Today marks seven years since John and I arrived in this country! We had left the States on our 7th anniversary, December 28 2003, but then were delayed for two days in LA. We finally arrived in Hong Kong early on the morning of January 1st, having missed New Year's Eve because of the time difference and crossing the international date line. We had a long layover in HK, then boarded an afternoon flight to our city. We were met at the airport by the only person we knew in this city of six million people: the guy who worked in the international student office at the university. He crammed us and our 8 pieces of luggage into a little "bread taxi" (like a mini-mini-van) and I sat on John's lap for the trip back to the school. We moved into a dusty, dirty fifth floor apartment with cement floors and thankfully, no bugs. Bonus: we had our own bathroom! That was a huge relief to me! Our first meal that evening was bottled water, some sort of greasy cracker and a package of cashews (bought at the student snack bar). How thankful we were to have arrived, with all our luggage, to a completely foreign city but knowing that we were exactly where we were supposed to be.
Somehow the number seven seems significant to me, I'm not sure why. It feels like it wasn't that long ago, and yet so much has happened since that day! What have we learned in seven years? Here's a few thoughts for you:
We arrived speaking none, almost absolutely none, of the local language. I think we could say "hello" and "thank you." For a long time we had a "hello" ministry...we said "hello" to everyone we met, very unusual in this culture. But that was about all we could say! Now, though we're certainly not close to true fluency, we can hold our own in a variety of topics. John's listening comprehension is better than mine, especially as regards to spiritual vocabulary. He hears well and knows a lot more words than I do. But I can use more of what I know, and use it more smoothly, which sometimes gives people the illusion that I speak better than I do! I could teach you how to bake a cake easily in the local language, or talk about parenting or marriage or family issues or the price of eggs or any of those kinds of daily use topics. And since I gave birth here, I even know random things like "Is the amniotic fluid adequate?" and "The contractions are five minutes apart and I am 2 centimeters dilated." But don't try to describe to me how the transmission on your car is acting up or ask me my opinions about George Bush's foreign policies. I won't be able to give intelligent answers!
We arrived in this country having been married for seven years and without children. Now, we just celebrated our fourteenth wedding anniversary and have three precious daughters, as well as one child we didn't get to meet. Our family has certainly changed! How thankful we are for this wonderful change, even when it's a rough discipline day or the stomach flu hits. Clara Anne was added to our family on December 25, 2004, Chloe on June 26, 2006, and Christin on April 28, 2008. And get this: they were all born in different countries! Hong Kong (sort of a country, you have to go through customs to exit the airport so I'm counting it!), Thailand, and the Big Chicken respectively. Hmmm, that's a little bit crazy. They are all already quite the little travelers and we've had to add pages to both Clara Anne's and Chloe's passports because they were running out of space. The girls have only ever visited America, this is truly their home. I think there's something really special about that.
Well, we've certainly made some progress in this area. Now we can ride bike and zip through the traffic like the natives. We are wary of accepting big gifts from people we hardly know (there's usually a request in there somewhere). We don't get fazed when people regularly comment on our weight. We have learned how to negotiate "guanxi" in this culture; i.e., use relationships to get things accomplished. We have made true friends despite cultural differences. We have gotten used to simple errands taking all day. We aren't baffled by the displays of fireworks at random times and for all sorts of reasons. We can eat local food for weeks on end, and enjoy it if we have to. But, there are things we'll never get fully used to: feeling like a perpetual outsider; having our teaching or training dismissed because "you Americans just do things differently, it's not like that here;" seeing children relieve themselves any old place, including inside the home on the floor (!!!); and people not looking before crossing busy streets!!! I know WHY they don't look (it has to do with fault, if I didn't see you coming then it wasn't my fault) but STILL...it's crazy! There's danger on the streets, let me tell you! So there remain many cultural areas where we're still learning.
How to Live in Another Culture
Only a few weeks after first arriving here, some seasoned personnel gave us this wise advice: During your first year, just focus on learning how to live there. Make friends. Figure out how to make life do-able. Focus on making life as "normal" as you can so that you can go about your work. I thought this was excellent advice and it stuck with me. Simple daily life skills in another culture can be tough at first. Learning how to buy necessities, how to get around and then get home again, learning how to understand the accent of people who are trying to speak English to you, figuring out how to do laundry, and what about meals. . . all of those skills take time to learn! For example, when we first lived in a student dorm, there was only hot water at certain times of the day. So though I had always taken showers in the morning, I had to switch my habit to evening because that was when the hot water was more reliable. Also, at first we ate our meals at the student cafeteria. Then we found and bought a toaster (our dorm room didn't have a kitchen) and it really improved my quality of life! It took awhile before I figured out how to order an egg sandwich at the student snack bar that did NOT have mayo, ketchup or lettuce. But when I first learned the phrase to say "no extra toppings, just the egg" it made life easier. I was eating a lot of egg sandwiches in those days since I was expecting Clara Anne and no garlicky, gingery stir fry sounded good to me! So, figuring out the food, how to cook in another culture and how to eat in another culture were certainly important to our adjustment. I think there's no doubt that we've learned both since our arrival 7 years ago! (Just note our recent Christmas menu!)
I wish someone had told me this before I moved here. I thought I was moving here and was going to stay put, living in this one place and getting used to it. But in fact I should have had different expectations. We have lived for significant periods of time in many different places, partially because we had babies in different places but also because of required travel for meetings. I used to romanticize the idea of travel, oh, it's so fun and exciting to see different places and experience different cultures. And while it can be fun and exciting, it also can be amazingly frustrating when you can't communicate, get lost, don't know where or what to eat, forget to take your passport (YES we have done this on more than one occasion!), take the wrong passport, take the wrong bus, forget the value of the currency and pay way more than you intended, have difficulty figuring out the public transportation system, don't know where to buy groceries, suddenly need some medicine in the middle of the night, etc and etc. Add kids into the mix and traveling can seem downright daunting! Thankfully the vast majority of our travel has been very enjoyable. Those things can be aggravating, and it's always wonderful to come home again, but we have seen some beautiful places. I have a special place in my heart for Hong Kong--love the beauty of the islands mixed with the hustle and bustle of downtown, and of course, Clara Anne was born there in a nice hospital on the Island--and Phuket, Thailand where we had an amazing vacation when Clara Anne and Chloe were little. Phuket was one of the most naturally gorgeous places I've ever seen. God's creation in that part of the world filled my city-smog-ridden, noisy-neighbors, traffic exhaust-and-cigarette-smoke-oppresed soul with peace and joy. I'm thankful for the travel we've been able to do, even though I didn't anticipate it when we first moved here!
In many ways our life over these seven years has been one of constant transition. We ourselves have changed, our family has changed. We've had major, significant change in almost all aspects of our life--our friends, our partners, our work...and it's not stopping! But such is life in this world. We weren't meant to be here on earth forever. This isn't heaven yet. So any time I get my heart too set on any one thing, I remind myself that things won't be this way forever--for good or for bad!
So there's some thoughts about our seven years. How thankful we are for the Lord's faithful sustaining of us through this time! I hope we have learned more about following Him in these seven years as well. He has been the Rock through these life lessons and transitions, in fact, He is using them to shape and change us. We rejoice in His excellent care of us. Nothing that has happened to us was outside His control. It was all for His purposes, for His glory.
And that's a great thought to end this New Year's Day post. As He's been faithful, He will continue to be faithful, to guide the future as He has the past. Our confidence is sure, it cannot be shaken. His promises are true, He will not and cannot fail! That's our hope for 2011. Lord, may this next year be one for our good and your glory! Amen.