Thursday, November 16, 2017

Life Lessons from Labor

When I think of never going through pregnancy again, I feel So Happy. But I am actually a bit sad about not having another labor. It is such an incredible experience. I have often thought of how helpful those breathing exercises are for every other part of life with children. Then I started thinking about all the other life lessons I learned through labor. Here are some of them.

~ Everyone says, “You will know when it is time. You will know, you will know.” And you will know...but maybe not as soon as you would like. But that’s okay, you don’t have to have it all figured out, even if you have been through this before.

~ Sharing horror stories seems to be part of human nature. Whatever you are about to experience, someone will feel it is their duty to tell you about the horrible thing that happened to them or their cousin’s sister-in-law. Seek out the good stories.


~ Listen to the truth about what is going on inside yourself. Your head may be telling you something different – I shouldn’t feel this way. It is not time yet. This is not how I expected things to be.


~ You may not handle things as well as you thought. That’s okay. How could you possibly have known what you were getting into?


~ Preparation matters. Knowledge matters. Support matters. But sometimes life still happens anyway and there is nothing you could have done to prevent it.


~ Just because things didn’t go according to your plan doesn’t mean they went wrong.


~ Other people will try to tell you how you should feel about your life experience. You should feel happy because “nothing bad happened,” but you still feel heartbroken. You should feel violated because someone else made the decision for you, but you just feel relieved. You should feel pain but you feel joy. You should feel empowered but you feel helpless. Feel what you feel. Find people who will let you feel what you feel.


~ If 1000 people go through the same thing, they will all experience it differently. Live your experience. Don’t compare.


~ You are stronger than you think. So much stronger. You are also weaker than you think, and you can be both at the same time.


~ Sometimes you just need people nearby who can hold your hand and remind you to breathe.


~ When you think too much about what is coming, you may feel your courage failing. Focus back on the moment, back on the most basic elements of life. Breathe in, breathe out, focus with all of your might. This moment is all you need to handle right now.


~ Sometimes you need to be quiet and breathe. Sometimes you need to yell.


~ The deeper you are consumed by the task, the less you care about what people think of you.


~ You have to let go of control and surrender completely to birth something new.


~ Everyone has scars. Some are visible.


~ There are some things you can control. And a whole lot of other things you can’t.


~ There is a time when the line between singing and swearing and praying nearly disappears.


~ Two people can go through the same experience together and feel very differently about it at the end. It was beautiful, it was terrible. It was holy, it was traumatic. It was the best and worst day of life.


~ In the middle of the labor and pain and overwhelm, you may lose sight of what you are even in this for. But when the end comes, it is even better than you imagined.

~ When you finally get what you were waiting for, sometimes you feel joy. Maybe you feel relief, or fear, or unaccountable sadness. Maybe you are so tired you’re not even sure you care anymore. Maybe you feel nothing. That’s okay. It will come.


~ When your whole life changes in an instant, after the hardest day of your life, in the midst of pain and exhaustion, the world expects you to keep right on with life. Hold tightly to your rest. Make space for recovery.


~ When things get really tough, you may forget about the fundamentals of life. Drinking. Moving. Breathing. You don’t need someone to tell you what to do: you need someone to give you a drink, to show you how to move, to breathe with you.

~ When you are going through something really hard, things you wouldn't even notice in normal life can drive you utterly crazy.  Noise, smells, touch, people.  What is helpful one minute might seem torturous the next.  People can't read your mind, so you'll have to let them know.  And try not to bite their head off in the process.

~ You may feel normal and pain-free one moment and doubled over the next. It doesn’t mean that the pain isn’t real, or breathing space between isn’t real.


~ You are the one experiencing all the pain, but realize it can be an exhausting, emotionally trying experience for the people around you too.


~ If what you are trying isn’t working, try something else.


~ If you are too engrossed in the process to think clearly, surround yourself with people who can think clearly and advocate on your behalf.


~ You need someone who has the expertise to handle the problems and complications. You need someone who can show compassion. And you need someone who can just clean up the mess afterwards.


~ Your mind may tell you that you can handle this, but if things are intensifying quickly and your body says this is getting out of control, don’t wait around. Get help. And it’s okay to speed.


~ Pain feels different when you can relax, when you have support, and when you feel safe. Pain does not always equal suffering.


~ When the task seems most impossible, when you are sure you cannot go on, often you are close to breakthrough.


~ The hardest experiences can also be the most awe inspiring.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Excuse Me While I Turn Off The Lights

I am the one going around turning off the lights and turning down the music. I hate using overhead lights. During the day, our apartment fortunately gets enough natural light that we rarely need them. By the time the sun starts to go down, I switch to lamps as soon as possible. The light doesn’t just hurt my eyes; it hurts my sensibilities.

This year I discovered I am highly sensitive.

I had heard people talk about being highly sensitive, but since I didn’t really understand what that meant, I didn’t think it applied to me. I’m not that sensitive. I don’t cry all the time. Which is true. But that’s not really what it means to be a highly sensitive person.

A highly sensitive person (HSP) is one who processes everything more and is extra sensitive to the subtleties around them. Because they are observing and processing everything, they are easily overstimulated. They also tend to have strong empathy for others, perhaps because they are in tune to others’ moods and needs. Being highly sensitive is not a disorder – there are good and bad things about it. About 30% of the population (around the world and across species) is thought to be highly sensitive.

It is easy for an HSPs to get overstimulated, and when we do we tend to shut down and become less sensitive than others. Lights and noise become unbearable, and we just want to lie down in a dark, quiet room to recover. I think of it as a migraine of the nervous system.

For me, noise is a big stressor. I live with three small, very big noise makers in a country that loves firecrackers, megaphones, and blaring music from competing stores. When Nadia is crying and Adalyn is screaming and Juliana is whining, I feel like my head is going to explode. Last year I often thought the official emoticon for mom-of-three should be an exploding head.

Background noise is very distracting. Trying to talk to someone in a restaurant when the background music is slightly too high and other people are talking nearby is stressful. I have a hard time concentrating and I know I will feel frazzled after a while. A truly loud restaurant, supermarket, or shopping area is hard to handle, and even the humming of the refrigerator is annoying.

When I started reading about being highly sensitive, it was like dozens of lightbulbs going off in my head (which you know, is quite overstimulating). It all made so much sense! It explains why I often get so stressed by normal life things that don’t seem to bother others quite so much. I always feel tired and dazed after going to the supermarket, in China or America. There are so many lights and so many people (here), music, noise, choices, and so much visual stimulation. I find myself staring blankly at a row of vitamins trying to figure out what I came to find (even though I have a list in hand) and how quickly I can get out of there.

I try to keep my home neat and decluttered because I am very easily visually stressed. Of course, since I live with a bunch of very effective mess-makers, my cleaning attempts seem rather futile. Every time I walk into a room I notice the 15 random toys and items on the floor and the papers piled up on the counter. On those rare occasions when the toys are picked up and the surface are clear and the couch cushions straightened, I feel so much more at peace and in control of life.

It also perhaps explains why I love familiarity. There are plenty of places in the world I’d like to see, but I don’t actually want to go to new places. I can’t appreciate them as much as the places I have already been to multiple times. I am fine with eating the same food over and over again. I re-read books more often than I read new ones, and I’ve read my favorite books at least half a dozen times. I listen to the same album of music for months, and I almost always dislike new music – even new albums by my favorite artists – until I am familiar with it.

Life as an HSP can be tiring because your brain is constantly working hard to decode all the little nuances of life. I think of it like functioning in another language/culture. In a Chinese environment, I have to be extra alert, working to understand not only what is being said but what is being implied. What is the cultural context behind this? Are they subtly angry with me? Is there something I am missing? Am I communicating clearly – not only the right words but the right message? This is a little what normal life as an HSP is like, even in your own culture/language.

In reading about highly sensitive people, I understood a huge source of stress that I had been ignoring. I had recognized the burnout, the constant exhaustion and over-stimulation, but I didn’t understand where it was coming from. If everyone else could handle the normal life stimulation just fine and I couldn’t, it must mean that something was wrong with me.

I know my depression and anxiety have a genetic and hormonal component. But I realize they are also exasperated by trying to be something I am not. I am trying to understand myself better – my strengths and limitations and uniqueness, so I can be true to who I am, without constantly comparing myself to others and how I “should be.”

I am learning that I need naps. Partly because I’m tired and have been sleep deprived more years than not. But also because I really need some quiet time, devoid of any sensory input, to make it through the whole day. Fortunately I live in a country that believes in after lunch rest time (as do many countries because they are really smart), so I am also being culturally appropriate.

I am becoming more aware of over-stimulating situations and realizing I will need some quiet time afterwards to avoid immediate irritation and long-term burnout. I am learning that yoga helps in refocusing and coping with the physical stress of over-stimulation. I need to get out of the loud, messy house and walk (with earbuds in so I can pretend there aren’t hundreds of people around). I need to sit in my chair on the laundry porch and decompress. I need a relatively clean house so I don’t feel constantly stressed out by my surroundings. I need moments of peace and quiet for my physical and mental health.

I realize this post is mostly related to the negative parts of being highly sensitive.  It is true that being an HSP is not a bad thing, but I usually have an easier time recognizing my limitations, so I am still learning how to appreciate being highly sensitive.  To be honest, I think I have spent enough time lately in the "overstimulated" state that I haven't been able to tap into the benefits.hig  I'll let you know if I have any great breakthroughs in understanding.

It’s crazy to think that 1 of every 3 people may be highly sensitive. If you suspect you may be highly sensitive, you can take this helpful test here, created by the author of The Highly Sensitive Person. She says if you score more than 14 of 27 you may be HSP. I scored 21, so I guess that’s pretty definitive.

I read a couple of related useful books and articles this year.
1. The Highly Sensitive Person – this was a real eye-opener in explaining what it meant to be highly sensitive - and that it wasn’t a bad thing. I loved the book initially but as it wore on I got a little bit annoyed because the author is just so sensitive. Not being very emotionally sensitive, this got on my nerves. She talks about how being highly sensitive effects childhood, jobs, and relationships, but the section on parenting was laughable. Seriously half a page which said, “Many HSPs choose not to have children. But if you do, you’ll probably be a good parent.” Um, thanks. That’s so helpful. Fortunately I found a few other blogs that were much more helpful (see below).

2. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking – (You could probably find this at the library) This book was more about introverts than HSPs, although she does talk about HSP’s as well. I highly recommend this one to anyone who is an introvert or knows one (so yes, everyone.) I particularly appreciated the cultural aspect of this – her exploration of western culture (especially Americans’) idealization of the popular, gregarious type. This sounds simple, but it was actually huge for me to recognize that extroversion is a cultural ideal, not a mandate.



3. Abundant Mama has some good articles about recognizing if you are highly sensitive http://www.abundantmama.com/highly-sensitive-mom/ , tips http://www.abundantmama.com/tips-for-highly-sensitive-moms/ , and how it affects parenting http://www.abundantmama.com/highly-sensitive-mom-2/

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Me Too


Trigger Warning: Sexual harassment and assault

It was a stranger on a crowded bus.  A man in a shopping mall.  A “friend” who was a little too free with his hands. I have been lucky.  For me it was just unwanted touches or getting “felt up.”  It was inappropriate comments I don’t even remember clearly because that seemed too “common place.”  It was disturbing and violating, but it was not scarring.

Sometimes I wonder if there are women who have not been sexually harassed in some way or another. Some of these things are seen as so ordinary we view them as just part of the life experience, as if the stranger on the street has a right to make unwanted sexual innuendos because that’s just how guys act.  And nothing happened.  And he was just joking, lighten up.

Yesterday on Facebook I started seeing posts of “me too,”  women sharing that they had experienced sexual harrassment or assault in an attempt to bring light to the pervasiveness of the issue.  I didn’t think too much about it honestly, because there is always some movement going on in social media. We can’t be aware of everything, okay?

But I was surprised when I started seeing more and more of these statuses from friends and family.  Really, her too?  When I thought about all the people who didn’t post because they don’t use Facebook, or aren’t addicted and on it every day, or don’t feel comfortable sharing about something like that, or don’t feel safe because they are still experiencing some form of abuse, suddenly it was staggering.  All these were normal people living normal lives - students, mothers, teachers, doctors, women in the military, overseas workers.  How did this become so common place?

I’m not sure if it has become more common or if, I suspect, people are speaking up about it more.  Victims of sexual violence or abuse are very unlikely to speak up because of the consequences.    

I thought maybe I was just being too sensitive.  That’s what my “friend” said, “Just lighten up! It’s no big deal.”  I felt very uncomfortable but maybe it was just me. That’s what I thought until I talked to another friend who had had been treated the same way by the same person.  I finally realized, oh it’s not me who is the problem, it’s him.

I was lucky not to be in a high stakes situation.  It was not my boss or my church leader or a family member.  I didn’t have to see the person every day. But still, I didn’t say anything.  It was just “something that happens.” Besides, I had heard what people say.

Be more careful.
Why is she making a big deal about it? She just wants the attention.
Are you sure that’s what happened?
She was probably asking for it.
He wouldn’t do that - he’s a good guy!

Maybe you have never said that to a victim’s face, but if you have talked about another victim in that way, even one you didn’t know, we remember.  We know not to tell you.

I will try to be more careful.  Not to take a bus? Not to go to a mall? Not to be friends with guys?  None of these things happened in dark alleys or nightclubs. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but I can assure you it wasn’t seductive.  

And you know what, it’s not about the clothes or the makeup. Wearing a short skirt is not saying, “Come and act like my body belongs to you.” In no language is too much eyeliner code for, “Please abuse me.” Flirting may be an invitation to flirt back; it is not an invitation for date rape. The very nature of harassment, assault, and abuse is something that is not wanted, not asked for. It is a violation. We must Stop. Blaming. The. Victim.

When I am not sure if I am overreacting about a gender issue, I generally find it clarifying to ask, “What if this happened to a man?” In what world has anyone ever said to a man, “You didn’t have a shirt on so what did you expect?  Of course she grabbed your crotch.  She just couldn’t help herself.”  Who would ever say, “Dude, you had an inappropriate saying on your shirt, or you made a inappropriate joke - didn’t you kind of expect to get raped?”  “You put your arm around her shoulder - naturally she thought that meant she could touch you wherever she wanted.  You can’t just turn a girl on like that and then decide you are uncomfortable.”

Can you hear how crazy these statements are?  These are the things said to your sister, your wife, your friend, your daughter.  These are the ideas we too often accept.  We have a president who graphically talked about wanting to assault a woman, talked about taking advantage of women, and called it all joke.  And we elected him anyway.  (Yes, before you go there, I know about Clinton.  If you remember, we were horrified and impeached him.)

Sure, I could be making it up.  Maybe I just misunderstood. But I am trying to understand in what situation is it okay for a stranger to grab a woman’s breast?  Why does a friend or even a boyfriend have the right to treat a woman’s body like it belongs to him?  How can we possibly justify a counselor or a pastor taking advantage of the person coming to him for help?

I have been fortunate because I learned that women should speak up for themselves, not that women should be kept silent. I learned that women were equals with men, not made to be subjected to them.   I knew enough good - and respectful and self-accountable - men and enough strong women.  I knew this wasn’t just “the way men are.” They don’t all abuse their power. They can practice self-control. They can be respectful.  They don’t get to blame their actions and choices on others. We should not demean men by expecting so little of them.

I know this post is a little angry.  You know what, I don’t know how to talk about this topic without a little anger.  Less for myself and more for my friends and family members and so many innocent children who have been harassed and assaulted and abused.  Think about your daughter, your sister, your mother.  If you saw her being abused, would you laugh?  Would you blame her?  Would say she was overreacting?  I hope to God you wouldn’t.

The next time you hear of another woman being harassed, imagine it was your daughter, it was your sister, it was your mother. Because probably, it was.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

This Is The Age

I am the first to admit (and complain) that this age is hard.  So hard, so exhausting, so constant. Some days I long for the girls to be older. When Adalyn stops throwing tantrums...When Nadia stops eating things off the floor...When Juliana stops wanting someone with her when she falls asleep every night...
But tonight at bath-time I remembered:

This is the age of rubber duckies and washcloth puppets.  The girls are excited to don their princess towels that fit over their heads like dresses, and Adalyn worries, "Where is Elsa's face and feet?" ("You are Elsa's face and your feet are her feet.")

This is the age of boardbooks and picture books, some torn and chewed and falling apart because they were everyone's favorites (and apparently tasted good too).  I still read the same story over and over at bedtime when Nadia starts for another book, then decides Quiet LOUD deserves another re-read.   Adalyn loves following a little girl through her bedtime routine in My Goodnight Book, asking why we don't do exactly every step the same way.

This is the age of stories and songs and prayers before bed.  It is daddy's rides to bed and the blanket just so, or all the right stuffed animals cuddled around. It is frantic calls from the bedroom - when you just want to finally be alone - to say, "MAMA, I didn't give you a kiss!!"

This is the age of excitment.  New bandaids call for imaginary cuts. A visit from a friend is a good reason to jump up and down.  A carton of yogurt satisfies every need, at least for the moment.  They exult over pumpkins and stickers and anything new.  They rush to be the bearer of good news, "Juliana we are eating MAC AND CHEESE for lunch!!"

This is the age of peanut butter sandwiches.  Gallons of peanut butter smeared across bread and jelly spread too liberally by a young hand.  It is making lunch special with "double decker sandwiches" or making lunch exactly the same every single day.  It is "girled cheese," which we know means a piece of bread with cheese on top, microwaved just enough to be fully melted but not too bubbly.


This is the age of songs - endless requests to listen to Moana or Capital Kids! or Go Down Moses.  At bedtime it is "Daddy, sing a made up song that's not true about a Yes."  At school time it is Nadia requesting "JEEEEE," bobbing her head and clapping enthusiastically to "Jesus Loves Me."  On the road it is Juliana singing the same line over and over until it is stuck in your head for all eternity.

This is the age of simple problems.  Adalyn called me booty! Nadia is sitting on my drawing! Juliana won't let me play with her!  Why do I have to clean up my toys every night - I do everything around here!  The stool is not pulled out far enough at the sink, the soap is too far away, the counter is too cold to lean against, you are always making me wash my hands and you are RUINING MY LIFE!

This is the age of hugs in the morning and joy when you return home.  It is, "Mama, you are the best mama ever," and "WHY does daddy have to go teach? I just want him to stay here." It is nose kisses and imploring arms and let me poke my finger in your belly button just one more time.  It is love so intense it clings and wraps and holds on because it cannot imagine life without you.

And yes, it is the age of tantrums and sleeplessness and neediness and screaming. It is the age of toddlers crying at your feet while you try to cook dinner.  It is whining and bickering and crying  and did I mention screaming? It is putting a blanket back on, or finding a pacifier, or making trips to the bathroom, or sitting through night terrors, or putting that stupid blanket back on again, every single night.

But we get duckies and boardbooks and so many giggles.  We get bright eyes and smiles at 6:30am.  We get soft cheeks against ours, little hands searching for our own, little bodies smushed against us for protection and comfort.  We are the miracle workers with all the answers, fixing problems with bandaids and crackers and do-overs.

We see glorious, energetic, confident dances around the living room, because they haven't yet learned to be self-conscious.  We experience all the raw emotions they haven't yet learned to hide.  We glimpse the black and white world as they see it, full of right and wrong and good guys and bad guys, before everything gets confusing. We are peppered with anger, such honest over-the-top anger, and showered with love, given freely and abundantly, as if they could never run out.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Even If

When we returned home in August, our thick winter boots were still by the door, a silent reminder of the last year. I am very easily visually stressed, so I work hard to keep things clean and organized – as much as possible when living with a bunch of people who don’t value clean and organized. But this past year, the chaos in our home reflected the upheaval in our lives.

I got sick at the end of April, when the weather was still cool. By the time I was getting out again nearly a month later, the air was warm but my children were still wearing winter clothes. I hadn’t had the energy to find their short sleeve shirts. When the girls and I left China the first of June, I was barely recovered enough to pack. Putting away winter boots – or picking up the random toys still on the kitchen counter – wasn’t a high priority. A plate of sunflower seeds sitting on the counter, a stack of books piled in the corner of the room, a half eaten package of crackers left on the nightstand – forgotten three months earlier - made our house look rapidly deserted.

We were so comparatively healthy this summer that I was a little nervous about coming back. We had been sick every single day of May, our last month in China, but when we returned to the US we stopped getting sick. I think we had two colds the entire summer. Only two colds in 3 months! As opposed to 1 flu, 1 pneumonia, 2 stomach ailments, 1 cold, 3 fever/viruses, and a head gash in the month of May alone. Would we get sick again as soon as we stepped foot into our apartment?

I am happy to report that since we returned almost 4 weeks ago, we have had had just a couple of colds and some stomach troubles – plus of course ridiculous allergies. We are doing pretty well. I unpacked our American treasures, filling our freezer with coffee and tortillas and our cabinet with dried beans and Mac and Cheese. I organized our medicine cabinet to accommodate all the new medicines we acquired over the summer. I sorted through the girls clothes. I washed at least some of our super dirty windows. And yes, I put away the winter boots.

There is nothing like a horribly unproductive year to make normal life feel wildly productive. I cook dinner (at least sometimes)! I have been able to keep up with laundry. I get outside multiple times a week and have gotten in some semi-regular exercise. I have had enough voice to read Juliana’s home school books aloud. All of these are things that were incredibly difficult for much of the last year.

And yet, I still wonder...even though Nadia is FINALLY (mostly) sleeping, I am always so tired. Life still often seems overwhelming. I get so easily behind. I feel so limited in what I can do outside the home what with all the home school and children, or after 8pm what with all the missing brain cells. Is this all normal, just a part of this stage of life? Will I ever not feel tired and overwhelmed?  Will I always have to work so hard to be happy? Will my children ever stop screaming?

I’d like to think we could just leave the last year behind but past experiences cling to us and shape us for better and worse. This summer a friend said, “This year has been pretty traumatic for you.” It seems so dramatic, but that was exactly how I was feeling. It did feel like trauma, not just from all the sickness, but from the anxiety and depression and helplessness surrounding it.

When I feel a hot forehead...when I lie in bed with a welcome-back-to-China stomach ailment...when I have those weird, dark thoughts...when Adalyn is freaking out and Nadia is wailing - the emotions of the last year come rushing back. This feels so familiar. What if it is all starting again? How will we get through that again?

Believe me, I really want to move on and not relive the last year. We are doing what is in our power to say healthy. Buying a better air purifier, eating more vegetables, making sure exercise happens, taking all the vitamins. We’ve got probiotics and elderberry and essential oils. I am hyper-vigilant to the first sign of sickness.

I am trying to stay self-aware and recognize warning signs of depression, anxiety, and burn out. I am trying to make sure those healthy, preventive habits make it into my daily routine. I grab moments of quiet whenever I can, sitting in the sun on the laundry porch. I have cut out most caffeine 😢😢 but still drink plenty of decaf coffee because it brings out the joy in life. I try to get enough sleep, if there ever can be enough.

But I’ve lived in Asia long enough to be somewhat fatalistic. We do what we can, but there is so much we can’t control. We could do all the right things and still get sick all the time because whatever we like to believe, illness – physical or mental – sometimes happens anyway. Our minds and bodies are much too complex to break down to a simple formula.

We might stay healthy or we might get sick. Happiness may come easily or I may still struggle with the weight of depression (I’m gonna say neither my genes nor my temperament are doing me any favors in that regard). The last year or two was kind of terrible. But we made it through. We learned and grew. In the midst of affliction, I deeply experienced the consolation of God. We made it through - not untouched, but not worsened either. We may look a little worse – or at least older - on the outside, but inside we are deeper, truer versions of ourselves.

When I pin my hopes on things being better, I feel anxiety. What if it isn't better? I could say, “It will be better! Be positive!” But my pessimistic self isn’t so easily persuaded. So I lay aside the pep talk and honestly ask, “What if it doesn’t get better? What if we get sick? What if my depression hangs around?”

If that happens, we will make it through. We will learn and grow. We will experience the love and grace of God. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in happiness and in depression, wherever the country or calling or season of life – He's in this with us to the very end.

I know You're able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone
(Mercy Me: Even If)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

You Might Be A China Foreigner If...

...an abnormal number of your family pictures were taken in airports

  1. You frequently refer to yourself as “a foreigner.”
  2. When you walk in the house, the first thing you do is shed your shoes.
  3. You have a container of air filter masks beside your door.
  4. Most of your friends have a drawer of reused ziplock bags.
  5. You make home repairs with chopsticks, coat hangers, and random pieces of wood.
  6. Your friends think your home repairs are ingenious instead of trashy
  7. You give and receive cereal for Christmas.
  8. You have carried a stroller, a baby, and groceries up 4-6 flights of stairs.
  9. Taxi drivers frequently ask how much money you make.
  10. You have asked other people about their salary, age, weight, or how much they paid for their belongings
  11. You plan your laundry by how many clothes you can dry on your laundry porch
  12. You have favorite cities from which to browse the internet via VPN (I’m partial to Toronto)
  13. You have at least 25 backup locations for your VPN and routinely go through 3-6 of them trying to get a connection.
  14. People stop in the road, or slow down to drive right next to you, so they can stare at you.
  15. You have ever inadvertently caused a traffic accident because someone was staring at you while driving.
  16. A friend has told you you look fat to your face and doesn't expect you to be offended.
  17. Your children frequently confuse the American and Chinese flags, because they both have some stars.
  18. Some part of your ceiling is crumbling, but then so is everyone else’s.
  19. Your refrigerator is in a room other than your kitchen.
  20. One third of your small freezer space is filled with either coffee or cheese.
  21. You have been criticized for not dressing your baby in thick, padded layers when it is 80*F outside.
  22. Your 1-2 month old baby is met with horror instead of delight - because what are you thinking bringing them outside??
  23. Your “family vehicle” is half the size of a compact car and maxes out at 25mph.
  24. You have ever had a stranger show at your door and try to invite themselves in to hang out with you.
  25. You have ever had a stranger follow you around the supermarket, down the road, or back to your apartment, begging you to tutor their child or teach at their school.
  26. You have ever had a strange guy try to get your phone number - and he wasn’t hitting on you.
  27. A child has ever stopped and stared at you open mouthed or run away screaming.
  28. You have ever looked outside your window and noticed half a dozen new high rise buildings going up.
  29. One of your first thoughts when pregnant is, "What country will we have the baby in?"
  30. Your friends think you are strange for not leaving your baby in another country with the grandparents.
  31. Your unborn baby has ever been complimented on her "tall" nose and foreign features.
  32. You have ever had a doctor call out your weight, lift up your shirt, or discuss bodily symptoms in front of a room full of (fascinated) strangers.
  33. You have been asked why your 1 year old baby is still in diapers.
  34. You choose your clothing based on how well it will survive in the washer, how quickly it will line dry, 
  35. You choose pajamas that are acceptable for your neighbors to see, because at least 50 windows look into your own.
  36. You have an ayi who helps clean your house or babysit your children - amaaaaaazing.
  37. Your ayi loves your family and also thinks you are insane.
  38. Your floor looks dirty 30 minutes after mopping, even though you never wear shoes inside.
  39. You start to wonder if you did get sick because of going barefoot on tile, drinking cool water, or sitting in front of a fan.
  40. Your doctor or nurse has taken pictures with you or your children.
  41. Whenever you travel, you wear your heaviest shoes.
  42. You have ever traveled with a backpack that was heavier than your checked bag…and you weren’t backpacking.
  43. You prefer squatty-potties in public because you don’t have touch anything.
  44. You are shocked and excited to find soap in a public bathroom.
  45. You have ever carried a tiny cup of urine across an entire hospital to the lab.
  46. You have ever rifled through 50 strangers’ lab results to find your own.
  47. You request everyone buy your children small, lightweight toys.
  48. The concept of closets is now a little perplexing to you.
  49. You have a fruit lady, a bike guy, a milk guy, a vegetable lady, and a honey guy.
  50. You buy your meat in the morning before it gets too hot.
  51. Your milk, eggs, noodles, and soup all come in little plastic bags.
  52. Your children will only eat yogurt if it comes through a straw.
  53. When you have been to a restaurant the waitresses have “borrowed” your baby to show around - leaving you with free hands for eating!
  54. You have biked in a skirt or holding an umbrella.
  55. You consider any flight less than 6 hours “short.”
  56. You ask your friends questions like, “Where do you find three ring binders? Who is your online cheese seller?”
  57. Your children are photographed by strangers pretty much every day.
  58. There are literally thousands of pictures of your children all over the internet.
  59. Whenever you go to a tourist attraction, tourists are as interested in you as the famous site.
  60. You have ever gotten your picture in the paper for wearing short sleeves before May 1st.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

What You Can Fit in a 50lb Bag (or Four)

We made six trips to the pharmacy in one day, plus a few more on the following days.  Part of our back-to-China buying frenzy is getting a year supply of all our prescriptions filled.  While we can get all the antibiotics we want in China cheaply and over the counter, other medicines, especially newer ones, are sometimes harder to come by or more expensive. Pharmacists aren’t used to filling a year’s supply of asthma and allergy medicines, so they initially had their doubts, but after a while they got it down. I sometimes forget that most people don’t do things like stock up on a year of medicines.

The other day my friend asked what we take back to China.  She was pretty intrigued by which things we deemed worth hauling across the ocean in carefully weighed 50 lb suitcases.  While so many things are made in China, we can’t find most of the items for export. Here are some examples of what we pack:

Health: Prescriptions and other medicines, vitamins, probiotics, elderberry, essential oils, Emergen-C

After this year of sickness we are trying All The Things.  The pharmacist asked why we don’t just get our medicines in China.  Kevin told him how one of his medicines is $5 for a year’s supply in the States, but about $20 a month in China because we can only find the imported brand-name, not the generic.

My antidepressant is similar - about $5 for a year’s supply here and $20 a month in China. It can also only be found at the mental hospital, conveniently located on the outskirts of the city in a remote location that is difficult to find. Some things are cheaper in China - like the allergy medicine Xyzol which has a generic in China that is 1/4 the price.  But some medicines we’ve never managed to find in China and there is a quality issue as well.

Personal Care: Deodorant, shaving cream and razors, toddler toothpaste

Deodorant just started to become available in some stores, but not many Chinese people wear it.  It is also uncommon for girls to shave (we need to get back on this bandwagon!), and since Chinese men rarely have beards, shaving cream and razors are less expensive here. Once when Kevin bought a beard trimmer another person in the shop asked what it was.  The shop attendant said, “Oh, it’s for shaving your baby’s head.”  Because they typically do that, believing it helps the hair grow back thicker.

Clothes: Hand-me-downs for the girls, shoes for everyone, clothes Kevin and I need

I buy some clothes for the girls online in China but I long ago gave up on shopping for myself.  I find shopping stressful anyway, and it’s depressing when you have to buy 3-4 sizes larger than normal. Kevin has to get all his clothes here as well. We always buy our shoes here since our feet are too big.  I can buy the girls’ shoes online, but they are usually not good enough quality to last through more than one child.  This summer I bought two pairs of shoes just for myself, which is a bit much for me.

My most ironic clothes purchase this year came from a consignment shop.  My grandmother took me shopping to pick out some things for Christmas past and future. I was amazed at how heavy some of the dresses were.  Definitely not going to make the cut.  I decided to buy a pretty green dress.  It wasn’t until I went to wash it I discovered the tags were all in Chinese!  So I came to America and bought a second hand dress someone had brought from China!

Food and cooking supplies: Dried beans, tortillas, spices and herbs, nutritional yeast, bullion, cream soup, marinara sauce…

We can find some of these things online or at an import store but they are often pretty expensive. I like cooking with beans and we can get some dried beans (not canned) around, but I  have discovered our black beans are super dry and it’s worth bringing some over.  I have usually used Chinese “chicken essence” but I decided to try a bullion that wasn’t filled with MSG.  I discovered most of them in the US are as well!  I can and usually do make cream soups if I need them for cooking, but it’s nice to have a couple on hand if I’m trying to make a quick meal.  We can get spices like cumin and cinnamon - and plenty of crushed red pepper - but not a lot of the others we like to use.

Other: gifts for school leaders and friends, toys and books the kids have acquired, a dozen last minute additions

The girls just had an early birthday party so we packed up their gifts.  This year we decided to bring back a couple of bottles of California wine for (non-Muslim) leaders.  They are quite heavy; we might not do that again.  We also got some Georgia pecans and mini pecan pies, candies, scarves, lotions, and some toys for kids.  Everyone likes “hometown specialties.”
…..

Our bags are packed, ready to be loaded in the morning.  While we could technically bring 8 bags amongst us - and some families we know do bring that many or more - there is no way we could handle that many plus kids, and we wouldn’t have enough room to put 8 bags worth of stuff in our apartment!  I think this is the most we have ever brought though - 3 suitcases and a duffle bag, plus a carry on suitcase, backpack, diaper bag, and kid backpacks. And a stroller.  Yeah, it’s a lot.

The fact that we could fit all those things perfectly into 4 bags is due entirely to my sister Becky and her magical packing skills.  She really does have skills. I basically gather all our stuff in big heaps on the floor and she works it around and packs it so carefully that it all fits.  Not only that, the bags were within a tenth of a pound of the weight limit.  I keep saying she needs to hire herself out.  I for one know quite a number of people who would be interested in utilizing her skills.

I do think I get a little credit though for having/purchasing just the number of things to perfectly fit into our four 50-lb bags. That’s pretty great, right?  We fit in everything I planned to bring!  Either that or I’m forgetting something big.  This seems like a decent possibility.  I feel like I am forgetting something, especially since I lost my “take back to China” lists when my phone died a few days ago.  We’ll hope we end up with everything essential.
Magic, right?

Monday, August 14, 2017

An Unbalanced Force

Sure the trees are nice, but where are all the people??
We are on vacation in the mountains, staying in a beautiful guesthouse for overseas workers. Inside our cabin is comfortable and tasteful; outside the large windows and spacious porch overlook an unobstructed view of green, rolling mountains.

But Juliana was a bit skeptical. “I like our house in China better, don’t you? I like that the kitchen is small, and I like our bathroom because it is small. I like how the laundry porch smells. Don’t you like our China house better?”

I tried to give a diplomatic answer about liking that one because it was our home, but liking this one because it was really nice and pretty. She was not satisfied. In fact, she was offended that we did not come to the defense of our China home. She looked around outside the windows and gave her final complaint.

“There are too many trees. They block the view of all the other people!”

Ah, our social little city-dweller. While we are basking in the natural expanse, she misses knowing there are thousands of people all around. I guess it is all a matter of perspective.

In another week we will return to our China home. I return with mixed feelings. I will be happy to get back into our own space, and I look forward to a predictable rhythm of days. But I have recognized that part of my predictable life rhythm follows the law of inertia. “A [Ruth] at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force.”  An unbalanced force...yes, there seem to be a lot of those in my life, propelling me out of rest and back into transition.

While Juliana is always ready for the next adventure, a part of me never wants to leave where I am. Even if I am looking forward to my destination, I inwardly cringe at the prospect of making another transition. It doesn’t help that there is often a long day+ of travel in the way. But I know this about myself: I do not like change and I do not appreciate the unfamiliar.

The first day in a new place is a shock to the system, as I scramble again to find my bearings. I suspect part of this is related to being highly sensitive. My senses are flooded with too much to take in; I cannot appreciate it until I have a chance to settle down and absorb the small things.

The first day back, I recoil from America. Even as I appreciate the aesthetic beauty, I am turned off by the unconscious affluence and the ridiculous choices. Why don’t people walk anywhere? Why do people have so much stuff? How can their possibly be 50 different types of canned tomatoes??

I wrinkle my nose at the California desert. Dry and lifeless. Who wants a dirt yard and scrub brush “trees”? Don’t they know rivers are supposed to have water in them? But I slowly adjust to the desert, to the different colors, to the beauty of these resilient plants. When we leave, I miss the open sky and the view of sunsets.

Those first days in Georgia, the trees seem to close us in. The sky is so small and the light is filtered through layers of humidity. Even at night the air is warm. I am shocked and a little frightened to see confederate flags on jacked up pickup trucks. What is this world we have stepped into?

But the trees win me over. They always do. Myriad shades of green flutter in the breeze. The whole world is effortlessly covered in life. Bright colored birds flit from branch to branch and deer graze peacefully right in my parents' backyard. The southern drawl soothes instead of irritates. Maybe this is my world after all.

I have returned to China often enough to know what it will be like. My heart will cringe as we land in the Beijing smog. The harshness of language will bruise my ears. The first time I step outside, I will be accosted by smells – pollution, stinky tofu – and noise – horns and loudspeakers and stores blasting competing music. I will dismally survey the gray and rust and faded yellow of ten year old buildings already falling apart. Why do we live here again?

But then I will return to those familiar spaces. The wind will blow the mountains clear, and their rugged peaks will orient me again. When we walk to our little vegetable shop, neighbors will beam and hurry to welcome us back (mainly interested in the girls). I will pile some eggs in a bag and choose from the giant, dirt covered carrots while Juliana runs on the playground, thrilled to be back in the land where there are always friends waiting outside. It will feel right.

If I am patient, I will push through the disorientation and rediscover the beauty in the familiar. Juliana will exalt in our stuffy little bathroom because there is her Strawberry Shortcake towel! And the tiny toilet is just the right height! And remember this little bowl for washing our feet?!

I will step out onto the laundry porch, looking beyond the endlessly drying laundry hung above me, and appreciate the warmth of the sun and the pattern of rainbows the prism scatters on the tile floor. I will settle in the chair next to the bank of windows, momentarily hidden from all the surrounding neighbors and students. I will hear the chatter of birds and the wind rushing through the trees. 

We may not have the variety of birds or trees of Georgia. Our mountain view may be obscured by apartment buildings - and often by smog. But I will remember that the sunset is still beautiful even when I can't see the whole sky. A solitary tree still ripples joyfully in the wind.

In the familiar, I will find balance again. In the balance, I will rediscover the beauty that is already all around.
Our unblocked view of all the people