I Can Show You the World | Week 30 Abroad

I Can Show You the World | Week 30 Abroad

42 hours. It took us 42 hours to get from Lindon, Utah, to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. 45 hours! 45 active hours! 4 airports, 3 security checks, 19 hours in the air, 21 hours in layovers, 2 hours in cars… There’s a reality check for anyone considering this life: We love it, but it’s exhaustinggggggggggggggggggggg

As soon as I spotted the coastline and islands of Malaysian Borneo I knew it was all worth it. Turquoise water, white, sandy beaches, very few buildings… Is this paradise? 

It wasn’t until the next day (after we’d all gotten some much-needed sleep) that we really got out to explore. Ben desperately needed to catch up on the past 2 days’ worth of Amazon orders, customers, and needs, so I offered to take Whit to the one place I’d been dreaming about: the beach.

We called a Grab (Asia’s version of Uber) and asked him tons of questions about the area on the short drive to Tanjung Aru beach.


Grab Driver: “Where are you from?”

Me: “USA.”

GD: “Oh so far! It’s too bad you’re here in wintertime!”

Me: “Well, it’s snowing in America right now so I think 89 degrees is great!”


As we approached our destination I was impressed to find that, despite being the top-rated public beach in Kota Kinabalu, Tanjung Aru felt secluded from nearby buildings with a relatively empty parking lot.


Me: “Is this a good beach?”

GD: “Eh, I think there are better.”


Uh-oh. What if I chose wrong? I don’t want to be disappointed on our first day in this country!

We thanked him, got out, and then saw it: the beach. It’s breathtaking. The incredible sand and water I’d been hoping for, small islands with parasailers within view, and NO OTHER PEOPLE. I decided right then and there that if there are better beaches than this I was never leaving Malaysia.



Whit, on the other hand, had other plans.

He’d been excited for our adventure before leaving our AirBnB. He eagerly packed his swimsuit and wondered if the water would be warm enough to play around in. Once we arrived, however, he’d changed his tune. Suddenly he hated the feeling of sand on his bare feet, was over jumping into breaking waves after a few minutes, and flat out refused to play with a local child until I told him that learning to make new friends was part of O’Brien Academy.

I expected his attitude to wear off (we are in paradise, after all) while mine only improved. As I watched Whit play in the water from my perch on the warm sand I had an overwhelming feeling that this is the happiest I’ve ever been. Not just surface happy, satisfied happy. The sort of happiness that comes from being 100% satisfied with your life. There’s a lot we lack, but I can honestly say I don’t want to change one single thing about my life.

But all Whit could do the rest of the day was complain. I tried my hardest to find new things to do around the beach, but the playground, fresh juice stand, and a walk didn’t improve his mood. We were back at the AirBnB after only 2 hours.


Signal Hill Observation tower Kota Kinabaly things to do in Kota Kinabalu Malaysia


The sad truth is that, though Ben and I are overwhelmed thinking about all of the incredible things to do in this outdoor oasis, Whit doesn’t seem to be enjoying it. We talk up the scuba diving, exploring caves, volcanic mud baths, farm stay, seafood, and other stuff we’re excited to do and he doesn’t bat an eye. I’ve even sunk to pointing out the ways our lives would be different if we lived in the United States again: he’d be in school (probably stuck in a desk) for hours a day, he wouldn’t get to eat fresh, local mango for breakfast, buying his little trinkets wouldn’t be as cheap, we wouldn’t be able to go to the beach whenever we want.

His response? That’s ok, I don’t really like the beach.

So here’s my question: at what point do we consider that the life we 100% adore isn’t best for our son?

He hasn’t always been like this. In fact, we’ve always been grateful that Whit’s detached personality allowed him to say goodbye to people and places easily. He’s always easily adapted to new thins because he just didn’t form attachments to the old things.

This attitude didn’t really surface until we went back to the United States for Christmas and New Years. We saw lots of family and cousins, including all grandparents, friends, and our old house during the three weeks we spent traveling to 4 different states. While there Ben and I felt like Whit’s behavior was worse and our relationship was suffering. We both realized we do much better when we’re alone- the three of us- on the road. The O’Briens taking on the world. It takes a lot of support, patience, help, and understanding from each other to make constant travel work, and it’s helped us grow closer. It felt so good to see so many loved ones and fill up on American favorites during our holiday, but Ben and I couldn’t wait to be back to “us” again.

To start the next phase of living abroad in such an idyllic location has felt too good to be true. Mayalsian Borneo represents everything we love about exploring the world, and it has been a great reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing. There is so much to gain!

It hurts to hear Whit calmly tell us he’d rather be in America. But can he be trusted? I know his feelings are valid at any age, but surely he can’t know what’s best for him? Is it just because we a week ago he was eating Chick-Fil-A and hearing English? He doesn’t understand the value of having the world at his fingertips yet, but he will, right? I know all kids crave some stability. If the daily schedule we’ve developed isn’t enough, could we at least settle for longer stays? A few months to a year in different locations instead of a few weeks to one month? That’s a compromise we could accept. We don’t want to be selfish parents but we’re finally living our dreams! And it’s great! We don’t want to stop!

We welcome any advice.

And prayers. Lots and lots of prayers.


  1. You are doing an awesome job with Whit! I am sure (from what you describe) he is just a little “homesick” and may not be able to truly verbalize or even recognize that feeling yet. It may be a bit of culture shock too even though you guys are always traveling. Once he gets back into the routine of travel, he’ll blossom and enjoy it again.

    I love the blog!

  2. He will most likely get back to his normal (traveling) but it might take time since he just had a taste of home. If he continues to show that he doesn’t enjoy it you might need to consider coming back. As a mom of 3 I can’t imagine keeping them in a place/lifestyle they aren’t happy in. I’ve always felt like while they are young I will put their needs above mine, always. When they are all grown we plan to travel a lot. We know one day we’ll live our dream but not for a while.

    1. Thanks, Devan! I think I’ll wait a bit and see if things settle or if we need to completely re-evaluate 🙁

  3. Aw poor Whit just misses what was so familiar to him. I know personally I am excited by “new, new, new” to a point, then I need a break. It can get exhausting, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I need a haven to do absolutely nothing, do somehing old and familiar, or just calm myself after all the stimulation. It’s probably worse for a kid, (because their tolerance levels are usually less than adults’) but I have no idea. He’s still young. He doesn’t really “get” why you’re choosing this lifestyle, he’s just along for the ride. Someday it will hit him. Maybe find him a way to make that American home attachment that he does have accessible to him wherever he is. Facetime more? Play a game with his cousins online? Idk. I’m not cool enough to know things like that lol but a taste of home on a regular basis might be enough to tide him over? 🤷‍♀️ Unless you guys already do that stuff. Then idk. I guess there are always options…boarding school, or having a home-base and doing shorter trips, like you said about staying a few months at a time instead..? Good luck! I’m sure it’ll all work out!

    We’ve talked about *if* we ever do extensive traveling, we will have a home-base abroad. Big if though. Our kids argue and whine too much for us to enjoy ourselves traveling right now 😓 I love reading your blog!

    1. So many options to consider! We may first try letting him travel with a larger bag so he can have more comfort items nearby (I’m afraid I’m raising a hoarder by constantly telling him we don’t have enough room for him to buy souvenirs…) . If that doesn’t work we’ll try slowing things down. Hopefully this phase passes!

  4. I think he’s just going through an adjustment period! He will get there! When we weren’t traveling, the kids needed an adjustment period after every visit from the grandparents. Rules were bent when they were in town, and we always struggled for a week or so to get back to normal. What you’re going through is that plus a new culture! What if you give him a day a week or per location to choose what he wants to do? Giving him some control over his surroundings may help him adjust, plus you can spend time together researching and planning his day. We did “yes days” for our kids back home and they love it! Or maybe you could help him write postcards to those he misses? Maybe what he says to them will give you clues as to why his behavior is off. Just a couple ideas, but you know him best and I know you are great parents!! Spending 24/7 together is awesome, but it also can be stressful, especially when they are being stinkers. 😉

  5. Sounds like culture shock. For my daughter, that usually means hating wherever we are, wanting to stay inside all day, and watching her favorite tv show in English. As someone said above, Yes Days are awesome! It is usually results in a behavior reset for our daughter. We usually plan the day before The Day of Yes so she understands her options and also understands if she decides to do X on this side of town and then Y on the other side of town, her time will be limited at both places. We also set a $ limit for activities and souveniers but let her choose what she wants to spend that money on. If she chooses a stuffed animal, she is responsible for carrying it around wherever we go. We’ve found that setting the boundaries the day before mostly eliminates having to say no on The Day of Yes.

Comments are closed.