their names placed on the family boat's canvas. So far, 4,300 supporters have bought spots for their names, while the family has managed come up with another 150,000 yuan, either from donations or side projects, such as delivering speeches or attending shows.

And while many have disapproved of Zhai's decisions, some have been truly moved by his new life. After reading Zhai's story, an overseas Chinese businessman in Malaysia was motivated to buy a boat for his wife and 6-year-old child to start their own trip, said Zhai.

Humbled that he has been able to make such an impact on people's lives, Zhai said that he's also grateful to have been able to get so much out of this experience.

"I no longer wonder if I will simply eat dumplings or noodles for the rest of my life," he said. "And I don't worry about our future anymore - we learn a lot of useful things when we travel, from practical repairs to artsy photography skills.

"Our choices and abilities decide what kind of life we lead - not our savings," he said.

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