Taking Flight

Taking Flight

Even youths grow tired and weary,

And young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the Lord

Will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

They will run and not grow weary,

They will walk and not be faint.

            – Isaiah 40:30-31

We all face times in our lives when we need to step into the unknown, when a rejection of taking this risk would result in self-protection based in fear. Some of these situations happily force themselves upon us, such as marriage or graduation from high school or from the university and the necessity to set the course for the next stage of our lives. Others slam us hard, like a job loss or an unforeseen change in relationship. And still other opportunities are created from a calling, an unrest, a longing.

Whatever the situation, the question all Christians must answer in transition is this: Do I have enough trust – enough confidence – in my God to move forward?

One year ago, Josh and I boarded a plane bound for China. There is something eerie and terrifying about leaving your children on the other side of planet Earth.

Flight Map

That May flight, the first of five 24-hour flights that we would make in the course of three months, began our look-see trip, the one in which we visited the prospective city to make sure we wanted to go ahead with applying for the job opportunity.

But in those three summer months, and in the five months before that, what impacted me most was not the physical flight, but the spiritual and emotional flight that accompanied the transition.

I think that the Lord knows I need recurring themes in my life so that I can finally learn the main point of whatever He is trying to teach me. Those themes don’t usually come in the form of mental pictures, but I am grateful that one did, which I will tell you about now.

Twelve years ago this summer, I stepped into my first season of work and career. I sat at a round table with five other new staff, in a room of 200 more just like us. In the midst of a highly intense 10-day training, and at this table, God placed an image in my mind. I was visibly shaking and sobbing as I emotionally processed what this might mean.

My group leader asked me what was going on, and I explained the picture to him. In this image, I saw myself standing at the edge of a high cliff. Everything beyond the cliff was enshrouded in darkness. I sensed the Spirit of God beckoning me to jump off of the edge, into the abyss.

It was obvious to me that this referenced the new work I was stepping into, since I had little clear idea of what lay before me for the next five plus years. All I knew was that I did not want to fall off of that cliff.

I no longer remember my group leader’s exact response (and I’m pretty sure there’s a meme around now with this same idea), but the essence was this: What if, instead of falling, God gives you wings to fly?

And He did.

A few moments over the next eleven years of work felt like I got banged up on the side of the cliff, but even with that, my trust and confidence in God built as I saw Him come through for me over the long haul. He developed in me strength, endurance, vision, and faith that I didn’t have before responding to His invitation into the unknown.

10 ½ years later, I again sat in a room full of staff, this time 2,000 of them. I had grown restless, feeling trapped and looking for a new passion.

I shared with a colleague that my husband, just that week, began pursuing a potential job in China. I asked my colleague to pray for discernment in the situation, and he wisely asked me how I was feeling and thinking about all of this. He listened intently as I explained my desire for a new adventure and opportunity for myself and for my family.

When I had finished, my colleague described to me the image God placed in his mind as I was speaking. He had envisioned wings on my back, spreading out more and more as I spoke. I was ready to fly.

Of course, taking flight did not come easily. I grieved the loss, albeit temporary, of people and places that I loved. And once again, I found myself launching off into the darkness, this time unsure of my purpose, my passion, and my calling.

I don’t know what risk God is asking you to take. Obviously, assessing God’s call needs to be done with wisdom and with the counsel of wise people. But after discerning clearly, going for it is the best thing you can do for your spiritual life. Maybe your risk of faith looks like serving your spouse, or giving up your summer plans, or giving your life to Christ, or moving overseas. The size of the risk is not important – after all, Jesus tells parables about servants who are faithful in small matters being put in charge of larger matters.

When you take a risk, you might not get the outcome that you expect. This is why the Bible says that those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength, as opposed to those who hope in a certain outcome. When you answer God’s invitation to take a step of faith, you are saying, “Yes”, to the God who knows and loves you.

Taking a risk of faith, even a small one like tangibly loving someone or speaking truth, is… risky. But it’s exhilarating and freeing. It places us in the position where we HAVE to depend on God to come through for us. Trust deepens when we experience that the God who asks us to jump will teach us to fly.

I will leave you with the song that has been my anthem of trust for a year and a half now. To borrow the words of the song, may your faith be made stronger in the presence of the Savior.

Building a Life in My Foreign City: A New Year’s Resolution

Building a Life in My Foreign City: A New Year’s Resolution
Wheat Field Credit: Brooke Jacobson
Wheat Field
Photo Credit: Brooke Jacobson

I grew up in this beauty. I spent so much time in the sun and fields that my hair turned the golden color of ripened wheat. I loved the prairie, the fields, the wooded groves, the creeks, and the freedom of walking for miles without seeing another soul.

This is me in the middle of a wheat field, hoisting my little brother up for a photo
This is me in the middle of a wheat field, hoisting my little brother up for a photo

I noticed a few adults who had lived their childhoods on farms but had defected to the city when they were grown. I always judged them silently, viewing them as traitors. I never understood how they could leave the land and lifestyle that had raised them.

After college, I worked at a university campus, so it made sense to live in town. A few years later, I married a man who worked at a company in the same town, and it made sense for us to find a house there. A few years after that, we had kids. And it made sense to raise them… in town. I had always planned on raising farm kids, allowing them to experience hard work, cooperation with their family, caring for animals, and the need to trust in God when you deal with uncontrollable conditions such as weather. Developing town kids did not make my list of 10-year goals.

As if town life weren’t stretching enough, six months ago we landed in a city of roughly 24 million people, with a commitment to do life there through the next three years. Just visiting a city in our home country counted as culture shock for me; living in a cosmopolitan city in another country added even more hurdles. Having traveled to China twice previously, this particular city was the last place in this country that I would have chosen to live.

To clarify, I was not dragged here kicking and screaming. I chose to live here, and although I have a deep appreciation for agriculture, I understand that it would not be the right fit for me. I am happy to be in this city. We have been blessed with so many friends and opportunities here. It’s just that sometimes the place where we find ourselves is such a world away from what we know that it’s a bit of a shock.

Shanghai Cityscape Photo Credit: Brooke Jacobson
Shanghai Cityscape
Photo Credit: Brooke Jacobson

After staying here for our first five months, we visited our home country to celebrate Christmas with our families. The spoken phrase “Welcome home!” warmed my heart. When our three-week vacation ended and we returned to our new house, I asked my eldest where her home is. She declared without a minute’s hesitation that her home is in America.

The Land That I Love
The Land That I Love

I feel the same way.

But one of the thoughts that came to me over and over as we stayed with our families was “How do we make this new place homey?” Problem #1: our house is reminiscent of a hospital (think expansive and completely white). How do I turn this house into a home of refuge and peace? How do I stabilize my children and myself with a life-giving routine? What do I cut out to make time for the people who are important to me?

I suppose that the overarching question is this: How do we settle down and make our home in a place that is foreign, unfamiliar, and so far from the place I envisioned for myself when growing up?

Although we are far from being in exile, I am reminded of God’s words to His exiled people.

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’” – Jeremiah 29:4-7, emphasis mine

This is the prelude to the often taken out of context verse, Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

I imagine that I feel a little bit like these people may have felt, at least without the forced relocation. I’m in a new city far from home, trying to understand an indiscernible language, and navigating an unfamiliar culture. As I walk around, it’s painfully obvious that I don’t belong here. Transportation and shopping require effort and thoughtfulness, and to be honest, it’s exhausting.

The Bund Shanghai Skyline
The Bund
Shanghai Skyline

As the experience is similar, so God’s word to me is similar. In the midst of all of the change, I am called to bless this city. The settling down, the building a life, the seeking the good of the foreign city, the praying for this place to prosper is what opens our eyes to see the hope and the future that God has for us. We must not spend years, even just a few, biding time until we can leave a place, when we could instead make our home there and bless it.

So this is my new year’s resolution: to build a life here, in my foreign city.

I Love Shanghai

Language Blunders Part 1

In an instant, my reputation as a mother shattered in the eyes of our ayi.

I’ve finally begun Mandarin lessons. This past week, I learned the word for juice. I sat at the kitchen table with my tutor and made a mental note that it sounded similar to the English word for juice.

Fast-forward one hour. I took the leftover apple cider out of the fridge to give to my kids and thought it might be fun for ayi to try some. I poured a small glass and offered it to her, saying in my slowly deliberate Mandarin, “This is apple juice,” which I hoped would be close enough to “cider” and she could figure it out from there.

And here begins our conversation, in which I became a terrible mother.

Note: This all happened in Mandarin, aside from my thoughts, and ayi’s Mandarin has been paraphrased for the reader’s understanding.

Ayi, pausing: “Jiu?”

My thoughts: “That sounds like what I just said, with better tone, and it’s close to juice. That must be it.”

Me: “Yes.”

Ayi: “I don’t drink that.”

My thoughts: “That’s so strange. Maybe she thinks it will mess up her digestion or something.”

I put her cider down and pour three small cups for my three children. As I warm it in the microwave, ayi turns from doing the dishes to watch me.

Ayi, very strongly: “They (the children) shouldn’t drink that.”

Me, reassuringly: “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

My thoughts, as ayi coldly turns back to the dishes: “What’s the deal? Maybe the Chinese don’t let their kids drink apple juice? There was that one fruit that she said they shouldn’t have too much of. Maybe it’s like that. Too much sugar? Bad for digestion?”

Me: “Just a little bit is okay for them.”

I give the cider to the kids, and then ayi turns to me again.

Ayi: “I can’t drink it because I have to drive my scooter to my other job.”

Me, horrified, as I realized the word she had used: “No, no, no! Not ‘JIU’!”

I quickly grab the bottle of juice out of the fridge: “This one!”

Ayi, after scrutinizing the label on the bottle: “Oh, ZHI!”

And then she smiled, realizing that I give apple juice to my little ones… not apple wine.

Welcome to the world of language, where a simple error can wreak havoc in real life conversations.

My husband and I shared a hearty laugh about this episode, partly because of ayi’s horror at my parenting and partly because of my embarrassment. As a child learning to speak, adults give us so much grace and patience. I think of one of my nephews who recently tried to say the lovely phrase, “Nana’s beach.” It came out sounding like something that I won’t write here. We laughed and enjoyed the moment, but we didn’t reprimand him or became angry because he accidentally blurted out something else. We expect that toddlers won’t get their words or pronunciations correct all the time, especially at first, and we listen carefully to understand what they try to say.

I wish that we adults would have the same grace for other adults and for ourselves when we learn a new language. I’m a big perfectionist. I don’t like to fail. I don’t like to be incorrect. I want to say something the right way the first time and every time after that. But it’s not possible.

While I desperately want Mandarin speakers to display patience toward my attempts to speak, the only person I can control is myself. So I hope to be patient toward students or friends I meet who are learning English, realizing that their trying means they actually care to communicate with me. And I want to give myself grace to know that I will fail linguistically but that I am free to try and to learn and to laugh at myself.

Oh, and ayi drank her cider and said it tasted delicious.

Taking My Husband’s Life

Taking My Husband’s Life

Eight years ago today, I married this man.

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I am so ridiculously blessed.

That day in our small city was just like today in our expansive city: sunny, warm, a bit breezy. In a word, perfect.

Fast-forward six years. My husband and I were happy and content, raising three kids in a good town surrounded by amazing people that we love.

Then, over a year ago, Josh and I began talking in earnest about the possibility of moving to China. No concrete opportunity had presented itself, but his company was getting a new CEO and restructuring a bit, so it appeared that something could open up.

I was intrigued at the idea of a change but also extremely hesitant, for several reasons.

One day early in the summer, I got a babysitter for the kids and took my monthly required “retreat of rest”, as my supervisor called it. I walked through a local garden and spent some time talking with God. While there, I was reminded of a concept that I had lost hold of during the ups and downs of six years.

During high school, I attended a church where we watched videos featuring Ray Vander Laan. He had traveled the Middle East and connected Jewish culture with the life and teachings of Jesus. So much more about Jesus made sense when understood in context.

In one of the segments, Vander Laan explained the traditional process of betrothal. Of course, the process was intricate and the fathers of the woman and man were involved, but what struck me was the moment of the “ask”. The man took a cup of wine, drank from it, and offered it to the woman. This gesture was as if to say, “Here is my life and everything that it holds. Will you accept it?” If the woman drank from the cup, she essentially took the man’s life as her own. Whatever the “cup” of life held in store for them, they would take it together.

On that summer day a year and a half ago, I pondered what it meant to take my husband’s life. Not in a “bumping him off” sense (obviously!), but with the idea that the course of our lives would be one. Whatever he would be called to in the future, I would also be called to.

I couldn’t honestly say that Josh’s interest in China blindsided me. After all, he had studied Mandarin in Beijing for two years, we met at a picnic for new Chinese international students the summer that he returned, he talked about China all the time when we were dating, and for our one-year anniversary he took me to visit Beijing. I could not claim ignorance. I knew what I was getting into.

And yet, I had forgotten. I had forgotten that when I said, “I do”, I accepted his life. His course and direction would also be my course and direction.

Let me clarify. Josh is not the kind of man who would dictate that I bow at his feet and yield to his wishes. I knew before I married that I needed a husband who understood my calling and could encourage me in it. In fact, the second time that we visited China together, it was because I realized that even as a mother, I had to continue to grow personally and to keep my love for the nations alive. And so it was that Josh took time off and we brought our toddler and several college students to China for a month.

But the truth is that it’s hard sometimes to bend, to give a little or a lot, to live out the opportunity or dream of your spouse. Sometimes we ask the unvoiced question, “What about me?” I read a great book recently entitled Just How Married Do You Want to Be? by Jim and Sarah Sumner. They rightly noted that marriage is not a competition. Because you are ONE with your spouse, whatever success your spouse gains is your success as well.

China bride and groom

A while ago, we saw this bride and groom arrive to an apartment complex, preceded by shots of fireworks. I’m sure, like most of us, they felt full of anticipation, hopeful for their future together. Do any of us really get what it will mean, what it will cost us, to take on someone else’s life? Their successes, their failures, their dull days? Probably not. I think it’s the same for those of us who have given our lives to Jesus Christ. We don’t really get what it will mean, what it will cost us, to exchange our life plans for His plans. And yet, like marriage, this commitment sets us off on an unparalleled adventure. It’s totally worth it.

A friend asked me last week if I’m happy that we moved to Shanghai. I don’t know. However, I do know that I am happy to share this adventure with my husband. And because of that, there’s really no place I’d rather be.

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Happy anniversary, Josh. I love you lots! Isn’t it ironic that we married during a Chinese holiday? I guess God has a sense of humor…

Driving the Road Between the Ditches of Apathy and Fear

Driving the Road Between the Ditches of Apathy and Fear

My friend arrived into Shanghai last December, with her two daughters in tow, on the worst air quality day this city has ever seen. As she walked off the plane and into the airport, she thought, “What is that smell?” Soon, an unfamiliar taste filled her mouth and she began to feel small particles on her tongue. Instead of greeting her with flowers, her husband greeted her with facemasks.

Since my family relocated, I’ve swerved between the ditches of apathy and fear, specifically concerning food safety and air quality.

IMG_5418   IMG_5427    IMG_5160

I love the variety of food in this city. My family has tried at least one new dish or food per week. Some of the vegetables that I’ve eaten from the wet market taste straight out of the garden, not like the bland U.S. supermarket veggies. The fresh carrots have spoiled me already, and the tomatoes that make incredible pasta sauce took me by surprise. And they are cheap. Enough vegetables for my family for one week cost 60RMB, a little more than $10.

But the horror stories are everywhere. 30,000 tons of chicken feet, tainted by hydrogen peroxide, seized by the government last month. 53,000 children sickened in 2008 by powdered milk with the plastic melamine added – and that was Nestlé, a trusted brand. Children are annually checked for high amounts of lead in their bloodstreams, much of which comes from the dirt and gives people ample reason to wash their produce well. Even a well-known supermarket that caters to foreigners and upper middle-class locals is rumored to have sprayed their produce with Raid. And expats absolutely DO NOT consume the local milk or honey. The city water is clean… until it goes through the pipes to people’s residences. At that point, it could contain a mixture of bacteria and (more likely) heavy metals.

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As for the air quality, it has been clear and beautiful since we arrived. The consistent rain keeps the pollution at bay and we can open windows to bring in a nice breeze and the rich smell of flowering plants. My son has even noticed some planets shining in the clear night sky. Our compound hosts vibrant greenery and today, my son and I spotted this butterfly just outside our front door.

Then there is the rest of the story. In the winter, the weather patterns change and farmers burn their fields. Everyone has an app on their phones that monitors the official air quality. They check it every morning in the same way a person would check the weather in order to decide what to wear for the day but in this case, the question is, “Do I wear a facemask or not?” If the air quality index is 200+, most people send their kids to school with facemasks on. The day my friend arrived, Shanghai hit over 500. That same day in Beijing, the AQI was over 700, the point at which you can’t see your own hand fully extended in front of you.

Because of these issues, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to avoid both carelessness and paranoia.

You may live in a very different environment than I, and yet I have confidence that you have come across this dilemma at some point in your life.

Carelessness and paranoia, or more generally apathy and fear, are the attitude extremes. We are all given ample opportunities to respond to situations with one of these two attitudes.

Let me give you a sampling of some of these opportunities.

In raising our children.

In developing our marriages.

In building our careers.

In pursuing our studies.

In maintaining our health.

In addressing conflict.

In combatting injustice.

In stewarding our money.

Take a quick self-check.

Are you apathetic or fearful in raising your children?

Are you apathetic or fearful in developing your marriage?

Are you apathetic or fearful in building your career?

Are you apathetic or fearful in pursuing your studies?

Are you apathetic or fearful in maintaining your health?

Are you apathetic or fearful in addressing conflict?

Are you apathetic or fearful in combatting injustice?

Are you apathetic or fearful in stewarding your money?

Are you apathetic or fearful in some other area of your life?

Apathy.

The “I don’t care” attitude. Apathy lulls us to sleep like the tryptophan after a big Thanksgiving meal. All hell could break loose around us and yet we would be content to continue on as if we never knew. Better yet, we don’t even have to know that something should or could be different in this area of life. We can live in a false bubble. And if, by chance, that bubble should break, we can always blame the mess on someone else. After all, we never did anything. And the people we love are left questioning why we didn’t step in.

Fear.

The “Danger is lurking around every corner” attitude. Fear either paralyzes us or transforms us into living monsters. We are driven, compelled, or overwhelmed by fear. News, advertising, and even weather forecasts play on our fears, knowing that it will lure us into watching more, buying more, or tracking more. We begin to hover, control, panic, run, over-analyze, hoard, worry, or… the list goes on and on. We smother or wound people and then wonder why we have pushed them away.

Listen. Our apathy or our fear impacts people. It hurts people. To do life well, you and I must learn to spend our time driving the road between the ditches of apathy and fear.

The name of the road between apathy and fear is wisdom.

The portion of the Bible entitled “Proverbs”, aptly dubbed the “Book of Wisdom”, contains 31 chapters of one-sentence pithy sayings. Chapter 2 answers the question, “Where do I start to get wisdom?”

Proverbs 2:3-6

“…indeed, if you call out for insight

and cry aloud for understanding,

and if you look for it as for silver

and search for it as for hidden treasure,

then you will understand the fear [respect, awe] of the Lord

and find the knowledge of God.

For the Lord gives wisdom;

from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.

The Lord and wisdom are linked because when you are lacking something, you have to get it from somewhere outside of yourself. If you don’t have wisdom, you can’t work harder by yourself to produce it. If you desire to find wisdom, you will go to a person who can give it to you. It just so happens that the wisest, most just, fair, and right person is… God.

God does not respond to you with apathy. He cares about your life, He involves Himself in your world, and He loves you deeply even when you run away. He died in your place.

God does not respond to you with fear. He has confidence in His own power and strength, He sees all sides of every situation, and He brings justice to the oppressed. He crushed sin and death when He came to life from the dead.

In order to learn wisdom, you must come close to the God who shows neither apathy nor fear. When you understand, with all of your being, how He responds to you with love and justice, you will begin to live wisely also.

Practically speaking, if you lean toward apathy or fear, try reading one chapter of Proverbs a day. This crazy book covers everything from nagging wives to the value of children to how to take criticism to having integrity in business.

My personal October challenge is to read one chapter of Proverbs each day. Will you join me? Let’s do life well.

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If you are curious about our response to the environmental challenges in Shanghai, read on.

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We buy this water and have it delivered to our house. It’s not as high-end as buying a filter for your sink faucet but it’s a middle-of-the-road solution that is very common here. We take brush our teeth with the tap water and take showers and baths in it as well.

IMG_5089   Asahi milk

Most foreigners drink shelf-stable UHT milk and cream. I tried the milk and immediately had to get the taste out of my mouth, so we’ve landed on this fresh milk imported from Japan.

Shanghai boasts several semi-organic food delivery websites that cater to foreigners. We buy our meat and milk from there. I will continue to get most of our fruits and vegetables at the local wet market. Many people I know in the States are also concerned about the additives that come along with their food and produce, so that aspect of food safety is not new.

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I use this spray and the drinking water to wash food that we will eat raw and unpeeled. We peel as much produce as possible. However, when my sweet vegetable lady hands my kids carrots that she just peeled with her antiquated rusty knife, I won’t blink an eye. People are just more important than worrying about contaminants.

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We invested in air purifiers for our home. They will likely run constantly in December and January. While we can, we will leave the windows wide open.

vogmask photo

We will be buying one of these vogmasks, or something similar, for each of our family members. They look a bit like gas masks, which is unnerving, but they are high quality and will protect our kids’ lungs.

In essence, we are actively planning for what we can while enjoying the really great aspects of this experience overseas. We will face challenges, but we will not be anxious about what we encounter, knowing that the God who brought us here will take care of us here.

11 Ways That Your Freshman Year of College is Like Being a First-Time Expat

11 Ways That Your Freshman Year of College is Like Being a First-Time Expat

After being a university student for four years and then working with InterVarsity for the next eleven years, I still live according to the rhythms of college life. So naturally, I connect experiences as a newbie expat with the experiences of a typical newbie college student.

 

1. You don’t know where anything is except for your room/house/apartment.

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Welcome to your new campus or country! Find an exploration buddy and work outward from your location in concentric circles.

Don’t worry about wandering around with campus map or iPhone in hand. Everyone else who was a newbie did the same thing. Residents might laugh at you and mutter “Freshman!” or “LaoWai!”, but that’s better than getting lost.

The good news: wherever you wander, you can always find your way home.

 

2. You buy expensive food because the store/restaurant/cafeteria is closest to you and that’s the only place you know of.

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Yes, you do buy that tiny $3 bag of chips and that $1 chocolate chip cookie. How could you not when the C-store is in your residence hall and driving to the nearest gas station would require you to lose your sweet parking spot? The cafeteria offers lots of good food fast, and you have a meal plan, so you don’t even see the money leaving your fingers.

In the States, I would reject Starbucks in favor of my local coffee shop. Here, while we lived in our transition apartment for two weeks, I gladly waltzed over to the expensive Starbucks EVERY DAY because it was nearby and familiar.

In time, I’ll be going to the local wet market for vegetables and will probably turn into a tea-drinker. And you, incoming freshman, will eventually find the grocery store and figure out how to cook for yourself. Noodles may not be as tasty as the cafeteria food, but it’s a whole lot more economical.

 

3. You make do with what you have.

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This is my only knife. My only frying pan. My only cutting board.

Sure, there’s a bunch of stuff coming in the air freight shipment, but that’s stuck at customs for four weeks until we get our residence permit. The frying pan is the only one of these items that we brought in our luggage from the States. To conserve space in the luggage, we put the kids’ stuffed animals inside (fried horse, blue monkey, or pink elephant, anyone?).

In a dorm room, you don’t even have SPACE to get a whole set of dishes. So you use the one cup that you got from a student org the day before classes started. I literally made mac and cheese in a cup for my entire first year of college because, aside from a spoon, that’s the only dish I had.

And you know what? Living simply and being inventive is good for us. It makes us grateful.

 

4. You willingly participate in the shuffle of fast friend-finding.

 Asher and Jackson hug

The university world and the expat world are both highly transitory. Most undergrads are around for 4-5 years (if they don’t transfer halfway through). Many expats have contracts for 3-5 years.

This means that lots of people come and go, affording ample opportunities to find friends who are also searching for new friends. In the hunt to gain close friends, many people will spend time with whoever they can. After all, “beggars can’t be choosers”, as the saying goes. Your freshman year, the question of the day often becomes, “Who will I eat lunch with???” And the highlight of the day is having someone ask you first if you would catch a meal with them.

By the time the dust settles after your first 4-6 weeks, you discover that you have some real gems that stick with you for the rest of your life and that you may also have a few folks you’ll eventually drift from. And that’s okay. Every person is a blessing.

 

5. You take comfort in connecting with people who know your background.

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One of the greatest elements of the university and of living overseas is the diversity. Thousands or millions of people with unique cultures and worldviews give you the opportunity to grow. At the same time, familiarity gives some foundation in the midst of change.

I’m a farm girl. As a freshman, it didn’t take me long to find every true farm kid who lived on my floor. Bonus points if they lived West River. They “got” my values and my way of life.

I’m an American. As much as I love diversity, it brings peace to have some people around who can give a fairly close guess about what I really meant when I said or did something. Speaking the same language is huge, too. And hey, I’m actually living West River again! Thank you, Puxi!

We can push ourselves to avoid those like us, or we can be tempted to insulate ourselves within a homogenous community. Don’t fall into either ditch. Enjoy the gift of knowing people who “get” you, and make the effort to love and learn from people who are different from yourself.

 

6. You rely on people who are happy (or paid) to help you.

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In the university world, these people are the admissions ambassadors, the RAs/CAs, Greek brothers or sisters, and whatever kind-hearted upperclassmen take pity on you.

They are great go-tos for questions like, “How do I buy books and still have money for food?” or “What groups can I get involved in?” or “Where do I pay my tuition fee?” or “Is it worth skipping Spanish 101 and going straight to 102?” or “When my roommate said (or did)… what WAS that?”

Overseas, these people are your company’s local employees, relocation agents, and whatever experienced expats take pity on you.

They are great go-tos for questions like, “Where can I buy milk that’s safe for my kids to drink?”, “How do I hire a helper for the house?”, “How do I get a cell phone plan?”, “What kind of moped should I get?” or “When the local on the street yelled at me, what WAS that?”

These people, especially the happy and unpaid ones, are priceless. Thank them profusely and become that kind of person for someone after you.

 

7. You discover ways to develop your spiritual life.

 Chaya praying

The statistics are miserable. It’s often said that 60-80% of kids who grow up in church in the U.S. will walk away from their faith in college. It makes sense. Maybe they’ve gone to church for years and were bored out of their minds, or they had a terrifying experience one time and will never go back. Or maybe they just don’t care and get busy doing other things.

On the flip side, the university can be one of the absolute best places for up-and-coming adults to explore or strengthen their faith. Everyone is trying to figure out their life’s purpose, their strengths and personality, and what really matters to them. As a freshman, you walk in with lots of questions that need answers.

In fact, ANY life transition is a good time to seek God and find answers.

When I stepped foot on campus, one of the first things I did was to check out some Christian ministries. It was there that I found my life-long friends and grew in love for God and for people, not to mention in leadership skills. And they are so accessible. I’ve met dozens of students who knew little to nothing about Jesus when they came to campus, only to find out that their Christian friends were smart and really fun! And then they discovered that Jesus wasn’t just a good teacher, but is God, cares about them and the world, and is worth giving their lives to.

A couple weeks ago, I met a really great lady from Singapore. She told me that when she came to this city, her faith was pretty flat, but after joining an international church, her faith in Jesus Christ has come alive.

I expect the same for me and for you. Our understanding of God will grow and flourish as we seek Him in a new place.

 

8. You take risks you wouldn’t normally take.

 window washers

See the black dots in the middle right of the skyscraper? Those are people washing the windows!

Within my first two weeks on campus, I met dozens of new people. One upperclassmen guy, after meeting me once, called me (on my dorm room landline – gasp – so outdated!) and asked if I wanted to go with a group of mostly upperclassmen to a city 50 miles away, at night, to play laser tag. “Of course!” flew out of my mouth without hesitation. Complete strangers, the dark of night, in their vehicle, no cell phone, no escape plan… sounds like a great idea!

Within my couple weeks in Shanghai, a friend invited me to get a pedicure with her. Seems fairly simple. Except that it meant meeting her there, which meant finding transportation. Jump in a taxi with no Mandarin language skill, tell the driver where to go in toneless Mandarin, sit back for twenty minutes and trust that he knows what I said, answer all of his questions with a “yes” (no idea what he asked me), tell the driver where to stop without knowing where the spa actually is, and try to avoid getting yelled at by said driver… sounds like a great idea!

And both turned out well. Some risks are worth taking, especially if you make great friends out of the deal.

 

9. You get homesick.

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Yep, I had my first cry session this week. My daughter got an ear infection and woke up screaming in the middle of the night. We made it to the clinic in the morning, but before we left Chaya said, “I wish we lived in an apartment instead of this house” and I thought, “Me too!” A lady showed up at our patio door with her cousin in tow, who wanted to be our ayi (house helper / nanny), and I tried to gesture that my daughter was sick. Said good-bye to them, after the lady assured me that her cousin was an amazing ayi and I was told to call her to let her know if she is hired, and off we went. I had to get all three kids home in a downpour. I banged my son’s head on the taxi door trying to get him out of the rain, and Chaya wailed because she thought we were leaving her behind at the clinic with some woman she’d never met.

We got home, I cried, and I literally just wanted to call my mom.

What’s that? You’d never just want to call your parents? Ha! Just wait until your first semester.

When I was a freshman, I thought I needed to be strong, so I called home about once a month. Probably not the best idea. However, I do remember forging a note mid-October, in which I cried out to God that I had no idea why I was in college because it was lonely and I had no purpose there.

In college and overseas, you miss some of the events that happen at home. You might find out that your dog died a week ago or that your family went on a vacation without you. It’s tough to be away. And it’s okay to grieve.

Thankfully, rainbows show up after the rain. By my second semester, I had a place and a purpose. My four years at the university remain one of my favorite periods of my life so far. And it WILL be the same overseas. Eventually, I will be able to say that these three years remain one of my favorite seasons of life.

 

10. You study hard.

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University, Day 1. The easy day. You get your syllabus, which lists every single project due throughout the entire semester. And you return to your room in freak-out mode.

You try to learn equations that kick your butt. You memorize a map of France only to begin your quiz and discover that you have to DRAW the river before you label it. You form study groups, go to study sessions, find your regular spot in the study room.

Overseas, Day 1. You are half asleep from jet lag, forcing yourself to stay awake as long as possible, manage to order food at some restaurant, go upstairs to use the toilet and discover that you have no idea how to use a squatty potty AND you didn’t bring your own toilet paper with you.

You begin to learn a new language. You try to cross the street with three children without getting smashed by a truck. You observe people and start to discern if that person acted like that because it’s normal in this culture, or if it’s just them.

Your new lessons may not get easier, but you’ll find a rhythm to your studies. And hopefully you will be a lot smarter in the end.

 

11. You make some mistakes.

 raindrop taxi

We went to a jiaozi restaurant near our house this week. While my husband ordered, this guy who had finished his meal came over and observed. After Josh had completed the order, this guy started smirking and shaking his head. He shook his head and smirked all the way out the door. He even shook his head outside as he peered back in at us! I felt embarrassed, and I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be embarrassed about.

In college, I dated a guy that I liked as a friend but wasn’t really into romantically. I felt that I should date him because he was a good guy. It made sense, but it didn’t turn out well. We both hurt each other and I ended up calling it off. Dating him was a bad idea in the first place and even now, I wish I could undo that segment of my time in college.

This is life. We do things not-the-right-way, or we unintentionally (or intentionally) hurt people, we say the wrong thing, we do something in a time that’s not right… or we do something we never should have done at all. 

One of the reasons we moved overseas is because our kids need to see us receive grace. They need to see us accept undeserved favor from each other and from God. Because we are going to fail. And when we do, we can say “I’m such a terrible person” or we can say, “I’m good because I’m not as bad as that other guy.”

OR we can say, “I’m a broken person in need of Someone who can give me grace.” We can take grace from Jesus Christ and clutch it tight, like the gift that we’ve been asking for our whole lives. We can let Him put us back together and make us new.

So, whether you’re entering college for the first time or entering any new stage of life, may you accept grace and take delight in your journey.

 

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” – Ephesians 2:8-10