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 Capitol 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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Shock of Being (Almost) Totally Normal

20 hours down, 10 to go
The first day back in America I think, “The trip was too short.”  Believe me, I this is NOT a thought I have at hour 20 of the trip with 10 more hours to go. But while 30 hours seems like a long trip with three kids in tow, it also seems like such short a time to hop between worlds.

We get on the plane in Beijing and we get off the plane (or another plane) in Los Angeles or Atlanta in a completely different world.  The world seems too big, encompassing too many worlds. Or perhaps it is too small, enabling us to jump from one world to another in a long day’s time.

Walking through the airport, suddenly we are normal. There are so many different kinds of people that we could be almost anyone and still blend in. No one is staring at us, our white family with three little girls. Why would they stare, when there are lots of people who look like us, are the same size and shape as us, even wear the same kind of clothes as us? Three children is absolutely unremarkable.

We can understand what other people say.  It is easier to tune out Chinese speakers (unless they are yelling into a cell phone) because I have to consciously pay attention to understand.  Now I overhear dozens of conversations, and my brain tunes in because it hears English. I have to think more carefully about what I say because everyone can understand me.

Everyone gets into their own cars and drive down the road.  Of course everyone has a car. How could you survive in a spread out city like Atlanta or LA without a car?  Everyone has a car with car seats, and no one seems to have wooden-runged seat covers.

We drive past so many western restaurants.  In fact, they don’t even call them western restaurants, just “restaurants.” You can eat pizza or hamburgers or burritos and everybody thinks that’s a totally normal thing to do. You can go right through the drive through, since nobody wants to get out of their cars.

You can stop in the bathroom and there is toilet paper right there on the wall! The sink is equipped with soap and even free paper towels for drying your hands. “Don’t worry - we just give away toilet paper and paper towels. No biggie.” Want to buy a ginormous Coke the size of your small child?  No problem! So is everyone else!

The houses are huge. Even the normal sized houses.  I feel strange showing students pictures of our family houses sometimes, because they must think we are incredibly rich.  Most are single family homes, separated from everyone else. Even if you live in a neighborhood, you may only see a dozen homes from your window.  As opposed to say, hundreds right across from you.

The houses are filled with things like closets. Not just closets, but entire room-sized closets.  Bedroom closets and hall closets and entry way closets. Sometimes I’m going to have to tell our Chinese friends about the closets. They wouldn’t believe it. Not only closets, but also basements and attics.  No wonder why we have so much stuff - we have to fill up all that storage space!

Most houses have multiple bathrooms.  Most people wouldn’t dream of sharing one small bathroom with their entire family plus guests. People have whole upstairs portions of their house not even seen by guests. I realize I have seen the entirety of almost everyone’s China house, generally visible from the living room. Our students know what we eat, what shampoo we use, and how clean our bedroom is. There are no secrets.

Kitchens are huge (huge) and filled with all manner of convenience. Pots and pans and bowls of all sizes. (But no rice cooker or electric water boiler - I can’t get over that). Pantries are filled with cereal and full loaves of bread, refrigerators are filled with cheese and shoot ice right out of the door!  Ice, people!  This would be so mystifying in China.

Most houses have backyards. At this point in life, my sin of covetousness pretty much revolves around backyards. And maybe dishwashers, avacados, and boundless energy. But mostly backyards.  You literally just walk right out your door and you are outside. Boom. You don’t even have to put shoes on.

“Hey kids, run play outside. You don’t have to worry about cars, and you are close enough I can hear if you are screaming. You can scatter your toys around because you aren’t taking up anyone else’s space. Run through those puddles - get all wet and muddy - nobody will look askance. Ride your bike around - there is no one to run you over.”

You hop on an airplane and 30 hours later the things you do make sense. Nobody thinks you are weird for having three children, eating cereal, drinking cold water, letting your kids get all dirty, wearing flip-flops, using a car seat… In fact, people kind of freak out if you don’t use a car seat. Do you know how weird it is to be normal?

Of course, we still soap up our vegetables and shed shoes the moment we enter a house and speak Chinese to the guy on our flight and wander aimlessly around the grocery store. Our children still confuse the US and China flags and look suspiciously upon ice water and throw toilet paper in the trash and get a little too excited about drinking fountains and mailboxes. So maybe we aren’t quite normal.

Feeling too normal? Just hop on an airplane and thirty hours later everything you do will be weird. That’s good to know isn’t it?  There is a crazy different world waiting just thirty hours away.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

On Minivans, 三轮车's, and Being Totally Normal

Back when we first got our 三轮车
This past week I have been playing at being an American mom. I do feel a bit like a kid playing house. “Hey everyone!  Look at me, driving along in my air conditioned minivan, sipping my coffee, rocking along to annoying kid songs and 80’s and 90’s music. Don’t I look normal? I’m so normal you’re not even looking.”

When I was first adjusting to China, I always felt most in tune with the culture when winding through chaotic traffic on a bicycle. This was back in the day when almost everyone was on bicycles and motorbikes and cars were the definite minority.  
This is what foreigner parking looks like in China!
Even now, bouncing along in our 三轮车 (three wheeled electric cart), driving down the road makes me feel connected.  Our city is full of these carts. Tiny, super slow ones that look like an oversized tricycle with an “old person” seat in the back, pick-up truck sized ones packed high with deliveries, and sometimes ones like ours filled with a family.  Whatever the size, they bounce and jolt and rattle and clank along, bridging the gap between bicycle and car.

Our 三轮车 has been a lifesaver with three kids.  I occasionally did two kids on a bike, but once they get big enough that isn’t too easy - or safe.  I think of our 三轮车 as the equivalent to a van.  We can pile all the kids in the back or fill it up with groceries on my bi-monthly supermarket trips.

But actually I realize, it’s not quite the same thing as a van.  For one thing, it is about half the size of a compact car.  If Kevin is driving, the girls and I can all squeeze onto the benches in the back with our knees touching. We always drive it at full speed, which varies from somewhat faster than a bike to somewhat faster than walking, depending on how many people it is carrying.  And it is bumpy, very bumpy.

While we have pretty successfully winterized our vehicle with a canvas cover for the back and a blanket type drape in the front, it is far from climate controlled.  Long about December, we pile on all our winter gear, reluctant to leave any skin exposed to the 13* wind.  
...but still pretty cold!
As summer heats up in Georgia, I am really appreciating the ability to hop in the car and turn up the A/C.  Driving around in my parent’s super cool minivan, I am not only protected from weather but also from noise and other people.  Granted, there probably wouldn’t be nearly as many people staring at me here (because I am doing such a good job at being normal), but even if they wanted to stare, they’d only get glimpses through the window as we sped past.  Did you know that you can’t even see inside tinted windows?  Crazy, right?  It’s like driving along in your own little private world all the time.

I can settle back in the cushioned seat, listening to music or to the quiet (or more likely to an endless stream of chatter), practically gliding over the road.  I can sip from my coffee conveniently placed in my cup holder right beside me.  This is a big disadvantage of a 三轮车 - not being able to drink coffee while driving.

As a person with a ravenous appetite for quiet, I really appreciate the relative isolation the car can provide.  You could pick up coffee, food, medicine, money, and groceries without even leaving the comfort of your isolation.  Some days I would love not having to interact with the world.

And yet, as we bounce slowly along in our 三轮车, we memorize the little details of our drives.  We wave at our fruit lady at her roadside stall. We pull off to grab a baked sweet potato from the cart.  We swerve in and out of traffic and around holes and sometimes down the wrong side of the road (if that’s a thing), because we aren’t yet confined to the more ordered rules of cars.  

We enter into the fullness of the seasons - like it or not - the bite of winter, the autum crispness.  We smell the air - coal in the winter, flowers in the spring.  Our transportation doesn’t isolate us from our world but connects us to it.  While every day, more and more cars enter the road, the road rhythm of China still follows the tradition of bicycles and motorbikes and 三轮车.

In the dead of winter, covered by hats and scarves and masks, with only a tiny bit of eye showing, we bounce down the road in our 三轮车.  And for a moment, we are almost normal.
Totally normal, right?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Staying Alive

Each semester we fill out a self-reflection form on how different areas of life are going - daily responsibilities, family, interactions with the culture.  The end of the form asks you to complete the sentence, “What I feel best about this semester is…” I said, “…that we are all still alive.”

Honestly, in years like this one staying alive has really felt like a success.

I tend to have high expectations of myself. When I met with some counselors in Beijing last month, they asked me to write a list of my self-expectations as a mom, wife, person living in China. It was an easy homework assignment for me. I quickly typed up a list of very specific things I “should do” as a mom. I stopped when I reached 50 and realized this could go on or a while.

In general, if someone else is doing something healthful, useful, or admirable, I feel like I should be doing it as well. All The Things. Even contradictory things, like eating more meat and less meat. Being more organized and more go-with-the-flow. Having a spotless house and not being bothered by mess. It was helpful to think through these expectations - many of them were good ideas but completely unrealistic.

You know a pretty effective means for lowering your self-expectations? Being really sick and not able to do anything. Even as I have slowly recovered, I’ve had to focus much more on top priorities. Make sure everyone eats something. Make sure everyone has bathed in the memorable past and is wearing some manner of clothing. Dispense medicine.

The main goal has been to keep everyone alive and manage the current sicknesses. Will another day of peanut butter sandwiches and mismatched clothes reach that goal? Yes, it will.

This is what is called “survival mode,” and we have been living here so long I have almost lost sight of normal life. The kind of life where it doesn’t take a month to finally get around to taking out weather appropriate clothing. The kind of life where you don’t have to rest between each activity. The kind of life where your friends don’t greet you with cries of, “You’re alive!”

When I am healthy I can convince myself that maybe my ridiculous expectations are really possible. At least I could do better than I’m doing now. Fix more meals with the right vegetables. Do more creative activities in home school. Make an effort to interact more in Chinese.

When I am sick, when we are all constantly sick, these expectations are not even in sight line. We ate something commonly believed to be food? Excellent. We finally managed a math lesson. Good job. I went outside for a few minutes. Progress!

Of course I don’t want to stay in this sick place. It has been exhausting and relentless and ridiculous. I hardly recognize Nadia when she is healthy because her personality is so different. She runs around giggling instead of clinging to me crying all the time. Last week I looked at a picture of myself from a few years ago and my first thought was, “Wow, I looked so healthy.”

The other day when I was driving down the road I had this strange feeling of being in a foreign country. Apparently there is more to China than the view from my bedroom window. I sat in the heat under the full green trees and wondered what happened to spring. Weren’t the first buds just coming out? I think we were wearing jackets before I got sick, and now we are sweating in front of fans.

It seems like we were just getting into the rhythm of the semester. We had that one great month of health! Now suddenly we are leaving in two weeks and the whole semester seems lost. (But then, it wasn’t that great a semester anyway.)

I realize that many people live in this place. It feels disorienting to me because I don’t usually spend all my time going to hospitals and practicing breathing and trying to stay alive. Despite the constant sickness, we aren’t worried about piles of medical bills or if we will lose insurance. I don’t know how to get out of this sickness cycle, but I am pretty sure that at some point we will get better. We will get back to my vision of “normal life.” This is the privilege of the healthy.

The other day a friend was talking about the sticker charts she was using for her kids. It sounded like a great idea. I want to be organized! I want to do at least a few creative or clever things worthy of Pinterest. Heck, even worthy of a Pinterest fail. I want practically everything in life to work better than it does right now. I want sticker charts!!

But right now sticker charts are completely out of reach. There is no way I will remember to put stickers on charts. I am just trying to remember to brush teeth and get everyone to take their medicines.

The good thing was, as I contemplated sticker charts I wasn’t thinking, “I should do sticker charts. I am such a disorganized mom and my kids are out of control because I don’t do sticker charts,” Instead I was thinking, “I should not even attempt to do sticker charts right now. Sticker charts are not part of the survival plan.” Yay for lowered expectations! Long live mediocrity!

But honestly, I think it is less about mediocrity and more about realizing what success looks like in this season of life. Right now success does not look like lots of from-scratch meals and a spotless house and sticker charts. I want those things, but they just don’t fit with my priorities right now. Right now success looks like everyone eating something, taking probiotics, and staying alive.

Today we all ate, we all wore clothes, and we all stayed alive!  I guess it was a great day after all.