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