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.

How to do cross-cultural transitions right: Build a “RAFT”

Moving cross-culturally is a lot of things, but one thing it isn’t is easy. You leave behind siblings, nephews and nieces, parents and grandparents, and friends, plus places and things infused with memories and meaning, like the house where you grew up and park where you proposed.

We did that once, the first time we moved to Asia. After three years we returned to Canada to have our first child, and then we did it again. After another two years in China we returned to Canada a second time for the birth of our second child. And now we’re back in China for the third time.

The return trips to China after each birth were harder than the first time we left. Taking your children away from their grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins, Sunday school friends (never mind all the grass and trees and oceans and lakes and air) hurts.

You realize more what you’re doing when you’re also doing it to your kid.

There’re others you leave behind, too: coworkers, people you don’t like, people you have a grudge against. And there’s the nasty bonus surprise: returning to your culture of origin (like our friend Rob) after a long time away is often harder than leaving your original home ever was in the first place. Not only are you leaving behind so many friends and places and memories, but “home” has changed since you left, and so have you, and it won’t feel the same. Much of the familiarity you’re expectantly anticipating never materializes. But this post isn’t about entry or re-entry; it’s about leaving.

Regardless of which direction you’re going, the experience of leaving so much behind is huge whether you take the time to acknowledge it or not. And how you leave it can have a big impact on you personal development, on the kind of people you and your lover and your kids are becoming. This experience impacts all of you, and some ways of intentionally navigating the experience are healthier than others.

We received some great advice about how to do cross-cultural transitions before our most recent move back to China, advice we tried out a little bit in the months before we left, and we think it’s worth sharing. I wish we’d put more of it into practice than we did. It’s called “building a R.A.F.T.” and comes from chapter 13 of Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (pages 200-204 in our 2001 edition). Below is my summary/paraphrase/riff of what they wrote.

Building a R.A.F.T.

You’ll see quickly that this process takes some forethought and planning ahead; put it off ’til the last two weeks and you’ll likely not have enough opportunities. You’ll also notice that it’s something for every family member to do, not just the adults.

Closure matters. Festering bitterness matters. Making peace matters. Emotional baggage matters. Guilt and regrets matter. Forgiving and being forgiven matter, and that’s what reconciliation is all about. Reconciliation means growing up. It means attempting to communicate hurts and forgiveness, and initiate apologies.

A cross-cultural move presents a tempting cop-out: to run away and ignore strained or broken relationships. But refusing to resolve interpersonal conflicts sabotages healthy closure, and this lack of reconciliation sabotages the rest of your “RAFT” — the rest of your transition and entry/re-entry experience. You can’t really move away from these kinds of difficulties anyway; you’ll carry the emotional baggage of unresolved problems with you. Bitterness is unhealthy, unresolved relational issues can interfere with new relationships, and if/when you eventually move back, those problems will still be there, and they’ll be even harder to resolve.

A cross-cultural move also provides a great excuse, if you need one, for attempting to make peace: “Hey, I’m leaving for China for who knows how long, and I don’t want to leave a mess between us…” or however you need to do it.

You can’t always achieve reconciliation, of course, because it takes two willing parties. But you can always attempt it, and at least own up to the part of the relationship you’re responsible for. In our recent personal experience we found that the attempt is worth it whether the other side engages or not.

Think through your list of friends, coworkers, supervisors, neighbours, classmates. Do more than just say goodbye. Affirm people; let them know you respect and appreciate them, acknowledge that they matter. This is good for them and for you: it strengthens your relationships into the future and makes you more aware of what you’ve gained from living in the place you’re leaving. Pollock and Van Reken illustrate with some examples:

  • Make time to tell coworkers that you enjoyed working with them.
  • Tell friends how their friendship has been important, and maybe leave them some sort of memento.
  • Send a note and small gift to neighbours, mentioning positive things about your interactions with them.
  • Reassure those close to you of your love for them and that you don’t leave them lightly. Order flowers for the day after you leave.

Affirmation helps with closure by acknowledging the blessings you have in the form of relationships, and mourning their passing.

Making farewells to people, places, and possessions helps avoid deep regrets later. Schedule ahead so that you won’t end up missing anyone or anywhere or any thing that was in any way significant, and make a real ‘official’ farewell to each. It’s a time to acknowledge all the positive things and feelings, and acknowledge that it’s sad to leave each person and thing behind.

People – this is crucial, even more so for children, who will need guidance. You want to say and do something, make some sort of gesture like baking cookies or writing a note, that acknowledges the importance of that person to you, expresses thanks, and lets them know they will be missed.

Some sort of “rite of passage” ritual often accompanies major life transitions like graduation or retirement parties. Taking the time to do something similar in spirit creates a significant memory acknowledging the importance of a person or place, and helps face and process the fact that you’re leaving them.

Places – Visit emotionally significant sites to reminisce and say goodbye. Everything from the tree you loved climbing to the park where you got engaged. Some people plant a tree, or hide some little treasure that they could dig up later if they ever return. The point is to openly acknowledge the time as a true goodbye, admitting that the stage of life these places represent will soon be in the past.

Possessions – You have to leave a lot of stuff behind in international moves. Certainly, adults and kids have to learn about letting go, and we all have too much stuff anyway, but everyone should talk over what to take and what to leave behind. It’s also important to deliberately choose and take what become “sacred objects”, a slowly growing collection of physical objects that connect the different places and stages of your life. When important objects must be left behind, try giving them as gifts to a friend and taking photographs. Jessica and I have a Christmas tree ornament (or something we use as one) from most of the significant places in our life together. Every year we can remember.

In addition to all her teachers and ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, we had our three-year-old say good-bye to her classrooms, playground, the lake where she swam all summer, places we visited regularly, her bedrooms, toys she was leaving behind, parks we often walked in, and a bunch of other stuff. And we took pictures of it all. This gave us plenty of opportunity to verbalize what was happening then and later after we’d returned to China. It helped all of us put words to the experience and mourn all that we were losing in a healthy way.

Think Destination
During the goodbye process, start shifting gears mentally, reorienting your thinking to the near future: you’re arrival and adjustment in a new place. Think realistically: identify positives and negatives and differences about your destination. List problems you’ll likely encounter. Make a list of your coping resources, both external (finances, support people you can lean on) and internal (your ability and methods of dealing with the stress of change).

Thinking ahead and identifying these things helps make the transition much less rockier than it could be. Forming realistic expectations helps avoid disappointment (from too high expectations) and makes sure you don’t miss out on available resources (due to too low expectations). You aren’t mentally and emotionally leaving so much behind in order to go nowhere; every step away from what you’re leaving can be a step toward what you’re gaining.

Related stuff:

Long Overdue Post – Yangmingshan Mountain

NOTE: This post should have been written almost a month ago now. I meant to write it within the first week after we visited Yangmingshan, but I was still feeling burned out about writing anything after finishing all of our stuff for grad school in December. However, that’s no excuse for it being almost a month late. :D Anyway, here it goes – better late than never, I hope!

The week of Jan. 14th – 21st was almost like a week long celebration for us. The 14th marked not only our one-year anniversary of being in Taiwan, but also my birthday. Joel made me breakfast and snuck out to the local wet market early in the morning to buy me a dozen gorgeous red roses. Later that night, we also ate lots of delicious food at our favorite all-you-can-eat hot pot and barbeque place with Yang Mama, Mingdaw, Zhi-ling, and John (our Canadian boss). We even tried barbequing some snails…though they turned out a little tough to chew…and very hard to pry out of the shells with chopsticks. :D

One of the coolest things we did that week was take a trip to the northern part of Taipei with our friends Charles and Angel. We drove up one of the mountains there, called Yangmingshan. About halfway up, we rolled the windows down to smell the fresh air. It was wonderful to be away from the traffic noises and exhaust fumes that fill the Taipei basin. The mountain was beautiful, but different from the forest covered mountains of New Hampshire and British Columbia. This mountain had only a few trees, but was covered instead with grasslands.

We got out of the car and took a short hike around the summit area. At some points, the grass was taller than Joel! It was pretty easy to imagine that we were walking through some kind of savannah and that we might encounter a lion stalking its way through the long grasses. But instead of lions, there are buffaloes that live in the grasslands of Cingtiangang. It was really beautiful. There were even several couples up there getting their wedding portraits done. Yangmingshan is also famous for its hot springs. After we finished exploring the grasslands, we drove to another part of the mountain that has sulphuric hot springs bubbling up from the ground. Apparently this mountain is an old volcano, though it is inactive now – except for the hot springs that bubble to the surface and the smell of sulfur that fills the air. This area looked totally different from the grasslands – more like the surface of the moon than the African plains.

We finished off the day with a great lunch at a restaurant that is partway down the mountain. They serve some of the wild mountain vegetables, which seem to have a sweeter flavour than those you might fight in the local market. We ate in a room of the restaurant that had old stone walls – on some areas you could see a light covering of moss growing. The atmosphere was amazing and the food tasted wonderful. However, the company of our friends, Angel and Charles) was the best part of the meal (and the whole day). We had a great time hanging out, laughing, joking, and practicing our Chinese on them. We’ve been blessed to have many great friends during our year in Taiwan, and even though it took me so long to write about our trip up to Yangmingshan with Charles and Angel, it was a day that we’ll remember for many years to come. :D

See more photos here!

Taipei to Chiang Mai

Well, we made it to Chiang Mai. We found curry, asap. But we’re really tired after pulling an all-nighter packing so we’re going to bed early.

Leaving is no fun – it’s always rushed: the packing and getting everything in order, but also the last moments with friends and all the things you want to say and moments you want to savour. I’m beginning to wonder if this will be a recurring theme in our lives… though I sure hope we get the packing part down before we have kids!

Mingdaw, Yang Mama, Zhi-ling, Wang Ge, Mu Shi and Gong-zhu (‘Princess’) came with us to the airport at 5am to see us off. We’re really going to miss them! We already do.

We’re in the mall at an internet cafe. When we figure out where the wireless connections are we’ll put up pictures, as we have a few small Thailand adventures planned. But tonight it’s just showers and bed.

ps – Chou-chou and Fire Chicken are now Mingdaw’s… I’m sure Doo-doo is thrilled.

Lao Zhao on Beijing accents

LÇŽo Zhào took us out tonight for dinner at a friend’s restaurant. His family’s restaurant is halfway between our apartment and work, so over the year we had some fun hanging out, exchanging gifts, learning má jiàng, sharing food, and stuff. In this video clip we were talking about going to China where the national standard Mandarin is the “common speech” (普通话) a.k.a. Beijing Mandarin (北京话). Taiwan’s “National Language” (國語) has a different accent, and our Taiwan friends sometimes like to poke fun at the Beijing accent, which drowns the end of every word in an “r” sound. The sentence LÇŽo Zhào uses as an example near the end is 你是美女, which means “You are a beautiful woman.”

The restaurant was noisy, so you have to lean in to hear him, but mostly we put this video up because it’s a nice example of what LÇŽo Zhào is like. We’ll miss this guy.

Mahjong, Mexican food, and More Goodbyes

Saying goodbye sucks. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time doing it.

Today we had to have two different goodbye sessions. The first was with the church where we taught the adult English class during most of 2006. I was glad they gave us minute to speak (with a translator) because they really have been like a big family to us this year, with all kinds of people going out of their way to make us feel welcome in Taiwan and seeing that we were taken care of. It was good to get to thank everyone, and enjoyable to search the crowd and deliberately make eye contact with specific people at the right time. Maybe I just liked being able to look over a crowd and see so many faces that are no longer strangers, people we can greet warmly by name and with whom we have some great shared memories. Cé-méi even made us goodbye card!

I.E. won't display this, so click here to see the photo.Then tonight some friends came over, most of whom were on that New Year’s trip to Wulai hot springs. Jessica cooked enchiladas for everyone, and then we played má jiàng. Surely we must be the first people ever in Taiwan to combine má jiàng with Mexican food. I was surprised at how they seemed to like it. I have yet to see Mexican anything here (according to one of our students: “Oh, Taiwan has Mexican food! T.G.I.Friday’s!”).

They ended the evening with a dinosaur picture (their suggestion), which I’ll post as soon as Wén-dí e-mails it to me. Here’s the first one.

It’s hard to say goodbye, and weird. We just got here a year ago. Now it’s like, “See you ‘later.’ We’re off to some place we’ve never been and don’t have specific plans beyond the immediate future. Good thing there’s Skype. Maybe next time we talk we won’t have to use any English!” Ugh. It’s too bad we can’t celebrate time together without having to end it. Maybe it’s a shadow and sunshine kind of thing.

Night out with the young adults group

We always have fun hanging out with the young adults. And it often involves great food, too. They took us out tonight to a hot pot restaurant that specializes in mutton, but of course has all the usual hot pot stuff, from seafood (shrimp, crab, squid) to dofu and tempura, vegetables, beef, and pork. And you get to mix your own sauces (big bonus for me)! And it’s all you can eat, and we were there for I think over three hours.

On the right is a picture of KÄ›-xÄ«n and Jessica, who’s sucking the marrow out of a leg bone with a straw. We also had squid heads for the first time… I’m not sure if I was supposed to eat those. I thought it was a little octopus with really big eyes, until someone passed me a couple headless bodies. Oh well – tasted good.

In addition to having a blast with a really fun crowd, we also get to try as much Mandarin as we can (more opportunity than we get at work, where the pressures of running the school don’t make time for many impromptu Mandarin lessons). And our friends seem to enjoy playing Mandarin teacher. We’re so thankful they tolerate our constant stream of, “[new word] 是什麼?” We’re going to miss these guys – and fun, warm, and caring bunch.