Thursday, August 30, 2012

14419 Nell Drive

 Last week was our 15th anniversary, so Erik bought me a house in Orlando.

It's unusual in many ways. In fact, at first it was so unusual that I didn't really want it. The former owners custom designed it in what we'll call an "eccentric" way, which sounds better than what I called it before which was, "designed by drunk people." The upside of this eccentricity is that it's one of a kind! Hard to find anywhere, but especially in Orlando where housing developments abound.

Aside from the layout, it's unusual because you can't reach out your window and touch your neighbor's house like most houses in Orlando. In fact, we can only really see the neighbor to our west. In the back we have a fence and trees blocking our view of anyone, and to the east, as you can see, there's an acre of trees. Yes, our acre! Hello future guest house (in the way distant future when we win the lottery and have the money to build it). In the meantime, you can stay in the guest room, or pitch a tent if you really want to stay outside.

When I look at this house now, I see lots and lots of potential, and if you know how much I love to decorate, you know I'm like a kid looking in the window of a candy store right now.

Here's what else we love/are looking forward to about it:

It comes with deer! Ok, not ours but how sweet is that? (until it eats my garden)

The dining room has wood floors and I'm picturing a wall treatment below that chair rail

A three+ car garage. What??

Hello cabinet space as I've never had before

This might be my favorite part - the second floor deck off the master bedroom

Fire pit! Or, rather, was and will be. Someone stole the bricks, but we'll replace them and make it even better!

A master bedroom that is ridonkulously huge

This is part of the "unusual" - this is the front of the house, which faces the neighbor. I have plans for it, starting with tearing down that fence.

The joke's on us - Erik and I hate houses that scream "Welcome to our garage" and ours appears to be the poster child for it. But what a nice garage it is.

Second favorite part - HUGE porch off the living room. We want to screen this in.

I'm picturing this landscaped and flanked by our new stone lamps

And did we mention the pool?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Transition in Word Pictures

I like to think about and explain my life in word pictures. For example, I would say that driving on the streets of China is like a constant game of Frogger, a higher level where there are fewer rules about what the cars on the road have to do. I think I reached a new level today, and possibly gained some gray hair from it.

So in this transition process, I find myself coming up with frequent new images to put into words how this all feels. Here are a few of them that capture life right now:

Saying these goodbyes is like pulling a bandaid off a hairy part of your body (this is more vivid if you are an extremely hairy person. I am not, but it still works for me). Each goodbye is a little pull. Is it better to do it slowly or all at once and get the pain over? This whole week feels like I have the edge in hand, waiting for the rip.

This summer has felt like being steamrolled very, very slowly. The strain of house hunting from afar, wrapping up our affairs, purging and sorting and selling and packing, trying to balance logistical necessities and precious time with people - it's all gone on for months. Many times we've looked at each other and said, "Can we just go now? Are we done with the hard stuff yet?" Not because we want to go, but because it's hard to be under a steam roller for that long.

This last week, now that our shipment is gone, we have been spending as much time as possible with people. This is good, but my introvertedness is being tested (steam rollered, if you will). Each night I collapse into bed, wanting just a day free to myself, but knowing I will wake up and do it all again. I feel like a squirrel storing up for the winter - gorging myself now so I can feed off it later.

But most of all, it all feels like pregnancy. We can see this next season and it looks like it will be good and exciting and probably also hard and unknown, but the only way to it is through an increasingly uncomfortable and finally painful process. As the due date approaches, we try to remember to breathe and not take it out on those around us. There's life on the other side, we know.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


There's a concept in Chinese language and culture that has no clear translation in English. It's the term "guanxi." It roughly means, "relationship" or "connection" but in reality it is much more.

Here, it's important to have guanxi with others. You can build guanxi, get guanxi, lose guanxi, use guanxi. When you have guanxi with someone, they are more likely to do things for you. It's kind of like building rapport with people that you can draw on later.

My husband is the Guanxi King. Really, it's like his superpower. Close to a Jedi mind trick, but not quite. Take a guy who is naturally easy going, friendly, and deferential, but who also values getting other people to do the little things he'd rather not do, and you have a guy who is unstoppable in this country. People who have just met him suddenly like him and are willing to do anything for him. It's amazing to watch. Those inflexible rules we so often encounter here are bent in the presence of the Guanxi King.

I'm not sure how this guanxi power will translate in America. We'll see. All I know is that it's been helpful here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Just a Little Extra Money

We're finding out (as if we didn't already know) that in China, money will get you everywhere.

Last Thursday, it got Erik a fast pass through the exit health exam for Scout. For the base fee, he would have had to go back two more times and do all the paperwork himself. For 100Y extra, he only had to go back once and do the paperwork. For 250Y, he only had to go once, they did the paperwork, he got a guide to take him to all the checkpoints (including that cotton pickin' microchip) and they sent the results to us by messenger the next day. Yes, I'll take option 3 for 250Y please Alex. Best 250Y we've ever spent! So that was an unexpectedly easy moment.

This morning, I received the invoice from the cargo company that is handling Scout's excessively early (7:30 am for a 4:25 pm flight??) departure from China. In the place of "airline fee" I saw the number 11,521Y, putting our grand total over 15,000Y once he threw in his cargo processing fee. $2,000+ to ship our dog back to the States? Dude, she's not made of gold!

I've held up pretty well through all of this transition, but this pushed me over the edge because I was sure that all manner of reasoning would not get that fee back down to what it should be. Basically, they were calculating her weight based on the size of the enormous crate we had to buy for her according to airline regulations and decided together they would weigh 101 pounds. Yeah, they weigh 30 pounds. I was prepared for a fight, but when I contested the fee, I got a prompt email that said, "Ok, you can pay 4,937Y."

I'm sorry, where am I again? Is this China? This never happens! Oh wait, it is China because then we saw he added 1,000Y onto HIS fee because he had to, and we quote, "have a profit." Friends, I believe what we have here is a case of someone thinking the "rich" foreigners will never look at the invoice, so why not ask a little extra? But when it turns out that said foreigner who calls (Erik, not me - I hate phone calls) has stellar Chinese and has to pay this fee himself (instead of his company paying), he finds another way to make a little money.

So either we offer it up front or they take it from us. Either way, money moves the world around here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How We're Spending Our Days

A giant garage sale, the sound of packing tape becoming like nails on a chalkboard, the kids running off almost daily to continuing filming a movie with their friends, checking the weather in Minnesota for September, midnight phone calls to the loan company in the States, one more order from Tao Bao, catching up with a friend I haven't seen in a year over a foot massage, a long, actually cold, walk in the morning around the park, homeschool curriculum purchases, dinner with old friends, taking breaks with episodes of Suits, rethinking what we really need in those 6 suitcases we can take back, disassembling thousands of Lego pieces, negotiating one last Build a Bear party with friends, using up the oatmeal, caramel and chocolate chips in a stellar dessert, finding time for a family photo, the more frequent flow of tears . . .

This is how we've been spending our last days here.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Life Goes On

Do you ever wonder if everyone's getting together without you?

In a few weeks, I know they will be, because I will be gone. One of the weird by-products of transition is in full force for me these days; the realization that life will go on without us.

Wow, when I write it that way, it sounds really egocentric, which is really not my intention. I do realize that life goes on in lots of places without us and the people are perfectly happy and content. I imagine most people in China will continue this way as well, though it's comforting to know that for a few people, there will be a time of sadness.

No, what I mean is that I am aware of the fact that we will no longer be a part of their lives the way we are now, and I want to be.

I am reminded when I'm handed a bulletin for the fall activities and I politely decline, when the co-op schedule appears in my inbox and I don't even look at it, when I hear people talking about the race in October, the conference in January, I know that we will miss them all. Just today I told a friend that she really should get out to a local park in the fall because it's lovely. She can go. I can't.

Life goes on. Our friends must make plans. And we will be making plans without them, elsewhere.

But it's good to think back on all the days we've had together. (now the Cheers theme song jumps into my head). It's also good to know that we will be missed in all those future moments, just as we will miss being here.

What else have I been missing?

I have a never ending hair debate going in this lifetime, mostly due to the fact that God saw fit to give me the hairline of Dracula and the half-curl of someone who went to sleep immediately after showering. Generally speaking I vacillate between long and short, bangs or no bangs. Right now I am in the short/no bangs phase but am contemplating long with bangs. Yes, I realize I am not one of those Barbies whose hair you can pump to make suddenly longer (but wouldn't that be awesome?). But I have a haircut in a few weeks and I need to know where I'm going with this.

Personally, I think I look better with short hair, but my husband likes it long. When I grow my hair out, it doesn't look good without bangs. But I don't ever feel like bangs looks very good on me. I think they make me look 12, and not in a good way. So why not keep it short? Well, my crazy half curl goes nuts in humid weather (hello, future Orlando home) which makes short, meant to be straight, hairstyles maddening. I'd rather let it do what it wants to do.

While pondering this (yes, I have hair pondering times) I realized something. In the past 13 years, I have mostly either a) had my hair cut by Chinese men who are baffled by my God-given western hair, b) cut my bangs myself, or c) just let my hair not be cut at all for way longer than even the best hairstyle can withstand. Do you know what this means people?? I think it means I've had 13 years of generally bad hair. 

So I'm filled with this new and sudden hope that I can run these hair ponderings by someone who knows what to do with me. She could give me good looking bangs! Or tell me that I should never, ever wear them. Who knows? Maybe all this time it wasn't me - it was just not having someone who knew what they were doing with my hair (and I put myself in that category).

It's leaving me wondering what else I've missed all these years. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Fine Line

Friday morning I realized that we had no water in our kitchen. I assumed that there was a notice at the bottom of my building warning me of this inconvenience, but they tend to post them above my hobbit eye level, so I didn't see it. And also, they're in Chinese so I can only read a fraction of them. Regardless, it was frustrating for the next 24 hours until they turned it back on.

Recently a friend of mine took an online stress test, and part of it required her to answer questions about this kind of thing. It gave a list of potential stressors from living cross-culturally, and asked her, "On a scale of 'not at all' to 'crazy', how much does this affect you?" (ok, maybe I took some liberty with the scale, but you get the idea). It was things that seem simple like, "I can't get X product here" or "I have to deal with government red tape" or "my water or electricity is unreliable." My friend realized that while few of them affected her greatly, the fact that most of the affected her in small ways added up to a lot.

So what do we do with these things? I've been wondering about this lately. And not just the inconveniences, but the other things we've given up living here. I don't often dwell on them, but we have missed a lot being here - birthdays, holidays, experiences.

We're told to look on the bright side, count our blessings, not complain, say "oh but it could be so much worse," compare our lot with others less fortunate and then close the box on the hard things.

I feel like I'm realizing that there's a fine line in dealing with these things. True, it's important to be thankful and full of faith, to realize that in spite of loss there has been great gain, that the difficulties have proven fodder for growth. All true.

But what about acknowledging what these things are doing to our hearts? Where is the place for saying, "This is really hard. It wears on me. I miss this. I long for that." Where is the place for our hearts to express the pain, the drain? Not so that we wallow and have little pity parties, but that we are honest and honor what we feel. To give ourselves the space to feel the reality and let God meet us there.

I think about Jesus in the garden. His was an honest, raw heart that said, "I'd really rather not." Was he complaining? No. He was just being real. He gave Himself the space to acknowledge his true feelings. And then he went and did what was needed.

So I guess my challenge is to be like Jesus - to go before God with my whole heart, not one that is ignorant or blind to the difficulties of life. I can lay all my heart before Him and know that in Him I can find comfort, peace, and strength.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Feelings about The Move

When we ask our kids, "How are you feeling about the move?" their most common response these days is an exasperated, "Stop ASKING me that!"

We might be asking too often.

It's all part of trying to keep our finger on the heartbeat of this transition. While our kids don't necessarily like to produce a response to this question when we ask, there are plenty of other times when they volunteer the information. It comes in random comments like Megan saying, "Mom, this is the first move I've done where I'm going to be sad." (the others she either doesn't remember or we were moving to places where we already had lots of close friends and weren't leaving any behind), or Ethan telling me, "In the morning when I wake up, I'm excited to move to America, but in the afternoon when I play with my friends, I'm sad."

So how is mama feeling about the move? (it's ok - I'm not tired of the question yet!)

Most days I'm ready. It feels like the right timing for us to go. We've been doing a lot of "last time to this place" trips around town and while I thought I'd be sad, instead I'm just filled with happy memories of them. It's a sense of "we came for such a time as this" but that time is done and it's time for new memories in new places.

I'm finding great satisfaction in sorting through and purging our stuff. I like knowing that we are stripping down to what we really need and use, and are able to bless others by giving them the rest. I'm thrilled that it only costs a little more to have people pack for us so I don't have to spend my last two weeks doing that.

I'm excited for things like family, libraries, Minnesota in the fall, water from the tap, letting the dog run in the yard, our future home, shopping in English (no more wasting time trying to read labels in another language!).

I'm a little fearful about leaving the role of expatriate. It's one I've had for 13 years and through several moves it's stayed with me. I'm afraid people in the U.S. will think I'm "home" and all is well, and not be able to understand the reverse culture shock that is inevitable. 

And I'm sad to leave. I hate that I will have to say goodbye to my friends here because they are great friends who love me well. I could try to placate myself with the knowledge that we can stay in touch so easily by many means, but the truth is that they have part of my heart. I am deeply blessed which makes it devastating to leave them.

So that's a whole salad bar of emotions for you. Feel free to ask me in another week or two - there will probably be even more.

Just don't ask the kids. :)