Tuesday, July 23, 2019

When I Don't Feel the Right Things

Contrary to all previous experiences, I am strangely optimistic about health concerns. I said, “You should get it checked out, but surely it is nothing.”  It wasn’t nothing, and Kevin was admitted to the hospital. As I sat in the ER with him, I was worried. But should I be more worried?  What if he dies – then I will feel bad about not worrying enough.  Should I be crying right now or wringing my hands?  At the moment I am just thinking about how strange the ER looks and how strange we look in it.

I was worried about Kevin, but I was also stressed about our first Chinese hospitalization.  You know what attracts more attention than a foreigner?  A foreigner in the hospital.  Once admitted, we actually had a private room; everyone else was three to a room.  I felt immensely relieved and also a little bad about special foreigner privilege.

I was worried, but what really troubled me were the little metal boxes that traveled slowly down the hallway ceilings on jerky tracks.  Why were they moving so slowly?  Why do metal boxes feel so creepy?  I asked a friend if she ever feels anxious about things that don’t make sense.  She laughed at me heartily. “Do I ever worry about things that don’t make sense?  I think that is the definition of anxiety.”

The hospital was new and pretty clean; the doctors seemed to be doing a good job.  The Chinese hospital provides medical care, but you are on your own for everything else – food, TP, soap. It’s hard to complain when the “bed fee” is $5 a night.  Kevin was not supposed to move, so he really couldn’t do anything.  Our friends graciously added our three kids to their three kids for a “double sleepover” so I could stay at the hospital. (The kids decided a double sleepover was too much; the parents decided six kids was definitely too much).

Even in a private room, we got a number of people peering in through the door.  Whenever I left the room, people stared at me in astonishment.. I’m glad we could liven up their hospital stay.  I stood in line in the very noisy, crowded cafeteria pretending like I was totally normal.  It was a hard sell, with a hundred faces swiveling in my direction.

A lady tried to weasel in front of me in the noodle line, and I blocked her with my elbow while closing in the remaining two inches between me and the person in front of me.  There, now I felt more like I fit in.

The nurses are busy enough that they hand over responsibility for anything they can.  “See this tourniquet on his leg?  You need to leave it on for 30 minutes, then take it off for 10.  Don’t leave it on for longer or his foot might die.  Have a good night!”  That was the general gist anyway.

So I re-set my timer every 30 minutes all night long.  I got very good tourniqueting and did not kill Kevin’s foot.  I also got very good at 30 minute naps.  I could even have a full dream during the 10 minutes before I had to put the tourniquet back on.  Adrenaline was running high, carrying me through the two days – and two nights of tourniquets – in the Chinese hospital.

Our medical assistance/evacuation service decided to fly Kevin to Korea for further treatment, just to be safe.  Medical evacuation to another country is kind of a big deal, right?  But Kevin looked okay.  He really wasn’t even feeling bad.  Should I feel worried or reassured?

We were faced with the question of where I should be – in Korea with my husband or in China with my children.  Neither of us felt great about leaving the kids in another country for in undetermined amount of time.  I didn’t feel great about him being hospitalized in a different country without anyone he knew either.  Who has to decide these things??  Other friends we know, apparently, who live the same kind of ridiculous lives.  We were both glad when his parents said they could fly to meet him in Korea.

I did worry about Kevin flying, even if he was accompanied by medical staff.  After he texted pictures of the air ambulance learjet, I didn’t hear from him for hours after he should have arrived.  I was increasingly worried.  “What if he died on the way and they are trying to figure out how to tell me?”  Logically I knew that he probably didn’t die and probably didn’t have internet access.  Eventually I contacted our medical service to confirmed he had arrived at the hospital, alive.

Now I was less worried and more tired.  I was back at home with the girls and the adrenaline was wearing off.  The first night instead of falling asleep, they cried because daddy wasn’t here.  “When will he come home?” they wailed.  “That is yet to be determined,” I said comfortingly.  “Now go to sleep!!” I said less comfortingly.

As the days wore on, Kevin got increasingly better and was released from the hospital.  I got increasingly more tired.  Nadia was waking up at 1-2am trying to come into bed with me.  She was already doing this pretty much every night, but not always so early on, and it was not always so hot.  I did not need a little body smushed against me, radiating a surprising amount of heat.  Speaking of heat, the temperatures were creeping up to the mid-90’s and our one A/C unit wasn’t working.

The kids felt stressed, though of course they didn’t say, “I feel stressed.”  Instead they just screamed about random things, and cried because someone looked at them the wrong way.  There were many shoves given, tongues stuck out, names called, and toys commandeered; mysteriously nobody was responsible for any of it.

In some ways, it is easier when only one person is responsible for everything.  There are no unmet expectations that someone else would do this or that; if something didn’t happen it is all on you.  The house has stayed unusually clean and bedtime has gone unusually quickly, because order helps me feel like life is under control.  There is less laundry and nobody really cares what we eat.  In fact, they would rather not eat real meals, pizza excluded.

The disadvantage is that one person is responsible for everything and has to make everything happen, and that person is me.  It really wears down your resolve.  The girls wake me up before I want to be awake and I say, “Go look at books.”  When they come back two minutes later, I say, “Go watch TV.”  The girls beg for ice cream and I say, “No.  I’ll think about it.  Okay fine.”  When Juliana asked to have a sleepover and Adalyn asked for another baby, I said, “No.  No, no, no.  Not happening.”

Daily life may feel under control but my mind is much less ordered.  I think, “This whole thing is ridiculous and stressful.”  I think, “But really things are going okay. I feel a little bad that everyone is so worried about us.” I think, “I should feel more worried.  Why don’t I feel more worried?  I am not very empathetic.”  I think, “But Kevin is staying at a hotel by himself, and exploring Seoul, and eating at Taco Bell!!  I want to be hospitalized.”

I am good in crisis, and I have lots of experience with survival mode. I am not so good at making space for the long-term effects of stress and taking the opportunity to process and feel things once the crisis is past.  I’m ready to move on and pretend it didn’t happen.  That has worked so well for us in the past.

I feel like I am doing okay.  I feel like I will fall apart.  I feel angry at belligerent children, at the doctors who tell us nothing, at the A/C repair guy who never comes.  I feel gratitude toward our friends who feed us and take the kids and let us hang out in their A/C.  I feel more disturbed by the things that don't make sense (little metal boxes, the craziness inside) than by the serious things (hospitalization in another country). I feel everything and nothing, and I am waiting for someone to tell me how to feel the right things.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Signs You've Got a TCK

The paparazzi
 The other day Juliana’s 7 year old friend was over.  As I was trying to get the internet to work so I could play a video for them, she asked, “What VPN do you use?”  I thought, “What kid in America would ever ask that?”  Our kids are very familiar with VPNs because they are necessary to watch people cut up squishies on YouTube (Because that's a thing??).

A third culture kid (TCK) is a kid who has spent a significant portion of their formative years in a country or countries other than the one on their passport.  Their experience with life is different from friends in their passport country and friends in their country of residence – they are just...different.  (But mostly different good!) For example…

You know you have a TCK if they…

1. gather with their friends to play “look at time zones” on the phone.

2. have ever confused the Chinese flag with the American flag.

3. obsessively play traveling, airplanes, or stamping passports.

4. have ever done homeschool at the entry-exit bureau.

5. Have stopped moving for a moment and been mobbed by onlookers.

6. have been called “foreign doll” or compared to a Barbie doll.

7. talk about our “China home” and “America home,” or tried to figure out where home really is.

8. has ever horrified a Chinese person by combining Chinese and western food, like cheese + rice.

9. has eaten something really unusual like fish brains.

10. burst into a Chinese rhyme or song you have never heard before.

11. have gotten scolded for playing in puddles or wearing shorts before July.

12. are scandalized when people wear shoes in the house, and have in fact worried that Santa might leave his shoes on when he comes.

13. can point out out several countries on the map where they have lived or regularly visit.

14. can point out multiple countries around the world where their friends live.

15. ask for cereal for Christmas

16. have the tell-tale arm scar from the TB vaccination.

17. love 12 hour flights.

18. went on 12+ flights in their first 12 months.

19. ever traveled across the country for immunizations.

20. primarily travel by bus, bike, motorbike, or some form of cart.

21. were born in a country other than their passport country.

22. had a passport before one month old.

23. had the doctor or nurse take pictures with them during a check-up.

24. have been passed around a restaurant as a baby.

25. have seen pictures of themselves on the internet, put up by strangers.

26. are photographed by strangers pretty much everyday.

27. love dried seaweed snacks.

28. learned to walk in a different country than they learned to crawl.

29. primarily see extended family is over Skype.

30. make collages of old passport photos

My Little Ponies meet Angkor Wat
A 4 year old's interpretation of travel.  The circles are all our bags... 😂😮
Winter travel in an unsealed vehicle

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Month of Goodbyes

The purple cabbage I used to demonstrate layers of grief

This month’s calendar is filled with notes of all the people who are leaving.  June 12, 17, 18, 25, and 27th. July 3rd, and 5th.  Five families and five single will move away for good.  One family has lived in China for 25+ years.  Another family for 10+ years.  Considering the size of our foreign friend group in this city, it is a significant portion.  Many others are returning to the US for the summer.  This is the month of goodbyes.

This month in our homeschool co-op, I have been teaching emotional intelligence.  Last week’s lesson was about loss and saying goodbyes.   We talked about what grief can look like, about layers of grief, and about how to deal with grief.  I think it is timely for our kids who have had so many goodbyes this year and are getting ready for more.

While we were back in America this past year, our friends still here in our city walked a road of continual goodbyes. The expat community is always fluid (or you could say unstable), but last year was like a mass exodus, triggered by changes in our area.  Sometimes our friends had months to prepare for these goodbyes, sometimes weeks or days.

We experienced the grief from afar, through messages and emails and secondhand news.  Each new loss seemed like another stab at our hearts.  Those friends are leaving too?  Will there be anyone left when we return?  Our friends were from all over the country and world.  We didn’t have the chance to say goodbye, and realistically, we will not see most of them again.

I see the effects of these losses on my children, especially on Juliana.  She has had a lot of questions.  “Why do they have to leave?  Will we see them again?  Will my best friend come back to China? Will we have to leave?”  During the middle of the “mass exodus,” her 7 year old friend wrote letters to all her friends saying, “I will miss you if I have to leave.”  Imagine the grief and uncertainty our kids experience.  We can only offer so much reassurance because the future is unsure.

Adalyn doesn't show a lot of sadness at the surface.  She is quiet and doesn't cry.  She doesn't cry, that is, until her all out meltdowns.  These have become more common during these last weeks.

Juliana responds with anger.  I have tried to help her understand this – grief doesn’t always look like sadness.  She felt so much anger when we returned to China. After goodbyes to all our friends and family in America, and she came back to China to face the reality of all the friends and classmates who were no longer here.  Just in the past week, as she prepares for more goodbyes, we have seen this anger reappear.  I remind myself be patient when she huffs or yells about the smallest things.

I try to guide her into healthier emotional expression.  It usually looks less like, “Dearest daughter, let’s sit down and talk about your feelings” and more like, “JULIANA, stop yelling!  Go sit on your bed and write in your journal!”  I also need to work on healthy emotional expression.  Juliana’s journal is probably full of diatribes against me and her sisters and the unfairness of life...and the friends that she misses.

Goodbyes are a part of everyone’s life.  Three of our friends in the US are making major moves this summer to different regions of the US.  They are saying goodbyes to family, longtime friends, all the familiar places. They will be experiencing their own “cultural” changes – West Coast to East Coast, South to North, Non-Texas to Texas, which as we all know is a culture unto itself. Our world is so transient.

For our kids, their goodbyes are two-fold.  Sometimes they are the ones leaving. They say goodbyes to all their friends and family when they leave the US, both in Georgia and California.  They leave friends from church and school and friends they have known since birth.  We return to China and the goodbyes continue. Their classmates and playmates, the ones they played with as toddlers, the ones they biked with in the neighborhood courtyard – our kids are now the ones left behind.

They are becoming experts at saying goodbyes, although that doesn’t make it easy.  The girls exchange friendship bracelets, cards, and secret handshakes.  We say we will Skype, and sometimes it happens.

Later, when we look at the globe, we talk about their friends in this state, in that country, on that continent. The world map above our dining table is not just for geography.  Nadia can recognize China and America, our own countries.  Adalyn points out California and Georgia.  Juliana first finds Norway, home of her best friend in the whole world.

We move on to different parts of America and the world.  “See, your friends are moving to Florida.  This is Oregon, Kentucky, Alabama...where we visited friends last year.  This is Australia, where your past classmates live."  Wherever we look, we find friends all over the world.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Truth about Homeschool

I have a picture in my head of what homeschool should look like.  You know, that picture on the front of textbooks or homeschool websites.  I sit on the couch with my children crowded peacefully yet eagerly around me.  We all look in rapt attention at a book.  Later the girls sit at different tables, diligently working on math or writing, while Nadia plays contentedly with puzzles on the floor.

I know this will come as a shock, but homeschooling doesn’t actually look like that.  Not around here, anyway. Several years ago I wrote a post about what school looks like for us, but I didn’t get into the nitty-gritty of every day. This post is a peek at a “typical” homeschool morning in our house.

8:50am – Things are looking good for our 9am start goal.  The girls are dressed and breakfasted – oh wait, Juliana still has on her pjs.   I remember to give the girls their allergy medicine, and take my own medicine.  I remind Adalyn and Nadia to clear off their breakfast dishes.

8:59am – I throw in a load of laundry while calling, “We are going to start school in one minute!”  Juliana complains, “What?  We have to do school AGAIN today?”  It is a daily shock and disappointment.  After remembering to make the girls brush their teeth and finding a book I left in the other room, I call again, “Come into the living room!  We are about to start school!”

9:04am -  The girls do all their last minute, “But I just need to organize my toys so they can start school too.  I just need to put my doll to bed.  I can’t find my waterbottle!  Can I please pack my books in a backpack?  Where is the other chair?  I’m hungry!”
Nadia boycotts Adalyn's morning show and does her own show in her tent

9:09am - The morning show is something we added after the girls’ stint in public school this year.  They take turns standing at the front of the living room to lead the pledge.  Today it is Adalyn’s turn.
“Stand up Juliana.  Look Mama, Juliana’s not standing up all the way!  ‘I pledge allegiance’ – Juliana, look at the flag!! (Juliana: I AM!!) - ‘to the flag’...”

“We will now reserve a moment of silence.”  I honestly have no idea what this is about, something they picked up at school.  It sounds like a good idea to me, but sadly that it is 10 seconds, and it is not silent.

Next Adalyn looks outside to determine the weather.  “It is partly sunny, partly cloudy,” she pronounces, finding the appropriate picture.  (“There are no clouds - it’s sunny!” Juliana protests.)  I help Adalyn through today’s month, day, and year.  Nadia points to the spring picture on the “seasons” paper.  “It is flower.  Are there flowers blooming, mama?”
“Okay,” I prod, “let’s move on.  You choose a song Adalyn.”  Everyone gives their input on what Adalyn should choose.  She settles on O Holy Night, a year-round classic.

The girls stand together to practice reciting part of Psalm 139 for a homeschool performance. Juliana adds enthusiastic motions, which I taper down from a full-on dance performance.
In unison: “O Lord you have searched me and know me -”  
Juliana: “Mooo-mmm!  Adalyn isn’t doing the motion right.  It is supposed to be like this.” 
Me: “It doesn’t matter, it’s close enough.  Just keep going!”
In unison: “You know when I sit and when I rise”
Nadia: “I don’t want to do it anymore!” (“...you perceive my thoughts from afar”)
Me: “Okay, that’s fine.” (“you know my going out...”)
We finally make it through.
Juliana: What if we forget the end?
Adalyn, self righteously: “I will remember it.  I will remind you.”

9:22am – The morning show is finally over.  I get ready to read from the Bible while the girls color.  Juliana listens and intersperses comments when she feels appropriate.  She feels the appropriate time is every other minute.  Nadia and Adalyn abandon their coloring books to run back and forth on the couch.

9:30am – I look at the clock and consider what we should do next.  Since everyone is gathered, I decide to start on history.  We read a chapter in A Child’s History of the World about the explorers, and then look at some illustrated information from the Usborne Book of History.  Adalyn runs over to look at the pictures, and everyone fights about who can see the best.  Juliana takes after me educationally.  She is interested in history, loves to read, and finds math and spelling unreasonably boring.
The girls paint watercolors on the tile bathroom wall while I read aloud.  It has no real educational purpose except to keep Nadia entertained.  Warning: it is harder to clean off than you would think.
9:45am – We move on to our latest read-aloud, Strawberry Girl by Lois Lensky.  I am enjoying it as well as the girls, which is always nice.  Adalyn especially likes the periodic illustrations.  She actually settles down to draw, and Nadia has wandered away for some authentic imaginative play (aka playing dollies).  Juliana curls up on the couch, and I enjoy the moment of reading aloud in relative quiet.
Nadia reappears with her dollies in a squeaky stroller:  “I don’t want to do school!  I don’t like school.”
Me: “You aren’t doing school.  You are playing.”
Nadia starts to wail, “I’m bored!  I’m hungry!  I didn’t have juice!” 
Adalyn pipes up, “I’m hungry too!  Can I have a snack??” 
Juliana yells, “I can’t hear!!  They keep talking!!”

10:05am - After some more shushing and reading over everyone, we reach the end of the chapter. 
Juliana: Read some more!
Adalyn: But I’m so huuuuuungry!
Me: It’s not snack time yet. Why don’t you play?
Nadia: I don’t want to play!!  I want to do something else!
Me: You could do puzzles! (NO!) You could play with your dollies? (NO!)  Why don’t you do playdough? (Nooooo!)  Okay those are all my ideas.  You can choose between one of them. (Nooooooo!!).

10:10am - We have snack time.  “But we haven’t HAD a candy snack today!”  “You don’t need a candy snack every day!  You could have...an apple, peanut butter cracker?”  “But I WANT a candy snack!”
I cut up an apple for Adalyn, spread peanut butter for Nadia while Juliana looks disconsolately at the pantry, hoping something more interesting will appear.  I reheat my coffee and look disconsolately at the pantry, hoping an inspiration for dinner will appear.  We are both disappointed.

10:15am – I set my coffee down somewhere to be rediscovered 3 hours later.  It’s like a fun game.  While the girls snack, I hang up a load of laundry to dry and am rewarded by a bed heaped with dried clothes to be sorted and put away.  Laundry is a vicious cycle.  I contemplate whether I should make the girls put their clothes away now or later/tomorrow.

10:20am – I go back to the living room to make them put away clothes and see that Juliana is reading a book to her sisters on the couch.  This is a wonderful stage of development.  She has the ability to entertain and educate her sisters without any help from me!  Everyone is sitting together quietly.  Nobody is fighting.  Quick, take a picture!
A moment of peace and harmony - I didn't even stage this picture.  I'm saving it as proof that this is possible.
10:35am – Much as I enjoy the spontaneous reading time, I know Juliana could read all morning if it means avoiding math. I send an unwilling Juliana to the other room with her math book.  Adalyn sits down to work on her computer math games.  She has just finished the kindergarten level and is starting the first grade level!  She certainly does not get her math skills from me.  Juliana pauses to “help” Adalyn every other minute, so 35 minutes later she finally finishes her one section of math problems.

11:10am – Juliana works on writing about a trip she has taken.  She talks about it for 5 minutes, then writes down one sentence. 
Me: “See all these lines on the page?  They are there because you are supposed to write on them.”

11:25am – While Juliana works on writing and spelling words, Adalyn climbs on my bed to read aloud to me.  She is so proud of being able to read her own little books. I haven’t actually taught her to read.  Somehow she has just picked it up. 
Nadia climbs up beside us and peers at the page.  “Those two words are the same,” she says, pointing at two words that are in fact the same.  I am super surprised and impressed.  “They are!  Which word is the same as this one?  What about this one?”  She easily identifies them.  It’s possible she is a child genius.
Adalyn gets annoyed at Nadia interrupting her.  Juliana comes in to remind me how boring spelling is and does she really have to do it?

We have since bought a portable desk for Juliana, and the little girls use a small table.  Or the floor, the couch, my bed, the kitchen table...We don't really have a designated homeschool space.
11:45am – Nadia has started her pre-lunch meltdown but I am determined to squeeze in science.  Today we are learning about hearing.  The girls are all interested in science because the book has lots of colorful pictures.   I didn’t feel like doing the proposed experiment using a balloon, so I quickly throw together my own activity.  For some reason I don’t understand, that seems easier than getting out a balloon.
I give the girls each a little “hearing test” by tapping a xylophone. Despite their claims about not hearing whenever I call them for clean-up or bedtime, they all appear to have good hearing.  The girls close their eyes and guess the noises I am making with different objects.  They all think this is a fun game.

12:10pm – Nadia starts crying again, and the girls decide on which version of bread and peanut butter to eat for lunch.   I look over my plan for the day to check how far we have gotten.  Never quite as much as I hoped but not too bad either.

I think the girls actually learned something this morning.  I definitely wonder at times.  My brain feels fried after all the chaos and divided attention. But then Juliana spends an hour reading on the couch, or Adalyn starts solving multiplication problems (who is this child??), or Nadia does an uncanny imitation of my teacher voice.

Being solely responsible for my children’s education can be daunting at times, but apparently my efforts plus their brains equals learning.  Some days, we all even enjoy it.

Friday, May 3, 2019

God is a Thumbdrive (and other childhood theology)

Whenever I doubt that I am teaching my kids good theology, we have conversations that completely confirm my doubts:

Nadia (3) picks up a thumb-drive...
Nadia: What's this?
Me: It's a thumb-drive.
Nadia: Is that God?
Me: What? I don't understand. How is it God?
Nadia: I can see God in it.
Me: Umm, okay. How can you see God in it?
Nadia: Because it came from God.Me: Well, no. It's a thumb-drive.
Nadia: Can you drive with it?

Adalyn (3) from the bedroom…
Adalyn: I need my blanket on!!
Juliana: Ask God to help you.
Adalyn: I need my blanket on!!
Juliana: God, I pray that you would put Adalyn’s blanket back on.
Adalyn: GOD NOT’S HERE!!

Juliana (2)…
Me: Jesus is here, we just can’t see him.
Juliana, looking around the room: Oh, he’s hiding??

Juliana (3)...
Me: Jesus loves us even when we don’t love Him.
Juliana: Like I love you even when I’m mad at you?
Me: That’s good.
Juliana: Well, actually I don’t.

Juliana (3) appears at the top of the stairs by herself…
Me: Juliana, you know you aren’t supposed to climb the stairs on your own!
Juliana: I wasn’t alone. Jesus was with me. I wasn’t scared.

But my favorite, which makes me think my kids are doing okay:

Adalyn (3.5): God is the strongest ever and has a big heart

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Other Normal Place

The view washing dishes at our friends' house.  We go down this road almost every day.  On clear days we can see the nearby mountains in the background.
 The first thing I noticed was the attention we attracted.  We had no sooner exited the international terminal than the sidelong glances and outright outright stares.  People shoved their children in our direction saying, “Look!  Foreigners!  Speak English – say hello.”  As we walked past we heard all the usual, “How cute!  Pretty girls!  They are like foreign dolls!”  People peered into the girls’ faces and took cell-phone photos.

As we boarded our last flight, Nadia was having a breakdown, understandable at hour 20 of travel.  “Mooom, people are staring because she is crying,” Juliana hissed.  “I think they are probably staring because we are the only foreigners around,” I replied.

What surprised me in the first days back was how normal everything seems.  I noticed the differences more, as I remembered how different everything is from America, but it is still familiar.

Bouncing along in our 三轮车 (three wheeled electric cart), we passed the water truck watering the roads while blasting out a cheery chorus of “It’s a small world after all.”  A dozen vehicles almost ran into each other or pedestrians without a single actual accident.  Passersby watched us and exclaimed all the usual, “Foreigners!  How cute!  They look like foreign dolls!”  The streets teemed with people – walking down sidewalks and on the road, weaving through on bicycles and motorbikes, bouncing along in their own three wheelers, and driving their new, meticulously clean cars.

Everywhere we go, people ask, “Are these three all yours?  Three girls? Girls are good.”  Then, “Do you want another one?  A boy is good!”
We are grateful to stay at our friends' apartment while ours looks like this
We parked our 三轮车 at the bottom of our apartment building and climbed up to the 5th floor.  Climbing stair felt more familiar to our minds than our bodies – we were out of breath by the top.  The apartment looked very familiar but also very messy.  The entire living room was piled with boxes, furniture, and pieces of wood that will once again become beds.   The girls played some game involving jumping up and down from the kitchen counter, while Kevin and I moved some furniture and discussed which areas needed intensive bleaching.  This will begin our 5th year in the same apartment – a record by far!
The girls played some kind of game that involved jumping on and off our kitchen counter
We stopped for noodles at our favorite noodle shop, and the owner remembered our “usual” order from a year ago! The noodles tasted just as good as we remembered.  It feels good to be remembered, not just as one of those foreigners, but recognized for ourselves and for our noodle preferences.

With less fondness we were re-aquanted with the pollution that dims the sun and conceals the nearby mountains.  Our first two days included the one water and two power outages.  I remembered the need for frequent laundry – tricky without power or water.  But at the end you are rewarded with a washing machine rendition of "Jingle Bells."

Has it really been a year since I hung wet clothes on a laundry porch and took down the stiff, dry clothes?  I remembered the dust and dirt that cover the girls’ clothes if they so much as step outside.  Of course, they rarely step outside without sitting/climbing/crawling/rolling on something.

Daily we remind our kids, “No shoes in the house! Don’t flush the toilet paper. Don’t rinse your mouth with the sink water. Don’t lean out of the 三轮车.  It is supposed to be nighttime, you need to try to sleep.”

We remember the generosity of friends here.  They have let us stay in their apartment while we prepare our own.  They made us bread and stocked us up with the basics like yogurt, bananas, and peanut butter.  They have invited us for meals.  We have had conversations about things many outside our circle wouldn’t understand but that effect us all deeply.

I feel a deep sense of community and also a sense of isolation.  We are surrounded by millions of people who are all the same (not really of course, but more than you may think) and all different from us.  However much we may try to fit in we will always and forever be obviously different, as we are reminded by every stare we receive and every piece of bread that we eat.  It is tiring, sometimes, being so foreign.

I sense an intangible heaviness, much more apparent after being away for a while.  It is a hard place to live, harder in some ways that we realize.  The heaviness becomes a part of us, a weight we forget influences our everyday lives.  But in that heaviness, more than ever we cling to the rock that is higher.  We know we need strength greater than our own.

Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) I find it easy to focus on the hard stuff.  “These 24 hour trips are ridiculous.  Other people don’t have to do that.  Poor us without our dishwashers or pre-washed vegetables.  Why are we constantly saying goodbyes to friends around the world?”

But I also feel a lot of gratitude.  How great is it to think about all the wonderful people we know in Georgia and California and China and many other places around the US and the world!  Everywhere we go we meet new awesome people.  It is enough to give you faith in humanity.  We live this crazy life of hoping from one side of the globe to another with a mere 24hr trip.  We leave one normal world and another familiar world is waiting for us on the other side.
Re-aqcuanting ourselves with some favorite dishes

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Transition is complicated. Kind of like spinach.

“So how do you feel about going back?”

It’s a reasonable question, and I appreciate people asking.  It’s also one of those stupidly difficult ones, like, “Where do you live? Do you love China? Do you love America?”

Almost exactly a year ago I sat in a hotel room in limbo between our life in China and our year in America, and I wrote about the equally hard question, “Are you excited about going back to America?”  I didn’t know how to answer that one either.

How do I feel about going back?  I’d say I feel all the things. If I were an emoji I would have at least three heads: wailing head, smiling head, stress head. Stress over packing and trying to get all of our prescriptions in time.  Grief over saying goodbyes and leaving this place where we have settled for a year.  Grief for the goodbyes and transitions my kids have to go through again and the difficulties they will face.  Anticipation of getting settled back into our own familiar space where we lived for four years.  Anxiety over how much our community and the environment of our city has changed in the last year.  Eagerness to see friends we have missed.

I am a pre-griever.  I feel all the sadness before something happens, dreading the coming change.  I have been known to feel sad about Juliana going away to kindergarten and to college at the same time.  My pre-grieving knows no bounds.  But once the dreaded event occurs, it is easier.  Once I get on the plane, I can focus on what is ahead.

I also know that adaptability is not one of my strengths.  When I face going anywhere, I always think, “Or we could just stay here...”  It doesn't help when the first step is 30 hours of travel. I like the familiar and have very low desire for adventure.  Maybe in spite of or because of living in China, I love stability and routine and everything staying the same.  Fortunately I have been through enough transition to have gained a self-awareness.  I never want to leave, but when I get there it will be okay.  Right now everything seems up in the air and the room is cluttered with suitcases, but one day soon we will be settled again.

When I think about going back, what I look forward to most is the familiarity.  I think of our apartment and how it will look once we have everything unpacked and organized.  I think of our friends who are still there, ones that we know and understand, and who will understand all the feelings that come with transition.  I think about the familiar roads we drive down every day, and about the familiar faces – the fruit seller, the restaurant owners, the neighbors.

When we have been in China for a while, I will think, “I cannot imagine living in America.  What would that even be like?  What would it be like not to live here?  This is our life.  This is normal.”  But in those first days back, I know I will look around at the dull gray skies and the dull gray buildings and wonder, “Why are we here?  Why is everything ugly? Why would we choose this?”  It takes a while to notice the glimpses of beauty.

Similarly, when I first get back to America I always think, “This place is crazy.  I cannot imagine living here.  Look at the size of these houses! How much everyone thinks they need to own!  Why are there so many choices??”  But after so long in America – a full year – I think, “It’s pretty nice here. I could get used to this.  We could settle in and our kids could go to school, we could keep going to our church, we could drive around in a van and fill up a closet.”

So there is always an inner conflict.  America is so in-your-face prettier and easier and bigger and has ten options of anything you could ever want.  China has to grow on you.  Everything is harder but also simpler.  In China, I would love to buy one of those pre-washed bags of spinach and skip the whole process of “wash with soap, rinse really well until the water is no longer dirty, rinse with drinking water, dry completely and use in the next day before it wilts.”

But there is also something wholesome about stepping into the tiny vegetable shop or bending down over the blanket of vegetables along the side of the road.  In the middle of the city, there is something grounding about spinach covered with dirt, a reminder it came out of the ground not a factory.  It was probably carted into the city on one of those incredibly loud banging tractors and sold by the farmers, directly to us or to the vegetable shop.  And I probably bought it for 40 cents.

So my feelings about China are kind of like spinach.  I miss the ease and convenience of sanitized spinach in a fancy container inside a ridiculously clean supermarket, but I also enjoy the connection I feel through my dirt-covered spinach sold in a cold, cramped vegetable hut by the same person I see every time, who tells me if my kids are wearing enough clothes or not.

In fact, maybe this will be my new analogy.  “How do I feel about going back to China?  Well it's complicated; kind of like spinach."

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

One Word for 2018: Restore

I have never been into New Years Resolutions. In lieu of resolutions, a few years ago I jumped on the One Word bandwagon, where you choose one word you want to define the year. Some of my words have worked out great and ended up being a very meaningful theme of the year, like the Year of Grace. Other years did not turn out at all like I hoped.

I had a word in mind at the beginning of the year, but I didn’t ever fully commit. For one thing, we were in the middle of moving and transitioning back to the US for a year, and I had a few other things to think about. I also felt reluctant to commit myself to something that I wasn’t sure would happen. The word I flirted with was “restore,” but it was more of a hope than a resolution.

We spent this year in the US with the specific purpose of seeking healing and restoration, and we were committed to actively work toward this end. We attended a debriefing and renewal retreat that got us started in digging deeper into how we got to this place of depression, sickness, and burnout.

We saw dozens of doctors about various medical complaints, some we had put off for many years. I found a psychiatrist and began regular counseling, both a first in my years of depression and anxiety. Kevin had a break from the stresses of teaching and dealing with challenging school situations. In the fall I had a break from home schooling, and family provided a lot of help with the girls.

We were not passive in our quest for health. But at the beginning of the year, I had trouble believing that any of these things would actually make a difference. In the midst of depression, it is so hard to believe you CAN get better. When something is wrong inside of your mind, what can you do outside that would possibly heal you? We were so worn down after surviving for so long, we couldn’t see what doing well would look like.

It has been a slow process. I came back to the US this year thinking I was over depression, only to discover that wasn’t true at all. I reluctantly began to understand that depression will very likely always be a part of my life - hopefully something I will be able to manage well, but never something I can ignore.

I asked my psychiatrist if I would always need to be on antidepressants and she said, “Well, it depends. Do you want to go back to feeling like you did before?” Hmm. I really wanted to be a person who could stop taking medicine and be all better. It takes a mindset change to accept that for me, this is a chronic illness. But I also feel more hopeful. In understanding my depression I can give myself permission to get the help I need. I can open myself to the possibility – through medication and prioritizing mental health – that I really can do well.

This year we have enjoyed amazing physical health. Well, Kevin had a couple of hospitalizations. That was not amazing. He avoided the majority of the last couple of years of sickness, so this year was probably worse for him health-wise. And we had the usual sicknesses, but compared to the last few years it was pretty amazing. We had long stretches of time when everyone was healthy. Our bodies finally had the chance to recover enough to rebuild our immune systems. And nobody got pneumonia!!

We are not completely healthy and mentally stable and perfect, unfortunately. We have spent the last couple of weeks of the year with sickness and asthma flare-ups. Sickness is always discouraging, but it is part of life, not necessarily the start of another season of continual sickness. We are still striving to function better as a family.

However, looking back to where we were at the beginning of 2018, we have come a long way. Slowly, over time, we have built up the inner resources that were so depleted. We can look on the challenges and stresses that will face us in China and still want to return.

When I look toward 2019, I have no idea what it will be like. I’ve stopped trying to predict the future. We are setting plans in place for how to operate better in China. We are prepared to do what is in our power to stay healthy. We also know how much is outside of our control. It’s hard to live very long in China without adopting a somewhat fatalistic mindset.

I can’t see what the future holds, but I can look back and see where we have come. I picture Samuel, setting up an Ebeneezer stone and declaring, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” We did as much as we could, but in the end the restoration was not in our hands. We can look back and see God was faithful to bring it about. We can walk into the new year with confidence, whatever it holds, knowing the Lord goes ahead of us and will continue his work of restorations.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Oddly Missing Christmas in China

“Christmas this year didn’t feel quite like Christmas,” Juliana said last night before bedtime.
“What do you mean?” I asked
“We didn’t get to see any friends.”
“Well, Christmas is usually a holiday you spend with family, not so much with friends.”
Juliana responded, “We do. In China. I miss Christmas in China.”

I was struck by her response. I had an idea in my head of what “normal” Christmas is like. Christmas is family time. Except in China, we aren’t with family. We do spend our Christmas with friends. And if  5 of your 8 Christmases have been spent in China, naturally your version of normal is a little different.

This exchange also struck me because I was feeling the same way. I have only spent 9 out of 35 Christmases in China, so my view of “normal” is still pretty American. But those 9 China Christmases have taken place over the last 13 years, and we have developed our own new normal.

Still, who wouldn’t love extra Christmas celebrations with many more presents than normal? Christmas programs and Christmas lights and Christmas music on the radio. The month of December becomes Everything Christmas.

In China, we miss Christmas in America. We miss the resources to make all kinds of Christmas cookies. We miss stores decorated for Christmas and selling at least some classy Christmas decorations. We miss candlelight Christmas Eve services. We miss Christmas morning with family and stockings over the fireplace.

This year in America, I found myself oddly missing Christmas in China. For starters, the whole month of November becomes Everything Christmas and that is just morally wrong. By the time you should even be starting to think about Christmas, you feel kind of over it.

There are so many Christmas activities – performances, parades, services, visiting Santa (which we didn’t actually get around to), Christmas craft days, Christmas parties – it’s fun to experience and also a bit overkill. It bombards you at every turn. It is not something you make happen – it happens to you. It sweeps by you in a flurry of busyness.

Christmas in China is whatever you make it to be. There is no pressure to do all the Christmas things because they don’t exist. We do lights and make cookies because that feels like Christmas. We light our advent wreath. Every year I try unsuccessfully to make our tree not look tacky. We Skype with family. We gather with teammates for a potluck and gift exchange.

We don’t drive past houses strung with lights (we also don’t pass any houses, so there’s that). We string our own lights inside our apartment windows and enjoy knowing that our neighbors will see them, the only lights around. We don’t listen to Christmas music on the radio, partly because our little three-wheeled electric cart is conspicuously missing a sound system. But at home we do listen to our favorite Christmas albums on the computer.

We make wrapping paper out of decorative book-covering paper. Last year when I bought an interesting variety of paper from the stationary shop, the owner excitedly pointed out to another customer - “She is buying paper for Christmas presents!” I have even wrapped presents in pillowcases and scarves or out of pretty, recycled shopping bags, which is very eco-friendly and also convenient when that’s what you have.

We celebrate St. Lucia Day, in honor of our own Lucia and of our Norwegian friends. We dance around the Christmas tree, remembering this special tradition shared by our Norwegian and Scottish friends years ago when our children were very small.

Some years, we have our own candlelight service. It much simpler and smaller than the polished mega-church variety we attended this year. We sit around a living room with a small group of other people who become our overseas family, children crawling around, maybe some fireworks going off in the background, singing to music from YouTube. It is anything but polished, but in spite of or because of that, somehow it is wonderfully meaningful. So yes, I guess normally we do celebrate Christmas with friends.

I don't want to idealize Christmas in China, because it is often very hard. December is a dark, cold month. It always seems to be a difficult time of year, often filled with sickness and discouragement.  We wish we could be near family and attend Christmas activities.  We feel jealous of everyone celebrating what appears to be picture-perfect Christmases.

We had lots of Christmas this year, more than usual in every way. We got to be with family and do Everything Christmas. We enjoyed it, it was just...different.  This is just the way it is - nothing will be quite normal again, as we split our life and affections between two different worlds.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

You Might Have Been in America Too Long When...

We have now been back in the America for over 10 months. 10 months! That is by far the longest we have been here since we got married 11 years ago. When you spend that much time in your own country, you start adjusting your behaviors and expectations, until America starts to seem pretty normal.

You know you have been in America too long when…
  1. You say, “I don’t really feel like Mexican food today.”
  2. You find yourself drinking ice water – IN THE WINTER.
  3. You start to take closets for granted.
  4. Burger King is not the best burger you’ve had all year.
  5. You send your child to school in one layer when there is frost on the ground, and nobody even scolds you.
  6. You don’t even stop in the cereal aisle.
  7. You complain that the door locks aren’t working...in your temperature controlled, shock-absorbing, faster than 30mph, fully enclosed and locking CAR.
  8. You don’t go into fast food and gas station bathrooms thinking, “This is so much nicer than my bathroom.”
  9. You think that drive thru and grocery pickup and prepaid mailing labels are quite normal.
  10. You stop wondering what the neighbors will think, because you don’t have a couple hundred of them seeing and hearing all the screaming through windows, walls, and floors.
  11. There is only one Chinese person at the park who is eyeing you...because there is only one Chinese person at the park.
  12. Nobody comes up and awkwardly asks you in English, “Hello! Are you American?” but you go up to the Chinese person at the park and awkwardly ask in Chinese, “Hello! Are you Chinese?”
  13. It seems normal to have so much stuff you need an attic, a basement, and/or a storage shed in the backyard.
  14. You start to take for granted that you can send your kids off to school where someone keeps them all day and is responsible for making sure they learn everything – for FREE!
  15. Your kids get super excited about rice and even more excited about jiaozi (potstickers).
  16. You start thinking of all these ways you will HGTV and Container Store your apartment when you get back.
  17. Your kids have twice as many toys and yet somehow still have less than most of their friends.
  18. You feel annoyed when it takes a minute for the water to heat up in the sink, even though you have hot water in the sink.
  19. You take for granted the DISHWASHER.
  20. You stop noticing when other parents take their babies out shockingly under-dressed.
  21. You start getting all paranoid about safety, even though your kids have probably never been safer in their lives (school shootings not-withstanding).
  22. You don’t eat avocado every day.
  23. Your family hasn’t flown, even domestically, in NINE months.
  24. You think it’s a pain to drive 45 minutes to get immunizations, even though in the past you have taken 24-48 hour round-trips to get immunizations.
  25. You start thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be too weird to live in America.
But then you go back to China and everything rights (or possibly wrongs) itself. It all depends on your perspective.