I was flipping through old photos this weekend and found myself reminiscing about one of our family trips. Over the years, we’ve enjoyed plenty of amazing family holidays from the exotic (Maldives!) to the adventurous (Utila) and the historic (England). But it’s those trips, the ones that take us outside the lines, which leave us with the deepest impression.

In 2013, our family visited a small tribe in the mountains outside Kunming, China.

This trip was truly unforgettable. We called it a mission trip and we were, indeed, on a mission. We wanted to live a life others lived, experience what they experienced, and hopefully bless them with the gifts we brought with us.

Early that morning, we struggled for hours to get up into the mountains. Until our bus spluttered and finally died on one of the hairpin turns.

Emily Chang | The Spare Room | Kunming | bus breaks down

Those families traveling with young kids found ourselves firmly outside our comfort zones. But unfazed, the kids didn’t hesitate. They decided to begin walking and the adults followed with admiring smiles, as four, resolute little girls began making their way up a narrow, dirt road. Eventually, someone from our party ran ahead and reached the village, which generously sent two tractors to come pick up up. After a long, dusty walk, we were grateful for the ride, even if it was extremely bumpy!

Emily Chang | The Spare Room | Kunming | kids on tractor

The tribe didn’t have much. I remember hearing each family only possessed about 80RMB worth of valuables (US$13). Their most valuable possessions were the few animals they raised, and the tools they used for farming. Yet, the villagers exhibited such incredible warmth and generosity, beginning with the lovely welcome they prepared when we arrived.

Emily Chang | The Spare Room | Kunming village welcome

Redefining generosity.

Looking back, my cheeks still flush in embarrassment as I remember my initial excitement in presenting the gifts we’d brought. Pretty clothes these farmers had nowhere to wear, baby dolls for girls who had no time to play. We hadn’t been very practical… because what the villagers needed was sturdy shoes, winter jackets, and more farm equipment.

Yet, despite our faux pas, they continued to welcome us with such a spirit of generosity. One of the most memorable meals of my life, was the one prepared for us that evening. Though the villagers only owned a few precious chickens, which they rarely slaughtered for food because they needed the eggs , they served us chicken for dinner.

Emily Chang | The Spare Room | Kunming village meal

One of my favorite books, Like Water for Chocolate, weaves a story around a cook, whose emotions become infused into her cooking, affecting everyone who consumes it. I remember thinking about that book as I slowly chewed the chicken, feeling overcome with emotion at the selfless generosity of these people. I remember my daughter’s eyes growing round, as I explained that we were eating chicken, which the villagers only enjoyed once a year. And I remember the look of reverence on her face, as she gazed down at the low, humble table before us. She saw before her, a banquet fit for kings.

But things weren’t always easy on that trip. Roads and floors weren’t paved.

Pigs don’t smell as cute as they look.

And the toilets were just holes in the ground, swarming with maggots.

Emily Chang | The Spare Room | Kunming toilet

But that Spring, we left the Miao Zhu with full hearts and a deep sense of gratitude. I was grateful that one of our group organized a gift of new tractors for our new friends. And since then, our family has tried to make every other trip an experiential one, where we don’t just relax, adventure or luxuriate… but we cultivate new relationships, empathy and wisdom by coloring outside the lines.

Have you taken a similar trip? How have you headed outside the lines? And what did you learn?

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