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!)

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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