On the Ground with a ‘Gap Year’

May 3, 2011, 9:00 AM By GREGORY KRISTOF


Gregory Kristof, who took a gap year in China before starting college.

I’ve periodically recommended that high school students take a “gap year” after graduation, by deferring college entrance for one year. Most colleges encourage students to take a gap year, partly because students then arrive a little more mature, a little more ready to study, a little more worldly. It’s becoming a bit more common, and Princeton now pays for some kids to travel during their gap year, but most people are still wary of the idea. In fact, almost every kid I’ve talked to who has taken a gap year raves about the idea, so I thought I’d commission a guest column from my eldest son, Gregory, who is currently taking a gap year in China. He spent most of the year studying Chinese at Tsinghua University and then at a language school in Dalian, and soon he’s going to finish up the year studying Spanish in Peru. On the side, he worked and volunteered. Here’s his take:

–Nicholas Kristof

It took place on a frosty peak tucked away in the Tibetan highlands: my friend Rick and I walked in on a group of monks as they were on their knees, groaning.

They were performing secret rituals involving yak butter.

Peeking out from behind animal fur curtains, Rick and I hoped that they hadn’t noticed us yet. They hummed and sat in rows facing a stage of yak butter candles that threw images against the walls like kicked hacky sacks. Back in the shadows, I worried: What would happen if they saw two white dudes chillin’ behind the furs?

“Pssst,” Rick said. “I think we should leave.”

“Let’s make for the door.” I said.

I flattened myself against the back of the room, inching toward the door. Take it slow, I told myself. Don’t drag your feet. Hurry up! I just had a few more feet to go. Two steps to go. Wow, I would make a great spy.

One step. And then–right as I was considering tacking on two zeros to the front of my name–


I know, my ringtone sucks. Eyes caved in on me. I sort of just lay there on the dirt floor, not moving much, just looking up sporadically at the curious faces, and feeling sorry that I had disrupted their ritual. And yet I felt warm inside because I was here, getting caught in a mountain temple by Buddhist monks, and not where I shoulda-coulda-woulda been: listening to a PowerPoint lecture in a Boston classroom.

My decision to defer college for a year wasn’t easy. In my New York high-school, nearly every kid treads the usual path from graduation to college. Upon hearing that I would hop off the traditional academic bandwagon, some teachers, friends, and other parents would respond with “That sounds great!” while murmuring comforting remarks that I would probably turn out ok.

I was extremely excited about college, so it was tough to say “Not this time” to the bounty of friends and general awesomeness that my Freshman year would most assuredly bring me.

But I remember thinking how most of my great high school memories were localized capsules, like dots on paper waiting to be connected. A great weekend here, a good report card there. It was only when I extracted myself from each individual moment that I would realize that the damn picture still wouldn’t come into focus. Where was I going? Where did I want to go?

I wanted more. I wanted to see how the other half lived, to learn the things that weren’t found in books, to live a phantasmagoria of unforgettable experiences. I wanted to experience a life in which images glided by like kangaroos on rollerblades.

Gregory Kristof climbs up a rock temple in Tibet.
Rick AltieriGregory Kristof climbs up a rock temple in Tibet.

So I went to China. So far, I’ve rock-climbed above Buddhist grottos, showered in underground waterfalls, squeaked my way across 13th century temples hanging halfway up cliffs, and stayed in earthquake-ravaged villages where everyone still dwells in tents. In a one-street town whose sole cab driver appeared to be blind, Rick and I went deep inside one of the world’s most dazzling monasteries to party with monks (the scene was about as bangin’ as what you’d expect from a group of pacifists). I’ve motorcycled across a frozen holy lake in the Himalayas, and I’ve stared into giant volcano pits on the North Korean border.

Gregory Kristof, center, and friends, with motorcycles that they rode across a frozen lake in Tibet.
Rick Altieri Gregory Kristof, center, and friends, with motorcycles that they rode across a frozen lake in Tibet.

Not all of this was safe and rosy. Rick and I spent one night fending off wild dogs with a metal bar and headlamp, after escaping from the clutches of a hawk-nosed Tibetan with a few loose screws. We finally found a place to stay (by barging into a man’s tent at 5 a.m. and striking a deal with him to spend the night), but still, the Himalayan winter nearly turned us into popsicles.

I even learned the in’s and out’s of the squat toilet. Do not sink too low when you squat. Trust me.

And while we are on the subject of appropriate dinner table conversation, let me warn you never to pee into a strong oncoming Tibetan wind. Unless you are seeking a novel and roundabout face-washing technique. Believe me, it happened.

So if you are willing to unrut your wheels, if you enjoy hopscotching through the world of motorcycles and open prairie, or if you’re just searching for that extra boost to send yourself hurtling down a road less traveled, then perhaps a year abroad is right for you. Think about it in particular if you’re going to study a language in college: why pay expensive tuition to learn Spanish in the States when you can learn it more thoroughly and cheaply in Bolivia?

Even a gap year’s undesired moments can have a palliative benefit. Setting off for remote mountain villages, only to discover that they have been utterly abandoned; triumphantly finding a town’s only bathroom, only to discover that the mud you are now standing in is not actually mud; these are the curve balls that keep you on your toes, that preserve in your life what remains of childhood spontaneity.

Tibetan landscapeGregory KristofTibetan landscape

A gap year is a larky way to mature out of youth. But if you do it right, it’s also a way to keep it.

I nearly forgot to mention that the original purpose of traveling to China was to bolster my Chinese at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Thanks to its great program, as well as the superb Ruiwen school in Dalian, I’m now fluent. But talent in Chinese doesn’t compare with talent in analyzing terrain for wild dog hangouts, or with kaleidoscopic memories that will refract experiences for a lifetime.

So, graduating seniors, now’s the time to search the Web for travel abroad programs. Check out Global Citizen Year for a mini peace corps experience. If you’re less interested in a formal program, just do what I did: sign up for a foreign language school and book a flight. Because of the dollar’s purchasing power, travel in China is very cheap — a rebuttal to those who think gap years are only for rich kids. I hope you choose to defer enrollment for one year, and I hope that your gap year, like mine, goes wrong in all the right ways.

A temple in Tibet.Gregory KristofA temple in Tibet.

When college does roll around, you’ll already have gone through your own freshman orientation. After getting lost in a remote village because I was seeking a familiar temple but was approaching it from a completely different direction, I learned that where you are going is not all that matters. Where you are coming from matters, too.

It’s like this: Spend time huddling for candle warmth on the Tibetan Plateau, and the C in physics ain’t gonna seem so harsh.

Eventually the dots begin to connect themselves. That’s when I discovered that I got more than what I’d bargained for. I initially wanted simply to get a sense of where I was headed for the next few years. But the poverty I encountered in western China irrevocably challenged me. I felt, on the most profound of levels, the realness of others. I became just one person among very, very many. Especially since I was in China.

Speaking of melting into the background, that was exactly my wish that evening when my friend and I got caught in the temple.

“I’m just a traveler,” I said. After an ungolden silence, a monk stepped forward: “Come eat with us.”

Rick and I spent the rest of that evening under a temple rooftop somewhere among the Himalayan foothills—I couldn’t find the place now. We and the incredibly hospitable monks traded stories and cheers over yak meat, yak cheese, and yak butter tea well past my bedtime.

Who says you need a classroom for an education?

From left: Gregory Kristof, a Tibetan monk named Adam, and Rick Altieri.
Property of Gregory KristofFrom left: Gregory Kristof, a Tibetan monk named Adam, and Rick Altieri.


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