We found ourselves over Beijing, a bejeweled outpost of light on a backdrop of black velvet, as all cities look by night at 30,000 feet. We landed with our sleepy boys and made our way through the spacious airport. It was close to midnight. Grand oriental murals with spired mountains and cascading waterfalls reminded us that we had entered a new country. I looked to the right and left. So many Chinese people! I always take note of an Asian person when I see one in Oklahoma and smile. I feel a natural affinity- my child came from them. But now they surround us, sometimes smiling and pointing at Nick.
We make it to our hotel via the free shuttle, despite a cunning attempt by a slick taxi driver to price gouge us 10x the going rate. Two jetlagged adults with 7 suitcases and 2 kids will be too overwhelmed to convert to yuan. He underestimated us. The first night was spent walking the halls with Nick; an almost endless corridor of plush carpet and shiny mahogany doors with tall windows at either end facing the airport. I didn’t care- I was in China!
I have wanted to come here for many years. As I shared in “Crossroads”, I first fell in love with Chinese culture in college, and my desire to work with Chinese people has grown over the past several years. This trip has been long in coming; delayed by finances, Bob’s residency, and the addition of our youngest child. I approached it with anticipation and anxiety. Would we accomplish our purpose: evaluating long term medical opportunities? Would there be a divine connection or open door? What about a major setback or tragedy that would turn us off of this country forever? Would Bob and I return still pointing in different directions; me wanting to come here and him not?
Our first stop was Wuhan. We were met at the airport and escorted to the home of a family who has been living there a decade. Fluent in Chinese, they have adapted to the culture and embraced a way of life that includes not owning a car. They cheerfully carried our luggage up 6 flights of stairs. Yes, in China an elevator is not required unless a building is 7 stories or higher. (I don’t think they’ve passed the same disability legislation here) Our hosts set up meetings with their team, shared their vision and took us to hospitals, schools and offices of developing ministries. We saw earnest and amiable cooperation between Americans and Chinese nationals. We saw European expats and Chinese mentally ill patients. We toured a beautiful international school and cozy Chinese kindergarten (a great opportunity for the Jade to learn his birth language) We met people they had poured their lives into, and understood the value of long-term discipleship to transform one’s relationship with God and help her stay on The Way despite pressure from the culture (and all cultures!) to be selfish, competitive and unforgiving. We had in depth conversations with this couple about life in China as a family, and the unique challenges, blessings and opportunities they have found here. I felt like Mrs. C really reached out to me, and encouraged me to stop performing in my relationship with God. She said, “if you’re like me you have these really high standards for yourself, and always feel you’re falling short. You feel like God is a little disappointed with you, and you need to pray more and do this or that more before He’ll really use you. But the thing is, He is using you, and working through you, whether you are able to reach your standards or not”. She encouraged me to have more grace with myself, and be open to God’s grace towards me.
Bob enjoyed talking with Mr. P. He is a visionary entrepreneurial guy, and seemed excited about Bob’s idea of PACT teams for homeless mentally ill patients. He was also able to tour a hospital and see severely mentally ill patients, an opportunity we didn’t think would work out. We visited a Chinese “house church”, not an overcrowded rural shack hounded by police, but a large well furnished building that looked like- a church. There seems to be more freedom in this province. The pastor showed a breadth of vision and depth of insight. He told us that the Chinese Christians are reaching out to their country by holding a national Christian blood donation day. Apparently donors are few and the need is great, therefore blood is scarce in China. He was mobilizing his own congregational for this beautiful application of incarnational theology.
The day before we left, we drove over the mighty Yangtze and hiked a mountain along East Lake. The air was pure and fragrant, and we stood on the balcony of an ancient palace overlooking the river, forest and pagodas below, shrouded in mist. I was encouraged that there are places one can truly escape to be alone and talk to God, even in China. I had those internet pictures in my mind of vacationing Chinese on the beach so packed together you couldn’t see the sand.
We mostly overcame jetlag while in Wuhan. It was a mixed blessing; Bob experienced the stillness of one sleepless night where he felt led to Christ’s words in Matthew 10:37-39:”Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Stark words that request one’s deepest sacrifice and stir up one’s longing for eternal purpose. At other times the kids awoke us, hyper and hungry, and we spent our deep night hours snacking and trying vainly to soothe them by the reading of endless books.
I was sad when our week in Wuhan ended and we boarded the plane, but excited to see what awaited us in Shenyang. We were stunned by how much colder it was here, and scrambled through our bags for winter coats. A smoggy haze hung over the city. We arrived at the apartment of our new hosts. Both physicians, they graciously opened their 3 bedroom apartment to us despite the fact that 6 people were already living there. We added our 2 kids to their 4 and crammed our suitcases into their homeschool room. We saw the 5 hamster cages in their living room and thought, this is going to be a long week. The Jade and Nick enjoyed harassing these fluffy rodents, and there were several frantic searches for escapees. But despite the cozy living quarters I am so thankful we spent the week with them instead of in a hotel. Mrs. E is an energetic, compassionate lady who juggles the needs of her children, ministry relationships and medical work, rising early and staying up late into the night answering emails. While we were there her husband flew off to the Philippines to do disaster relief medical work. It requires patience, intelligence and creativity to create a secure and welcoming home environment in a foreign land, but they have succeeded. In both homes we felt the preservation of American tradition and cuisine utilizing what is made and grown in China. A few imported and mailed items add a layer of comfort, a cozy tie to their native America. When they leave their apartment they respect local customs and communicate well in Mandarin. But their home is their haven, and I sensed that here, in this cold and hazy city, it must be so for them to survive long term. The program here is more developed with outreaches to orphanages, rural sites and nursing homes, as well as an expatriate clinic. I experienced each of these for half a day, especially enjoying the orphanage and village outreaches. On the long bus ride I chatted with Miss H, a physician who arrived recently to begin her long-term work. She shared about the struggle of singleness but showed a strength of calling and commitment to be here, trusting God for her future. We shivered in the unheated rooms of a donated church, seeing patients presented by the Chinese residents. They were eager to learn and happy we took the time to explain our differential, physical exam findings, and the various aspects of a diagnosis. One resident told me that Chinese physicians are too busy to teach or explain these things. We stopped at a Chinese restaurant on the way back and ten of us feasted on a round table of Chinese entrees for 25 USD. We visited a very nice orphanage and examined children who ranged from healthy to severely handicapped. Mrs. E told me that their other orphanages were less funded and the children more severe. As always, my favorite part was playing and interacting with the children. One 2 year old girl captured my heart, and my desire to have a Chinese daughter continues to pulse within me.
Bob had the opportunity to meet with Chinese psychiatrists at Chinese Medical University. They compared notes on patient care, and he was frankly asked about his income in the U.S. “Why would you want to come to China?” they asked. We were touched by the team dynamics here, the open sharing on everything from cultural to spiritual struggles. Christianity in this part of the Bible belt is characterized by the pressure to be positive, to shine forth the perfect Christian life. When further influenced by an excessive American affinity to privacy, isolation results. We have found it difficult to experience true vulnerability within a group of believers in the U.S, but in Shenyang they were bonded by their common vision and struggles.
We spent our last day touring the Imperial Palace, residence of one of China’s emperors hundreds of years ago. It was interesting to see the ancient buildings, historical artifacts, and especially to peer into the throne room, ornate with gilding and entwined with writhing dragons around the pillars. A glimpse into the glory and mystery of ancient China; this complex and advanced civilization that was writing its own history while western civilization was being born. We were mobbed by baby loving paparazzi at the palace; young people snapping pictures of the Jade and Nick, asking us why we had a Chinese child. Pulling down their pants legs in fear that they were cold. My limited Chinese was put to the test. So much for uninterrupted family time.
Bob and I began to envision our family living in China; to consider what we would gain and what we would lose. We would gain the opportunity to shape a new generation of Chinese family medicine and psychiatry physicians. To touch the lives of patients we would never meet in the U.S. To do medical outreach to the underserved and have ready access to natural disaster prone SE Asian and Pacific nations. To come alongside Chinese churches and offer encouragement, English training, discipleship to young believers. For Bob to start a counseling ministry, teach theology and church history. To immerse ourselves in another culture and begin to understand it. For us and our children to learn to be bilingual. For our children to grow up with a global perspective, an openness to those who are different, and the relative moral protection of a more regulated society. The community of our team united around a common vision. To have the rare and unique experiences which only come to those who take the chance on a big adventure. To experience God’s presence and provision in a way that only happens when we are not in control and must cast ourselves on Him. What we would lose: much, from a typical American perspective. A double physician income, comfortable house and lifestyle, the opportunity to easily add more children to our family, the relative security of a familiar culture, language and place. We open ourselves to environmental hazards; exposure to pollution, driving without carseats, antibiotics in our meat, and cultural hazards; intrusive questions, lack of privacy, and strangers’ unsolicited parenting advice. The loss of a backyard for our boys, our familiar things and their toys.
Throughout this trip I had to guard my heart. Sharing life with long-term workers stripped away my romanticism, bringing a healthy realism about what life here is really like. Despite the very real challenges I felt that this is where I want to be. I boarded the subway in Shenyang to find myself the only foreigner, packed in with Chinese people all the way down on both sides. I prayed for them- so many people, most of whom would never know Christ’s love and the welcome of God. I loved the challenge of utilizing my Pimsleur Chinese phrases, the thrill of communicating in another language, even in a limited way. The adventure of shopping, of guessing what might be inside by the pictures. I sensed that Bob didn’t feel the same way. He agreed that Wuhan had some opportunities for him, but they seemed theoretical and unsure. What about the pollution, and other risks to the kids? Was this really better than taking care of patients in the U.S? He had a lot of good ministry ideas for here too. The day before we left we worshipped at a three self church. The pastor preached in Chinese and it was translated. He preached on marriage; that together a husband and wife reflect the image of God. He shared the story of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt, when Abraham asked Sarah to lie to the pharaoh to protect himself. She complied. God asks a wife to respect and honor her husband knowing that he won’t always make the best decisions, or the ones she agrees with. Because Sarah honored her husband by following his wishes God stepped in in a miraculous way to deliver them. The pastor said that wives will only see this divine presence and leading if we have the faith to honor our husbands despite our disagreement. Through this sermon I felt God telling me to trust him with the things that seemed to pull Bob and I apart; our divergent dreams and callings. I had to trust that they were both good;though they seemed to conflict, in the end they would lead us where we were meant to be.
We returned to the U.S. with the gracious provision of two extra airplane seats. Sensing that Bob didn’t want to commit to China, I emailed our contacts that we were going to look around some more. I tried to steady myself in limbo between fulfillment of a long held hope and the acceptance of its loss. I realized that we may never make the great leap across the ocean at all. I felt the call of China fall to the floor, and I left it there. I felt new grace to let go, that I had done all that I could do. I had kept this calling alive through one and a half decades, I had cultivated relationships with Chinese people, taken Perspectives, studied the language and made the trip. God wasn’t asking me to manipulate my husband and endanger my marriage to make this happen; that wasn’t my job. I didn’t resent Bob because he had been willing to make the trip, and I knew that he had tried to be open. Two weeks went by. Then one night when I was flossing my teeth Bob came to me: “I think we should ask them to process our application to move to Wuhan for a year”. My heart stopped. “What!?” I waited for his explanation: “This is an opportunity, and I don’t think we should just let it pass”. Later Bob revealed that he had been struggling with this decision for a year. He had felt while we were in Wuhan that we might be coming back there. There was so much for him to process and give up since his own medical opportunities were less secure than mine. And yet his seminary and teaching callings fit perfectly within a culture of young believers needing discipleship. He read the words of Pope Francis about making room in our hearts for the poor, and not letting our love of material things cut us off from the love of God. A thousand questions and considerations brought him to the moment of decision: “Let’s do this.”
I still hold China with an open hand. Many barriers still stand before us. We have broadened our commitment to 1-2 years with an option to stay longer if we have a reason to. But is this enough? Will we be able to raise support? What about resistance from family, bewildered looks from friends who can’t fathom why we’d make this choice? If we do make it there will we be able to navigate the “slow earthquake” of ministry there Mr. P described. Contacts and opportunities fall through, the landscape is constantly shifting, and we must not loose heart. There are no guarantees, but I do know this: I have seen God work within my husband and our marriage in ways I couldn’t imagine a couple years ago. We have never been more united than we are now. I know that Bob’s decision came from God’s working and not my own. This gives me hope that He is behind this venture, that this misunderstood dream, fraught with human weakness and challenged by a hundred distractions, is still His dream for us.
This is a strange post for Christmas, coming a month after our return. I’ll blame that on a typical hectic American December, made worse by a late start and lingering jet lag. But one of the most striking and miraculous things about the birth of Christ is that God showed up when no one was expecting Him, and that He graced the lowly places with His presence. Throughout this China journey I have felt Him speak grace to me, felt His attention and intervention on behalf of a long-awaited dream. So Christmas came a little early this year.