How we end up living better every time we return to China

Maybe it sounds a little weird to think of making the most of a transition back to China. The goodbyes, 36+ hours of travel door-to-door, jet lag, and downward re-adjustment in comfort all make returning to your overseas home something to merely endure and survive, especially when young kids are involved. That’s still true for us. But we’ve also found there’s a great opportunity buried within each of our family’s sad and stressful biannual transitions back to the far side of the world.

Every second summer we spend two months visiting family and friends in Canada and the US (four states and one province). It’s great and we love it; lots of food and fun and camping and swimming with people we love and don’t get to see even close to near enough. But it’s not healthy in the sense that it’s a break from intentionally established daily routines that include sane sleep, eating, exercise, and relating. Plus, the leaving and the returning each have their own special stress.

Saying goodbye is one thing, but making your kids say goodbye to their grandparents at the international departures gate is just about the worst thing ever. It’s even worse than international travel with kids, which usually includes a long-haul flight followed by a layover followed by another flight that you barely make because your first flight was delayed (“Just hold it, OK?! Better wet pants on the plane than dry pants in the airport! Let’s move!”). Then there’s the step back down in convenience, cleanliness, and familiarity, plus all the stuff/dirt/bugs that has broken/accumulated/infested-and-died while you were away. We return to China physically and emotionally exhausted, out of shape, and relationally disoriented (for an extended period of time our kids haven’t had their usual amount of regular attention from us, and we haven’t had normal couple time, either).

It’s kind of funny: bracing for all that stress during our last two days with family in Canada is almost worse than actually going through it during the first week back in China. Sure, the first couple days of jet-lag and apartment cleaning/repair while trying to not take it out on your beyond-exhausted children aren’t awesome. But the level of discomfort I imagine each time never actually materializes, despite accurately predicting the general level of 麻烦 that awaits us. Each time, we slide back into our life here quicker and more smoothly than I expect us to.

And every return to China gives us an exciting opportunity that we plan for each time: the chance to intentionally alter our lifestyle for the better. Since our previously established routines and habits have been blown to smithereens by over two months of travel, it’s a prime chance to intentionally rearrange them as they start falling back into place, before they re-solidify. When your habits and routines have all been uprooted, it’s a chance to plant different ones.

Every time we come back to China, we end up living better than we had before. When we have about a week to go in North America we start thinking and talking about what we can improve, physically, psychologically, and relationally (I’d say “spiritually” but in my opinion it’s all spiritual one way or another), and keep adjusting it for the first few weeks we’re back.

Here’s some of the things we did this time, after returning to Qingdao a month ago on September 8:

  • Healthier eating: Mostly thanks to recommendations from my health-coach sister (not the product-pushing American-style health coach; the holistic, integrative kind), we tweaked our family’s diet, again.
  • Enhanced workout routine: I soaked up all the advice and info I could from my brother who’s a black belt in multiple martial arts and does judo and jujitsu training, and friends who do hardcore circuit training and strength training, and now my workout routine is more effective and time-saving.
  • Smarter family routines: Sometimes there really are engineering solutions to behaviour problems. Turns out you can avoid some common points of conflict just by adjusting meal/washing/clean up routines and staying on top of them. We talked it over from the vantage point of being outside our life here, and managed to identify and eliminate a couple of the kids’ daily opportunities for whining and noncompliance.
  • Smarter Chinese study routine: One way to get out of a study rut is to not study for two months. The last routine got me through the HSK5, but it didn’t feel good. I’m not going back to what I was doing, and instead have started a simple, doable, but more effective study routine that targets my weaker language areas and begins preparing me for the HSK6.
  • Long-neglected home repairs: For a very brief period of time after leaving the cleanliness and convenience of Canada, my tolerance levels are lower, and that means stuff gets fixed (gotta strike while the iron is hot, you know?), like the water barrier on our bathroom floor that keeps the shower water in the shower, the smoke fan in the kitchen, and the exhaust fan in the bathroom. I also thoroughly cleaned the DIY air purifiers, vacuumed, mopped and dusted the whole apartment and cleaned all the mold that had grown over the summer. And replaced all the dead houseplants with better ones. This would never happen in Month 2.
  • Healthier personal practices: I had personal practices before — what people usually call ‘spiritual’ practices — and those continue. But now I’ve also begun other ones. These are the kinds of things that intentionally set the direction and shape you’re going to grow in — the kind of person you’re going to become. Time will tell how far I’m able to grow into them. (Step 1 in becoming legit spiritual is Get Enough Sleep. We have an infant. I’m working on it…). But being captivated by a liberating, positive, all-encompassing vision is unlike anything else, even when Kid #3 is making you tired. (I’m happy to share details. Spoiler: Jesus.)

The end result is: our life is on a slightly better trajectory now than it was before we left for the summer. And it was the same deal after we returned from the summer two years ago. It makes us excited for where the next few semester will take us.

A Chinese meal done right is a very special thing

As much as the Chinese obsess about food, it’s not really about the food.
Ganbei!
dinner2
dinner1

Have yourself a Chinese little Advent…

For students of Chinese, here’s something to read during Advent 降临节: text from the four Gospels mashed together into a single Christmas narrative, then divided into four readings. If that doesn’t make you cringe, then you obviously weren’t paying attention in Intro to Exegesis. But we’re not doing exegesis here, we’re reading the Christmas story in Chinese! (Five different Chinese translations!)

Download: 圣诞节1.pdf / 圣诞节2.pdf / 圣诞节3.pdf / 圣诞节4.pdf

I read one per week during December. The hard copy is nice, but I also drop the text into my Pleco. It’s the same deal as we did with the Resurrection Festival 复活节 (a.k.a. “Easter”) readings. Download the PDFs below or read online by clicking the BibleGateway.com links.

Download: 圣诞节1.pdf

Zechariah is going about his priestly duties when an angel appears to him, saying that his barren and aged wife Elizabeth will have a son. Zechariah doesn’t believe it and loses his ability to speak. Elizabeth gets pregnant. Meanwhile an angel appears to Mary and Joseph separately, saying Mary will conceive. It’s awkward, as they aren’t married, but Joseph chooses not to break their engagement. Pregnant Mary visits pregnant Elizabeth and sings a song praising God.


(Read Chinese or English parallel online: 路1:5-38; 太1:18-25a; 路1:39-56)

Download: 圣诞节2.pdf

Elizabeth’s child is born, and the name him John. Zechariah, no longer mute, speaks a prophecy over John about John’s future role and the coming of the Messiah.


(Read Chinese or English parallel online: 路1:57-80)

Download: 圣诞节3.pdf

Joseph and very-pregnant Mary travel to Bethlehem for the census. They settle in a stable since there’s nowhere else to go. Jesus is born. Angels appear to shepherds, and the shepherds go visit Jesus.


(Read Chinese or English parallel online: 路2:1-20、25-35)

Download: 圣诞节4.pdf

Wisemen from the East come looking for Jesus and inadvertently alert King Herod. They visit Jesus but avoid telling Herod Jesus’ location. Jesus’ family flees to Egypt, Herod orders the Massacre of the Infants. After Herod’s death, Jesus’ family returns and settles in Nazareth in Galilee.


(Read Chinese or English parallel online: 太2:1-23)

Lots more Christmas-in-China fun on this blog. You can start with these:

Merry Christmas 2011! (“Is there anything worth believing in?”)

From John Lennox, author and Professor in Mathematics and Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford:

Is there anything worth believing in? Oh, ladies and gentlemen– I’m an old man. Let me speak to you directly.

In all my life studying different philosophies and ideas and mathematics for the sheer fun of it, I’ve never come across an idea that remotely touches this one:

“The Word became human, and dwelt among us.”

It’s not every world-class academic who could also make a good Santa. Merry Christmas!

The Posts of Christmas Past:

Christmas in general:

Christmas in China:

You can see all our Christmas stuff here.

(P.S. – That’s Merry Christmas 2011, not 2012. Ooohh… someone’s asleep at the switch!)

Cross-cultural living and the desire to be intimately known

Guest post! Cindy is one of the very few 100% fully bi-cultural people I’ve ever known. She originally wrote this in Facebook, and after reading it I asked to repost it here. I think it connects powerfully with everyone, especially those of us who live far from home, and most especially with Third-Culture Kids who aren’t really sure where ‘home’ is.

Let’s get to know each other

by Cindy
I had a conversation with my girlfriend about the hypothetical situation of whether we should remarry if our husbands died. I know my married girlfriends have had this conversation too, don’t deny it people. Her response was how hard it would be to have to get to know another person as intimately all over again.

Truly one of the greatest gifts in relationships is to be understood by another person. And trusting you will be accepted and loved in spite of the intimate knowledge. However, the process from acquaintance to intimacy takes time. It takes time to tell stories, to react to circumstances in life, to laugh and cry together, to argue and disagree, and then to make up. These experiences build layers of trust and loyalty and compose the patches of material that make up friendship. Through time we weave our lives together and enter together into the depth of relationship that allow us to be known by one another. And we are created to long for that depth. To be deeply known.

The trouble is, then we move. We pick up and move to another town. Or in my case, across the freakin’ ocean. I grew up in a small school where my friends were like my brothers and sisters. We were that small and that close. At graduation we scattered literally all over the world. Our new communities didn’t know our collective history and we had to start over from scratch with the storytelling and the laughing and crying and all that relationship building stuff. Then we’d move again. And start all over again. It’s no wonder people who are forced to move around a lot, like military families, have intimacy issues. It’s simply too exhausting.

Each time we enter a new community, that new place shapes us, molding us into someone different. When I left Wheaton, I was starting to question some of the conservative elements of my beliefs. Fuller helped introduce a broader spectrum of theology and how to incorporate doubt and criticism into a vibrant faith. In a sense, there was a Morrison Cindy, a Wheaton Cindy, a Fuller Cindy, a China Cindy, and a back-to-Taiwan Cindy. As time went on, the world changed and so did I. In the moving river of life, people who stepped in along the way journeyed with me downstream without the knowledge of who I was before I became who I am. Like a diamond, we can only reflect light off of one surface at a time even though we are made out of many facets.

The potential for misunderstanding is alarming. In our limited perspective, it’s too easy to make judgments regarding a person’s comments without a fuller understanding of their background. Wheaton Cindy would be appalled at some of the theological slants of back-to-Taiwan Cindy, and Chinese Cindy cannot hardly stand American Cindy most of the time. The complexities of our biological, cultural, mental, and spiritual identities is what fuels the psycho-therapy economy. And yet there exists inside of me the desire to be wholly known. The impossibility of somebody understanding the nuances of every past experience, every hat I wear, every idea and action and word I exhibit, doesn’t stop me from trying.

So I tell stories. I share my reaction when stuff happens. I laugh and cry. I argue and disagree. And I make up. Then I listen, not only to stories but to the stories behind the stories. I try not to jump to conclusions about people because I don’t know where they’ve been upstream. I look for the other faces of the diamond that make up each person I encounter because seeing only one side is not satisfying. I lean deep into the relationships around me to know and be known. It’s what I was created for.

I’m Cindy. It’s nice to meet you. Let’s get to know each other, shall we?

Happy Chinese New Year to you, too, Mr. taxi shifu!

Negative news about China circulates quickly and often and colours people’s perceptions of China and Chinese people, so when something great happens I want to share it.

Since Spring Festival is a Chinese family holiday, it’s not the ideal time to do much with your Chinese friends as most of them are busy. Because of that and the unbelievable amount of fireworks (and car alarms) that go on for several days, especially in Tianjin, many foreigners find ways to “escape” during Chinese New Year’s Eve. Our NGO and many others plan their annual conferences during this time. We know a Dutch family who’s gone to Thailand for Spring Festival this year, and they invited us to house-sit while they’re gone. They have an actual Western-style house (rare in China!) on the edge of the city where it’s quiet (even rarer!), and we were more than willing to take them up on their offer.

Four or five nights away with a toddler means we had to pack out a lot of stuff, and it being over Chinese New Year’s means we also had to pack out food (lots of stores will be closed), so we crammed a lot of stuff into a taxi, including a borrowed $600 camera (our old camera finally died, and we’d borrowed a friend’s extra camera while waiting for another friend to bring one we ordered to her American address while she was in the States seeing family). The driver had to pull out half our stuff and rearrange, so things were moved around and stuffed places.

When we arrived we unloaded everything into a pile, said thanks, and he drove off. Almost right away we realized the camera wasn’t there. I ran to the entrance of the housing complex hoping to catch him, but he was gone. We called our friend to tell her we’d lost her really expensive camera for no good reason, and that we’d replace it. We’re not usually so irresponsible, and we felt horrible about it; we were supposed to be kicking off the beginning of a relaxing, romantic vacation but it was like a cloud had dropped on us. Being out several hundred dollars didn’t add to the mood either.

Petty theft goes up before Spring Festival because people are spending lots of money and, so our local friends tell us, the legions of migrant workers who are preparing to make their torturous train ride home are more apt to make a little extra money by any means that presents itself. They also sometimes have to fight for their wages from bosses who try to cheat them; it’s not too uncommon to see the occasional protests by migrant workers outside a constructions site, for example, during the lead-up to Spring Festival. Anyway, this didn’t even really count as theft, and we had no illusions that we’d ever see that camera again.

The next day, just a few minutes ago, I heard a car pull up but assumed it was the neighbours (the house is actually a duplex). L was upstairs not sleeping, and the doorbell rang. No way, I thought, and went to open the door. There was the driver(!), opening the trunk and explaining how he’d not seen it yesterday because it was stuffed in the back (taxi drivers usually have lots of their own stuff in the trunks). I thanked him profusely and gave him some money, and he said think of it as him 拜年-ing us. 拜年 means sending someone a New Year’s greeting or paying them a New Year’s visit, both of which are customary during Spring Festival. Chinese will send billions, literally, of New Year’s text messages as a means of 拜年-ing each other,and in the days following New Year’s Day they will go 拜年 relatives and friends by visiting their homes.

Anyway, we’re very thankful today for a kind-hearted, exceptionally honest Chinese taxi driver. Happy Chinese New Year to him, and everyone else, too!

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