• By The Financial District


A free-spirited American couple with the guts to pack up and go on a moment's notice is discovering how crucial skills like agility, flexibility and resilience are in extraordinary times like these. Mai Yoshikawa of Kyodo News wrote an interesting piece about the couple and their children.

Liezl Van Riper, 44, and her husband Viet Nguyen, 49, took their kids out of school last fall to let them learn some life lessons on the road, their motivating mantra that spontaneous travel is the most valuable type of travel.

When the coronavirus pandemic changed not only their travel plans but their lives for the foreseeable future, they decided to surrender, accept and act by making a soft, if temporary, landing in Japan.

They flew to Osaka in March just as Japan tightened its border controls and the family of four has been traveling the country ever since.

"Japan was so important for this trip. It was a dream come true," says Van Riper, who lived in Saitama Prefecture, Tokyo's neighbor to the north, for 18 months around 1998 while teaching English at an eikaiwa, or conversational school.

"We saw what was happening with the borders closing in mid-March and I had a feeling that if we were going to Japan, this is it. So we dropped everything, bought the cheapest ticket from Thailand and made it into Osaka a week before the borders closed."

While much of the world sat at home feeling waves of fear and anxiety, the family found a bargain Airbnb listing in Kyoto and "did all the things you do in Kyoto but with no tourists," including cherry blossom viewing.

Van Riper and Nguyen rented out their home in California when they decided to worldschool their 11-year-old daughter Luna and 8-year-old son Leo. They wanted to visit their ancestral homelands in Asia and let their children experience their cultural roots up close.

Van Riper's mother is from the Philippines, and Nguyen came to the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam. They have been together for 25 years, married for 15 of them, and lived in New York for 16 years.

"We decided this was the right year to do worldschooling," Van Riper says. "We knew when the kids were babies we wanted to travel and use the countries we were in as classrooms. But at the time virtual learning wasn't big enough. Now that it's such a normal thing, this hasn't been as difficult as it might seem."

In September, the family said goodbye to their envious friends and left the U.S. for what they expected was to be a yearlong journey.

Worldschooling is an alternative to traditional education. It is a type of homeschooling without the home, putting the emphasis on travel and real-world learning experiences to create a more holistic outcome.

To make their dream a reality they attended a worldschooling conference where they got tips on how to generate income, how to keep their marriage intact, and how to maximize the children's learning potential every day.

The plan was for the mom, Van Riper, to be the breadwinner as a nonprofit fundraising consultant, while the dad, Nguyen, who left his job as a vacation rental business owner, would be "home" husband and teacher.

They planned to spend up to two months in each destination -- Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan -- to teach the kids more about the world, culture, history, geography and society than they could ever learn in a classroom.

Halfway through their journey, when they were in Thailand, the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. In April, they found out their visitor visas in Japan would be extended for an additional 90 days beyond the initial expiration date.

"We feel so lucky to be in Japan right now at this time," Van Riper told Kyodo News from a private tatami room in a Michi no Eki roadside rest area in Miyagi Prefecture, where the family made a pit stop for an onsen and a quick bite.

"We spent 31 days in a campervan driving 6,500 kilometers around Honshu and Hokkaido, and we visited my Filipino family in Fukuoka. Next is Tokyo."