It has been 2 months since my family moved to China. I am writing from the back porch of my first floor apartment, admiring the tiny but tidy garden cage I was quick to cultivate. Most of the sky is blocked by 30 story apartment buildings, and I can see faint blurs of color through the hedges as residents stride purposefully home. If I were to go outside I would smell fumes,cigarettes, faint sewage and sometimes rain, oil, garlic, and meat. The air is hot and heavy here, and if you stand in one place the mosquitoes find you and bite quickly. The foliage is lush and diverse, and thrives without much care. Lakes and rivers are ubiquitous, and provide visual respite from the high rise apartments that crowd the skyline. The sky is often cloudy, but when it comes out the sun pierces my face, and I have taken up the parasol habit of fair skinned Chinese ladies.
My husband has said that China seems more civilized than the U.S. There are several contrasts you might find interesting. They are mostly a cashless society, and pay for bills, groceries, even pay back friends through the WeChat or Alipay apps on their phones. They buy their groceries, order dinner, and other necessities online so that one could live here for a long time without even leaving her home. And all these services are cheap or free. Good Chinese food is also cheap- half or less than US prices. Labor is too- our ayi (househelper) works 10 hours a week for $50. This is the rate she requested and is standard here. We do need some extra help without a dishwasher and only an economy sized washer/dryer! So it is possible to have a higher standard of living on less money. The Chinese people are tolerant of discomfort and inconvenience. I got onto a bus when it was 100 degrees outside, and the driver wasn’t running the AC. In the US 5 people would have asked him to TURN IT ON!, but no one said anything. My kids are loud, messy, and frequently run in front of, block or slow down other pedestrians. No one has complained or shown annoyance. Many times people have run to get the door or gate for us, and stood there patiently while we walk our bike (and trailer) through. This is an insider culture, and friendliness to strangers isn’t valued. Most people I pass on the street don’t make eye contact. Many smile back when I initiate. Some stare without smiling. I haven’t seen anyone yet who can resist my 2 year old’s “Ni hao!”. We feel safer here. In the US the risk of violent crime hung over us like a high altitude but potential storm cloud. People don’t seem to worry at all about being attacked, at least in the areas we’ve been. They caution us to watch for thieves, but we have left our (nice) bikes barely secured many times and had no problems. Most people don’t have cars, and don’t miss them. Buses, subways and taxis are ubiquitous and convenient. It took us about a week to learn the routes to our common places, even though we can’t read Chinese.
We have felt some stress adjusting to our new land. The hardest thing for me is being constantly immersed in an urban jungle. There is an unconscious weight of the thousands of souls living above and all around me. We all share the same air, and there is no private space outside our small apartment. Even within there is minimal privacy when you have 3 young children. So there really isn’t anywhere I can go to get away from people. In the past I have been most able to feel God’s presence out in nature, and I haven’t found a nearby place to escape to here. Communication and illiteracy are another stress. I studied Mandarin for several years before moving here, so I have enough language to accomplish many survival tasks. (I would add that I highly recommend studying ahead if you are planning to move abroad!) But I can’t communicate effortlessly, and every conversation adds the stress of unknown words and not knowing how to respond. Many of the online conveniences are off limits to us, since we can’t read the characters. We have several Chinese friends who have helped, but of course as Americans we feel a bit off depending on others to shop for us. Grocery shopping has become a lot more complicated without my minivan. I kept overfilling my cart and getting through checkout only to remember I actually had to carry this stuff for 20 minutes plus take the bus. We are here to work and be good stewards of what was invested in us, so we have volunteered for many outreach opportunities and filled our schedules quickly. But we also have the goal of Chinese fluency, so we have to study at night when the kids are (finally) in bed. We need to memorize thousands of words and the tones that accompany them in order to make meaningful conversation. We realized that we have run out of time in our day to talk to each other or just decompress. So life feels more hectic here, with less margin.
Our kids seem pretty happy, I think because we spend more time together as a family. They dislike the long (10 minute) walks to the bus stop, but they love riding the bus and going up and down the escalator at the subway. Our apartment grounds are nicer than our neighborhood in the US, with many winding trails, columns, gardens and playgrounds. There is plenty of exploration for the young imagination. We have renamed the route to our bus stop the “secret garden way” because it winds through manicured cobblestone trails and past ornate rotundas. I can see their minds expanding past the cozy places of our Midwest town. In time, our previous life in America will be forgotten, and this will be the first home Nick and Noel remember. Those precious first memories will happen here. For years I invited a tutor and tried to interest them in Chinese without effect. But now they really want to learn and are repeating phrases and asking what things mean. They have realized that there is a real world this language is useful in; and they just might need it to make friends and survive at school. They find some of our annoyances exciting, and thrill over cold showers and de-icing our dysfunctional freezer. Bob and I both lived abroad in our 20’s, and were able to fully immerse ourselves in language and cultural experiences. It is different now, with so much energy spent surviving. But there is a whole new dimension to this experience being on adventure as a family. We laugh at our Mandarin goof ups and cheer for each other when we accomplish a simple task without embarrassment. We have had to leave the comforts of our old world and search for new ones together. We need to be a team more than ever before to build a new life together. Our struggles and delights have become more intertwined. Our kids sometimes see us weak and vulnerable and not knowing things. We have a common mission and vision: our life is not just about giving them what they want. Our next step is to take them to the harder places and allow them to see poverty and suffering, so that they can have a right perspective on their own blessings and hardships.
I genuinely feel transplanted after two months of life in China. My roots still sting from places they were broken, and they miss the soil of certain deep friendships in the U.S. The ground here is both exotic and exciting and strangely uncomfortable. I think we’ve hit some culture shock, and probably there is more to come. I got bronchitis this week, and realized how fatigue and illness changes your lens. I suddenly lost my desire to go anywhere and interact with China; I wanted to insulate myself at home. But other times I have felt deep satisfaction and even exuberant joy just walking down the street. We are really here! After years of waiting and preparation this has really happened. I feel a carpe diem urgency to make the most of every day, to know that I have given this my best. I know many others who have wanted to go and it hasn’t worked out for them. Most days I feel God’s hand in bringing us here and don’t want to take it for granted. And some days I long for my native land where living and communicating took less effort and I had time of my own. We have received sunshine and storms here as we did before. We try to have simple hearts, release expectations, and receive the provision that comes to us, sending our roots deeper and enlarging our branches towards this intriguing new world.