The Sophomore Slump

The Sophomore Slump

The sophomore slump.

 

I came up with that term after working for several years with university students. Most of the students I interacted with had a fantastic freshman year, full of intense growth and exciting experiences. Although they began their sophomore year with anticipation, most became discontent, disillusioned, and critical. Of course, there were always exceptions, but the trend was so great and so terrible that it deserved a name.

 

This summer closed the books on our second year of living overseas as a family. In the late winter, I had encountered my first personal sophomore slump. Just as I had never identified exactly what triggered university students to slip into it, I have yet to completely rationalize why and how my despondency came.

 

I have no doubt that this is a common experience among people living abroad, and whether it comes in their first, second, or tenth years makes little difference. Even some of you who don’t live overseas may have experienced or may be experiencing a deep downturn. For that reason, I’ll write a bit about what the slump looked like for me.

 

Crying. Lots of tears. For three months, from January through March, I cried every single time I went on a date with my husband. Once a week for three months. Can you imagine? My poor husband. We would be at a restaurant when I would break down, and because staring is accepted as normal in this culture, people would start looking. And because it’s rude to blow your nose in this culture, I would dab at my nose with dozens of tissues, while all of the people would stare even more at this strange foreign lady who had tears streaming down her face.

 

In addition to the tears, I became withdrawn, critical, negative, and decidedly lacking in joy. Even things that would become the greatest blessings to me in the spring began for me with no emotion. A friend had asked me about the beginning of something new, “Are you excited about this starting this week?” I shot back a quick reply. “No. I’m not excited about anything. But it will be good.”

 

What I can say for certain about those three months is that I felt as if I were drowning in purposelessness. And comparison wasn’t helping me feel any better. I knew coming in that I would have six months of resting and waiting to see what it was that I was supposed to be doing in this place while my husband was working. But after a year and a half of learning humility and patience, I was done. I found it incredibly stretching and difficult to have such a wide background in public speaking, administration and event planning, advising and supervising, leading and facilitating, and to now be known solely as the mother of three children. I wanted to be happy and thankful for the gift of time to work at home with my kids. While I had always viewed being a wife and mother as one of the highest callings, I couldn’t suppress the sense that there was something additional that I was made for and wanted to do. But I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t want to add more activities to my life just to fill the void.

 

At the same time, I felt alone. We were contemplating a change of schools for the kids along with a potential change of homes, the house we lived in had problems that I needed to somehow address with our landlord by using my broken Mandarin, one child developed itchy eyes due to an unknown allergic reaction, and another child began wrestling with questions of what is real. At the time, all of these things were under my jurisdiction. All together, they overwhelmed me.

 

In the midst of that season, I had thoughts about my life that a person doesn’t dare to speak aloud. All I can say is that I am so thankful that I’ve been trained to reject those lies immediately and to replace them with truth.

 

Having come out on the other side of those months, I’m amazed at the grace I received in the midst of it. I learned some things that seem now like no-brainers, such as the fact that I have a husband who is wise and can help me with some things! A group of extraordinary women from several countries unknowingly influenced our decision to keep our kids in the same school, and that decision was confirmed quickly after we made it. I saw clearly some of the darkness in my own soul that affected my marriage, and I kicked it out. My children have grown in relational and emotional development, and I’ve savored the deep conversations that we’ve shared together.

 

I recently read a Psychology Junkie article from August 2, 2015 entitled How Each Myers-Briggs Type Reacts to Stress (And How to Help). While personality and temperament indictors do not dictate how a person lives, they can be helpful in understanding more about yourself and why you respond in the way you do. For me, this article stated what I experienced but would not have been able to put into words.

 

Here are some of the things, according to the article, that stress my personality type.

 

“Having to focus too much on sensory/concrete details” – check. Think laundry, housecleaning, cooking, and all of the tasks that consume a mother’s time.

 

“An overload of sensory stimulation or noise” – check. Think renovations next door that sound like a jackhammer in your living room from 9am to 6pm, and when going out to get some relief from that, there are always the 24 million people who call this city home.

 

“Interruptions” – check. What can I say? I’m a mom.

 

“Not enough alone time. Too much extraverting” – check. People in my house, people outside of my house, people everywhere.

 

“Lack of appreciation or understanding” – check. It’s getting better actually, but there’s not much affirmation by little ones for all the tiny things you accomplish for them each day.

 

“Unfamiliar environments with overwhelming amounts of details” – check. Moving to a new country will do it.

 

“Not having a clear direction” – check. I’m still waiting…

 

“Not being able to use their intuition or envision the future” – check.

 

“Having to focus too much on the present” – check.

 

Having a basic understanding of these stressors will hopefully enable me to take better care of myself in the future. I can find a place of quiet, I have a plan for alone time thanks to my husband, and I can let housework go sometimes so I can have space to dream.

 

The most important thing is that I know Someone who gives hope instead of despair and joy instead of mourning. And that Someone has not abandoned me.

 

I’m quite happy to say good-bye to year two because I’m planning to take into year three the things that I loved: my friends, my good conversations, my stronger marriage, my commitment to raising my children, and my joy.

 

And junior year is always better.

 

So long, sophomore slump.

How To Love Your Expat

How To Love Your Expat

I’m going to say this for my expat friends, those who have taken a job assignment overseas, so that they don’t have to say it for themselves. I am going to offer you, those left behind, some ways to show your long-term care for your friend or family member who lives abroad.

 

By no means an exhaustive list, the following seven items represent what has proven helpful in my life and in the lives of some other expats that I have spoken with on this subject.

 

  1. SPEAK POSITIVELY.

For many, this presents a formidable task. After all, the expat you know and love is the one who chose to move in the first place. Most of my friends and I agree that it is easier to be the person who leaves rather than the person left behind. Increased physical distance between you and the one that you care about can really hurt, especially when you have a strong connection.

 

But unless this aforementioned expat happens to be a senseless jerk, he or she also acutely feels the loss that accompanies residing far from loved ones. In spite of this, he or she had valid and compelling reasons for living overseas for a time.

 

I’m a believer in honesty. If it hurts, say so. Lovingly. And then, for the sake of the one you care about, grieve, heal, and forgive so that you can become a source of encouragement.

 

Get to the place where you can authentically celebrate when your expat is happy and authentically empathize when your expat is sad.

 

Actually, this is in your best interest. If you harbor bitterness or pain about your expat’s decision, those emotions will find a way to leak (or lash) out. An expat who encounters guilt trips from those at home will likely want to distance themselves from the negativity and hurt, resulting in further loss of relationship.

 

Your expat will encounter days or weeks when they feel that life is against them, or for that matter, their new country, or their new job, or their new school. There will likely be days when it seems that entire world is against them. Except for you. They will know that you are on their side.

 

Be that source of encouragement.

 

  1. ASK QUESTIONS.

Showing curiosity about the new environment and life of your expat can speak volumes.

 

A friend of mine once commented that grocery store clerks in his home country sometimes ask more questions about his life than those close to him do. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe many of us assume that people we love won’t change much over the course of six months to two years. Or maybe because of a lack of shared experiences, we don’t know what to ask.

 

Regardless, asking good questions is a must for growing strong relationships. Specific questions seems to be the most helpful, rather than, “How’s [insert country name]?

 

Here are several examples:

What is your social group like? Do you spend more time with foreigners or locals, and why?

What do you miss from your home country?

What are your favorite places in your host country?

How do you travel around your city or area?

How do you shop in your host country?

What surprises you about your host country?

What is your work like? How has your work style or environment changed?

What are the greatest joys for you in your host country?

What are the greatest challenges for you?

 

 

  1. FIGURE OUT THE TIME DIFFERENCE.

The time difference can be a huge barrier to communication, but it takes very little effort to memorize how many hours apart you are from your expat.

 

If you feel that you don’t have the mental or time capacity to think about things such as time zones, you could buy a small clock for yourself and set it according to the time zone in which your expat lives. I’ve even seen digital clocks with room for photos. You can place pictures of your overseas loved ones next to the clock that bears their current time.

 

Due to their global lifestyle and their care for people in their home country, your expat will be very conscious about the time difference. Your matched resolve in this area will demonstrate attentiveness and will promote communication.

 

  1. TAKE THE INITIATIVE.

Hopefully, your expat will take time to contact you frequently. Most expats expect to return to their home countries at some point, so they will desire to continue current relationships with folks back home, even while they live abroad.

 

The reality of life overseas is not always glamorous. Just like moving domestically, your expat will need to navigate a new job position, develop a social network from scratch, and organize all of the physical necessities to live in a new environment. Add to that a new culture (including unfamiliar worldviews, values, thought processes, and ways of living), new modes of transportation, new language, new foods, new climate. Even after months or years of living in that host country, taking the initiative to go outside for groceries or taking the initiative to meet up with a new friend can be exhausting. One major activity per day can max some people out. Often, an expat’s life is largely comprised of putting themselves out there.

 

That’s why you taking initiative in the relationship, you being the first one to call or text sometimes, is such a big deal. Most people enjoy two-way friendships anyway, but your initiative toward your expat can be one of the strongest signals that you continue to value and think about them. It also gives your expat a bit of a break from usually being the one to have to muster up the strength to act first.

 

You can be the one who keeps your expat updated on life back home. Few people in an expat’s home country will think about what the expat may or may not know regarding their family and friends. Expats will inevitably miss out on changes or big events, but you can find ways to help your expat feel included and to know in advance what is happening.

 

The skill of taking initiative is a prerequisite for the following three ways to love your expat.

 

  1. WRITE A LETTER or SEND A PACKAGE.

It’s a whole lot easier to send a text message, but everyone, especially children, love to open up a real hand-written letter once in a while. Flat letters can usually be sent directly to your expat’s address in their host country. Some companies will also forward flat letters to their overseas employees, which means that you only need to bear the cost of a letter sent domestically. You could include items such as stickers and photographs.

 

Packages can be more expensive and difficult to ensure delivery, but trust me when I say that opening a care package feels like Christmas. Things that are ordinary to you, but are difficult to find or expensive to buy in the host country, make great and easy treats to send overseas.

 

  1. CALL THEM.

Twenty years ago, it would have been insane to think of seeing your loved one’s face while they were standing on the other side of planet Earth. But now, technologies like FaceTime and Skype make it easier to talk to your friend virtually face-to-face than it is to write a letter to them. If you don’t want your expat to look at you while you talk, you can do a straight phone call with the same programs.

 

We have already tackled the issue of time differences, which could be a problem if you are thinking of calling someone in the middle of their night. But since you will buy a clock to keep track of it, that’s not a concern anymore.

 

Now the biggest hurdle to calling is mental. Let’s face it. We may not feel like we have time to call people who live near us, but we call them anyway because we have some sort of motivation or reason to make time for it. If you have the motivation to call your expat, then do it without wondering whether they have time to talk with you. It’s just like in your home country. If they are available, they will take the call. If not, they can call you back when they are free. You don’t need an appointment.

 

One of the best sounds is that of the familiar voice of someone you like, and you can provide that for your expat. With audio, your expat can hear the inflection, tone, and support behind your words.

 

  1. VISIT THEIR HOST COUNTRY.

Visiting your expat overseas is far and away the most tangible show of your commitment, for several reasons.

 

  1. No matter how much your expat explains to you about their life, you will not fully understand or care until you’ve witnessed it firsthand.
  2. History, your culture, your friends, and television, among other things, have likely formed your ideas of your expat’s host country. Some of your concepts will be spot on and some will be way off. Visiting will give you clarity about your expat’s new environment and what the real advantages and real concerns are in that country.
  3. You will share a common experience with your expat. Most friendships are based on shared experiences. After visiting, you will have fun adventure stories to reminisce about together. You will meet the friends who have become vital in your expat’s life. You will get a sense of how your expat has stayed the same and how they are changing. You will be able to connect sounds, colors, and smells with a place that your expat mentions… because you’ve been there.
  4. Your expat understands the cost of a visit, in terms of time, energy, and money. After all, your expat pays that cost every time they go back to visit you. The sacrifice you make to spend time with your friends or family overseas will not go unnoticed.

 

Many of you reading this have raised, trained, and invested in expats like myself. Thank you for giving us the confidence and freedom to take a risk. You are treasured and loved. I hope that you find joy in connecting with your expat in the days to come.

 

 

Head Wounds and Heart Wholeness: Receiving Love in the Midst of Chaos

Head Wounds and Heart Wholeness: Receiving Love in the Midst of Chaos

Have you ever had a day that is all planned out, and then something crazy happens? Yeah, me neither [dripping sarcasm].

This particular day began in the same way as most, except that my husband left that morning for a two-night business trip. We walked to the subway together, and we took trains heading in opposite directions: he on one train, and the two little ones and I on the other.

We walked through the park where the older folks practiced tai chi and the younger ones lined up to buy some aromatic breakfast fare. We turned around and went back to use the squatty potty in the park because one of the kids announced a need to pee and I told said child that they were getting too old to pee in bushes in the city. We counted all the water fountains we passed in the next two blocks and arrived a bit early to what I call “my moms’ group”.

I belong to this amazing group of moms who meet together as part of the International Church of Shanghai (ICS). I mentioned the group here. On this morning, the time with those ladies was so good and so sweet. Afterward, we decided to have some lunch delivered so we could avoid taking all of our children and babies out into the rain.

I was standing across the room when I heard a piercing scream. I glanced over to see my son kneeling on the floor with his head in his hands, and I immediately thought, “We might be going to the hospital.” He had run across the room and tripped just in time to bash his head on the metal-covered edge of a step.

I ran over, phone in hand, to pry his hands away and see a bloody gash on his forehead. Of course, any kind of head wound, even a tiny one, gushes disproportionate amounts of blood. But this one was dripping on his crocs, running through his fingers into his eyes, and splattering on my phone. The cut was too wide to heal without doctor intervention. I pulled him over to where I could grab some paper towels, and by now, all of the moms had realized the gory situation and were offering wet wipes, bandages, and suggestions on hospitals.

As I kneeled in front of my son, mopping up blood, I kept thinking of all the distinct issues of having this situation in China. In our home country, we would jump into our privately owned car and drive to the emergency room… five minutes away from our house. We don’t have that luxury here. Although I have my license to drive in China, we don’t even rent a car, much less own one. And sure, his older sister had to get staples in her head in China last spring, but at that time, my husband was home and could take her on his scooter while I stayed with the other two children.

As I consciously told myself, “You need to stay calm so that your son can be calm,” I verbally told him, “We will go to the doctor. It’s okay, no problem.” Simultaneously, I filtered through the options. Obviously, we wouldn’t have time to buy a winter coat for him in the afternoon. He might get upset about that. How will we eat lunch? I guess I will figure that out later. What about picking his sister up from school for gymnastics? Maybe I could have her ride home on the bus. And what about right now? Do we go out and get a taxi? It would be difficult to find one in the rain. Do we get an Uber? That’s the best bet, but probably no Uber driver would want blood on the seat of his car. Do we go to the clinic where I usually take the kids? I’m not sure if they have supplies for emergency stitches, but it is near my daughter’s school and we could pick her up right away after our emergency visit. Do we go straight to the larger hospital? Probably, but I don’t know the address or even the Mandarin name of that one.

But within five minutes, it was settled. One of the moms offered her van and driver to take us, another mom insisted that I leave my younger daughter with her, and the consensus was the larger hospital, where (thank God!) the driver knew the location and the exact roads to get take. Also by the end of that five minutes, my son had a bandage applied his forehead and a yogurt in hand to calm him down.

We had a peaceful, but seemingly forever long, ride to the hospital. When we arrived, I saw two different buildings that had emergency signs on them. I thought they belonged to the same hospital, and the writing was in English for both, so I chose the building with the big red sign and a smaller “pediatrics” sign as well.

I walked in and told the triage nurses that he needed stitches. One immediately said, “You can take him to the children’s hospital.” She named two crossroads that I had never heard of, and I thought, “I don’t even know how long it will take to get there.” She finally wrote the address for me in Chinese characters and began to say that I could take a taxi or bus number… I interrupted her and left, so frustrated. I messaged my friend to ask her driver to pick us up and take us to the other place, when she said, “Wait. Did you go to the local hospital?” Oh. Probably.

We walked into the second building, and from then on, it was pretty standard. My son got tape and some super glue, was super brave, and only cried when the glue stung his wound. The doctor and nurse kept asking me if he had passed out or vomited and then went on to explain that I should watch for whether he had a concussion.

And here’s the free advice interlude for those of you living in a situation similar to mine. Either carry your passport or a copy of your passport and visa at all times. I was asked for my son’s passport at the hospital and was so grateful that I had tucked a copy into my purse. You just never know when you will need it and won’t have time to go home to get it. Also, keep the hospital business card in your wallet with your insurance cards so that you can show it to a taxi driver and don’t have to take time to look up on the address on your phone.

We took my friend’s van back to where we had started, picked up my little one who had already been given lunch, got a ride home in the same van, called the school to have my daughter go home on the bus, and postponed gymnastics. I made my grandma’s homemade pudding and ordered burgers and fries for supper. It seemed like the right kind of day for comfort food.

When we arrived home, I had time and space to reflect on the previous three hours. And I wept. Sometimes there is so much stress that comes with living in a culture that is not completely familiar, and sometimes there is so much opportunity to receive love that comes with being in a culture that is not completely familiar. I cried from stress and I cried from thankfulness.

I’m thankful for three gifts that made my heart whole in the midst of the chaos. Maybe you can relate to these if you know life overseas or if you’ve found yourself an uncontrollable situation.

I’m thankful for the ways that my childhood prepared me for living here. We often lived or traveled in places that would require a lengthy drive time to a hospital. I also had the experiences of caring for one of my siblings when her tooth got kicked out by a horse and for another sibling when he cut his finger and fainted. My childhood enabled me to be calm in the moment.

I’m thankful for a community of foreigners who love each other so well. When you don’t have the option to be completely self-sufficient, it creates room to accept the strength of others. This group of friends stepped in to help and hand me tissues even when they seemed overwhelmed by the amount of flowing blood. A friend gave me a van and driver even though she didn’t know when I would return with them! Another friend bought lunch for my daughter and took care of her while I was gone, for an indefinite amount of time when she already had her own two kids plus a foster baby with her. A good friend and neighbor sympathized as I cried to her while waiting for the bus to come. A friend from another part of town sent a message asking how I was doing after she heard about what had happened. So many friends sent WeChat messages with prayers and notes of encouragement.

I’m thankful to know a God who loves me and my family. That same morning, I read this passage as a blessing for a friend’s 3-week-old baby: “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in Him, for He shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between His shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12). I know that I am also the Lord’s beloved (after all, that’s what my name means!), and I could see glimpses of that love again even in the midst of the stress of that day. The Lord has surrounded me with friends who rally together, who grieve together, who pray together, and who rejoice together, who serve together. Basically, they are what the church is meant to be, and they were Jesus’ hands and feet to me. There were smaller gifts from Him as well. Many moms stayed for lunch instead of leaving right away as usual, and they were present to help me. One friend tossed one yogurt into her bag this morning, thinking that it was an unusual thing to pack, but left it in the bag anyway; that yogurt gave my son enough distraction and nourishment to fill him with peace. My son didn’t show signs of a concussion or any issue other than a wide cut. And plans that I could have had that night had fallen through, giving me time to rest at home with my on-the-mend boy.

What are you thankful for? My dear friend, even as you read this, may you have the grace to recognize and accept the gifts that you’ve been given.

Happy early Thanksgiving from the other side of the world!

Chinese New Year Through the Eyes of a Laowai

Chinese New Year Through the Eyes of a Laowai

People in our part of the world have been talking about the lunar new year for a long time. As a first-time expat to China, I had low expectations. After all, this is not “my” holiday. The new year celebration caught me off guard, and here I present to you a small window into my first Chinese New Year experience as a foreigner.

The Lead-Up

Most of us who grow up in the States know the feeling of anticipation that comes along with the Christmas season. A sense of excitement fills the air, everyone chats about the holiday and their plans, and preparation begins for meals, decorations, and gifts. Spending my first lunar new year in China, I was struck by the oddity that I could feel that same anticipation. Even though I speak very little Mandarin and had no background in this holiday, I could just tell that the excitement was building all around me.

People cleaned their homes thoroughly. Employees received bonuses. In addition to a bonus, we gave our ayi a fancy box of frozen fish, and she reciprocated with a huge box of butter cookies for the kids.

My husband’s company held their annual Chinese New Year party. All of the employee’s families were invited, and the planning team worked for weeks to arrange a location, a catered meal, prizes, and entertainment.

My daughter’s school invited all of the parents to watch a Chinese New Year performance. I was so proud when my girl spoke into the microphone in Mandarin – with good tones! The children did a dragon dance and lots of songs to celebrate the year of the goat.

The Decorations

Of course, decorations also added to the excitement. My daughter even came home with some window flowers and paper lanterns that she had made in school, and we used those to prepare our home.

Local malls set up lunar new year displays.
Local malls set up lunar new year displays.
People decorate trees and shrubs near their houses.
People decorated trees and shrubs near their houses.
This guy delivers flowers that already have new year baubles attached.
This guy delivered flowers that already had new year baubles attached.
Hotel lobbies welcome the lunar new year.
Hotel lobbies welcomed the lunar new year.
Folks hang red lanterns near their doorways and place greeting signs and paper cut-out flowers on windows and entryways.
Folks hung red lanterns near their doorways and place greeting signs and paper cut-out flowers on windows and entryways.
Apartment lobbies join in the festivity.
Apartment lobbies joined in the festivity.
Red lantern decorations hang from street lamps.
Red lantern decorations hung from street lamps.
Owners deck out their businesses to celebrate the new year.
Owners decked out their businesses to celebrate the new year.
And, of course, it wouldn't be a holiday without decorated Coca-Cola bottles.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be a holiday without decorated Coca-Cola bottles.

The Travel and Meal Prep

For 1-2 weeks before the lunar new year began, people started traveling in droves. Most people left the city to go back to their hometowns and spend the holiday with their extended families. Subways going to railway stations and airports were packed with people carrying luggage and boxes of alcohol, fruits, or nuts to take home with them. Schools let children out for almost one month at this time of the year.

CNY Travel

Small family shops closed down early, even a week in advance of New Year’s day, to factor in travel time.

Businesses Closed For CNY

In my husband’s family, the Christmas eve dinner is an event all to itself. The meal spread takes time to cook, but it looks and tastes amazing. Similarly, in China, the New Year’s eve meal maintains a special place in the holiday tradition.

People pack out a supermarket to buy food two days before the lunar new year.
People packed out a supermarket to buy food two days before the lunar new year.

Of course, the Chinese have traditional dishes that they cook and eat for the big meal. Since I know almost nothing about these dishes, I thought it would suffice to ask our ayi to make some jiaozi for us before she began her vacation. These dumplings taste so yummy dipped in a spicy chili paste and vinegar mixture.

Our ayi taught my daughter how to prepare the jiaozi.
Our ayi taught my daughter how to prepare the jiaozi.
The jiaozi waits to be boiled.
The jiaozi waits to be boiled.

I would love to someday share in a New Year’s eve meal that is truly Chinese. In the meantime, we ate our own concoction of American and Chinese foods to celebrate. I enjoyed our evening together as a family, but to be honest, I felt like we were missing something… it was like having Christmas alone, without grandpas and grandmas, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Maybe we can convince someone to visit us to celebrate next year.

Spahr New Year's Eve Meal

The Fireworks

The fireworks in China during the new year holiday are fantastic. Personally, I think that since China invented fireworks, they ought to be spectacular. A good friend put it this way: It’s like all of the 4th of July shows you’ve ever seen, and ever will see, rolled into one night.

Although the police were cracking down a bit more this year on people who might go overboard, fireworks here are basically a free-for-all. Many of our friends have told us stories of their balcony windows being shot out by stray fireworks, or of having to cover their children from fireworks that turn on them from the other side of the street.

One of my Chinese friends explained that people shoot off one set of fireworks to say good-bye to the previous year and another set of fireworks to say hello to the new year. Each night of the week also gives a different reason for fireworks, and the most popular is the fourth night, when fireworks are lit to welcome the money god. The amount of fireworks on the fourth night rivaled the amount the we witnessed on New Year’s eve.

Firework stands popped  up on every block the week before the new year.
Firework stands popped up on every block the week before the new year.
Notice the "No Smoking" sign on this one.
Notice the “No Smoking” sign on this one.

On New Year’s eve, our family went out and lit some sparklers, one fountain, and some ground spinners. On our walk outside, I noticed that our security guards had also prepared for the new year fireworks.

There are no firework restrictions in our neighborhood, so the guards have to be ready. I'm not sure this is enough preparation.
There are no firework restrictions in our tree-filled neighborhood, so the guards had to be ready for potential fires.

Around 11:40pm, the booms began to accelerate. We stood out on our bedroom balcony to see more clearly. The sights were beautiful, with bright blasts and golden fizzles. The flashes of light bounced off of city buildings  and lit up the sky in every direction.

Almost more incredible were the sounds. With pings and explosions ricocheting through the city, our neighborhood turned into an audio war zone. Our neighbors uncoiled a massive roll of firecrackers, which stretched from the beginning of our “cul-de-sac” to the post near their house that they attached the end of the firecrackers onto. They had this down to a science. A little before midnight they came out, laid everything out, and lit it up. Once the firecrackers started popping, they went into the house to save their eardrums. Josh and I stayed out to watch and hear the spectacle, and my ears rang for minutes afterward.

Fireworks 1 2015

Fireworks 2 2015

Fireworks 3 2015

It seemed that there was an entire fireworks show on every block, which made it challenging to take everything in at once. Our incredible children slept through the entire production.

The next morning, our neighbor went out again to unroll his coil of firecrackers, this time to welcome the new year. I was just loading the kids into the car when I noticed activity next door, so I pulled them all out and we watched from the sidewalk. Our neighbor was kind enough to smile at us as we all gawked at him and as I tried to explain to the kids what was happening.

Our neighbor used a coil of firecrackers similar to the rounds in this photo, except that his was bigger.
Our neighbor used a coil of firecrackers similar to the rounds in this photo, except that his was bigger.

As soon as the noise subsided, our neighbor came back out of his house and handed each of our kids a red envelope, which brings me to the next aspect of the lunar new year.

The Gifts

I could be wrong on this because I haven’t seen it in person, but my understanding is that on the morning of the new year, children wake up early with excitement to rouse their parents out of bed. The children bow in respect to their parents and ask for a hongbao, a red packet or envelope, which contains a gift of money.

Hongbao

My eldest daughter had been begging for a hongbao for weeks before the lunar new year. She learned about it from her Mandarin class at school, and she received an envelope from her teacher which contained chocolate coins.

Josh and I thought it would be a fun tradition to observe, so we surprised the kids with one hongbao each. My two-year-old had been crying about something, but when she ripped into the hongbao and pulled out the contents, her face lit up and she exclaimed, “MONey!”

I told one of my American friends about how generous and thoughtful it was for our neighbors to also give a hongbao to each of our children. We observed that in our culture, giving money is a cop-out gift, the kind of thing that you give to someone when you don’t want to take the time to be personal and creative with a gift. But here, at least at this time of year, a gift of money feels like something special. For us, it was also a great opportunity to work on the kids’ math skills and to teach about saving, giving, and spending our resources.

Many children also receive clothes, since wearing new clothes is a tradition on new year’s day. It reminded me of the American tradition of getting a new dress or suit for Christmas and Easter. It’s a big deal. However, the only new thing our kids received was toothbrushes (because they needed them!). They don’t know anything different, so they were actually quite excited about their little prizes.

New Year Hope

Everyone beings a new year with hope, with expectations for what this uncharted year could bring. One of the best questions asked of me in college was, “Why do you get out of bed in the morning?” The answer cannot be as simple as, “Because I have to go to class” or “Because I have to go to work”. You don’t HAVE to do those things. Some motiving factor underlies those decisions. Why do you work? Why do you go to class?

It’s worth asking: What do you live for?

So much of what we live for is merely trinkets, stuff that will rot or go with us to the grave. But I’ve been reminded lately that the hope of the nations, the one that won’t fade, is Jesus Christ. And He gives so much joy – like the blow out your eardrums with firecrackers, dance in the streets, eat huge meals with people you love – kind of celebratory joy.

I don’t know about you, but I spend far too little time celebrating my hope.

That being said, my prayer for the Year of the Goat is this:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” – Romans 15:13

To all of my Asian friends, happy lunar new year!

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

Our Seven-Year Journey, Perfectly Completed

Our Seven-Year Journey, Perfectly Completed

Seven years ago this November, I first stepped foot into this amazing country.

My first trip to the Great Wall of China.
My first trip to the Great Wall of China.

My husband led me on a whirlwind trip around Beijing. Every day for one week, I saw something new, I ate something new, I went somewhere new, and I met someone new. By the end of the week, I was one exhausted introvert.

To cap it all off, I got sick from hotpot on the last day of our trip. I puked in the hallway of a friend’s apartment on our last night in country and slept during the entire flight home. Our friend thought I would never come back to China again.

The number seven in the Bible signifies completion or perfection.

And here we are, seven years later, making our home in the Central Kingdom.

Seven-Year Anniversary to the Great Wall
Seven-Year Anniversary of my first visit to the Great Wall.

Life has changed in seven years. We have three kids. My youngest sister has graduated from high school AND college and has come to visit our new place. Much like the Great Wall itself, we have traveled a good, challenging, winding and beautiful road since my first arrival, and now we begin the next leg of our journey.

In the words of my daughter, here’s to “tons of adventures.”

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.