You are Beautiful

I was at the supermarket earlier this week when suddenly I was surrounded by about 5 children (approximately age 12). They were working hard to communicate with me (one child whispered to the other, “what…is…your…name?) After our short conversation in Chinglish, one child proclaimed, “You are beautiful!” The other children all echoed, “Beautiful, beautiful!” And then we went our separate ways, but I saw them several other times and they would shout, “Beautiful!” and keep going.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the word beautiful. Maybe it’s because I’ve been called beautiful more in the last two years than I’ve been called beautiful in my whole life combined. Really it probably only took 2 weeks in China to be called beautiful more than in my whole life combined.

My friend (another blond-haired foreigner) and I were discussing whether the word beautiful means as much to us anymore when we hear it so often. Sometimes I would say it doesn’t. It lacks sincerity. But other times, it’s still touching, like when my student pulls out her phone and points to a picture of us together and says, “I show everyone this picture, so they can see my beautiful English teacher.” Or when I’m at the supermarket looking about my absolute worst and those cute little kids shout out “beautiful.”

I read an article a few years ago (that I was going to link to, but couldn’t find at the moment) about not calling little girls pretty..  It was thought-provoking.  It talked about how often we define girls by their looks. But as I was thinking about it, I wondered if the bigger problem is not about defining girls by their looks, but rather how we define beauty.

Do we truly see beauty as we look around us? By beauty, I don’t just mean the perfect symmetry that our mind thinks as beautiful—but beauty in the mundane, in the ordinary, even in the seemingly unlovable. Do we look at the world around us and do we see beauty, or do we only see ashes?

This year as I reflected upon a word I wanted to emphasize, I could not shake the word beautiful. What would it look like for me to look at the world around me and truly see beauty? How would it look for me to look around me and see the faces I interact with, the crowded masses on the street—and sincerely say—“you are beautiful?”   Can I say this not because of what they have to offer, or what they look like, but because I believe that each person is created in image of the one who declared it is good?  Do I sincerely believe He can bring beauty from ashes, light from darkness and in the words of Gungor, He “is making beautiful things out of us?”

A Misplaced Christmas

Call me crazy, but there’s something I love about airports at Christmas in the US. The hustle and bustle. The waiting areas packed with people as you trip over luggage and have to sit on top your suitcase on the floor.  There is a sense of excitement (okay, yes sometimes also stress) in the air.  Christmas is coming. For a moment, it feels like we are all on the same team. We are all looking forward to something together.

That’s the strangest thing when I walk outside on Christmas in China. It’s like the world is going on around me—a world where Christmas is maybe a passing thought, an apple on Christmas Eve, but not an overshadowing reality.

It makes me think of the first Christmas. Our imagery of Christmas is so often homecoming—the happy glow of family and friends. (This week I listened to a Christmas version of Michael Buble’s Home by Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert—I must say tears were running down my cheeks.) But that wasn’t the reality of the first Christmas. Everyone was not excited and aware of what was going on.  A young pregnant woman and her husband had to journey away from home. They were uncomfortable, misplaced—a yet in that moment is where we see great redemption.

Here in this place, Christmas can too seem misplaced, but just as there is joy for me in crowded airport waiting areas, I can also discover joy in sharing Christmas with those who may have never really known what it is.  It’s a joy to receive giant earmuffs, fancy boxes with apples (in Chinese the word for apple “pinguo” and the word for Christmas Eve/Peaceful Night “pingan” sound similar so it is a custom to give apples on Christmas eve), and boxes of candy. It’s a joy to bake hundreds (literally over 300) cookies and get to share Christmas stories, songs and customs with students. It’s a joy to have nearly 90 students come through my house…taking about that number of selfies each with my Christmas tree.

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Christmas Open House with my students!

It’s a joy because even though Christmas can seem misplaced, I still know that true joy has come—to the whole world. And even moments where Christmas can seem misplaced, misunderstood or out of place, I’m reminded that those are the moments when redemption shines through.

How many pants are you wearing?

Sometimes when students ask me how my life in China is different from my life in America, I don’t know where to start.  In many ways I’ve adjusted to the “new normal here”, but some days, I think, “Hmm, I don’t think that would happen in the US…or I definitely wouldn’t do that at home.” For example, last night I stood up and sang a solo in a room with 50 students, but that’s a story for another day.

In class, I have students ask attendance questions at the beginning of class. It’s supposed to be a short question that gets them speaking English (ie. What do you miss about your hometown?) A few weeks ago the attendance question: “How many pants are you wearing?”

After the October holiday, long underwear season begins. I’ve heard China called the “long underwear capital of the world.” (In China people largely dress based on the calendar, not on the temperature.) It seems to ring true. Sometimes people (mainly older women or maybe occasionally my students) might even feel your legs to see if you are wearing an appropriate number of layers.  And my students love to tell me to wear more clothes.

While it can seem a bit odd at times, it’s a way of them expressing their concern for my welfare.

There were a few times last winter when I did have on 3-4 layers of pants (and felt so Chinese), when my students told me I needed to wear more clothes and I’d say, “I have 3 pairs of pants on!” One time my student responded, “wow, I’m not even wearing that many.” (It gets pretty cold when you’re walking and riding your bike everywhere.)  Outside of skiing and football games, I’m not sure I’ve ever worn long underwear in the US.

Today I bought some nice fluffy slippers with lambs on toes to wear around my apartment. Once again, pretty sure I’d never own a pair of slippers like these in America, but I have to say the crazy slippers are one of the many things I’m thankful for in my new normal.

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Fears and Far Away

When I told people I was moving thousands of miles away, on the other side of the ocean, to a land where I didn’t speak the language, far from everything familiar, the response so often came, “You’re so brave.” Or, “Aren’t you afraid of what could happen?”

In many ways, moving to the other side of the world requires facing fears. I have to say some “normal” fears rarely enter my mind. I’m not so concerned about things happening to me in daily life, about travel, about crossing the street (which can be a pretty scary thing!). But it can also cause a whole new pile of fears and uncertainties to creep in.

Will people forget me? Will I be able to really adjust?  Where will I fit?

A few weeks ago, with several of my teammate we discussed our biggest fears being in China.  For me, the biggest fear has long been the same—something happening to my family and not being there.

Two days later, my grandpa died.  My grandfather—the man who I hurried across the gravel driveway to see every morning as a small child. The man who taught me all about cars, boats, houses, James Bond and John Wayne.

And there I was 7000 miles away.

Yet, as I set on my bed crying I couldn’t shake the unmistakable peace upon me.

My word for the year is dependence. And I realized I had to depend that my Father was taking care of my family.  I had to realize I’m not in control.  That the hands that hold the universe hold me and my family—even on opposite sides of the world. And He tells me, “Do not fear, for I am with you.”

Lady in Red: A Chinese wedding!

Last weekend, I had the exciting opportunity to attend my first Chinese wedding.  It’s something I’ve been excited about doing since I arrived here a year ago. Our neighbor (who is also our invaluable colleague and helper) got married. We were so happy to celebrate with her!

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Some interesting Chinese wedding traditions & observations:

  • Traditionally, the women’s parents do not attend the wedding because the woman is leaving her family and joining the groom’s family. Today, more and more brides (especially in the cities) have their parents at the wedding. The bride’s parents did attend this wedding and her father walked her in and presented her to the groom–similar to what we are accustomed to at Western weddings.
  • In another influence from Western culture, more brides wear white wedding dresses as opposed to the traditionally-styled red dress. In spite of this, the bride will often change into a red dress.
  • Wedding pictures are often taken at various locations before the wedding, similar to what we do for engagement photos, only the bride and groom wear various formal attire (wedding dresses, colorful formals, etc. I think the outfits are often rented.)
  • The wedding itself might seem a little bit more like a reception, centered around a meal and taking place in a hotel ballroom. There is an announcer who MCs the event (quite loud and energetic–think of the guy who introduces the basketball players at the beginning of the game).  I’ve heard vows are not always said (perhaps a simple question of “will you marry this person?”), but our wedding did have something similar to Western wedding vows. (Or so I was told. I basically understood the part where the bride said I love you.)
  • The day of the wedding is strategically chosen by a variety of factors according to the Chinese zodiac calendar. I’m not sure exactly how this works, but I do know it takes into account the bride and groom’s birth years, as well as days that are considered lucky. Apparently all of 2015 is both a bad year to get married and a bad year to have children. That’s unfortunate. (Pun intended.)
  • As part of the ceremony, the bride and groom have to call their new in-laws mama and baba (mother and father), until they do so satisfactorily. Then they receive a gift from the parents.
  • After the ceremony, the bride and groom walk around to each table and toasts all of their guests.
  • The event is quite colorful. Some even have fireworks indoors. We didn’t have fireworks, but a screensaver that gave a simulated look of them at times.  Not quite as exciting, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to see and hear fireworks living in China 🙂

**Yes, I do remember I have a blog. I’m planning on weekly updates this year, so if I don’t do it you can keep me accountable.**

Home to a Foreign Land

If I learned to speak Mandarin perfectly, with no discernible foreign accent, if I lived the rest of my life in this city, if I my children were born here, if my grandchildren were born here, even if I dyed my hair black, got dark contacts and tried my very best to blend in as much as possible—one thing will still always remain—I’m a foreigner.

As a native of a country where we can’t readily identify foreigners, even by their color of skin or the language they speak—it’s easy for us to never really ponder what it means to be “foreign.”  But here, my status as a foreigner is obvious and constant.

After nearly 4 weeks of traveling, I returned “home” a few days ago.  Although I was leaving this beautiful country full of warmth and sunshine:

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I was excited to be returning to this foreign land—which over the past few months begins to feel more familiar, like a place I belong.  Perhaps that’s why my status once again as foreign was a little bit jarring.  My first night back we went to dinner at a restaurant we frequent.  Another diner moved across the restaurant to stare at us.  He probably wanted to examine the foreigners’ chopstick skills. Or maybe he was just intrigued by the group of foreigners.

While at times this identity as a foreigner can be a bit overwhelming, I have to say I’ve grown in some ways to appreciate.  In one of my early letters home I mentioned that living here, ‘I’m continually reminded that for each of us, this is not our home.  China is no more my home than the land of (real) football and barbecue is.’

So even as I retain my foreign status, I’m thankful for the opportunities that it brings me to meet new people and build relationships.  I’m thankful for the many foreign things that become familiar.  And I’m thankful for the reminder that I am made for a greater home and have been given a “longing for a better country—a heavenly one.”

One Word: Dependence

A few weeks ago, I ate dinner with some of my students on the campus they live on, about a 20-minute walk from my campus.  When we finished dinner, they said, “Miss Anna, we will walk with you.”  Often I manage to dissuade my students when they ask this question, but tonight they were walking to class, so we could actually walk in the same direction.  You see, walking with my students is a bit awkward.  They walk slowly. Really slow. Often they want to link arms, or in this particular instance, they wanted to hold hands for the entirety of the walk.  And these particular students really struggle with their English, so the walk is made in almost complete silence.

As we walked, holding hands, slowly and silently, I was squelching the urge to break free, when one of my students turned her face up to mine and said in a most earnest voice, “We like walking with you, Miss Anna.”

These simple words pierced my heart.  I wonder how often people are begging for someone to just walk with them, but I’m too busy, too distracted, too focused to simply walk with them.  I wonder how often the Father asks me, “just walk with me.” But I put it off, I don’t want to have to slow down, to deal with the awkwardness, to wait to see the direction that He’s walking.

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I wasn’t sure what word to choose when I first read the Velvet Ashes post about one word. But as I thought of one word for 2014, the Father kept bringing the word dependence to my mind. I have to say I initially wanted to reject the word in favor of interdependence.  You see dependence means that I need someone or something else for support, whereas interdependence seemed to give me more of a role.  And while I do think we need to rely on one another, I realize my biggest problem is often letting myself need others, letting myself fully depend on my Creator, who doesn’t need me.  And also there are times when others may need me, but it may seem that is not a mutually dependent relationship–and I don’t depend on the Father to give me grace, energy and love in those times…instead I depend upon my own strength. 

There is a beautiful Zimbabwe saying, “I am because we are.” It is understand our individual identity is deeply rooted in community.  That we need each other.  Sometimes needing each other is awkward.  Sometimes it means that we must walk at an uncomfortably slow pace, take a route that doesn’t seem the most efficient—or even hold hands.  But as we learn what it means to walk with others, we often begin to see more of who we are truly called to be.

So this year, as I think of the word dependence for 2014, it’s a bit scary.  Because let’s face it, I don’t always like to need something beyond myself. Often I’m tempted to run ahead on my own. But I am reminded I am here today because of the many people who have walked with me, and because of a Father who always walks with me.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. II Cor. 12: 9