Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Year Nothing Feels Right

Much as I theoretically love the Christmas season, past Decembers have often been hard - sickness and depression and polluted skies and exhaustion. This year we haven't been sick too much, the air is clear, and thanks to modern medicine, my depression is improving.

But still.

This year nothing feels right.

Grief pierces unexpected moments in the midst of ordinary life.


Decorating trees and

viewing lights and

loss –

and singing songs and

baking cookies and

loss -

joy and grief

and confusion

and heaviness and

loss –

---

We went to my parents’ house to help them decorate because there is nothing like the excitement of children to make these things feel worthwhile. We hung all of Anna’s personal ornaments collected since childhood. They blended in amid all the others, just like always.

Then mom pulled out the stockings. We each have personalized stockings my mom made over the years for children, sons-in-laws, grandchildren, cousins and grand-cousins. This year we finally have ours shipped from China. All of the stockings are together at last!

She looked at Anna’s stocking and stopped. “What do we do with this? We can’t not put it up.” For 32 years, that stocking hung on the mantle with the rest of the family’s. So many years ago mom carefully stitched the name “Anna” in sequins.

In that moment, the wrongness of it all broke through again. How do we have this stocking that Anna will never again open? She can’t just be gone. How does someone just cease to exist on earth? It shouldn’t be this way.

---

As I strung the tree with lights, the girls exclaimed over the ornaments. Juliana said, “Hey look at this funny ornament!” She was holding up the ridiculous brocolli-as-a-Christmas-tree picture that Anna once found in a magazine when we were kids. We both thought it was so funny that she made it into an ornament for me.

Every year for many years I asked for a harp for Christmas even though I knew I wouldn’t get it. One year Anna worked with my grandfather in his workshop to make me a “harp” from wood and guitar strings. She knew what I really wanted and her six year old self tried to make it come true.

As children we would say, “Christmas is two months away!” and then, “Christmas is two weeks away!! Remember when it was still two months away?” and we laid in bed at night talking about how slowly time moved.

We paged through the giant Sears catalog and decided which toys we wanted most. We searched for the hidden stash of presents (usually in mom’s closet) and argue over who was getting which toy.

I remember standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for the “okay” to come down and see the Christmas tree. Anna had kept her secret for so long she just couldn’t handle it any more and told me what my present was.

We missed a lot of adult Christmases during our years in China, but when we were there, she worked to make it special for the girls. She put up a tree in their room and bought – or made! - matching Christmas jammies.

I celebrated 21 Christmases with Anna. All of my memories of Christmas with my family are wrapped up with her.

-----

When we visited Santa at Bass Pro Shop the day after Thanksgiving (I did not think that through), I really wanted to text Anna.

We are stuck in line behind this very talkative lady who doesn’t believe in the vaccine and thinks the hospitals are getting paid to fake virus cases and it’s all a conspiracy by the Chinese government and oh my gosh it’s been 30 minutes of this!!”

Juliana is totally (nicely) giving it back and challenging everything this lady says with, “but actually…” and I am so proud of my child right now.”

Now she is saying something about paying on your phone as a sign of the end of times??”

And Anna would have texted back about how people are stupid and Juliana is awesome and also WTF?? I can predict almost exactly how she would have responded.

---

This year I decided to make Christmas cookies for ALL the people. Somehow the list morphed into 34 people/families/groups. It’s one of those decisions I made when I wasn’t thinking so clearly, and I wonder, “WHY did I chose this year of all years?” 

Some days I enjoy mixing up cookie dough and doing all the Christmas things. I am actually happy, plugging in the Christmas tree lights every day and sitting by the fire. I feel energized watching the girls' Christmas performance.

Other days, I feel like I am dying. I am so emotionally exhausted that my body hurts. I wonder how I will be able to press through all the way through Christmas. I wonder why I am putting all my energy into making cookies while the laundry piles up, the dining table has been practically inaccessible, and I’ve resorted to “I don’t know, just find something” dinner.

I guess I need to expect the unpredictable ups and downs. I try to save some energy for those days I feel like death. I try to give myself grace in this year instead of guilt over not doing all the things. Sometimes I am successful.

I just wish I had Anna to say, "Yeah, I don't know what you were thinking. Did you make some that are allergy friendly? Gluten free? Vegan? Nut free? That's important. And did you make some for me? 😀"

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

I Used to Have That in China


Five months and nine days after we entrusted our most important belongings to the postal service, our final package arrived!

When we unwittingly left China in January 2020, planning to be back in a few weeks, we brought beach clothes. We left an entire house set up and waiting, perfectly preserved as a moment in time: Beds made, clothes folded in drawers, shoes by the doors.

Once we realized we were settling in America and would not be able to return to China anytime in the near future, we started looking into options for shipping a few of our most important possessions back from China.

It was a long and arduous process including months of planning and frustration, and incredibly helpful friends who spent hours and hours gathering and packing and repacking on the China side. On June 6th, five boxes and one bass guitar finally left Yinchuan. Due to the nightmarish shipping delays, they sat in Shanghai for three months.

Finally in mid-October, the first boxes started arriving! A month later we were still waiting for the final package. The last tracking update was June, and I was starting to lose hope. But yesterday, our shipping saga concluded; all our belongings have safely made their way across the ocean!!

We were all so excited to be reunited with our things again. The girls exulted over Barbies, stuffed animals, and seemingly random “treasure collections.” I was thrilled to see the handmade afghans and stockings and embroidered pictures, the little books I had filled with baby memories, and old journals that told the inner story of years in China.  Practical things like favorite winter clothes arrived just in time for cool weather, with a big jumble of jewelry and electronics.

I was very happy to see all these things after nearly two years. But emotions are rarely pure and uncomplicated. In the midst of the happiness, I felt letdown. I found myself picturing where each of these things were in our apartment. The recipe cards in the pantry, my jewelry on a hook in my wardrobe, the Little People overflowing their milk-box-turned-toy-storage.

For a whole year, I pictured my China home set up and waiting. I thought about all the special and useful things I wished I had with me. Now, I am faced with the reality that the home we never said goodbye to is gone forever.  I already knew that. Knowing that brought a bit of closure, a sense that I could start to move on. 

But now it is real in a new way. My hair-tie inexplicably smells like our apartment, a familiar scent of chalky walls. The physical evidence of our presence in China is gone, as if we never lived there. The last tangible connection to our past life is severed.

The dismantling of our apartment symbolizes the unraveling of our whole lives in China. Even if we did go back to China, everything would be different. Our dear friends and the sweet community we formed would be gone. Our students would have graduated and moved on.  Who knows which of our favorite shops and restaurants actually survived the pandemic. The China we miss no longer exists.

These five boxes encompass 15 years of life. Most of our things are more recent, post-children possessions, but they also hold reminders of years past, the early days when China was such a different world. A handmade “wish jar” from my very first class in Yangzhou now sits on my dresser. I loved them so dearly, and they were enamored with me, their 22 year old teacher, the first foreigner many of them had ever seen.

We shipped another wish jar, full of intricate hand-folded paper hearts, from two shy students in Weinan, ones who said they were so touched by Kevin’s teaching because they had never before been complimented.

An angel figurine that was once on our bookshelf now rests on the mantel, a memorial of our first pregnancy that ended in miscarriage in a Chinese hospital. The paper IKEA gift tags that Kevin and I used to decorate our first Christmas tree wait with the handmade stockings my mom sewed for each new addition to the family.

I look at my painting, now torn, and remember the painting class I took with friends. The mug from my favorite coffee shop reminds me of quiet moments alone, deep connections with friends, and the best ever hugs from the owner. The terra cotta warrior figurines remind us of bargaining down the ridiculous price quoted at a stall outside this historical landmark. I remember where we got every single one of these items and why they are important.

And now we have them back. These tangible reminders of our lives in China are scattered around the house, slipped between newer items of this newer life.  Our past and present lives blend together a little more. While it sometimes seems like a dream, like another world entirely, China will always always be inextricably woven into the rest of our lives. We look at these treasures and remember who we are.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Days after Death

I have been thinking a lot about what my cousin told me a number of years ago. She had just lost her mom, my aunt, and I had just suffered a miscarriage. She told me that everyone grieves differently and no matter what other people expect of you, there is not a right way to grieve.

We have an idea of what grief should look like. Crying. Lots of crying.  But grief is much more complicated. Dull sadness and sharp pain, fog and feeling lost, irritation and rage- it shouldn’t be this way!, numbness, memories, tears, exhaustion.

I don’t cry much in general, and I sometimes wonder if I look sad enough. I cried when we gathered around Anna’s hospital bed, when she was both dying and already gone at the same time. But I didn’t cry at the memorial. I sat dry-eyed thinking, “This isn’t real.” It seemed so much like Anna that surely she was there.

The grief pendulum swings back and forth between surreal and all-too-real. Sometimes life seems normal and I think about other things. Laugh and work on my to-do list and forget. Other moments I bow under the weight of this finality, all of the life I lived with Anna and all that Anna was, suddenly gone.  

I think when a person is close enough, their loss is so big it can’t be grasped at once. If we tried to take in the enormity all at once, we might shatter into a thousand pieces. I feel the need to wrap my arms around myself so nothing falls out.

***

If you have ever lost someone close, you know the days after death are a crazy mess of details and logistics. Death certificate, obituary, talking to the funeral home, choosing a coffin or urn (or in this case, a biodegradable earth ball), preparing for the memorial. The people with the most grief have the least amount of time to feel it.

When it is all over, when everyone else is understandably moved on, when life moves on and you are expected to do all the things you did before, that’s when the reality sets in. Walking around the grocery store with a broken heart, folding laundry with heavy arms, trying to cook with a muddled mind. We no longer even wear black as a sign we are mourning. We all walk around looking just the same, as if death never happened, as if we aren’t broken inside. 

***

It has been such a long, slow loss. I started saying goodbye to Anna a few years ago, when she started talking to me about her death.  I think everyone close to Anna knew it was coming, we just didn’t know exactly when. The idea of her inevitable death - and even the grief - have been a part of life for long enough that in some strange way, I can grieve her death without fully grasping that she is not alive anymore.

Of course, even when you know it is coming, you can never really be prepared. Two days before she died, I sat in the hospital with Anna talking about all kinds of random things, as we typically did. The quality of various hospital rooms she had stayed in. My new neighbors’ tree massacre. Orthodontics. Nobody thinks your last conversation will be about braces, but I don’t regret it. I don’t regret the normalcy.  

I helped her organize her things, in hopes they would release her the next day.

***

Even as we prepared for her memorial, I thought, “Anna would know who the person in this picture is; I should ask her.”  I wanted her to know that I wore her hat and dress and scarf and earrings to the memorial. She wouldn’t have been surprised, because I wore all her clothes at Easter too. But she would have been surprised that over 1000 people watched her memorial – that is the impact one short, limited life can make.

Anna would have been happy to see how the girls are taking care of her tubie bunny and draining its feeding tube. She would have laughed about Nadia’s gleeful face when she said, “Maybe now we will get her candy!!” I would have told her about when Nadia woke up one morning and asked, “Does Anna remember us in heaven?”

I knew these things were all happening because of her death, but it still seemed that I ought to be able to tell her.

I constantly think of things I want to tell Anna. I momentarily forget I can’t message her like I used to do all the time.

“For superhero night at church, the girls dressed up as Malala and Susan B. Anthony! I’m so proud.”

“My phone has finally started predicting swearing!”

“Are you offended that Nadia’s memorial plant died, or is that an appropriate symbol?”

I feel a knife jab as I remember I can’t send these messages.  Apparently we talked a lot, because every day I think of things Anna said. 

I hear her voice in my kitchen: “Actually people’s sinks are the dirtiest places because they don’t clean them often.”

In my closet, now full of her clothes: “Almost all my clothes are black because stains don’t show.”

At the coffee shop: “They have this handicap space, but there wouldn’t be enough room to get a wheelchair up this sidewalk.”

My life is filled with reminders of her. Lately, this is how her being dead seems most different from her being alive.

***

I cannot wish her back to these last months, when her life got harder and harder, when staying alive became all-consuming.  In that sense, I’m glad she didn’t have to make the choice about when to stop fighting. 

I think back to before TPN, before a feeding tube, when she could eat all kinds of food and shower whenever she wanted and was not connected to any lines. I think back to when she could sit on the floor with the girls, could climb the stairs, didn’t even own a wheelchair or IV pole. There was a time when she could watch TV, when she could drive, when she could even live on her own. I grieve not just for her death but for all the life that she slowly lost.

***

It has been one month since we stood at her bedside, holding her hands as her life slipped away. Only a month, and already a month. How have we been living normal life for a month, a normal life that looks different from all the months before it? How can she really be gone?

One month ago the reality unfolded. The following days may seem hazy, but I remember the details of that day. 

The messages: She is not responding. The MRI shows a major stroke. Your sister is driving down from North Carolina. Come now. 

Sitting on our bed, the girls crying, “But maybe she will wake up. Maybe she will be okay.” Holding Juliana and telling her, “No. This is it.”  

Telling the woman at registration I was going to the ICU. When she said, “I hope it will be okay!” I didn’t tell her that, no, it won’t be.

Taking off my mask – the RBG mask Anna bought me – to blow my nose with tiny tissues, then quickly putting it back on again, over and over.”

Asking the nurse to remove all the IVs and lines and tubes because Anna finally no longer needed them.

One month ago, Anna died. The days keep coming and keep coming. The distance from that day will become greater and greater, as Anna stays frozen in time, ever 33. But also not. She is all the ages she was before and all that she never got to be. She is free from tubes and wires and medications and thank God, from insurance. She is everything she was meant to be. And while no-one really knows how it all works, yes Nadia, I think she remembers us.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Our American Dream Home



We have now lived in our America house for 6 months! There are still moments when I think, “How is this our house? How do we actually live here, in America, in this house that we own?” But overall we do feel settled. Amazingly settled, actually, for starting out with no furniture and a few boxes of our own things.

We really liked this house and it “checked the boxes.” The biggest deciding factor (for me) was all the old trees. I am in love with big, old trees. Six months in, I still feel like we absolutely made a good choice. There are very few things I don’t like about the house and very many things I do.

Location

- We live in a 50 year old neighborhood with lots of old trees (I’m not into new subdivisions, especially when they raze the trees. It’s an abomination), a quiet road for walks and bike-rides.

- Our house is 4 minutes from the girl’s school and 10 minutes from Kevin’s. We are 5 minutes from all the stores – Kroger, Publix, Target, Walmart, Home Depot, Sam’s Club, The Dollar Tree, Starbucks...Aldi is the furthest at about 7 minutes away. There are also a ton of restaurants, which we of course have not yet been to.

- We are 25 minutes away from my parents, 8 minutes from church, 10 minutes from friends, 15 minutes from 5+ good parks, and 10 minutes from 2 good libraries. I really miss being able to walk/bike places, but just like China we rarely have to venture out of our little radius.

Outside

- Our house is situated on ½ acre of grass and trees with a fenced in backyard. Did I mention the trees?

- We have a front porch and back screened-porch. My warm-weather dilemma is which one to choose for morning coffee.
- On cold or rainy days, we drive our cars into the garage, literally a few feet from the door, completely protected from the elements. No more lugging groceries up 5 flights of stairs.

- Unlike an apartment, we have no downstairs neighbors to quietly hate us when the girls run, jump, scream, cry, fight, bounce, and play the floor is lava.

Inside

- We have TWO BATHROOMS. 

- Our kitchen has a full-size refrigerator, a large oven, and a dishwasher. Enough said.

- We can sit on the couch by the gas fireplace, which is much cozier than a fireplace recording on the TV.

- The girls are now split between two rooms. Adalyn enjoys having her own room and the other girls are happy to still have company.



- Our bedroom is large enough to walk all the way around the bed. No more crawling in from the bottom.

- We not only have a giant washer AND dryer, we have this fantastic laundry room. It is big enough to double as a mud room and food-storage room.


- An attic and a basement – and closets! No more suitcase storage on top of cabinets.

- We have a finished basement room for an office/school area/play area. There was also a perfect nook by the basement stairs for Kevin to build a two-story playhouse with a slide.


- We initially told our agent no split-levels and then of course we bought one, and I actually really like it. There is a feeling of separation between the downstairs and the bedrooms, but only 4 steps between them. I appreciate this when running up and down (4) stairs all day.

It has many features I only dreamed about in China. A dishwasher!! A dryer and an entire room to put it in. A washer, fridge, and oven that are twice the size of our China ones. Hot water in all the sinks. Even the bathrooms have closets. Central A/C!! Adjustable heat. The ability to step outside the door and – bam – you’re outside. Enough space that the kids sometimes can’t find me for at least 1 minute. 

This is not the time or the way I imagined buying a house in America, but I’m so glad we found this house, during just the right 30hr window it was on the market. We will always think fondly on our various China homes, even the roach infested one (see below). But I have to admit, this one is a pretty good upgrade. I’m glad we have found a permanent (?) America dream home.

Our last China apartment that was our home for five years

Our apartment full of roaches, mold, and fond memories

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Chinaversary


One year ago I rushed around uplugging appliances and zipping suitcases, making sure everything was ready for our vacation. We bundled up in down coats against the frigid January morning. I took one last look around, and we left our apartment. We left Yinchuan. We left China. And it was no big deal.

Never in a million years would we have imagined that a year later we would still not be back, we might never be back. We kept thinking we could return later in February, in March, in April, later in the spring, at the end of summer, the beginning of 2021, maybe briefly next summer...never.

I miss so many things about China.

We had such a close community, a small group of friends we saw multiple times a week for shared meals, play-dates, meetings, walks, and home school co-op. We had the kind of friends that shared their left-overs and library cards and watched your kids at the last minute.

We had a sweet ayi (house helper/babysitter) who had been with us since Adalyn was a baby. She was used to our weird foreign ways: our kids who wouldn’t wear socks on cold tile floors and the amount of peanut butter we consumed. She knew far too much about us and loved us anyway.

I miss bumping down the road in our san lun che, bundled against the cold (in a mask, because we were doing that long before the virus). I miss driving past the steaming baozi (breaded dumplings), old women dancing in the park, and the local mosque. I miss driving the “wrong way” down the bike lane, because is there really a wrong way? (No.)

Obviously I’m not fully accustomed to living in a detached house, because I still hear phantom chopping noises. In a Chinese apartment, it seems you hear someone whacking away with a cleaver at any given time of day. I imagine the scratch of straw brooms on pavement, the calls of students walking by outside our window, and the loudspeakers at the fruit stalls croaking out, “San jin shi kuai! San jin shi kuai! (3lb for $1.50). My past self would find it strange, but I actually miss knowing there are people all around.

I miss the feeling of safety. I could walk down a dark street at night, take the bus across the city, or leave my kids in an open vehicle on the side of the road while I ran into a store. I have to continually remind myself I’m not allowed to do that here. Schools had earthquake drills, yes, but never ever mass shooter drills.

I could send my kids down to the nearby shop to pick up some vinegar. It was on our campus, only about 3 minutes away, but I literally sent an 8, 5, and 3 year old off to run an errand alone. And that was fine. Everyone around knew who they were, and anyone around would help them if they needed it.

I miss Chinese food. The hand-pulled Hui noodles, preferably eaten at a rickety metal table in a crowded restaurant. Our ayi’s jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) which everyone agreed were the best ever. Anything our ayi cooked. Our favorite restaurants, like the one by the mosque with the good eggplant, the one with the excellent tofu that we’ve gone to for 6 years, and the one with my favorite onion dish that is truly 90% cooked onion. Oh, and north-eastern food! And Xingjiang food! So many good things you just can’t find here.

Every time I go shopping, I think wistfully of China prices. Vegetables were the least expensive food you could buy – 30c/lb, maybe 70c/lb for the pricier things. Apples, oranges, and seasonal fruits were traditionally 3lbs for $1.50. I miss Taobao, a sort of Chinese Amazon that has everything, including $15 winter coats, $6 knock-off Lego sets, and the weirdest things you’ve ever seen.

I mostly avoided the supermarkets, but I still miss the vats of oil and giant bags of rice and the whole aisle of instant noodles. A walk through the market would show half a dozen types of tofu, slabs of hanging meat, buckets of live fish, and beautiful assortments of vegetables.

I miss the seasons in China – the flowering trees of spring, the giant trucks full of watermelon in summer, the baked sweet potato sellers on the side of the road in fall, the frozen lake in winter.

I miss students and friends coming to our house, bringing giant bags of fruit as gifts. We would talk or play games and the girls would go crazy. The students took lots of pictures with the girls, admired all their toys, and inevitably got roped into a game of hide-and-seek. You had to make sure every single part of the house was clean before someone came over!

One of my friends used to come to my office hours, then to my book club. She was my Chinese tutor for a while. Last year we started going on walk around campus once a week, arm in arm. She was smart and deep and we had many good talks.

I can picture every room in our apartment: my faded IKEA chair on the laundry porch, where I would sit under wet laundry catching the sun; the living room rug and bedspread and kitchen curtains I carefully picked out; the view from the large kitchen window where each morning I craned my neck to get a glimpse of the mountains. I know how the light fell at different times of the day. I rarely turned on overhead lights, as our 5th floor apartment was bright enough without them.

Some things were so familiar – carried through half a dozen moves or passed on from other foreigners who had moved on. Others were new – the curtains we gave Adalyn for when we moved her into the office, still folded and waiting; the electric train set Nadia got for her birthday two days before we left.

It hurts to think about all the things we will never see and hear and taste again. It also stings a little to realize how hard it would be to go back to that, after settling here.

I enjoy pulling into the garage (in my enclosed, temperature controlled van) instead of carting loads of groceries up all those stairs. It would be hard to go back to Saturday morning Skype calls with my family in place of in-person visits. I love sitting on my quiet porch in the summer and by the cozy fire in the winter. We have adjusted to living in a house twice the size of our apartment – with two bathrooms – and closets – and a dishwasher.

There are so many things I miss about our lives in China, but I know it was far from rosy. It was a much harder place to live. Harder practically - making every meal from scratch, enduring the many smoggy days, and oh my word, the medical stress!

Harder culturally - all the attention we drew, all the interactions we decoded, all the language we learned and forgot, all of the tiny things that wore you out even after 15 years.

Harder in more nebulous ways - the unseen weightiness, the self-expectations, feeling so visible yet so unseen, a constant feeling of instability. Really we could have seen this coming. Not a pandemic, of course, but something that unexpectedly ripped us away.

I had considered what were the most important things I would pack if we had to leave suddenly. I had a three day plan and a few hour plan (as did most of the foreign families). I just didn’t have a plan for unknowingly leaving everything behind forever without a chance to look back.

I have no resolution or closure for this post, just like there was none for our leaving. I have just been thinking, especially today, about all the things I miss.

One year ago we left that whole life behind. Just. Like. That.



Thursday, August 6, 2020

I Have That in China


I found my keys.  I rifled through a not-quite-unpacked suitcase in preparation for moving, and there they were: the round apartment key, the red bike lock key, and the curved key for our san lun che (cart).  These were my keys that I had used every day, and now they are useless. I cannot jump on my bike for a quick trip to the store or pile everyone in the back of the san lun che to bounce down the road and play with friends. I cannot go into my apartment to sit on my couch or cook in my kitchen or sleep in my bed. Maybe ever.

Now we have new keys, fancier keys, to a van with remote control locks. We have a new house key and a garage door opener. I can hop in my air-conditioned car with seatbelts and actual seats.  I can unlock my door to sit on my back porch, turn on my dishwasher, or sleep in my bed. These are all things I wanted and appreciate. Why would I miss 20*F wind blowing in my face or a kitchen with no hot water? But I do.

**
We washed the dishes, but I left laundry on the drying rack. We cleared the fridge of any food that would go bad in a few weeks, but the freezer still held leftover soup in the freezer. We packed our bags sparingly for vacation: “I’ll just be wearing my flip-flops all the time anyway...sorry, the American Girl dolls are too big...how many shirts do you really need?” We turned off the gas, unplugged the appliances, locked the windows, gathered our bags– then the lock clicked three times deadbolting the door.  And we left.

We innocently left a house, a job, a vehicle, books and blankets and toys, a whole life. With the turn of a key, that world was over.

**
I think the strangest thing about buying a new house was the lingering thought, “But we already have a home!” As we have worked to furnish a new house from scratch, I don’t know how many times I have said, “But I have that in China.”

I had a mop, a fly swatter, AND an electric mosquito zapper.  I had knives – my Yangzhou cleaver.
Yangzhou is famous for its knives, and I can picture the little stone lane where I bought it.  I just bought spices and a stapler, a toilet brush and dish drainer. We are in the stage of buying all those insignificant things you forget you even need.  We had all those in China, plus rugs, a bunkbed, bicycles, blankets, and new Christmas toys barely enjoyed.

**
We pulled out the dishes from our wedding, supplemented by other hand me downs from family and friends. They are very nice dishes.  But you see, I had favorite plates – purple for a warm, comfortable feel or green for a fresher, cheery feel. I would seriously choose my plate based on how I was feeling. There was this one spoon that was just the right shape and size for cereal (very round, and just the right size).

It is all ridiculous, right? Mourning my favorite spoon. Complaining about a temperature controlled vehicle. All that other stuff…it’s only stuff. “You can’t take it with you” just came a little sooner than I expected. I should just let it go.

And yet, each one of those things represents a piece of that life we no longer have. The cereal I was eating with that perfect spoon was probably a birthday present. Life was simpler then, when unwrapping a box of cereal was cause for excitement.

My favorite mug was not only just the right shape and texture, it came from the coffee shop my friends owned. How many times did I sit in the cozy upstairs room, working on the computer, sitting quietly, talking and laughing and crying with friends?  Kevin performed music, we celebrated birthdays, we knew the owners and everyone who worked there. Even if we could go back, the coffee shop is gone, and all that is left is my green mug that I don’t actually have.

**
I miss my things because I just spent $30 at the dollar store rebuying a bunch of random stuff that I still own on the other side of the world. I miss already having approximately everything we needed. I miss having everything I need to cook a meal, right down to the pastry brush.

I miss our things because I miss our lives. I could almost be there, eating toast off my purple plate while peering out the window seeing how bad the pollution was today - rejoicing when I could see the mountains, despairing when the rest of campus disappeared in a haze. I could be sitting in the living room with my green mug of re-heated coffee, starting home-school. We rarely even turned on the light, with so much light coming through our large fifth floor window.

** 
There is a sickeningly tidy metaphor about one door closing and another one opening.  But not only do I hate pithy sayings, there is no tidy close to our lives that suddenly ended with the slamming of a door. 

We rebuy all the things. I let myself grieve over all that we lost, significant and ridiculous, and I remind myself that I will find a new favorite spoon. All of this will become familiar, and I will make new memories. I will look at my coffee mug, and I won’t think of Target but instead of times spent over coffee with friends.

I will turn the key to open the door of the house I love, of the oh-so-surreal life I learn to love. I will hang my key ring by the door: the van keys, the house key, and just maybe the red bike key, to remember that other life behind the closed door.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

We Bought a House


We bought a house.
In America.

Well, we are in the process of buying a house. One Saturday in June, on our third morning of house-hunting, our realtor got a call that one of our prospects - 24 hours on the market - already had five offers. If we thought it was a strong contender, we’d need to rush over and make a quick decision. We rushed over to take a look, and we liked it enough to make ours offer number six. Three hours after we saw the house, our offer was accepted.

In the months of waiting and wondering and knowing nothing about the future, it’s hard to believe that we are suddenly moving forward so quickly. No time for indecision.

You could say it all started on January 21st, when we left China planning to return a few weeks later. As Covid spread, February 12th became March 10th, became April 15th, became “surely this summer,” and finally “Maybe Spring of 2021?” Now we think,“Maybe at least at some point we can get back to pack a few things? Maybe?”

I keep thinking, “We left for vacation and we can’t go back. How does that happen?” I can’t imagine that happening in the US, but actually a number of our friends have been in similar situations, even pre-Covid.

I can't say it was Covid or even our temporary homelessness that caused us to buy a home in America.

After 15 years, we have decided to move back to the US.

That decision brings a cosmic shift in our lives. Our lives will now be sliced into three pieces: before China, during China, post-China. Because really, no matter where we are, China is now forever a part of our lives. It has been our girls’ entire childhood, plus my entire adult life and most of Kevin’s. It has been our jobs, our home, our way of life, and our identity.

It was a hard decision, and it’s hard to describe the process that led us there.  It slowly became clear to us that China was no longer the healthy place for our family. I am naturally skeptical about the idea that “America will fix our problems.” In case you’ve noticed, a few people in America deal with depression, anxiety, or burnout, and shockingly some even yell at their kids. But we realized that some of these struggles were specifically linked to China. Schooling, language, uncertainty, a slight (entirely reasonable) paranoia, pollution, unrelenting heaviness in the atmosphere, and just feeling out of place all the time, even after all these years – it was all taking its toll.

Kevin and I each started to wonder, “Are we just staying in China because we have lived there so long?” One day we voiced it aloud. We realized the answer might be yes. At this point in our lives, staying in China really would have been the easier decision. Uprooting ourselves from everything familiar is nearly as hard as deciding to move to China 15 years ago. We know how to live in China. Coming back to the US means starting all over again with jobs, housing, cars, schools, friends, furniture, dishes…  It is like the 20-something figuring out adulthood – except we are 40ish with three kids!  We are nearly two decades “behind".

We feel confident it is a good decision for us. I am happy to be close to my family. We will be in the next town over from where I grew up. My friend and I talked about how we went from the extreme of the other side of the world to living 5 minutes from each other. It’s hard to believe that I will be one of those people who lives where I grew up, with family around. I have never been that person before.

We will have our own house with everything I dreamed of in China: a backyard, a dishwasher, a front porch and a back screened porch, a bedroom big enough to walk all the way around the bed, TWO bathrooms, hot water in all the sinks, closets, and a whole room for laundry, a huge yard with tall trees - and did I mention A/C!! Some of those are pretty standard in typical American homes, but it is all so exciting for us.

It is ironic to say "we are moving back to America" when actually we are already here. Technically we still live in China, except we can’t go back there. Most of our belongings are still there. Our clothes, my computer, even Kevin’s wedding ring! (he misplaced it the day before we flew to Thailand and didn’t have time to find it). The girls left their new Christmas presents and Nadia’s birthday presents from just the week before.

Many of our closest friendships were made in China. We are still committed to return temporarily if the doors reopen, even though we are now 11 days from owning a home. I guess what has changed is we are moving from unplanned, “what the heck is going on in life,” to purposefully moving forward with American lives and all the American things. House, furniture, car, jobs, schools, all the insurances we never needed in China.

This was not the way we were supposed to leave. We left on vacation and can’t go back. We haven’t said goodbye to any of our Chinese friends yet, because we can’t really. There’s still that chance we could return for a few months or weeks next spring, maybe even to teach a final semester, but more likely next summer, just to pack and say goodbyes. Our hope of return diminishes with each Covid case and accusation lobbed China’s way.

Now we have a beautiful American home to come back to if that chance materializes. And a home to stay in if it doesn’t. I still can’t get over that. Some days it feels like whiplash, some days like grief, and sometimes I want to laugh at the sheer absurdity.  It is the beginning and end of a dream.

We bought a house. In two weeks we will move in, unpack the random belongings we do have, arrange the new (used) furniture, and buy a mop. We will be all in, “buy a mop” kind of settled.  I’m still not sure how I feel about that.

If you need me, I’ll be sitting on my back porch in my rocking chair, drinking coffee and trying to figure it all out.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Plans, perspective, and a bunch of dead plants

Our plants are slowly dying.  Our ayi (house helper) planned to come and water them while we were away, but two days after we left, China shut down.  Even if she could have gotten across town on the infrequent buses, she would not have been allowed access to our home.  People are only allowed to enter the complex where they live.  So our plants are dying.  We can only hope they aren’t smelly, rotten plants by the time we return.

We planned to be back in China two weeks ago.  Kevin would have been preparing his classes.  The girls would have started back to school.  We were planning to reorganize the office into an office/bedroom with the loft bed we planned to put together for Adalyn.  Plans, plans, plans.

During our first week away, we began to feel the uncertainty of the future.  As the days passed we became increasingly convinced that we would have to delay our return.  The airlines confirmed this suspicion by canceling our return tickets without an option of rescheduling. When a friend asked about my plans for the following weekend, I said, “I don’t know!!  I don’t even know where we’ll be a week from now!  How can I possibly plan so far ahead?”

A friend who was on her way back to China after a time in the States said, “I had all kinds of worst-case scenarios of why we wouldn’t get back into China.  You know me – I thought of lots of possibilities.  But I never considered this one!”

We certainly didn’t either.  When we left only two days before the Wuhan quarantine began, we still had no inkling of the impact it would have.  Kevin had mentioned, “Did you know there is a new pneumonia-like virus they discovered?” and I didn’t think anything more about it.  Then we watched as China was quickly turned upside down.

Mixed with my deep concern for China I felt a lot of selfish anxiety.  What will happen?  When will we be able to go back?  What will we do?  An epidemic and future uncertainty does wonders for pre-existing anxiety.  I just wanted to know what would happen.

Catching the coronavirus was not at the top of my worry list, but I nearly had a panic attack when we walked into the Bangkok airport.  We didn’t have any masks!  After we hunted around and found some at an airport pharmacy, I felt a little calmer.  Even though there were mixed opinions on how helpful masks actually are, it was one thing I could control.  Along with, “Don’t touch that!  Don’t touch your mouth!  Here is some more hand sanitizer!”

I even found my own prejudice coming out.  I instinctively tensed up when I heard people speaking Chinese.  Then I remembered how incredibly prejudiced and hypocritical it was; I JUST CAME FROM CHINA!!  As Juliana loudly announced to some fellow passengers who backed up a little further in line.  I was embarrassed to see how quickly my mind turned to racism.  

In two more weeks we plan to return to China with just enough time to renew our residence permits before they expire. (fingers crossed!)  We don’t know what things will be like at that point, but we will almost certainly be quarantined for two weeks.  Fortunately, as long as we don’t travel through one of the “riskier” provinces, we can be quarantined in our apartment instead of a hotel!  Unfortunately that quarantine could look like anything from a paper seal to a bar across our door ensuring we do not go out.  Apparently someone will bring us food during this time.  Should we rig up a pulley system up to our 5th floor window?  We are allowed to open windows.  I think.  Maybe I should check on that. 

Meanwhile I am mentally taking stock of my pantry.  I’m pretty sure I bought a big bag of flour so I can make bread, and I know we have several jars of peanut butter.  I wish I could remember if I have any frozen butter left.  Kevin’s birthday will fall within the quarantine.  In the days of Taobao, I no longer need buy western baking and cooking supplies in Thailand.   This year I will be stocking up.  I plan to bring an entire bag of things we might need, anything non-perishable and maybe some frozen butter and cheese.

By the time our full quarantine is lifted a month from now, we are hoping some of the safety protocols will have relaxed a little bit.  Maybe?  In our city currently, one family member is allowed to go out every other day for two hours to buy food.  They must sign in and out of their neighborhood, go through temperature checks at their neighborhood gate and at the supermarket, and bring a “pass” to be allowed in.  I’ve never enjoyed shopping, but this could change my attitude.  “Yay, it’s shopping day!  Aka. leave the house day!”

We will be able to go outside our apartment in whatever area of campus is deemed our “neighborhood.”  But if it is too often I’m sure we will be scolded.  At this point we are not allowed into anyone else’s neighborhood.  So even though we may be the first expat family to join our lone expat family friends, we won’t be able to see them.

At some point, slowly, all this will change.  The virus will be contained, at least enough.  We will rejoice at each hint of openness.  Just this week our friends saw EIGHT cars on the road at one time!  While this would happen every minute in ordinary times, this past month the roads have been deserted.  Another friend walked out her gate and instead of turning right to the nearest supermarket, she turned left to walk to the further-away one - and nobody stopped her!  

I definitely feel some nervousness about the quarantine, but the thought of all our friends in China gives some perspective.  While we have been enjoying lots of time outside, they have been mostly stuck inside their apartments for months now.  Small apartments.  Whole families on top of each other or singles on their own with no one to talk to each day.  It has been a hard time for all.

The other day our ayi messaged to say she was concerned about us and we should stay in as much as possible.  I told her not to be concerned.  I didn’t tell her we were going out as much as possible while we can.
  
One day we’ll all look back and say, “Yeah, we were in China during the coronavirus.  That was crazy.”  It will join the ranks of hospital adventures, language embarrassments, and really awkward encounters; painful moments that make good stories.  Our grandchildren will look at us with big eyes and say, “Wow, you are soooooo old.  And what’s the coronavirus?”

Thursday, January 16, 2020

This Familiar Haze

When I look out the window, I see a gloomy haze of smog.  The sun has barely attempted to rise; the nearby mountains may as well not exist.  For several weeks, the pollution level has stayed unreasonably high.  We stay inside with our air purifiers, spending as little time outside as possible.

In these cold, polluted days, the hazy darkness seems to have seeped inside me. When I look back, the hard times seem to rise up threateningly in memory.   When I look ahead, I feel weary at all the life still to come.  I am reluctant to call it by name, wishing to deny it a little longer.  But I already know: it is the heaviness of depression stealing in again.

It is not a surprise; I know this illness will likely follow me through life in ebbs and flows. Right now I can manage.  The dark lays heavy on me, but my mood lifts in the sunshine.  I may dread going out, but I can still enjoy being around people when I do.  My mind feels muddled by complex tasks like cooking, but cleaning still brings me peace and a sense of control.

With the darkness comes fear.  Winter is always hard, but what if it just gets worse?  What if I go down to the depths I have been in the past?  My memories are of darkness and heaviness, the demons that chase me, my “thorn in the flesh.”  The good times are hidden like our mountains; do they even exist? 

It is hard to keep perspective when you cannot even trust your mind.  I know the past included many good times, and the future will include many more.  I cannot see the sun and the mountains through my window, but they are still there.  The light and happiness are still there too, just temporarily hidden by the mental haze.  This illness of the mind says the light does not exist, but I remember this: depression lies.

Of course I am ready for both the smog and the depression to lift, and it will.  But while I am in this place, I realized that I don’t have to fear.  I can face the memories of darkness.  The burdens of the past did not crush me.  I may have felt hopeless, but I kept on until I could find the hope again.  In the moments (months, years) of my greatest weakness and weariness, God’s great strength carried me. Surely he bore my griefs and carried my sorrow. 

I remember a time, just a couple of years ago, when restoration seemed impossible.  What could ever pull me out of this hole?  How could I ever be okay again?  And yet, with time and intention, restoration happened.  I entered a period of greater health and stability than I had known in years.  I am still powerless to restore myself, but God is still powerful to work in me.

So I will not fear.  I have walked this path before and come out the other side.  I will keep walking through the haze until I reach the clear morning light.