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.

When you dare take your week-old infant to the neighbourhood vegetable market in China

The days following a birth are up and down, so Jessica tells me. Some days it’s all, “I love my baby!!! I love my kids!!! I love my husband!!!” while on occasional days the smallest criticism can provoke tears. Jessica was feeling good and feisty today. She was also tired of sitting inside and so decided to brave our neighbourhood streetside vegetable market for the first time since giving birth — with our 9-day-old son in a Ergo carrier.

baby_in_the_marketShe knew it’d be pushing the buttons of every Chinese auntie and grannie in sight and generate non-stop commentary from the moment she stepped out the door (because she’s done it before), but she didn’t care. Besides, it’s not like she hasn’t already been accused of being an evil stepmother. ;)

Here’s what she was repeatedly criticized for during her fifteen minutes in the market:

  • being outside
  • bringing the baby outside
  • wearing short sleeves (it’s 20’C and sunny at the end of May)
  • buying tomatoes (they’re a “Cold” food, as in Traditional Chinese Medicine theory “Cold”; eating “Cold” things is exactly what post-partum women aren’t supposed to do)
  • being so thin and losing weight since the birth (how much weight exactly?)
  • being too active during pregnancy and not eating the right things (and that’s why he’s so small) (he was 3kg at birth)

She opted not to mention that we’d already been to Beijing and back for an embassy run. ;)

This is our third time to have an infant in China, so none of this is a big deal and it’s completely understandable. It’s certainly not our first time to draw a crowd with a foreign baby or receive well-intentioned-but-unsolicited-and-annoyingly-personal criticism (criticism often conveys concern or interest in China; it’s not usually meant to be mean). But it’s still kind of funny, especially because her sister-in-law is here from the States to help out — a ‘fresh’ foreigner encountering China for the first time.

Way back when we were preparing to bring our first infant to China, Australian friends who’d had their kid in China around the time ours was born in Canada sent us a list of everything we had to look forward to/brace ourselves for. It’s still funny (and full of valuable information)!

Links in this post:

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Chinese belly button voodoo

Took kid #2 to the local hospital because of some stubborn tummy trouble, and came home with some Chinese medicine:
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Of course herbal belly button plugs are a thing:
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I hope we’re doing this right:
bellybutton_voodoo1 According to my Weixin pengyous, we should be OK. (And to be fair, China’s not the only place that comes up with novel health remedies.)

Chinese state church Sunday school Lord’s Prayer (video)

The cute last few seconds of the 7-year-old-and-under Sunday school class at the Chinese state church we attend on Sunday mornings (the very end is the best part!):

(It’s a YouTube video, so you’ll need a VPN in China.)

Learn the Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed in Chinese here.

How to make the most of your friendly neighbourhood Chinese seafood restaurant

Play with the food!

The smaller ones are called 八带bā dài); the one bigger one with the really long tentacles is a 马蛸mǎ shāo)。(If you’re in China, you’ll need your VPN to see the video.)
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When I was I kid, sharks, anglerfish, and octopuses were the coolest things in the ocean. This restaurant has everything but the sharks.
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This isn’t the only place we play with live octopuses, but it is the most convenient. This night we were able to see them change colour and squirt ink at us. Homeschool points +1000!

Winter in Qingdao means biology lessons abound

“Look, Daddy, I can see the esophagus…” This is basically like raising kids on a farm, right?
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