Transplanted

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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.

 

 

 

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China Birds

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I have been trying to move to China for half a decade. My husband and I traveled here in 2013 with two toddlers to explore work and ministry opportunities. The trip confirmed several things for me: I still loved Asian culture, and there was meaningful work happening there that I could be a part of. After we returned, we encountered several obstacles that stood between us and our goal. My longing for a baby and infertility surfaced again, as I pictured us overseas and unable to fulfill that. We began our third adoption. My cousin’s husband got cancer and passed away at 34, leaving her with five young children. I wasn’t sure if we should leave her a widow. We had to raise a large amount of monthly support, an amount that seemed humanly impossible. There were so many times that this decision was almost undone- my husband having second thoughts, our adoption taking longer than we expected, family obligations, lack of response from fundraising. But slowly, month by month, we felt momentum, circumstances nudging us steadily closer to the precipice. At last our adoption was complete, we were free of family obligations, and our support was raised. Yet more mountains loomed ahead: our son, adopted from Taiwan, was told he could not get a Chinese visa. We had a house to show and sell, with three young children living in it. We had to reduce thirteen years of accumulated possessions to a 10×10 storage unit, which is what we could afford on our new budget. Somehow our most important belongings must fit in our airplane luggage; the process of whittling down thousands of objects and making decisions on each one was exhausting.

And then there were the goodbyes. We were taught in our training that it is healthiest to allow yourself to grieve them, because then you will be able to let go. The people who had shared our lives for 9 years- the ones who felt our pain of infertility and loss, and rejoiced with us as we added 3 children to our families. Book club, cooking club, church, play dates, work colleagues. Hundreds of memories with people we will probably never share a city with again. Our friendships will not be the same, the chapter is closed, and that must be properly mourned. We said goodbye to two jobs that were very important to us. My husband left his successful practice he had worked hard to build. I left a faculty position that was my first serious job after residency- my affiliation with this organization touched a deep place in my identity. I felt a literal ache in my chest when I turned in my pager. I cried when we drove away from our house for the last time. The three tree swings had been taken down. I could still see the sign stretched across our garage welcoming our first son home. I saw our boys learning to walk, and then as toddlers running wildly down the halls. Climbing the bush in the back yard. I pictured them making Christmas cookies at our scratched up table, as Salvation army hauled it away. I touched their rocking chair one more time before it was hauled onto the truck, the chair where I rocked each baby I had been so desperately afraid I would never have. We threw away so much stuff that was full of memories, though worthless to anyone else. Shutting down a life is hard. Loss of identity, possessions and friendships was emotionally and physically painful. I grieved them strongly for a month. Sometimes after I wake up I remember that I have a new life, and miss my old one. Some days if I was given the chance to go back to the security of that life I would take it.

I don’t share all this just to complain. Many people consider a move overseas, and most of us know someone who has done this. It is exciting, a dream fulfilled. We faced many obstacles to make this move, and I believe we prevailed because we were meant to do this and we didn’t give up. I rejoice in that- it is a privilege to finally be here. But to romanticize this journey is to cheapen it- it was exponentially harder than we imagined. It was a sacrifice, a death to self, just to get to this place where we are called to serve. It was a test of faith, a painful stretching process. Perhaps that was for a reason.

We flew out from Denver 2 weeks ago. Things went pretty smoothly regarding luggage, the kids on the plane. We weren’t 500 pounds overweight and nobody threw up. We have not had our own home for 2 months. We are living on the 6th floor of a temporary apartment with no elevator. Our stuff is in storage because no one wants to carry it up the stairs. Our son starts school in 3 days, and I have no idea what he needs for uniforms or school supplies. We found out we have to pay federal taxes on our support, as well as a year’s rent and tuition in advance, bleeding our (previously) comfortable support fund to…basically zero. And we are finding this out right before I was going to start shopping for the basic stuff we need to restart our life.

But you know what? After the last several years, I have a new perspective on these problems. I feel peace that it will be ok. There were so many times that China could have fallen off our life map- but it didn’t. There were so many times I threw up my hands and said “If you want us there, you’re going to have to fix this problem”. And He did. There are so many beautiful and hard differences about the way people live here, but this post is getting long, so I will save it for the next one. This has not been a romantic journey, and at times it has felt really raw. There is no guarantee that we will see or accomplish the things we hope for. I renamed our blog “China Birds on a Wire” because I now see how fragile and full of failure we are. If we are passive and live to impress others we will miss the purpose of our lives. I am so thankful to be here, and believe that this is where we’re meant to be. I feel God’s presence and purpose here as I did in the other places. Yet a new life has begun. And I plan to live every day believing that we are here for a reason.

Letting go

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Everything that comes to us will mar

Perfection an ideal

Resigned, we live without

When precious careful things

Get scarred and chipped with time

Life tests and breaks and shatters

But secret dreams remain enshrined

Hallowed cherishings of youth

Transcendent sparks, calling divine

Images of who we might become

First pure, distort under a grasp too tight

The thing we can control, protect

Yet in perfection they remain unreal

Translucent shadows that obey too well

We each may craft our gods and fantasies at will

Sequester in our matrix games and private worlds

They shimmer in the fog we have become

And sparkle in soul’s lamplight, but we cringe

To bring them forth, in case their tarnish shows

And even we are found unglorious when all have seen

But here’s the cobbled space on which our destinies are spread

Where we may risk, and grow

Hold flickering spark to wind and watch it flame or die

It’s here that God meets man

Holds out a hand, receives our flimsy glory now

Then lets it fall, while horrified we watch

Perfection splinter, shards drop to the earth

We wait in loss…accept

The risk we take to make it real

 

 

 

The Halls of Wisdom

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(On my experience working in a nursing home)

 

Every youth should walk these dank halls for a day

Hearing Help and staring into dead eyes

Slurred stories swirl and blend

Reimagining the past

Fermented beauty like aged wine

Translucent skin and liquid eyes

Skeleton once hidden now emerges proud

Body that has weathered ninety years

Can boast it’s strength, while youth can just presume

Pictures on walls speak

You see us here, just like you

Our minds intact, vocations strong

Our futures full of hope

A strange regression happens at the end of life

Hobbling in their second infancy

Obsessed with bowels

Clutching a toy cat or doll

The need for warmth

Sensation becomes primary

Scream for no reason, toddler’s rant

Anxiety and agitation, we write, and call for pills

But maybe they’re just trying to go back

Back to the coiled repose of a neonate

Because the end comes too fast

For others not fast enough

There is a reason will to live is lost

Body,mind, potential gone

Gone are dreams of what might be

Past is best, and savors safe

For being here is not enough

In doing we find meaning

Yet all is not futile

And meaning can be sought and found here

Some have found the joy in dying

Exist by being loved when memory fades

Some are content with life lived well

Avoid regrets, and can accept

They find a faith for what comes next

I cringe and seek retreat

By contrast being busy, being needed is a gift

Reminded now to cherish, but not fear

Yet know the day will come when I become them

 

 

A Mother’s Day Confession

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I am nestled in a cozy sunny window of a busy Starbucks, my bloodstream now replete with sugar, fat and caffeine. I have 3 hours to myself, to surf Facebook or stare out the window or journal or just think. The air is thick with coffee powder, and outside the sky is an interesting shade of cloudy grey. Serenity. We spend most our lives working toward goals and self evaluating. Today I feel writing should be less like running a race, and more like an aimless ramble that may get us lost, but also take us somewhere interesting. If we really love something we will do it without the reward of accomplishment at the end. It’s sad to think about how many things we do for the purpose of pleasing or impressing someone else, or to prop up the self image we are projecting. I feel like this applies to motherhood as well.

Motherhood was hard to come by for me. This journey was potholed with tragedy, but reminds one that the harder journeys sometimes yield a sweeter arriving. I remember  skipping church on Mother’s Day, unable in my bitterness of soul to hear other mothers congratulated for something I desperately wanted. But today I dressed my boys in button down shirts and put my baby in her Easter dress.  I felt just like all the others- so strange how time really does heal some wounds. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t been chosen. I shudder to think of that road to motherhood stretching to the present. Some people wait 10, 15 years. I’m glad I didn’t have to.

The journey to and experience  of motherhood is often polluted by wrong motives, expectations and assumptions. I wanted to love a child, but I also wanted to keep up with my peers. I felt ashamed because I couldn’t achieve a pregnancy. I felt left out, left behind, inferior, even cursed. It was so hard for me to accept infertility as a part of my unique journey, to accept that my story would stand out. I wanted so much to conform to the expectations of others, and this desire blinded me to the new thing God was doing in my life.

People kindly say my kids are blessed to have me, but when I speak of them it is in the language of gift, rescue and mercy. I was rescued from the barren desert of childlessness. And this rescue has made the experience of motherhood a little different; more infused with wonder, a daily awe that they are really mine.This is the pure experience of motherhood, the moment when the gates are opened and the pain of blocked desire becomes a new love that bursts from your heart to inundate this little person. It is a transcendent experience; we become better than our normal selves, willing to make any sacrifice with joy, to give our lives. It is falling in love again. And every day that experience is open to me. To wonder. To enter their world. To give affection and praise and love.

But just like so many other aspects of my life, and my journey  to motherhood, I let the wrong reasons creep in.  I obey the urge to accomplish something I can check off, and chafe when they ask me to come play. I allow irritation  and impatience  to build up, clouding the way I see them and respond. I come under the expectations  of others, and worry why my wild boys don’t behave as well as my friends’ kids. I compare milestones and giftings, and start worrying about genetics and their futures.  I am tired, and this makes me fearful that my needs won’t be met, that I must fight for myself. My gifts become the adversary, the ones who steal my sleep and mess up my house and rob my peace. I feel that I must get them to mind, because I don’t want to be that mom who can’t control her kids. And because  loss of control is frightening. I feel superior when my child excels, and ashamed when he falls short. I have mostly avoided the mommy war issues, but these thoughts above slide effortlessly into my mind and poison motherhood.

Today on Mother’s day I want to do the right thing for the right reason. To remember that they are still an undeserved gift.To love and draw out the glory in my child at this moment, without using him or her to further my status or accomplish something or build up my self-esteem. To simply enjoy being with them is to love without ulterior motive. When they are not enjoyable I want to see this as an opportunity  to grow in love, not an attack on myself. Instead of wondering if they will become someone who brings me admiration, I want to leave a heritage of shared memories. I want them to remember me as someone who really saw and understood them.  Who invited God’s grace into our imperfections. Who simply loved them for who they really are.

Past the Crossroads

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Well, we’re moving forward at last. We have been seriously researching and pondering an international move for the past 4 years, and the time has come to make it happen. The first mountain before us is the raising of support, the process by which we become financially dependent upon our friends, acquaintances, and church. I have dreaded this stage for a long time- the awkwardness of asking people for money, and the feelings of rejection when they don’t write back. This is a unique experience for Bob and I, as we have previously been on the receiving end of these requests. I have been warned to avoid expectations; that my good friend I expected to support me will look away, while a stranger responds enthusiastically. I have been told that this is a spiritual journey in which we will have to trust God like never before, and our faith will grow when he responds. I have been exhorted to see myself as a minister of Christ wherever I go and seek to serve and bless others rather than raise money.
All helpful advice. But this introvert has to find her own way to navigate the exhausting emotional minefield of support raising with 3 children in tow. I want to find myself on the other side of this mountain excited about the work happening in China, closer to my friends ( and not bitter at anyone), and with a fresh sense of divine calling and provision.
When I give our presentation people sometimes ask me, “Are you excited?” I know the right answer. When I began this process I wasn’t that excited, I just felt that it was time to start. Honestly, we’re in a stage of life right now where we pray for enough energy to make it to the end of the day. I remember my trips overseas. I remember the sense that God was moving and calling; the joy with which people received Truth for the first time. The sense of being fully alive, of fulfilling God’s destiny for my life. And yes, there was some youthful passion and romance woven in there too.
Life looks different as I approach 40. When I am really tired and dysphoric, I would say that I don’t feel that kind of passion anymore. But that’s not really true. As I talk about the work that is happening in China and see people engage and get excited, my joy returns to me. When our friends decide to come beside us in support, I feel honored and challenged. It makes me want to be a better person. To be worthy- and that thought leads me back to a place of total dependence on God. Ultimately, He is the only one who can make this happen, and the one who makes us worthy and fruitful. We are at a stage in life where we are better able to count the costs. We know it will be hard, and we will sacrifice a lot. We also believe that it will be worth it.
This is a strange time of life to move to China, with 3 children 6 and under. And yet, it feels the time is right. My excitement is like the hopeful expectation one feels when facing a new day after a good night’s sleep. Not the giddy energy that comes from too much coffee.

Universe (for Sakal)

God broods
over the vast moors
and the silent hills
the desert places where no grass speaks
the orb of moon in crimson sky
the winged flight of ocean flocks
Death has come, but we will face it
silent as the bloom of spring
we will hope
while we know
this is an end, real and bitter
slicing and changing this mortal life

you came into this space so alive
and grew and found your destiny
set alight and burning with His glory
filling others with your joy and life
then suddenly, like fire
you were consumed
struck down by greedy flames
your vibrancy and confidence were singed
yet hope stood firm
and faith held to the end
today we honor you and see your form
cleaved from its essence, strange it looks
we ponder as we see
our future too

but then we are consoled
we feel the pulse
of life within, without
outside the breeze is fresh
the sun another fire
of life, not death
and now we know
that spring will come
and Love has found you
that you will live again