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!

 

Culture Shock: It Goes Both Ways

America. The grass, it was green. I found myself in the Chicago, O’hare airport staring out the window (which was so clean you wouldn’t even know it was there) at the beautiful grass. It was perfectly manicured and not a fleck of brown could be spotted! It was lush and healthy. Oh, how pretty! I could’ve stared at it all day. Like a child, I commented to Neal, “Look at how pretty the grass is!” He, clearly not as enthused as I, replied, “Yeah.” Listening to me, you would have thought I’d never seen green grass in my life. In reality, it had only been a year. A year was long enough to forget how perfectly stunning and wonderful something as simple as grass could be.

It wasn’t our plan to spend our short summer in the states. Circumstances left us with no choice. So, back we went. It turned out to be exactly what I needed… right when I needed it. Culture shock was setting in hard and heavy during that last month in China. Every little thing was getting under my skin and my Mandarin was hardly up to par.

People talking about me (right in front of me) in the market was aggravating. “Where do you think she’s from? Probably Germany.” “Look at her child, she needs to put more clothes on her.” “Do you think she’s married to a Chinese man? Or maybe she’s working here.” I felt like telling them I could understand what they were saying about me and that I found it rude. I couldn’t seem to get the sentences out, so instead I listened… and fumed. Even if I had said something, it wouldn’t have made a difference. The conversation would have carried right on without a glitch. And that too was annoying.

Perfect strangers rubbed Lois’ face as if she was a doll. They even called her a “foreign” doll.

People gave me their opinion about everything. “You shouldn’t wear high heals when you’re pregnant. You’re hurting your baby.” “Don’t drink cold water, it’s bad for your health.” “Put more clothes on your child, she’ll get sick!”

I was rude to turn down any food offered to me, while my own Western dishes were declined with a wrinkled nose and an odd stare.

In WuMart I was approached by a perfect stranger. A man, who appeared to be younger than myself, came within just a few feet of Lois and my pregnant self and without a word, started snapping pictures of us. You can imagine that in my pregnant state, I wasn’t very welcoming of candid photos. He finished his business of invading our space and concluded with a “thank you” before turning and walking away. I all-too-quickly snapped back, “You didn’t even ask us, so why are you thanking us?” He didn’t reply and I left the market… fuming.

All of these experiences and many more were piling up to a mountain of culture shock. America was a welcome sight. I was expecting all of my troubles to disappear with the rumble of the plane wheels on the tarmac. And for a while that is exactly what happened. I soaked up every ounce of everything that I had missed. I was carefree and relaxed. However, after eating my weight in queso dip and hitting all my favorite stores within four days of arriving, I found myself less than fulfilled. I missed home. After only two weeks I was missing the sights and sounds of China. I was even missing all the free advice!

It was then that American culture shock set in. I was expecting culture shock in China. After all, everything about the place went directly against my grain. I was adapting to a completely opposite way of life than what I was used to. I was NOT expecting to culture shock in the states. I wasn’t expecting to find myself opening my mouth to speak a Chinese word only to remember at the last second that this was an English speaking country. A slight twinge of sadness always pricked me when that happened. I missed it. I wasn’t expecting to find myself constantly making excuses for Lois. She would say, “shu shu hao” (a common and respectful greeting to older men) to strangers in restaurants or stores. In the beginning I would tell them, “Oh we live in China and she’s greeting you in Chinese, she’s not talking baby talk.” Most people just shrugged it off and after a while I simply stopped explaining. There were a few occasions when Lois saw a cellphone and automatically smiled at it. More explaining. “In China she gets photographed every time she leaves the house. She doesn’t LOVE the camera, she’s just used to always having to smile when she sees one.” Again, no one was interested. Our friends and family were patient and understanding, but life outside of that was different. It was awkward and I felt oddly out of place. I was still me, yet there was a whole part of me that no one knew a lick about or would even expect. And so, I tried my best to bury it for our few weeks there.

Coming back to China, TWO babies in tow, I was over-joyed. This was our life. This was the plan God had for us. All of a sudden, those little things that were driving me crazy when we left were the very things I found myself smiling at and embracing when we returned. A dear sweet friend of ours approached me only a few days after arriving to remind me that our newborn should have a hat on every single day. I smiled, threw my arm around her old shoulders and told her I loved her and had missed her. She returned the love and hug and I was smiling on the inside at the irony of how perfectly happy her comment had made me.

Culture shock comes and goes. As we change and grow and accept new people and places, we are challenged. The more we overcome these challenges, the more this place becomes a part of us and the harder it is to keep China and our family here from creeping into our hearts and changing us.

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.

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!)

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.)