Friday, August 24, 2012

Family Life in Cultural Limboland

It's been over 2.5 years that we've been in China this stretch, though in many ways, it feels like it's been light years.   John has no memories of America (our last visit ended when he was 6 mo) and Vivi has never touched American soil.  Our big two, I'm pretty sure, are expecting the sates to be something along the lines of Hansel and Gretl's candy castle in the woods, but without the witch.  

Matt and I are eager to be back "home" where so much of life is worlds more comfortable to us.... But our family will be moving between about 18 homes in the 5 months that we're back and there's nothing comfortable about that.  At the end of these months, we'll be hungry to get back to this "home" where we live, the home that we love.  Our home where we it is a privilege to be refined by all that's still uncomfortable to us, and where it's an indescribable joy and privilege for us to get to shine our little lights.  

Here are a few of the shifting landmasses- the joys and the sorrows- we'll have our feet on in the next few months:  

  • How easy and wonderful it will be to communicate with people in our mother tongue!  To understand others thoroughly well and be able to express ourselves clearly and be understood, to know cultural cues in communication... how very nice!!
  • We're excited to get to eat American food!  We can get some imports here but we buy very few (too expensive!)
  • We will sorely miss...
    • near-by, super cheap, fresh produce
    • The terrific fried green beans, eggplant and garlic dish at the restaurant across the street... a large plate for us all $3 USD
    • Bing fang, ro jia mo and liang pi.... a nice meal for our whole family:  $8 USD
    • Lanzhou noodles...  the whole family eats for $6 USD
    • lots of vinegar and fresh ginger
  • We won't miss at all...
    •  smacking lips, open-mouthed chewing.  It's just normal and not the least bit impolite.  
    • Chicken paws reaching off the butcher's shelves
    • Live meat at that market (and hearing when it's time has come)
  • We will miss funny Chinglish signs like  "Lotus Teahouse and Rrrt Lecture Hall" or "Careful Knock Head"  and miss- just a little bit- strangers yelling out to us "one two three" or "Haloh! Haloh!" to practice their English with us.   
  • We're excited to have a secret language that no one around us knows!  Watch out friends, we're all ready to plan pranks, tickle tackles, and all sorts of surprise gifts for you!
  • We have at least 11 appointments (doctors and dentists) for our family during the first full week we're back.  And that's not because anyone's sick!  It's just that we haven't seen any docs in a long time and there are a few things to check on.  There is a sweet clinic in our town that serves foreigners but things are, well, different.  We are grateful for them and we're so grateful for the health the Lord has given us here when medical care like we're used to and drugstores are so far away. 
  • We will have a car to drive (loaned to us by super generous family and friends- THANK YOU!)  
    • but we'll all be confined with belts and buckles... no snuggling or tackling during a ride in the states!  
    • and we'll be zooming at an astonishing 60-70+ mph!  Doesn't that scare any of you, Americans?  (It scares me a bit.) 
    • and the cost of gas, we've been warned, will knock us over.  Our average taxi ride here is $2-3 USD. 
    • and I'll be honest, a little part of me will miss the "flow like water" driving mindset here.... it does look crazy and sometimes makes for pure gridlock, but occasionally it is terribly efficient and you gotta love that!
Absolutely none of these things (in the list above) are better in one place than another.   All of this can feel awkward and even painful to try to adapt to, but none of these issues is a matter of right vs. wrong.   But there are some issues that are harder to handle, some that are daily struggled with and often prayed over with tears.    The marks of a society that is fallen and dead in sin.... And again, there's no chance for a superiority complex here because our home culture is entirely marred by it's own sin too.
  • We are SO excited to be outside...
    • Green.  Trees!  We're mostly surrounded by cement here
    • Grass.  If there is any here, it's almost always roped off.   Grandma and Grandpa have a whole YARD for these kids to romp and roll in!
    • Blue skies! and clouds!  
    • Quiet.  Chinese usually love "Re Nao" which means "Lively". Grocery stores and storefronts have multiple (overlapping) sellers announcing on megaphones their sale items.  Walkers often carry around a news radio (no headphones).   Hiking locations often have pop music on loud speakers so that nature areas aren't too quiet and lonely or depressing feeling.   People go outside for conversation, to find a lively corner of a dozen or more neighbors, with music and dancing exercise and liveliness together.  We are hungry for wide-open nature, the sound and smell of wind blowing, cloud and sunset watching together.  
  • We'll miss having friends and neighbors close by all the time... sometimes for easy help or playtime together or just a daily hello.
  • How will we handle Christmas?!??!  We would value simplicity no matter where we live, but really, How Will We Deal with (the materialism of) Christmas in America?  We have so many friends here who live on so little...
  • How will we handle Starbucks and Steakhouses?  Yes, it's nice.  And yes, it's normal to plenty of American friends, but it adds up quick.  And it matters.  And yes, there is a time for everything....  but when families live on a dollar or two a day, that just matters to us.  They are also our brothers and sisters.  James 5 matters too and we don't want to live in "luxury and self-indulgence" even if that makes us more alien to Americans than we already are to Chinese!    There IS a time for everything, but we know this will be a struggle.  
  • There are so many different values and ideas... (this is the abbreviated list)
  • Procedures.  Hospitals, visa offices, universities, the telephone company, picking up a product ordered, these procedures all run according to rules that work here, but sometimes drive us absolutely batty!  It's normal to need several trips to a place (which means Matt bikes across the city) to get a single job done.   There are almost no appointments and waiting in line is only recently becoming standard.  There are many instances where you'll need to figure out how to stand your ground and politely push your way to the front to be helped.    
  • Hovering, Crowding, Staring.  We look different and we don't go unnoticed or unmentioned.   I really can't convey the intensity or frequency of this piece of our lives here.  I don't yet know how to steer myself through it mess free and I certainly haven't figured out the key to get our kids through these waters smoothly either.  I need to constantly remind myself that it is not a universal idea that staring at people is rude or inconsiderate... even if there are several of you and the child you're surrounding and watching so closely appears to be scared by you.  To many neighbors here, they are showing honor to be so interested in our kids.  
  • Some of the things people say to our kids are really hard...
    • "Who of you is more beautiful, your brother or you?"  
    • "If I take your baby sister away, what will you do to me?" (to see if the kids are appropriately brave)
    • "Look, this one is more beautiful than that one." (probably assuming we don't understand them)    

We need much more of the Lord- his humility, patience, grace and LOVE-  and much less of our own wisdom and strength to thrive and be fruitful here.  That is what we so deeply long for.  Would you pray for us for this!?  

Thank you if you've made it this far...  We will be so glad for you to understand our cultural goofiness a bit better for having plowed through this long post!   

Please let us know if we can connect with you in the states.   We are so grateful to the Lord for you, dear friends!


  1. Great post, Jill.

    As a TCK, I know these cultural differences too.
    My mom was a bit worried to bring us back that first furlough. We kids talked in a pigeon English,and didn't know a lot of normal American manners, as a result of four years of living in Indian villages. But we did great, I think.
    I especially enjoyed fielding questions (as a 9 year old) and loved being in a VIP family --which is what it felt like when we got back to the land of our cousins and everyone took turns inviting us over. Very exciting and FUN. I especially enjoyed having people that were related to me after being in a village where everyone else had cousins or grammas or aunties.

    It wasn't until I was in high school when our family had an extended furlough due to moms medical needs, that I learned that my cousins didn't always meet and have fun picnics all the time. it was only when we would come back on furlough. Really?!

    And it wasn't until I brought my boyfriend back to the villages with me that I realized some of the unspoken culture I had absorbed by growing up in it. (Oh no!Don't say that! Don't you know not to do that!!)

    So, yeah, I like that you are writing all this. I think it is helpful for those who are welcoming you home, as well as others who might be visiting you in China to know what life is like for you there. And I like reading it too.
    I appreciate what you two are doing.. what you are sacrificing, and that is why BookEnds exists.

    Blessings to the K family and I hope I get to meet you while you are stateside!
    Auntie Jeannie

  2. Our family can't wait to host you guys as one of those "18 homes in 5 months." I wish you could stay with us the entire time! Even though we were only in China for 2 weeks, I laughed so hard reading some of the things on your list. I can remember some of those things so vividly.
    Can't wait to see the K family! We will be praying for your journey!
    Mike Fennema

  3. Thank you so much for sharing all of this. It is so helpful to know how to pray for all of you and understand what you will be struggling through.