Fears and Far Away

When I told people I was moving thousands of miles away, on the other side of the ocean, to a land where I didn’t speak the language, far from everything familiar, the response so often came, “You’re so brave.” Or, “Aren’t you afraid of what could happen?”

In many ways, moving to the other side of the world requires facing fears. I have to say some “normal” fears rarely enter my mind. I’m not so concerned about things happening to me in daily life, about travel, about crossing the street (which can be a pretty scary thing!). But it can also cause a whole new pile of fears and uncertainties to creep in.

Will people forget me? Will I be able to really adjust?  Where will I fit?

A few weeks ago, with several of my teammate we discussed our biggest fears being in China.  For me, the biggest fear has long been the same—something happening to my family and not being there.

Two days later, my grandpa died.  My grandfather—the man who I hurried across the gravel driveway to see every morning as a small child. The man who taught me all about cars, boats, houses, James Bond and John Wayne.

And there I was 7000 miles away.

Yet, as I set on my bed crying I couldn’t shake the unmistakable peace upon me.

My word for the year is dependence. And I realized I had to depend that my Father was taking care of my family.  I had to realize I’m not in control.  That the hands that hold the universe hold me and my family—even on opposite sides of the world. And He tells me, “Do not fear, for I am with you.”

Lady in Red: A Chinese wedding!

Last weekend, I had the exciting opportunity to attend my first Chinese wedding.  It’s something I’ve been excited about doing since I arrived here a year ago. Our neighbor (who is also our invaluable colleague and helper) got married. We were so happy to celebrate with her!

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Some interesting Chinese wedding traditions & observations:

  • Traditionally, the women’s parents do not attend the wedding because the woman is leaving her family and joining the groom’s family. Today, more and more brides (especially in the cities) have their parents at the wedding. The bride’s parents did attend this wedding and her father walked her in and presented her to the groom–similar to what we are accustomed to at Western weddings.
  • In another influence from Western culture, more brides wear white wedding dresses as opposed to the traditionally-styled red dress. In spite of this, the bride will often change into a red dress.
  • Wedding pictures are often taken at various locations before the wedding, similar to what we do for engagement photos, only the bride and groom wear various formal attire (wedding dresses, colorful formals, etc. I think the outfits are often rented.)
  • The wedding itself might seem a little bit more like a reception, centered around a meal and taking place in a hotel ballroom. There is an announcer who MCs the event (quite loud and energetic–think of the guy who introduces the basketball players at the beginning of the game).  I’ve heard vows are not always said (perhaps a simple question of “will you marry this person?”), but our wedding did have something similar to Western wedding vows. (Or so I was told. I basically understood the part where the bride said I love you.)
  • The day of the wedding is strategically chosen by a variety of factors according to the Chinese zodiac calendar. I’m not sure exactly how this works, but I do know it takes into account the bride and groom’s birth years, as well as days that are considered lucky. Apparently all of 2015 is both a bad year to get married and a bad year to have children. That’s unfortunate. (Pun intended.)
  • As part of the ceremony, the bride and groom have to call their new in-laws mama and baba (mother and father), until they do so satisfactorily. Then they receive a gift from the parents.
  • After the ceremony, the bride and groom walk around to each table and toasts all of their guests.
  • The event is quite colorful. Some even have fireworks indoors. We didn’t have fireworks, but a screensaver that gave a simulated look of them at times.  Not quite as exciting, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to see and hear fireworks living in China 🙂

**Yes, I do remember I have a blog. I’m planning on weekly updates this year, so if I don’t do it you can keep me accountable.**

Home to a Foreign Land

If I learned to speak Mandarin perfectly, with no discernible foreign accent, if I lived the rest of my life in this city, if I my children were born here, if my grandchildren were born here, even if I dyed my hair black, got dark contacts and tried my very best to blend in as much as possible—one thing will still always remain—I’m a foreigner.

As a native of a country where we can’t readily identify foreigners, even by their color of skin or the language they speak—it’s easy for us to never really ponder what it means to be “foreign.”  But here, my status as a foreigner is obvious and constant.

After nearly 4 weeks of traveling, I returned “home” a few days ago.  Although I was leaving this beautiful country full of warmth and sunshine:

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I was excited to be returning to this foreign land—which over the past few months begins to feel more familiar, like a place I belong.  Perhaps that’s why my status once again as foreign was a little bit jarring.  My first night back we went to dinner at a restaurant we frequent.  Another diner moved across the restaurant to stare at us.  He probably wanted to examine the foreigners’ chopstick skills. Or maybe he was just intrigued by the group of foreigners.

While at times this identity as a foreigner can be a bit overwhelming, I have to say I’ve grown in some ways to appreciate.  In one of my early letters home I mentioned that living here, ‘I’m continually reminded that for each of us, this is not our home.  China is no more my home than the land of (real) football and barbecue is.’

So even as I retain my foreign status, I’m thankful for the opportunities that it brings me to meet new people and build relationships.  I’m thankful for the many foreign things that become familiar.  And I’m thankful for the reminder that I am made for a greater home and have been given a “longing for a better country—a heavenly one.”

One Word: Dependence

A few weeks ago, I ate dinner with some of my students on the campus they live on, about a 20-minute walk from my campus.  When we finished dinner, they said, “Miss Anna, we will walk with you.”  Often I manage to dissuade my students when they ask this question, but tonight they were walking to class, so we could actually walk in the same direction.  You see, walking with my students is a bit awkward.  They walk slowly. Really slow. Often they want to link arms, or in this particular instance, they wanted to hold hands for the entirety of the walk.  And these particular students really struggle with their English, so the walk is made in almost complete silence.

As we walked, holding hands, slowly and silently, I was squelching the urge to break free, when one of my students turned her face up to mine and said in a most earnest voice, “We like walking with you, Miss Anna.”

These simple words pierced my heart.  I wonder how often people are begging for someone to just walk with them, but I’m too busy, too distracted, too focused to simply walk with them.  I wonder how often the Father asks me, “just walk with me.” But I put it off, I don’t want to have to slow down, to deal with the awkwardness, to wait to see the direction that He’s walking.

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I wasn’t sure what word to choose when I first read the Velvet Ashes post about one word. But as I thought of one word for 2014, the Father kept bringing the word dependence to my mind. I have to say I initially wanted to reject the word in favor of interdependence.  You see dependence means that I need someone or something else for support, whereas interdependence seemed to give me more of a role.  And while I do think we need to rely on one another, I realize my biggest problem is often letting myself need others, letting myself fully depend on my Creator, who doesn’t need me.  And also there are times when others may need me, but it may seem that is not a mutually dependent relationship–and I don’t depend on the Father to give me grace, energy and love in those times…instead I depend upon my own strength. 

There is a beautiful Zimbabwe saying, “I am because we are.” It is understand our individual identity is deeply rooted in community.  That we need each other.  Sometimes needing each other is awkward.  Sometimes it means that we must walk at an uncomfortably slow pace, take a route that doesn’t seem the most efficient—or even hold hands.  But as we learn what it means to walk with others, we often begin to see more of who we are truly called to be.

So this year, as I think of the word dependence for 2014, it’s a bit scary.  Because let’s face it, I don’t always like to need something beyond myself. Often I’m tempted to run ahead on my own. But I am reminded I am here today because of the many people who have walked with me, and because of a Father who always walks with me.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. II Cor. 12: 9

You’re not alone

P1000433Every morning when I walk to class, I see stray dogs.  It may seem ridiculous, but I often feel close to tears as I watch these dogs.  Perhaps it reminds me of my own orphaned dog at home.  (Ok, Gordy is probably living a cushier existence than me with my parents…)  But something moves deep within me with compassion.  It makes me so sad that these dogs are alone as they look up at me with their sad faces.

But what stirs my heart even more is as I walk around our campus and see so many faces…and I wonder how many of the students feel completely and utterly alone.  This week in class as I talked about my family and friends, one of my students raised her hand and asked, “Miss Anna, are you lonely sometimes?”   I was a little caught off guard by the question, but I answered honestly, “yes, sometimes I am.”  My class seemed a little taken aback by my response.  I wondered if I’d said too much.  I wondered if I’d said too little.  Because living in a country of 1.3 billion people, it’s amazing how alone one person can feel—how lonely I can feel at times.

Yet even in my darkest moments, I can rest assured that I’m not alone.  Mother Teresa once said, “I have come to realize more and more that the greatest disease and the greatest suffering is to be unwanted, unloved, uncared for, to be shunned by everybody, to be just nobody to no one.” And while at first that seems like such a depressing thought,  there is so much hope in it.  Because there is no one who is unloved, uncared for, or unwanted, but there are many people who are unaware.  They don’t know that there is always the one who loves each person.  And we can bring that hope to someone who may not realize that she is beautiful, that he is more than enough, that there is someone who loves them not for what they can do or accomplish.

This week as I walked to class past  the normal stray dogs, I noticed something different.  Instead of there being just one or two by themselves, they were all walking together, playing and scavenging for food (and a few of them may have been trying to impregnate others…Bob Barker probably needs to do a tour here), and this time I almost felt happy tears come to my eyes.  Among these stray dogs, they had formed community.  And I was reminded that if even among these dogs they could form this community, how much more the creator can work among his children to create community—to bring love, hope and joy to lonely hearts—and what a privilege it is to be part of that story.  Because even in those moments where I may feel lonely, I know I never walk alone.

Lies White Christmas Taught Me

**Warning the following post contains references to both a classic movie and Anne of Green Gables.**    

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I remember the first time I made the devastating revelation that everything in my favorite Christmas movie might not be true. No, it wasn’t when I found out that Irving Berlin is, in fact, Jewish.  It was when I decided I would try a cup of buttermilk.  In White Christmas, buttermilk is the sure fire way to get a good night sleep. The perfect accompaniment to a liverwurst sandwich (okay, my defenses should have been up when I heard liverwurst).  But one Christmas, while baking, I decided I would try a cup of buttermilk.  Let me tell you, it was not at all what I had envisioned.  I nearly spewed it out.

Yet this week, as I set out on a journey on a 15-hour sleeper train to the historic city of Xi’an, I couldn’t help but think of the glorious train ride in White Christmas.  Okay, perhaps they didn’t get beds and ended up in a city without snow, in direct contrast to what they had been happily anticipating. But that train ride sure did seem romantic (in the Anne Shirley kind of way).  And yet, as I was on the top bunk mere inches from the ceiling, with the sounds of running children, the fragrant aroma of cigarette smoke and enough consistent jerking to make me feel like I was in a car of someone learning how to drive stick shift, I realized that White Christmas once again hadn’t told the whole truth.

In all seriousness though, even though the train might not have lived up to Anne Shirley’s romantic ideal, it was quite the cultural experience.  Especially, one our return trip when we were joined by around 8 children on our beds who were happily trying to speak English to us (you are beautiful, do you like the color blue?) and we got to witness grown men wandering around in long underwear.

So while, I didn’t ever end up getting to wear a really cool red velvet dress with fur trim, it was still quite the adventure.  And then again, perhaps Bing (or Bob) didn’t lie to me, because he too, did not get any sleep on the train.

The Big Question: What am I eating?

Finally, the post you all have been waiting for (or okay, maybe just Stephanie), where I talk about food.  I’m sure this will be the first of many posts on the subject…but for now, and introduction.

Many people have asked me questions, like “what have you been eating?” And no, the answer is not dog or cat.

In the first 3.5 weeks when I was in Beijing, the answer was fairly simple: Jiaozi and green beans. We found a great little “hut” of sorts with Jiaozi (dumplings) for less than $1.  We ate there almost every day.  And I just love green beans.

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Obviously, I did eat some other foods in Beijing. But those were the highlights.  But then at last I arrived in Yinchuan.  A place with a kitchen, (well, some might consider that an overstatement), and I have to figure out what I’m eating daily in my home.  We have a pretty great supermarket nearby, as well as a nice little import store, where I can find things like cheese and chocolate chips! Fresh fruit and veggies abound from local sellers. Every day is the Farmer’s Market.

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Yinchuan also has some unique local food–“Muslim cuisine,” which includes some very delicious kabobs. It is also well known for noodles (which are also quite tasty). I’ve actually been doing a lot of cooking at home…partly due to the fact that if there’s not a picture menu, I’m not really quite sure what I’m ordering.  (Hence, how I ended up with a milk tea featuring raisins, peanuts and black beans.)  There are definitely some limitations with a single burner and small oven (although I got a bigger one that fits a 9 x 13 pan!) and but cooking, just like life in China, is always an adventure.

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Don’t have chocolate chips?  How about some Dove chocolate bars?  Actually, the availability of Dove chocolate is probably both a blessing and curse for me.

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When in doubt, there are always eggs.  And, we can even order pizza! 🙂

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Fake eyelashes and foreigners

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“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.”

Yesterday I did some shopping.  Shopping.  Such an innocuous word that definitely does not fully convey the gravity of the task set before me. I was looking for a specific face wash, contact solution and a pillow.

Stop one was Watson’s.  Picture CVS or Walgreen’s minus the medicine.  I was quite pleased with the vast selection and even more excited to see they had Cetaphil (my face wash) and it was on sale on the big display! The shopping was going so well! And then I get to the register.  The cashier begins to gesture at me and then a college in student in line behind us explains that to get the discount price I need a card.  But I can’t figure out how to get the card.  Next the manager comes out (who speaks a little English) and tries to help.  With around three employees and a customer’s help I manage to get the card

Next stop, contact solution at the supermarket.  Picture a store kind of like super Wal-Mart, or Super Target or Meijer. As soon as I enter the section where contact solution might be several employees eagerly greet me.  Cue the game of charades as I attempt to signal what contact solution is. (I learned during training I’m not particularly good at charades in general.) After poking at my eye for a little bit I’m brought some night time eye cream, as well as some fake eyelashes.  Then I see a couple American girls.  They are pretty sure they don’t sell contact solution here. (And I actually did easily obtain it today at the eyeglass store with minimal charades.)

Finally, I head to bedding.  Either I’ve improved at charades or the pillow is just much clearer, but once again an eager employee shows me various pillows and I find one.

What did I learn from these exchanges?  Other than the obvious: I need to learn some Chinese.  I thought what would have happened to the Chinese person who speaks no English at home as they wander through a store?  How would I have treated them?  How do I treat the stranger, the foreigner in my midst?  And I was humbled by the kindness shown to this clueless foreigner.  And I was convicted realizing that I often had missed opportunities to show this same hospitality and grace to others. 

So, how do you treat the foreigner in your land? 

In Praise of the Struggle

I’ve already heard time and time again—things take longer in China. I think it’s hard to fully understand what this means unless you’re here—and obviously I haven’t really grasped the gravity of this, especially in my current hotel dwelling.  Yet, it has still been evident. Last night, I went with a group of fellow teachers to a Chinese tea house for a cultural show.  It ended and we thought we’d take a cab home.  After about 20 minutes of trying to navigate how to get to the street around a series of fences preventing us from getting there, at last we reach the street, and very unsuccessfully attempt to hail a cab. Finally, realizing we could have been halfway home on the subway, we give up.  Then we navigate some more fences to arrive at the subway.  And eventually about an hour later we are back at our “home.”

On our way home, my friend and I began to talk about values…and how when life gets easier it does not always translate to better.  Or at least better for our lives, our friendships, our souls. Even in my short time in China, I have more of an awareness, an appreciation for many things that can easily be taken for granted at home.

I am also reminded how often when everything is relatively easy and within reach we can lose sight of our dependence on one who is greater.  On our interdependence on one another.

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We’ve oft heard the quote: “anything worthwhile takes time.”  But I wonder how often we miss out on the reward because we don’t want to take part in the inevitable struggle.  But perhaps what is worthwhile is not only the outcome, but also the character produced from the journey.

When did I grow up?

Note: This is adapted from a blog post I wrote several years back, but seems pertinent as I think about vocation in my new context. 

When I grow up I’m going to be a teacher. An astronaut. A baseball player. The list goes on of the words that I heard as a child growing up.  I recall hearing one of my fellow teammates ask that question of a young child in Zimbabwe. An orphan. She couldn’t answer the question because the reality was she probably wasn’t going to grow up. A majority of the orphans where we were had HIV/AIDS. And even if she did grow up she really had no choice of what she was going to be.

It makes me wonder if we are asking the wrong question.

For years I talked about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Then one day I looked in the mirror and realized that I had grown up. I’m not sure when it happened. When I packed up my Honda Accord and headed off to college. On my 18th birthday near the end of my freshmen year. When I drove cross country to start grad school in Boston. As I spoke to my classmates at Baccalaureate. As I took my first real job far from home. I don’t know. All I know is that I grew up.

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And I needed to stop asking what I’m going to be, but rather who I am going to be. Not tomorrow or 20 years from now, but right now, every day. Who am I made to be? Who am I going to be?

I’m bought with a price. A child made in the image of the creator. A sinner saved by grace. I’m called to be peacemaker. A grace giver. A friend to the friendless. A light in the darkness. A lover of all.

And these callings of who I’m supposed to be remain regardless of what it is I’m doing.  Being who I’m supposed to be is not something that requires a certain job. I can’t wait until tomorrow to determine whom He has called to be. Because it’s here- every day- that I must come to the place of determining that I will embrace not only what I’m called to be, but also who I’m called to be. 

*In case you’re wondering those adorable children are my sister and me. I’m pretty sure that was the dirtiest I ever got as a kid.