Friday, June 29, 2012

Cultural ponderings

Chinese culture has been swirling in my mind lately, and not necessarily in a good way. More of a "13 years and I still don't get it" kind of way. Last week you might have seen the graphic pictures of a woman who was forced to have an abortion here. What you might not have heard is the backlash from the local government against her family, who have had to go into hiding, because they posted that. I wonder at the injustice of it.

Closer to home, some friends of ours with three small children recently had an incident at a local fast food place. Their youngest was being bullied by a local boy (who was terrorizing all the kids in the play area). Since no parent was stepping in to stop the abuse, our friend finally pulled the boy aside and told him it was inappropriate. In flew the mother of the child, screaming that her son would be psychologically traumatized from the reprimand. They tried to leave, but the woman grabbed their daughter and refused to let go until the police came. Our friend spent 7 hours at the police station where, although the local police sided with him, he was finally forced to pay 1,000Y to the family so their son could have psychological testing. What? Insanity.

So this morning I sat with my oldest Chinese friend here and we discussed these things. She said, "We Chinese parents, in that situation, would just pull our child out of the play area because we know that other children are being raised to be the aggressors. It's really hard to find kids for my son to play with because they are all this way. They are aggressive children being raised by aggressive parents."

She is a professor at a local university, and this summer she will be hosting a group of 30 students checking into graduate schools in California. Their university actually makes money off these trips by charging the parents over $5,000 per student. Who in China can afford this we wonder? Apparently at least 30 sets of parents! She said most of the students don't care about seeing most of the universities - they'd rather shop! More of mom and dad's hard earned money out the window.

She sees her job as an English teacher slowly becoming more obsolete. The students are coming to university with such excellent English she is hardly needed. Only one semester of English is compulsory. So what could she do instead?

She's actually thinking of helping to develop the homeschool movement here in China. She would love to homeschool her son, but she's afraid that without a formal structure that affirms homeschooling, he might not be able to attend university here. She would love for China to give formal permission for parents to homeschool, but she wonders if it would be a license for rural people to keep their kids at home in order to use them for labor. It's exciting to see her wrestle with these issues, and I hope for her sake that homeschooling becomes a possibility.

Why? Well, because she described her son's school to me, and it once again made me thank God that I never chose to put my kids in local schools (I know there are some great schools out there, but this is an example of a pretty typical school). Her son is in a class of 40 first graders. His is one of nine 1st grade classes in the school. They have exams next weeks. They'll take a practice exam, be given results, then given an opportunity to take essentially the same test again. There is competition between the nine classes for the highest scores, and between their school and others. Sound at all familiar?

She was called in after school recently to talk to her son's teacher, or rather, to be lectured by her son's teacher. For five minutes, in front of other parents whose children have been performing sub par, she was reprimanded about the serious situation with her son's math abilities. She said, "To this day, I don't know what it is he's doing wrong. Maybe writing sloppy?" but she just laughed it off.

All this just goes to show me that you're never done learning about a culture. I find it all fascinating and a little baffling.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Project 365 June 21-26

June 21 - steaming something. I'm a sucker for stuff that's steaming

June 22 - it's encouraging to find your kids like this

June 23 - the after dinner clean up

June 24 - she really didn't want her picture taken

June 25 - rainy night

June 26 - windows at the Forbidden City

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What's Behind That Anger?

I've spent a lot of time this spring thinking about and processing rage. I've become convinced of several things:

1. We're all angry
2. Anger expresses itself in many forms - contempt, control, performance - besides what we think of as anger
3. Anger is a cover for something deeper the majority of the time
4. We will not stop being angry unless we deal with whatever is under it

I just finished a good book called Faces of Rage. I'll tell you more about it some other time. This morning, though, my rage thoughts come from dealing with a very angry little girl. Yes, that's right - sweet little Megan has an angry streak. How could she not with that mane of flaming red hair? Megan's always had a tough time expressing what she's really feeling, and lately she's managed that the way many of us do - she gets angry instead.

So, figuring that there was something under the anger, I tried a little exercise. I asked her to draw what she was feeling. Mostly she just wanted to break the colored pencils or throw them. I drew a heart and asked if she could write what was in it. She couldn't. I asked her to pick any color and draw with it. She picked red and scribbled. She wrote "Angry!" She scribbled with black. Then gray.

I drew a man, a big man, out of red. I explained that being angry makes us feel big and powerful so we don't have to feel other things underneath. I took another pencil and drew arrows out from behind our red man that showed maybe he was hiding things like "hurt" or "sad" or "fear." She finally said, "I know" and drew an arrow that said, "Stress."

She was feeling a little overwhelmed by all that she felt she "had" to do today (which was surprising to me given that it's summer and the only things she really had to do today were 10 minutes of Chinese homework and taking a shower). Digging a little deeper, it seems the stress also covered the sadness of the attachment she's formed to our friends' cousin who is visiting and will be leaving on Friday. For the next 5 minutes Megan cried about several things that are weighing on her.

I can't say we got to the bottom of everything - my default these days is to assume that transition stress is at play too -  but I do know that suddenly now I have a very different girl who is happily filling water balloons for an epic neighborhood fight later. It's a good reminder of the importance of looking anger in the face and asking myself, "Hmm . . . what's really going on here?" Apparently doing so can be quite freeing. :)

Friday, June 22, 2012

There and Back Again

I get what it was like for Bilbo Baggins. He was a hobbit happy to stay in The Shire until adventure came knocking at his door in the form of Gandalf.  Bilbo had no desire to go, stating, “We are plain, quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.” 

But what followed was the “story of a Baggins who had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbour’s respect, but he gained – well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.” 

              I would probably have been happy staying my whole life in my hometown as I have never been the adventurous sort. But Adventure came knocking on my door too and sent me to Asia for 13 years where I have found myself doing and saying things altogether unexpected as well. I believe I've gained quite a bit in the end. I hope I haven't lost the neighbor's respect, although I strongly suspect I will have lost quite a bit of common ground and understanding and don't know that I'll ever fully get it back. After all, as Gandalf commented,  "My dear Bilbo! You are not the hobbit that you once were.” And neither am I.

But like Bilbo, I hope to be content and scatter memorabilia from my adventures throughout my home for which I have a greater appreciation that I did before I left. And I'll keep in touch with my Elf friends whom I have met along the way.

I was explaining this to the kids tonight, and Megan commented that she hasn't been There and Back Again yet. America is "there" and China is "back again." 

But that is another story entirely.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Slow Drain

Most of the time I think we're doing well here. We love our friends. We love our house. We love what we do. We think this might be the most transformational time in the history of this country, and we get front row seats. We're mighty blessed in that way.

But sometimes I realize that this life takes its toll. It's like there's a slow leak somewhere in our boat, draining us. As much as we've adjusted to life in another culture, it will never be our own. There will always be moments, ways, places where we don't fit, where things rub us the wrong way. Things take longer and/or are more difficult because of the lack of development, the need to speak in a second language, the cultural barriers.

I confess I'm ready to be done with that aspect of our lives. I'd like to plug that hole. I know that moving back to the States will bring a whole new set of challenges, but they will be different and I think I need different right now.

Hmm . . . not the most light-hearted post I've ever written, but there it is!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Project 365 - June 1-20

June 1 - the kids and I were doing a picture a day thing. The first day was supposed to be "morning" so here it is
June 2 - and then I didn't do whatever we were supposed to do for June 2. This guy was peddling his services

June 3 - but day 3 was "empty" so here's my empty shot
June 4 - yeah, and that was as far as I got on that June photo thing. This is just some night dining

June 8 - oops. Missed a few days. I liked this night sky

June 9  -Ethan with one of his best buds

June 10 - Erik's morning ritual

June 11 - an unusually clear but cloudy day
June 12

June 13 - my feet in the air!

June 14 - Scout doesn't want to come

June 15 - I love seeing people walking their elders

June 16 - hard at work?

June 17 - Ethan making dessert
June 18 - the night train

June 19 - Terra Cotta Warriors

June 20 - three generations

Monday, June 18, 2012

What Does Faith Look Like?

This house hunting process is brutal. It may be a good time to buy in Orlando, but the houses for sale that are easy to buy are few and far between. Erik is currently there for a conference and had a couple days to look again. We prayed and hoped for two things - first, that God would make it incredibly clear if we should take a particular house (that kind of feeling where you walk in and just know) and that He would provide a house while he's on this trip.

So far the first one hasn't happened. Erik leaves Orlando on Saturday for Vancouver, and then our next available window in which to look at houses in person will not be until September (or when someone gives us $2000 for an emergency trip to Orlando. That seems, well, unlikely).

Several times in the last few days Erik and I have both been in tears over Skype, talking about these house possibilities, or lack thereof. We question if our criteria are too high. We wonder if God is trying to provide houses for us but we pass them by because we want something we think is better. We hear the voices in our heads that say, "God is going to provide for you" and we know that's true, but we don't know what that will look like, and that's what's difficult.

What does faith look like? Does it mean that we hold tenaciously to some idea we have in our heads about our ideal house? The word "die" has come up in our conversations several times, as in "die to a dream" or "I die a little when I look at that." Does having faith mean believing God will give us something that doesn't involve us having to die to things that we feel are important to us?

I really don't know. I know that the Christian life constantly involves death. Dying to self. But then where do God's promises to prosper us, to give us the desires of our hearts, come in? The biggest struggle for me is that I know God can give us exactly what we hope for and more. I just don't know if he will. What if what we need more than anything is something that isn't what we want?

So I find myself in a constant state of confusion and crying out to Him. I keep looking through verses on faith and on waiting. I know that the testing of our faith produces perseverance. I know that those who wait on the Lord will see His goodness. I just wish it were an easier and faster process!

Thursday, June 14, 2012


A woman and her young son joined me in the elevator this morning around 7:30 as I headed out for a run. She asked about my "little friends" by which I assumed she meant my children. It was one of those "do I tell her we homeschool and have to face the inevitable questions and confusion?" Then I remembered that technically it's summer, so I said, "They've on vacation."

"Vacation?!? So early?!?"

"Uh . . . America has a different schedule than China . . . " I replied sheepishly.

Her contempt was palpable as she exited the elevator to escort her son to school where obviously he will grow to be more intelligent than these feral American street urchins.

I should have gone with "homeschool."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Summer Days

I'm a little slow on the draw when it comes to perceiving how I'm doing physically. If I were in a battle, I imagine I'd be the kind of soldier who just keeps fighting until a fellow soldier comes up and says, "Dude, you're totally bleeding out of a huge wound in the back of your head." And I'd say, "Oh, no wonder I'm feeling kind of tired and cold and things are starting to get blurry."

So it's no surprise that a few weeks into being back in China, it's just now dawning on me that I'm really, really tired. The average person would look at our lives and particularly the last few months and say, "Guai bu de!" which means "No wonder!" and which, when pronounced, comes out, "Gw-eye boo DUH." So really it works in either language.

It's also taken me this long to realize that we are on summer vacation (any attempts I was going to make at finishing the school year went about 2 days after I was feeling better from that cough). I am re-learning what it's like to sleep until I wake up (which, given that the sun comes up around 4, isn't ever past 5:30 or 6), and that I really do have 3 hours to just sit and read a book, especially when the kids are at someone else's house.

It's tempting to feel guilty about all this free time, particularly since my husband has to keep going to work every day. But I'm trying to fully recognize what a gift this time is and how much I need to be refreshed. And looking ahead at the next six months, I know I'm going to need all the physical and emotional strength I can get. So here's to lazy summer days!

Saturday, June 09, 2012

How Much Is That Doggie on the Airplane?

From the second we said we were leaving, we had offers from people who wanted to take Scout off our hands. Aside from the fact that it would devastate our kids to leave her behind, I'm not about to go through all the work of a puppy and then hand her over to someone else to enjoy her for the rest of her life. No way - we've earned this dog.

Thankfully, it's a fairly simple procedure to take her back to the States - get a health check and certificate here in China, put her on the plane in an approved crate, then pick her up on the other hand and take her home scott free (albeit it severely traumatized from 16 hours stuck in a box without food or people).

But while it is simple, it is expensive. I just got off the phone with a woman at United who didn't seem too enthusiastic about helping me. Maybe because it was midnight for her. Let's give her credit for that. That might have also contributed to the fact that initially she tried to tell me the fee for shipping Scout in yen. (it's 24,000 in case you're interested). I guess Beijing is now in Japan.

After that confusion, I was informed that she will cost $783 to ship. In addition to that, we need to buy a regulation crate which has to be a size bigger than normal. Since she's a long dog, we have to get the 32" crate. In the States this would probably cost about $80, but we have to buy it here, where it is $120 on Tao Bao. And then there are some incidentals - $10 for a metal water bowl that attaches to the inside of the crate, and I suspect some fee for the health check and certificate.

It's a good thing she only cost $9 in the first place.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Chinese Mind Tricks

There's one aspect of Chinese culture that continues to amuse and, at times, frustrate me. It's what I like to call the Chinese Mind Trick. It happens when you ask someone for something, but rather than provide it, they try to convince you that you don't want it. It looks something like this:

Me: Do you have this dress in a smaller size?
Vendor: This is a good size for you.
Me: No, it's too big. Do you have a smaller size?
Vendor: A smaller size wouldn't look good. You should get this one.

or this:

Erik to vet: Can you tell us where we can get our dog a haircut?
Vet: This kind of dog shouldn't get its hair cut.

It's really hard to know how to respond to these interactions. Usually we get into them because people are unable to provide the information or products we want, but don't want to admit it because they would lose face. I understand that, but it would be so refreshing if someone would just say, "no" or "I don't know" in response to our questions.

It's a good thing I'm not looking for any droids, cause I think I know the answer I would get.


"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . . He has made everything beautiful in its time." Ecclesiastes 3:1, 11

This morning I contemplated these verses, and they took me back to a moment in high school. It was probably one of my lowest points - I was feeling extremely lonely, so much so that I wrote a poem about it during English class one day. That was 2nd hour. During 3rd hour Psychology class, the vice principal came to our classroom and pulled me out into the hallway. He had a girl with him named Emily Novak. He told me she was new to the school and had essentially the same schedule as me. She quickly became one of my best friends, and from that day everything changed.

I look back on that story and think, "God, your time is impeccable." He knew exactly how I would be feeling that morning in 2nd hour, and brought Emily and her family to me at just that moment. I shake my head in amazement.

I could go on and on about moments when God stepped at just the right time in my life. It's like He delights in swooping in to save the day, to show His glory, to prove once again that we are not alone, that we are seen, that we are heard, that He is good.

When I think of the moments when God's timing demonstrated His goodness, His tenderness, His power to provide, it gives me hope. Because I'll be honest and say that there have been times when His timing wasn't what I would have chosen. Yet even those times, He has used for good, for our growth, for His glory. Always, He is working to make everything beautiful.

So when I anxiously check each morning for new houses that might have come on the market, I'm tempted to think, "God, come on! We need a house!" But I know that He is really good at doing things like that at just the right time. I know it will come, and I know it will be good.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Project 365 May 19-31

May 19 - co-conspirators

May 20 - jet lag

May 22 - the solar eclipse

May 25 - Tae Kwon Do test

May 26 - goofy girls

May 27 - this guy was disappointed to find out I was not a reporter and therefore his picture would not be on TV

May 28 - Megan has yet to meet a sport she didn't love

May 29 - the moon behind some rare clouds

May 30 - evidence of life and play

May 31 - Surprise! A 40th birthday party 5 months early

Yes, there are a few days missing because of the previously mentioned week of work!

Just When You Think You've Grown . . .

I am just now emerging from the aftermath of our 3 1/2 weeks in the States, followed by a goodbye party to some of our dearest friends, followed by a week of intense coaching (me being one of the coaches) of some of our leaders. To top it off, or maybe as a result of all that (yeah, more likely the latter) I came back, holed up for several days, and then came down with the cough my dad had just before we left the States (dad, you've given me better parting gifts, I have to say).

Thanks to some Chinese medicine I am finally on the mend (that stuff makes you want to choke and curse your uncle but it's effective) but it was a tough week for me. When I first came back from the coaching week, I had been encouraged by the fact that I was emotionally and spiritually in a good place. Normally, these weeks of coaching are as tumultuous for the coaches as for the participants. I had commented to my fellow coaches that, on observation, I had felt a new solidness in me. I felt like God allowed me to see greater depths of the pain and struggle of peoples' journeys and yet felt less compulsion to be the one to move them somewhere else. I was happy just to be a conduit and I think because of that I felt bolder and freer to say things I wouldn't normally have said. It was good. I thought, "Huh, I think I might be growing. Thank you Jesus!"

And then the cough hit, and there still weren't groceries in the house, and my family would ask for dinner and I would stare blankly at them. And every morning the kids woke up and asked about what to do and I would stare blankly at them, and so they would Wii their mornings away. And people were asking me about our summer plans and how I am feeling about leaving and I would stare blankly at them.

This is not my normal mode of operation, and it was killing me.

I like to be a girl with a plan, who makes the most of her time and is on top of things. Last week that girl was nowhere to be found. I kept using the word "remedial" in referring to my capacity to do life until my husband graciously advised me (ok, he just plain told me) that I had to stop using it. And while there's a natural frustration that comes when you aren't able to function the way you're wired, it shows that I still struggle with the fact that I can make structure and performance an idol, and base my perception of myself on it.

So just when I thought I was growing . . . it seems I still have some growing to do. Yep. This is the in between.