Language School. Check.

Language school is done. Maybe you read that sentence with a sense of hebetude, but please don’t allow yourself to be fooled for those four simple words have left me nothing but elated as I transfer from a life of chaos and survival to a life of quietude and thriving growth.

Two and a half years have passed since we landed in China. We spent two months trying to establish our home and become familiar with our surroundings before language school were to begin. Not long after moving into our home, the courses began and I, completely oblivious to the heartache to come, was chomping at the bit to get started. The first few weeks of language school give a false sense of confidence as one breezes through characters and learns the simplest of words and phrases. Although simple, however, those very words are the words that transform a person from being a captive, tied down and trapped by a lack of understanding, to being a free and functioning member of society. “Free” and “functioning” are relative terms. Beginning as someone who comprehended zilch to a person who could buy their own vegetables and say “good morning” can indeed be defined as “freeing.”

Those weeks of bliss come to a grinding halt as that first semester reaches it’s halfway point. All of that confidence and energy turns into self-doubt and weariness. The Lord’s strength is truly the only thing that can help to maintain any amount of sanity during the three and a half semesters to follow. God knew I would need a good husband and cute kids to pull me through. Every time someone would kindly “correct” me or giggle at my mistakes, I would try to remind myself that they were helping and that this was all a part of the process. Just keep trying Beth. Practice makes perfect. Laugh at yourself. It’s ok! When my little pep talks didn’t work I’d wait until I had a private moment with Neal and I would pour out my frustration. He was always kind, patient and as understanding as a “half-Chinese” person could be. My other resort was to spend time with my girls. They always brought smiles and helped me to forget my language struggles.

The final stretch of school concluded as I walked down an empty hall, listening to my boots click on the tiled floor and watching the lights flicker on as I walked along. The classroom was empty as I had arrived thirty minutes early for my last. exam. ever. I sighed and thought, I won’t miss this. Students wandered in, the teacher arrived, we wrote our test and then it was over. One final flurry of characters, sentences and racking my brain for the right words came and went. The other students worried about their grade, talked about their plans for the break and took pictures with each other. I gave a little squeal and might’ve jumped up and down for a second as I kissed the work, pressure and tears of the last two and a half years goodbye. No one understood my relief, nor would I have expected them too. It was my private victory, a small part to a bigger plan. It was the breaking down of what had been the largest hindrance to our ministry in China. It was getting to spend all day every day as wife and mom.

All of that behind me, I am officially, by definition, a stay-at-home mom. Last Thursday was the beginning of this stage of life, a stage that I pray will last a long, long time. Friday Lois jumped up on the couch with me. It was ten o’clock and we were still in our pajamas because we had nowhere to be. Nowhere to be? Whaaa?` She looked up at me, blanket crumpled in her arms and asked, “Mommy, will you read me this book?” My throat expanded as I unhesitatingly replied, “Of course!” Oh, the beauty of a peaceful moment at home reading books with my babies. How I’ve longed for this time. How I’ve longed for these moments. The last week has been a giddy time for me. Every morning I talk with my girls while enjoying a cup of coffee. I always laugh at their silliness and soak up their soft little cuddles.

Lois is learning and growing faster than I can blink. She “translates” for me, herself and anyone who cares. She listens and remembers everything. The other day she was sliding down her indoor slide (that her daddy bought for her that I was totally not as enthusiastic about) and after climbing up the two rungs of the slide she looked at me, grunting and breathless and said, “I’m just working on my motor-skills.” Apparently she’s heard me tell people that Lois has good speaking skills and Abigail has good motor skills and she decided to close that gap! She tells me at least ten times a day that I’m beautiful and her favorite thing is to be chased by mommy. She doesn’t very well like my “zombie” impression though.

Abigail is 18 months and speaks a handful of Chinese words and a handful of English words, none of which are especially articulate. She seemingly understands everything that we say to her. I asked Neal if there was anything I should do to help her speed up the speaking process. He said, “She’s a kid growing up with two languages. This is normal.” Normal. She’s processing a lot in that little brain and she always prates in her own dialect while I answer back in English. We understand each other. Abigail is a joy to be around. She has a smile a mile wide and when she hears anything that resembles a cry her brows etch deep into her face and she points in the direction of the pitiful sound. Sorry for the character sketch, but I’m loving my babies!

I have a lot to look forward to and I can do it with the ability to speak to people and understand what is going on around me. I’ve put in my time and there is nothing more rewarding than confidently following my husband toward what the Lord has called us to. Goodbye language school. Hello to the rest of our lives!

 

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Prove it!

I came from a monkey. Our ancestors are the same and our genetics have only a 1.6% difference. It is only after billions of years of gradual change that us humans have finally come into existence.

Or so I’ve been told.

Maybe “told” is a bad descriptor word. I should say that this information has been drizzled over my ears for several hours this week as I’ve been studying Chinese at my college. Conveniently enough the book that I am studying from has several paragraphs and excerpts about evolution. I was surprised and sick to my stomach the first day my teacher projected Darwin’s theory on the overhead screen. The situation got worse as I had to not only listen to the teacher express such heresy, but I also had to participate in the class. I wasn’t very cooperative that day.

My teacher asked, “Mei Jia, is the statement,’the earth is 14 billion years old’ true or false?”

“Well I personally don’t believe it is that old, but that is what the text states.”

And thus began the debate. My teacher moved on to the next question and I simply had to sit there in agony as I listened to a series of questions and participate in several other reading and speaking exercises. It was all, of course, “according to text.” Once the class was over, my inner struggle came out with as much grace and patience as I could muster.I  voiced every thought and argument that I had worked up while she was teaching.

“Do you believe in evolution? Do you believe we were once monkeys?”

“Yes I do. We all believe it.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what we were taught in school and that is what my parents taught me. And I trust them.”

“Have you never studied anything else? Have you never considered anything else?”

“Never. Why?”

My teacher didn’t appreciate my curiosity and questions. In all honesty, I was being as cordial and christian as possible. Had you heard me, you might’ve even accused me of being overboard nice. It was evident by her tone and huffed laugh that she was not feeling as coridal as myself. It was obvious that she thought I was just an uneducated foreigner who knew nothing of life.

She tried to escape the conversation and I watched her eyes dart to the door more than once. I wasn’t going to back down and she knew it. I walked with her to the elevator as I continued to press and with my still-very-limited Chinese and not-super-scientific brain I did my best to point out the discrepancies with her (all of China’s) view. She couldn’t respond to any of the points I brought up and it quickly became clear that she knew relatively nothing about evolution. She gave hesitated laughs and tried to excuse herself with one final comment: “I think everyone can believe what they want to believe.” I personally consider that comment to be a cop-out when a person is out of answers. As she stepped onto the elevator I left her with one final ignored comment.

The doors closed on her snooty laugh. I waited for the next elevator.

Two days later I sat in that same teachers class and after all the students had arrived and before she began teaching (this time on the exciting topic of steel and alloy) she made a very pointed and direct stab at me. She bluntly and, might I add, blindly said, “Mei Jia and I had a conversation the other day about evolution and I told my fellow teachers about it and they all said, ‘doesn’t she know we have evolution?’ and I told them she did, but she believes God created the world and people. None of the other teachers agreed. They all believe evolution like me because that’s what all the scientists believe.” A million rebuttals flooded my head, but I kept silent. I wasn’t going to embarrass her in front of the class or try to make her look bad even though that was clearly her intention with me. No, telling her that many scientists across the globe believe Creation and that I expected that all of her friends, who were also only ever taught evolution, would believe like her, wouldn’t accomplish anything. This battle wasn’t going to be won in a day.

The fact that she felt the need to rally some troops behind her and support her belief for her instead of knowing herself why she believed it was evidence enough that she wasn’t entirely clear on what she believed. Our conversation was the first time anyone had every confronted her with an opposing idea. It rattled her.

It rattled me.

Satan has a strong hold and he has developed a cunning plan to divert the world from a belief in God. At one point in the conversation my teacher said, “We don’t have God here so we believe evolution.” She didn’t know how true that statement was. It broke my heart. No God. That is a bleak future indeed.

It was a good reminder. Our purpose is to show them God and to bring them to an understanding of His existence.

Ordinary Days

Days pass here. It’s just like anywhere in the world. They come with frustrating moments and mundane tasks. I spill nail polish remover on my dresser and burn my clothes with the iron. I teach a two-year-old how not to pick her nose and remind her every day that God made her and that He loves her. It’s nothing out of the ordinary or surprisingly different. We still face the same challenges and responsibilities that we would if we lived in North America.

We also have the oridinary “china” days. The other day I rode my bike passed an old man just as he was putting a finer on one nostril and blowing hard out the other. A large “wad” flew out and onto the ground. He proceeded to wipe his nose with his sleeve and kept on walking. I turned my handle bars just in time to miss the slimy present he left in my path. My first thought was, “winter’s here”. Somehow, the whole scene didn’t even phase me. It was just another ordinary day.

I have crying days too. I caught myself choking up while I was talking to my parents the other day. Dad was talking about his recent trip to Costco and mom went on about all the presents she had to wrap. She showed me her pile. I’m a solid witness… it was huge. They rambled on about their toasty fireplace and early morning coffee. All at once I wanted to be there. I wanted to feel my toes warming up on the warm bricks of the hearth. I wanted to curl ribbons with mom and try peeking in all my boxes. I wanted to walk up every aisle of Costco with dad and just be together. I quickly turned my iPad camera to face Abigail while I wiped tears off of my cheeks. I put my brave face back on and continued talking.

I was asked recently what it was like when Iam with all of my siblings. I replied, “It’s like there’s only one person in the room. We don’t explain anything. We can finish each other’s sentences. We find the same things funny and sometimes laugh when there’s nothing to laugh at.” I was thankful. Thankful and homesick. The ache just comes. My mother-in-law recently told me that when I got engaged to Neal, my sister, who was in China with us at the time, said, “This is the best day of my life.” I smiled, knowing it was just like my sister. All I could think to say was, “I miss her so much.” The words “so much” came out painfully and diluted with tears. I knew I was blessed to have a sister who thought my engagement day was the best day of her life. It truly is a hard time of the year to be so far away.

I recently face-timed with my family as they celebrated my nephews birthday party. Everyone was there. Everyone but us. Lois couldn’t get enough of it. She kept saying, “I go your house?” to every aunt, uncle and grandparent. She couldn’t handle being on the wrong side of the iPad. I watched her little face stare at the presents and food and family and wished I could put her there and let her be a part of it.

These moments are hard and yet, for every hundred of these comes a moment that takes your breath away as you watch God work and move.

One evening we had some friends over at our house and they brought a couple of young ladies with them. They were Christian ladies who wanted to learn and grow. Neal talked with them for a while and I listened quietly. He began talking with them about the Bible and soon retrieved one from his office. They had read the Bible before, but they’d only been in contact with the government-church produced Bible. Neal soon placed his Bible in the hands of one of the young ladies. She took it carefully. Her eyes lit up as she gently slid her hand over the cover. She scooted to the edge of her seat and began to flip through the pages. She couldn’t drink in the words fast enough. Her eyes darted back and forth as she read as fast as her eyes would allow.  I was moved as I watched her cherish the Word of God. It was so precious to her. It was so powerful. It was the essence of the reason we are here. It was a moment worth every tear that ever slid down my cheek.

Another moment came just a few days ago while visiting with a girl whom Lois and I have befriended. She is someone that God just put in my path. We’ve kept in touch and I’ve never been shy or discreet about my Christian life or my belief in God. She has recently been married and she wanted to introduce her husband to me. It was a Sunday evening and the girls and I were exhausted from a long, busy day, but nevertheless, we welcomed them into our home and visited for several hours. Neal was busy at the time and so I spoke (in my very insufficient second language) for close to four hours. My brain was hurting and Abigail was especially cranky and distracting. Neal finally made it home through traffic and the six of us enjoyed a meal together. After we ate they talked with Neal about everything they had just talked with me about. This time, instead of it taking four hours, it took about thirty minutes. Neal’s Chinese is a little lot better than mine. The worth-it-all moment came when they simply and sincerely asked Neal, “What would we have to do to become Christians?” Neal began to answer them and for several minutes neither of them spoke a word. They just stared and intently listened.I watched their countenance change as they were confronted with the reality of God’s love for the very first time. I’ve never seen it before. The Word of God fell on fresh ears and instead of having that look of I’ve heard it before, they sat in astonishment as they were given the greatest news that man has ever heard.

And those are the moments we work for. Moments like these brief happenings are what make those ordinary days so worth it.

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Finally Home

The days are getting hotter, much hotter. My belly is getting bigger. My baby, well, she’s a toddler now and a big sister at that. Am I too young to be thinking that life is flying by way too fast? I want to stop it. I want to freeze time, but it seems the seconds keep on ticking by and the sun continues to rise and set. The other day I listened to Neal tickle Lois in the living room. Her sweet uncontrollable laugh mixed with his loud roars was the sound of perfection. I soaked it up and smiled to myself while the baby inside me kicked and squirmed. What could I want more than all of this? Sometimes I forget that I live in China. While life outside is full of reminders that I’m not from around here, when I’m with my little family I just absorb them and forget to realize that I’m in a “different” place living a “different” life.

Every time I leave my home I get stared at, pointed at and even photographed. It doesn’t really bother me. Sometimes I stare back and play the game, then I applaud myself when they break the stare first. Sometimes I get cheeky and stick out my tongue when a complete stranger practices no discretion in the process of taking a picture. They already think I’m strange enough to take a random picture of me, so why not make it interesting!

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Lois being photographed in Tiananmen Square

While riding the bus one day, we stopped at a red light and another bus pulled up next to mine. A few elderly people from the other bus caught sight of me and I could read their lips as they expressed “外国人!” or “a foreigner!” The staring continued and I imagine they had a long conversation about which country they thought I was from and what I could possibly be doing here in China. I shrugged and looked away. It’s normal. At times I don’t even notice it. I even manage to forget that I’m different sometimes. I forget until I catch a stare or over-hear people chattering about me.

One day I was buying fruit at our local market and I over-heard an elderly lady say “Look at the foreigner!” I turned to her and teasingly asked, “Where’s the foreigner!?” She immediately responded in a matter-of-fact voice, finger pointed in my direction, “YOU are the foreigner.” I slipped a chuckle and she grinned. I couldn’t help but be amused by how she felt the need to stress that I, indeed, was a foreigner. I had thought it rather obvious and didn’t see the need to inform all of the other strangers there that I was a foreigner, but clearly she thought she was the only one to have noticed. She continued to ask a long strand of questions and I politely answered each of them to the best of my abilities. She looked long and hard and made every possible observation. It was simply another day in China. I walked home with my groceries and then spilled the story to Neal as soon as I walked in the door. I spent the rest of the day trying to understand why the white skin and accent was so terribly captivating.

Then one day I understood. I made the connection. It was the day l I noticed an older white man walking across my school campus. I stared and said to my class-mate, “look, a white person!” I shocked myself. How dare I! I had pointed and gawked and stated the obvious! Being the only white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed person at my school, I was always the receiver of such comments and stares and yet there I sat doing the very thing I had found it impossible to answer “why” to. I laughed at myself and exclaimed, “I’m SO Chinese!”

I continue to have little moments that connect me to this place and culture. Little by little I notice changes that I’ve unconsciously made.  I’ve carved out a new way of thinking and a new opinion of “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.

Friends in the neighbourhood

Friends in the neighbourhood

The day I walked arm-in-arm with my friend and didn’t feel the least bit awkward was a definite give-away that I am not the same girl I used to be. My friend and I simply get off the bus, link arms and walk to school together. It happens every day and no-one looks twice or thinks it weird.

Somehow I’ve become accustomed to things that were initially uncomfortable and weird to me. Somehow I’ve learned to love and appreciate (and even adopt) many of the Chinese ways. Neal and I spent two hours drinking tea the other night. We went to a friend’s house for a tea ceremony and drank tea from 200-year-old tea leaves. We loved it. We even have our own little tea set to do it ourselves at home. Somehow I just changed. I stopped being shocked by anything and everything different. I almost expect it now. A switch has slowly been flipped and with no warning at all, I became a different person. Not completely different for I’ll never be completely like the Chinese. And yet, I have a strange feeling that I’ll never again be completely Canadian either. It’s a funny feeling and I’m not sure exactly how to deal with it yet.

And then there’s home.

Home. don’t know when it happened, but this vast, culturally rich country became my home. This smoggy, people-packed city became my city. This little community filled with murky ponds and far too many dogs became my community. It’s not just “the place we live.” It’s home. For years I was telling people that I would be moving to Beijing, China. When we first arrived I was largely out-of-place and I was simply “living” here. It was always that far-off place. Lately, however, it’s been this place, my home. It just happened. I’ve disconnected a small part of me that once held strong ties to the “true north strong and free.” I’ve not only left North America, but the roots have been cut. It feels strangely normal to call this place home. It’s an experience I don’t understand well enough myself to clearly convey it to others.

This has been my last few months. It has been the switch from everything being new, crazy, adventurous and foreign to things being familiar, normal, comforting and finally home.

How He Does It

I’ve been asked, “How do you do it?”

I’ve been told, “I know I could never do that.”

I’ve even been called “Strong.”

So what exactly is all this heroic stuff that we do?

It’s hugging your sister on the driveway and not wanting to let go because you know she’s the last one to be hugged. The others have already left and she’s the last one you’ll see for a long time. The hug itself is more of a desperate cling. You bury your face into her shoulder and say nothing. You simply both stand there clinging… and shaking from the sobs… and sniffling. Then you let go and silently watch them pack up the car and drive off… and you cry some more, only this time you’re standing alone with your arms wrapped around your stomach. You cry because every childhood memory plagues you at that very moment. You cry because every argument wasn’t worth it. You cry because you love your family and each member takes a little piece of your heart with them.

It’s watching your child poke and kiss an ipad as opposed to a real face. It’s watching your little girl learn “peek-a-boo” via facetime. She literally runs into the living room when she hears the familiar ringing on the ipad. She know what it means. She knows “gamma” or “papa” will be on the other end… if not one of her aunties and cousins. It’s heart wrenching at times. People tell me that “technology is so wonderful”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “just imagine if you were a missionary a hundred years ago…”. I know I know, they had it much worse than I do. I know I know, technology is wonderful. But whether a hundred years ago or yesterday, the ache is still there and I am still on the other side of the world. And so is my little girl.

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It’s calling your dear sweet friend and telling her that you wish you could be there for her birthday to make a cake for her. It’s knowing she’s spending the day aching for her husband and not being able to give a hug or take her out for dinner. It’s knowing you’re too far. Much too far.

It’s waking up on Christmas morning to the sound of car horns honking while 20 million Beijingers head to work, school or anywhere else they wish to go. It’s being the only one to stay home and dive into a stocking or pull the strings off your gifts while the special day goes over-looked and unnoticed by those around you. It’s studying for your class the next day because, let’s face it, you still have school in spite of the fact that the culture you grew up in would’ve taken two weeks off school! It’s being a weirdo with a massive tree and lights inside your house.

It’s spending far too much time and money to dig your teeth into a fat, juicy, beef burger. A manly burger. It’s even letting the juice run down your chin while you embrace the moment.

It’s watching olympic curling for four hours straight because that’s all that’s on. But, no worries, it’s all in Chinese, making it that much more thrilling. It’s turning that event into a house party and inviting your friends over for tacos and cookies. It’s waking up the next morning to find out that once again, the Chinese’ favorite olympic sport is still in session and yes, CCTV 5 has curling on… again, to satisfy all your curling needs.

It’s having a home that none of your family has seen or had dinner in.

It’s jumping in the air over a single card received because someone remembered, they remembered that you were so far away.

And how exactly is it done?

My answer: it’s only by God’s perfectly awesome amazing grace. He does it. Not me. It’s not about my capabilities, for they are few, but it is about His omnipotence and His willingness to use me. As for being strong, I’m not. I cry like the rest and probably more. I struggle and strive to learn, but still forget sometimes. I make mistakes and then spend a day moping about it. No, I’m not strong. He is. And that is how He does it.

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*Check out my poetry page for a challenging poem by my one and only brother.

Learning Mandarin Chinese

Five thirty comes way too early. I peel my eyelids apart only to realize our room is still dark and the only thing on my schedule is “study Chinese.” And literally, that is all I ever do. If you’re wondering where I’ve been, I can only say that studying has literally taken over my life. I have class every morning and then study all afternoon. I make dinner then prepare for my next day of class. It is an endless cycle and yet so rewarding. Every so often I say a few words to someone and when the “light of understanding” brightens their eyes, I smile and think, so it IS working. 

My commute is usually an hour and five minutes. I time it. Every day. I take a quick taxi to the bus. Every day my driver gives me a bright “早上好!“ (Yes, I typed that myself.) I usually smile back and return the “good morning.” Sometimes I grunt and think, seriously dude, it’s 6:45. We’ve become quite good friends, he and I. I then get off at the bus stop and try desperately to squeeze my little white self onto a bus with a hundred of their brown-eyed, black-haired selves. One day I got caught in a mob. Fifty people were madly rushing for the bus that was about to arrive and I was in the middle. It was run or be trampled. I ran. Once free from the mob I told myself I would never be that desperate for a bus and I would NEVER stand in the middle of a crowd again. Once on the bus I pull out my books and “stand study”. Twenty minutes and a million bus stops later, I reach the subway station.

People from all directions mill toward the station entrance. They come from everywhere. I often think, how are all of these people going to fit in there? Somehow they do and I’m amazed every time. Every morning there are “the runners”. They make a mad dash to the station entrance because they don’t want the 7:15 subway, they want the 7:14 subway. So, they run and beat at least ten people. I chuckle at their wasted energy and their now sweaty t-shirt. WHY?

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The line to enter the subway station is usually several hundred people long. Every morning we mash together to form one school of bodies shuffling in the same direction. Shuffle is the word that describes everything. Our feet move inches at a time as we press forward. The dirty ground scrapes the bottom of our shoes and that is the only sound to be heard. Heads are down and people listen to their ipods or watch movies on their phones. Some are on a mission to maneuver through the mass of bodies and again I chuckle as they usually only advance by three or four feet. Nevertheless, I applaud their effort… and chuckle.

Nothing can describe this scenario. The smell is a combination of a million food carts selling every imaginable breakfast item, the breath of the man next to you (usually garlic), and the exhaust of a thousand busses pulling into the station.

The sound is simply that… sound. No one speaks. It is the thunder of the subway rumbling in every minute. It is the moving of bodies. It is the honking of a thousand horns during rush hour. It all clamors together to create the description of every morning in China.

The feeling is the breathing in of polluted air. It’s soggy shoes on a rainy day. It’s having a stranger’s elbow in your rib. It’s feeling like cattle as everyone prods along, heads down, being directed by the bodies pressed around you. You are simply another fish swimming in the sea and once on the subway you will never see those other faces again.

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The subway. Let me explain the Beijing subway at rush hour. There is nothing in my culture, upbringing or past knowledge that could’ve ever prepared me for the subway. My stop is where the subway starts. It is the farthest north station on line five. For this reason it is always extra crowded and extra feisty. The subway arrives empty (obviously) and the seats are limited. The awaiting commuters wait anxiously for the doors to slide open. Once open, the first fifteen people at each door usually get a seat. Being the ignorant foreigner that I am, I stood in shock  that first morning. Imagine shaking a bottle of Pepsi and then giving the cap the slightest twist you could give. That brown liquid quickly finds the smallest hold and sprays it’s way out of the bottle in a raging foam. It happens so fast you can’t hardly see it. This is the best description I could find for the “spray” of people onto the subway.

The doors slid open that first morning and bodies flung in and dove for seats faster than I could say “wow”. So I stood there, jaw dropped wondering what disaster was headed our way to bring on this kind of mad dash. I realized it was the simple pleasure of having a seat while commuting to work. I got on and made myself comfortable standing somewhere in the middle. My stop is only seven stops down and takes only fifteen minutes. In those seven stops the subway packed full of people. After the fourth stop I thought, no one else is getting on this subway. We’re out of room. To my amazement, ten more bodies wiggled their way on at the next stop. I’m still amazed every day when this happens. I’ve even seen a grown woman take five steps back before running and jumping on. The force of her body, along with a little desperation won her a spot on the subway. After arriving at my stop I realized that eight bodies were touching mine (don’t doubt me, I took the time to count.) I also realized that the door was six feet away and there were thirty bodies between me and it. I pushed and shoved and said “excuse me”. No one heard or cared. Finally I got the elbows out and as the train slowed to a stop I made a desperate leap for the door. I got off just as the doors slid closed behind me. Note to self: stand by the door tomorrow. Now every day I plant my feet firmly beside the door and refuse to be moved. Bodies shove and wiggle yet I hold my ground.

Once off the subway I take a fifteen minute walk to school. I pass over eight lanes of traffic by way of a walking bridge and look out to view beautiful Beijing. I can often see hundreds of high rises and a backdrop of mountains. When the clouds sit low and the pollution is thick, my mountains disappear. I always check. it does my heart good to see the mountains standing tall and beautiful. It also does my heart good to see God’s beautifully created nature!

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The walk brings me panting to my class and giving a breathless “hello” to my classmates. I usually cram for ten minutes before class starts and then I sit… and learn.

My teachers give instructions (in Chinese). They tell us to teak a break (in Chinese). They ask us questions (in Chinese). We stare (in English). I tell people all the time, “My teachers don’t mess around!” That’s the truth. They say it once and expect you to repeat it. They give a quiz on characters they haven’t taught you how to write, but since they used it in class, they have every right to expect you to know it. They assign homework that takes two hours on top of your studying. They give you 95% even when nothing was wrong because “You can do better”. (Literally, I’ve had that happen). They push us… and we learn. Oh, we kid with them and play around. We have fun and they love us, but they don’t ever go easy.

After an hour commute to school, four hours of class and an hour commute home, I then climb five flights of stairs to our home. I breathe a breath of relief, drop my bags and eat a quick lunch. Then I study. 3-4 hours usually gets the job done and prepares me for the next day. To not study isn’t an option. To not study means I fail my quizzes and fall behind in class. That’s not an option. So I study. Lois naps and I study. Lois plays on the floor next to me and I study. It is my life. In between these hours of study I find moments of giving my baby tickles and enjoying dinner with my family of three. I rock my baby to sleep and give her her evening bottle. I then tuck her in, kiss her head and study a little more. I go to bed early like an old person and start it all over again the next day.

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And this is how a person learns Chinese. This is how I learn. This is my life. And every minute is worth it. Every minute will make a difference. Every minute will pay off. So, I say to tomorrow, bring it on! (And then after acting strong I beg God for help!)

The Eating Thing

Wrinkled. Weathered. Worn.

These were the hands that held out a piece of corn to Lois and I. I smiled and tried to politely refuse. (It never works). I took the corn. Neal has taught me that when the Chinese give you food, you eat it. Simple as that. To not eat it is rude, showing a great disrespect. I shoved all hesitation from my mind and enthusiastically chomped down. I shared with Lois and she ate more vigorously than I.

We were just there to get some pictures printed. I didn’t even know her! She didn’t know me! Why would she do that? It’s so…

I chuckled to myself. This custom is one I would have to learn to love.

Neal was going to be a while at the print shop so I stepped out into the courtyard of the small shopping complex. Little stores lined the square with tiny homes nestled above each one. The occasional dog could be found making a meal of the garbage littering the street. Bikes and scooters crowded the small, uneven road.

I ventured across the street to buy my favorite bread. These warm, round creations are made by my friend with two very brown front teeth whose name I’ve yet to learn. We always share a smile and a nod. At first I wrinkled my nose at his filthy shirt and his dumpy shack. I batted at the flies and whined about the black pit he was baking the bread in. I dared to ask, “Does he wash his hands after touching the money?” Apparently he keeps a damp cloth beside him and taps it between serving customers and patting out his dough. But now… now I don’t see the flies. Now I wake up craving this bread and when I’m in the area I can’t help myself from picking up a few pieces. I grabbed four. Lois and I strolled back across the street.

I stopped to make conversation with a young lady standing outside her little restaurant. She touched Lois’ white skin and asked me a thousand questions. I smiled and nodded. I introduced Lois and used every word I knew. She could see I was trying and we smiled as I repeated the same things over and over. We drew a crowd. Several people peered out of the windows above while others poked their heads out of their shops. Some simply walked right up and tried to join the non-existing conversation. My newfound friend disappeared into her restaurant and came back with a treat for Lois. Go figure. She shared a small pastry and a bottle of juice. We shared a few bites and sipped a few sips. Pure joy flooded across the girl’s face. What is it about this eating thing?

As we enjoyed our snack a familiar face appeared. Mrs. Lee,  a sweet friend of the family owned a little shop and home in that complex. She beamed and excitedly chatted while scooping up Lois. I pointed at Neal (still in the print shop) and tried to figure out where she had come from. She grinned from ear to ear and pulled me to her shop. Out came a peach for Lois and a coke for me. I chugged. Lois chomped. We’ve got this eating thing DOWN!

The courtyard soon became a buzz. I shared my “nang” bread and watched Lois get hugged and fed.

Neal finally finished his business but our afternoon was far from over. We were soon ushered to the little plastic table sitting in the middle of the courtyard. Before I knew what was happening a large bowl of noodles, cucumber and tofu was placed in front of me. (And another coke). Neal and I dug right in. It was delicious. Even more impressive than the noodles, however, was the gesture. It absolutely made their day to be able to share their food with us.

I wrapped my arm around Mrs. Lee and struggled to thank her. I looked around at the sweet faces that had shared with us that day. Their houses were a single room above a tiny store. They gave what they would normally be making a living off of. They showed a desire to be a friend to someone who couldn’t even talk to them. “Thank you” was so small. I wanted to say, “You are just the sweetest to do all of this for us and you absolutely didn’t have to and I’m just so overwhelmed with your kindness and you are just so nice and thank you so much for being my friend when I can’t even talk to you.” I was humbled. I gave a smile and a squeeze in hopes that my meaning would be felt.

Neal and I finally left with bags of yogurt, cokes and gifts. More importantly, we left feeling loved, welcomed and accepted. The food thing had worked. They had expressed their friendship and we had accepted it.

Another day in China down for the records.

Introducing my Neighborhood in Beijing

Some things I may never relate to. Some things delight me. Some things intrigue me. Here are a few of those things:

DSC_0247This is how she makes her living. She totes her baby and her cart of plastic balloons around.

I’ll never relate to it.

DSC_0279This dad (ba ba) and daughter (nu er) fell in love with Lois. They stopped us on the street for a chat. I didn’t tell them that in America we’re really nothing special. We quickly became friends and they even told me my Chinese is good. I believed them for a brief moment of bliss. Reality then smacked me right upside the head to remind me that I’m not so fluent.

I’m delighted with it.

DSC_0284We eat fresh fruits and veggies. Every day the farmers bring their produce to town and set up shop on the street corner. I pass an average of ten or more vendors on my half mile walk to the market.

I’m intrigued by it.

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And this I have no words for. The local garbage bin was full. Problem solver: dump it all on the street.

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All for the Love of Eggs

A toothless, wrinkled face stared blankly at me. I tried to explain, but it was pointless.

The wu mart (yes, that is actually what it’s called) down the road is my favorite grocery store. It’s close enough to walk to and it carries all the necessities: milk, butter, bread. Oddly enough these items can be difficult and expensive to find here in China. So, there I was shopping. I stared at my list. Eggs were at the top.

Crates of eggs. Eggs in plastic containers. Eggs in flat cartons. Eggs in bags. Eggs were everywhere. Which ones are the “normal” eggs? I figured the eggs in the packages were “special” eggs so I made the executive decision to draw from the crates. Now I just needed a bag. I glanced all around for plastic bags. None. I spotted a man with two in his hand and asked, “Where did you get those bags?” Blank stare. “The bags. I need a bag for my eggs.” Quizzical stare. Now what?

Finally I started gesturing and drawing an unnecessary amount of attention to myself as I tried to get my point across. The man finally caught on to my need and held out one of his bags to me. Embarassed, I took the bag and explained, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for you to give me one of yours!” I chuckled. He had no clue. I figured I’d better apologize in Mandarin. “Bu ke chi.” Oh wait, that’s “don’t be polite.” I tried again,Dui bu chi!” Oops, that was “excuse me.” Oh well, close enough. He gets the point. I shrugged. He shrugged. I filled my precious bag with eggs.

I took my eggs to the attendant to weigh and price them. I waited patiently while he helped another customer weigh her melons. He finished with her then went back to his work. Hello! I’m standing right here with my eggs! I looked expectantly at him. No response. I held up my eggs and pointed at the scale. A blank stare answered me. He continued to help another customer. How dare he! He is just totally ignoring me! Well, I’d had enough of that. I walked right in front of him, “Can you please weigh these for me?” He got animated and began rattling off in some unknown tongue. His arms flew one way as he pointed at the trays of eggs and then he whipped himself around and pointed at the crates. It was my turn to give a blank stare. A bystander came to the rescue. “He says you have to buy the tray of eggs.” Her English was clear and welcomed! “WHY?” I asked, frantic and confused. She rattled off to him and he rattled back with his flailing arms. “He says that the crates are the eggs they use to package and price the trays for the customers.” Seriously? Apparently I’d made a poor choice. Shoulda picked the “special” eggs. 

Finally that disgruntled, wrinkled old man took my little bag of eggs and placed them on a scale. He rudely laughed and shook his head while muttering out a few choice words. I imagine he ways saying things like, “This dumb foreign girl just doesn’t know how we do things here in China.” He wouldn’t have been far from the truth!

I smiled and thanked him, “Xie xie.” Got that one right.

I left wu mart with my head held high. Mission accomplished! I had done it all by myself.

Seconds after leaving the store I had a little mishap. I peered down at my highly-faught-for bag of eggs to find several of them cracked and broken. They were oozing all over my precious plastic bag. Shoulda got a tray.

Spotted this little guy on my daily walk. He stared and I stared back. Then I acted like a tourist and snapped a picture! (He’s far more interesting to look at then a bag of broken eggs.)

My Willows In Beijing

They line the road like a band of grandfather’s watching over me. Their long branches sweep and sway in the smallest of breezes. They hold warmth, vibrant colour and secrets. They’ve watched many people walk by under their protective branches. They’ve been through the changing of seasons and they’ve endured many generations. They’re my willows.

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If I had a dream yard, it would be one with a large, looming willow tree. I’ve always loved them. I’ve always been intrigued by their whimsical look. Whenever I see one I always let out a little squeal of excitement. “Oh, look! A willow!” Without a doubt, they’re my favorite. They seem to pull all the stress right out of one’s life. They bring about a calm sort of relaxing feel. Most importantly, they remind me that I’m loved. They’re my willows.

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God knew I loved willows. He also knew that I would live my life without a yard. Living in China means apartments. Apartments means no yard. I’m fine with no yard. I’m even fine with no willow trees. Yet, God in His sovereign omniscience knew that I loved willows. I like to believe that He planted this particular line of trees right outside of my neighbourhood just for me. He knew that I would walk this stretch of road every day. He knew I would see these trees and smile at them every time I walked by. He knew they would remind me of His love for me. He knew they would confirm that He cares about the little things. And that’s why they’re my willows.