Category Archives: travel

Virtual coffee date

I have been thinking lately about how helpful it is to reframe major challenges in life as adventure.  

You know how sometimes you’ll be going through something and someone will try to comfort you by saying, well, it will make a great story later, won’t it?  What if we could embrace the great story now?

It sounds crazy, but I think my life is just as much, if not more of an adventure, here in the everyday with a baby, classes, and trying to be faithful to God as it was living in China and traveling the world.  I’m trying to be grateful for the adventure as I’m living it rather than tomorrow or in a couple years.  I’d love to hear how you do that in your lives!

Amazing islands of Hong Kong.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Amazing islands of Hong Kong. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I’ve also been reading Sacred Pauses and just hit the chapter on silence, which you know is my jam.  My mind was kind of blown by the idea that none of us have actually ever experienced silence, the true absence of sound, and that silence in general actually makes us more attuned to the presence of small, overlooked, everyday sounds.  The author used this to encourage us that God is always working, especially in the silence, a truth that has been powerful and poignant for me over the years, too.

An illustration from Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day.

It’s finally a little warmer, though there’s still heaps of snow on the ground.  Yesterday our little family took a lovely, cozy walk through the snow.  I just love how it crunches under your feet.  About a year ago, a friend gave us the children’s book, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, because our daughter, who will turn one next weekend, was born in between two snow storms.  It is my favorite children’s book that we own, and I’ve been reading it to her a lot lately and reminiscing about her coming into the world amidst slow flakes coming down in the wee hours of the morning.

Yes, I’m adult, yes, I was raised in Wisconsin, but there’s still something so magical to me when it snows.  I remember my husband trying to describe snow to his students in South China who had never seen such a thing.  They were incredulous and full of wonder.  I wonder if they will ever see it snow in their lifetime.

Sure, it gets cold out here.  But life is quite the adventure anyway.

Happy weekending.

Love these two...my photo.
Love these two…my photo.

 

 

 

 

 

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Virtual coffee date

“I think I just love ideas,” I said to my husband dreamily the other evening after a particularly rousing conversation with a colleague.

It didn’t seem like much a revelation, but I may have mentioned that defending my Ph.D. last year has seemed to open up all this conceptual space with which to dream about vocation both in and outside of academia.  It’s been at once exhilarating and daunting.  There’s so much freedom that I’m almost paralyzed by it.

Halong Bay, Photos by Evan Schneider.
Halong Bay, Photo by Evan Schneider.

But to acknowledge and relish that I really get a kick out of talking about theories, ideas, and people is a small start.  And then the other day as I chatted with a colleague on the seminary campus who turned to go into her office, I turned to head back to the university campus, to my syllabi, articles, and ideas.  And I was so thrilled and so grateful to have that desk, that community, and those ideas.  I realized as scary as it is to admit, I’m not ready to give up on the academic job search yet.  I want to see it through a bit longer.  I want to continue to pursue these possibilities, because I have so much passion for the work I did with foster families and children with disabilities in China, for China itself, for students, and for anthropological knowledge and those ways of thinking.

Things seem positively turned upside down in my life right now and I have no idea what God is doing.  But I’m trying to learn (again) to be content with that– to embrace the thought that this not knowing about the future is not really so bad and that life is an adventure that is so much better when we let God lead.

The other morning I saw the sun for the first time in a long, long time, and some words from good ol’ Anne of Green Gables came to me as I happily thought, “Today is fresh, with no mistakes in it yet.”

Trying to live in that freshness, faithfulness, and fullness that God so generously provides.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Have a good weekend.  What are you up to?

10 Things I learned in 2014

This is one of my favorite posts to write, because it forces me to go through all the lessons of the previous year and cull together all that God has taught me and all that God is doing.  2014 was such an eventful year for me personally, with the birth of my daughter and the defense of my dissertation.  Both of those have opened up some exciting conceptual space for me to dream and imagine my future vocation and God’s work in my life.

Sometimes that opening is scary, because it’s always been hard for me to trust God with the future.  But if there’s one thing a new year brings, it is an opportunity to reframe what’s in front of us and see life through the eyes of God rather than our own limited vision.

A lovely cup of coffee. One of my favorite things.

Here’s what I learned this year.  What about you?

1.  Contentment is about living faithfully with uncertainty.

2.  Our lives are fuller when we yield to God and one another.

3.  We can’t have new life without the dirt and the worms and the mud.

Hoping for snow in 2015..

4.  Living as Easter people means risking earthly things for eternal ones.

5.  True love demands a shift in the way we view and live life.

6.  I desire to live with the humble heart of a student.

7.  When we view the world with open eyes, we find grace in our everyday circumstances.

8.  Stress-filled lives are also beautiful and holy, because God is present even in the thick smog of stress, enabling us to breathe.

9.  Everyday we choose whether to live in a world of abundance or one of scarcity.

10.  Whatever you’re feeling, God can take it.

* And the most viewed posts of 2014 were Five Chinese Phrases to Get You By,  International Travel Tips, and Imitating Christ’s Humility = Being “Like-minded.”

 

 

There are typos in my dissertation

When I finished typing the last few words I set aside my dissertation for about a week.

I was afraid to read it, because I knew there would be typos amidst that sea of words.  It’s just impossible, not matter how many proofreaders, no matter how much time spent, to produce something perfect.  And while I know that, I didn’t want to experience the pang of how those mistakes would mar the crisp, white pages.  I wanted to believe that there was some way that all my hard work would pay off with perfection.

Like I said, that lasted about a week, and then I had to face reality.  I read through it, in preparation for my dissertation defense, and there were many typos.

And it was still okay.

One of my last dissertating sessions.  My photo.
One of my last dissertating sessions. My photo.

In fact, the typos reminded me that I’m not in pursuit of something perfect, but something human, something meaningful.  What’s more, I could see beyond the typos to those people in China who changed my life.  As I read, I was humbled to see and know that despite the congratulations that would be heaped on me and only me after the defense, this dissertation, was truly the work of many hands.  The typos reminded me that despite the perfection that’s so idolized in academic fields, we academics are imperfect people who rely heavily on the minds, kindness, and generosity of others to produce our knowledge.

There were moments where the typos made me wonder whether I had any business defending a dissertation toward a Ph.D., but I’ve also realized that it’s great to recognize that while you have learned a lot, you still have much more to learn.  It’s not so bad to see typos and be humbled and recognize that you’d rather be transformed and human and vulnerable than perfect and magnificent and independent.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful, in all circumstances, for typos, for friends, for family, for foster families in China, for dissertations, for new journeys, for imperfection, for growth, for love, for peace, and for God.

What about you?

The Art of Living Abroad

 

Nanning's ultra modern and traditional landscapes side by side.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Nanning’s ultra modern and traditional landscapes side by side. Photo by Evan Schneider.

It’s been nearly two years since my husband and I moved back from living in South China (how time flies!), but there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think about the people, the place, or our life there.  Moving to a foreign country as a young couple had its growing pains, but ultimately it brought us closer together and is an experience that we treasure and hope to repeat someday with our children.

I have some friends and acquaintances who are getting ready to make the move across the ocean or halfway around the world and it got me thinking about what lessons I can draw from our own experience.  So, here are a few suggestions for how to make the most of that international living experience, which is definitely more of an art than a science.

My husband plays volleyball with the teachers from his college.  My photo.
My husband plays volleyball with the teachers from his college. My photo.

Find Some Structure

It’s essential when you arrive to start building a community, through which you can learn about the culture, and among which you can begin to build relationships and feel at home. When I was doing my fieldwork in China, my network of informants was free-floating and dispersed, so it really helped that my husband was affiliated with a local university for his work, through which we met a mix of Chinese professors, students, and even expats.  Finding a community–a housing complex, a company, a school, or a place of worship–that has some structure and rituals to it helps a lot when you’re struggling to learn the ins and outs of daily life in a brand new place and ensures that you won’t feel isolated despite the isolating experiences  you’re often up against.  Even setting up a weekly meeting with a language partner or a friend to explore the city can give you the motivation to get out there and get to know your new surroundings and help you feel more at home.

Communicate

Speaking of isolation, a great piece of advice I received from a couple before moving abroad and back was to be mindful that despite your commonalities you won’t be experiencing a new culture in exactly the same way.  It’s imperative that instead of assuming cross-cultural experiences resonate or rub against us in exactly the same way as family or friends that we allow for multiple feelings and interpretations of the same events and experiences.  When I was living in China, I often assumed my husband to be my cultural confidant who shared my frustrations, joys, and complaints, but that wasn’t always the case.  It really helped to talk through those disconnects and resist making assumptions so that we could be sources of support to one another in a challenging experience.

Even locals have to study the bus routes in Nanning!  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Even locals have to study the bus routes in Nanning! Photo by Evan Schneider.

Become an Anthropologist

Now I’m completely biased, but I think it’s also important to suspend judgment and try to look past first impressions when you’re getting to know your new country and culture.  Spend your time observing people, listening, and participating in life the way they live it.  If you consider yourself a student of culture, it’s also a lot easier to tolerate and maybe even embrace differences that might be initially repulsive or confusing.  As a student, you’re only responsible for asking good questions, applying yourself and learning to the best of your ability, and respecting your teachers, which is a wonderfully fresh and un-stressful way to relate to your new, and sometimes jarring, world!

On a trip to Hong Kong.
On a trip to Hong Kong.

Indulge

There will be times where you need a psychological or even a physical break from the fatigue of speaking another language, being a foreigner in a strange land, or adhering to customs and pleasantries that aren’t your own.  It’s important to take these much needed breaks so that when you are with your new neighbors in your new country you can be the best version of yourself.  For my husband and I that meant brief sojourns to Hong Kong every once in awhile, evenings every few weeks with expats, or simply alone time on our balcony where we allowed one another the freedom to speak candidly about some of our frustrations and fears.

Beautiful Guilin.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Beautiful Guilin. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Explore

Don’t pass up the opportunity to explore your new country and culture while you have it.  My fondest memories of China are the weekends and weeks where I made spontaneous research trips to the countryside with new friends, and the trips to Southeast Asia with friends and to the wildest parts of Guangxi with family.  And I regret never making it to all the other places on our list–Harbin, Sanya, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar just to name a few!  Exploring the country with new friends deepens your understanding of the idiosyncrasies of what it really means to live in that place, because there’s nothing like long hours spent on buses and trains to bring people together.  After all, the art of living abroad is about taking care of yourself but also taking chances!

Virtual coffee date

马年大吉!Happy year of the horse!  

The bustling night market in Nanning.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
The bustling night market in Nanning. Photo by Evan Schneider.

If we were having coffee today, I would tell you that there are several times a year I just ache for China (in roughly October, during the autumn moon festival, every lunar new year, during the spring festival, and the tomb sweeping festival in late spring).  And despite having fled the country several times during spring festival to be rid of the noisy fireworks and avoid the crowded trains, there’s just something so full of joy and promise about sweeping the dust from the corners of the house, remembering the ancestors and praying for health and happiness in the coming year, and feasting with old friends and family.

Ladies doing tai chi along the Li River in Guilin, Guangxi.
Ladies doing tai chi along the Li River in Guilin, Guangxi.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

This time around, sweeping the cobwebs and looking forward to the new year, is pregnant (hehe) with meaning, as I’ve been soaring through a dissertation revision this week and preparing for a baby due on Valentine’s Day.  I’m so proud to report that I did, indeed, revise all five body chapters of my dissertation this week, so I’ll have a full draft to present to my committee members to read before the baby comes.  I feel so blessed to have felt so energized and inspired, despite being nine months pregnant!

I’m so grateful to God for allowing me in lieu of stress to experience this time of much expectation and preparation, rather as fullness, in which my cup runneth over.  

The husband sipping on cafe alonge in Paris.  My photo.
The husband sipping on cafe alonge in Paris. My photo.

I feel so much joy to be writing about foster families who I love and who taught me so much as a vocation, excited about potential jobs and postdocs on the horizon, as well as ministry opportunities, and of course, terrified and overjoyed at the prospect of a new baby.  Sometimes I do sort of stop in my tracks and feel a bit paralyzed with fear that we’re not the least bit prepared for this baby, but then, I think that awareness and awe-inspired fear probably goes a long way.

This weekend we’ll be continuing the nesting process, packing up boxes, filing papers, and tidying up–a Chinese new year ritual and baby prep all rolled into one.  Also trying to get a couple evenings out in before the baby comes, and if there’s time in the next two weeks I’ll add an introduction and conclusion to that second draft.  Who says you can’t channel all that nesting productivity into your dissertation, right?!

What are you up to this weekend?

The God of possibility and present

Remember how I shared with you that God has been teaching me a bit this past year about how to be content, like the apostle Paul, in all circumstances, and how I’ve learned that life is so much more full of possibility with God at the reins?

I’m happy to report that I have a draft of my dissertation–all five body chapters–and am working to make revisions to these before the baby comes.  Throughout the pregnancy, even though I haven’t felt great, I’ve been really active, continuing my normal runs (albeit shorter and slower) along the canal, and I’ve had a fair amount of energy, which I’ve been really thankful for.

The D & R Canal in the snow.

Still, it’s been discouraging to hear unsolicited advice and comments from strangers or acquaintances warning that I’ll “get nothing done after the baby comes,” or that the energy, productivity, and passion that I have for my dissertation project will necessarily fall by the wayside.

 I can’t anticipate what it’s like to have a baby.  

I imagine it will be an uncanny mix of exhaustion, joy, and fear, and schedules and priorities will necessarily have to shift, but I have no way of knowing what’s really coming.  It’s a completely new experience for my husband and I, and so these comments have, on occasion, sprouted little seeds of doubt about myself and the life and passions I seemingly will have to give up for a new baby.

I’ve been noticing, however, that I’m not a stranger to the unknown, and that through all the unknowns in my life, God has been decidedly faithful, providing possibilities I, myself, could have never foreseen.  It’s been helpful as I approach the unknown of having a child to remember how my husband and I felt, for instance, before going to live in China.  We had no idea what to expect, and yet, we prepared as best we could, seeking counseling, reading books, imagining potential conflicts, difficulties, and pitfalls, as well as looking forward to the excitement of a new experience.

My family hiking in the rice terraces outside Guilin, Guangxi.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
My family hiking in the rice terraces outside Guilin, Guangxi. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Those of you who have been reading my blog for sometime may recall how much the experience of living in China surpassed my expectations and deepened my relationship with my husband, God, and others.  There were definitely moments that my husband and I didn’t anticipate (stressful visa issues, our entire apartment flooding, the general wear and tear of trying to assimilate to a culture and speak a language that wasn’t our own), but overall, I felt closer to God in China than ever, I made lasting relationships with incredible people, and I think that challenge even strengthened my relationship with my husband.

I recently read a blog post about productivity from Zen Habits in which the author describes anxiety as a lack of trust in the future.  While I think this makes sense, I don’t necessarily see a reason to trust the future per say, but I do want to be a person who trusts God with my future.  God sees possibilities for us that we can’t, but we often struggle to let God be God when it comes to the future.  For instance, the teaching experience that I just completed at Drew that was so formative for me wasn’t even on the radar until summer last year.  If I had panicked and chosen something else, I would have missed out on one of God’s possibilities.

It’s funny how this kind of trust in God can impact not just the future, but the present.  For instance, when I realized that the negative voices of strangers often came from a place of anxiety themselves, I gradually began to also hear the confidence and encouragement of friends who know me well.  My spiritual director told me she’d never been more productive than when she had a newborn who slept all the time, my advisor never wavered from believing that I could complete both a dissertation and have a baby, and my friends only seem to be more supportive of me now that my husband and I are embarking on this new season in life.  It means so much to have God using these friends and mentors to remind me who I am during this time.

Walking on the towpath in Princeton with a dear friend.  Photo by Schneider.
Walking on the towpath in Princeton with a dear friend. Photo by Schneider.

I love a challenge–I always have, from that first trip to Mexico in high school to our life in China, to writing a dissertation, and finally having a baby–these are all things that at one point seemed impossible that God made possible.  And so here I am, over eight months pregnant, working on a dissertation, expecting a baby, and wondering what possibilities God has in store for this coming fall.

And with God by my side, I hardly feel anxious.  

It’s this challenge of faith, trusting the future to God, and leaning on God to yield contentment and peace in the present, that’s keeping me grounded, confident, and filled with gratitude.  I don’t think contentment is about sliding into complacency.  On the contrary, it’s about living faithfully with the uncertain, another challenge that God’s been guiding me through these past years.  I just keep marveling on how much God can do with our lives when we bow them at God’s feet rather than wresting them from a God who wants to show us possibility.

How do you trust God with your future?  How do you find contentment in your present?  How do you worship God with your life?

Paris: eating, sleeping, and reading

Paris, France.  Photo by Evan Schneider.Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Perhaps because it’s a particularly gloomy morning here in Princeton in the dead of winter, or perhaps because the NYT’s thrilling 52 Places to Go in 2014 just came out this week, I’m finally wanting to return to those Paris files that never made the blog, and some of the best eating, sleeping, and reading that we did on site.

I mentioned in another post that just after touching down in the city of light my husband caught a nasty cold, and so we decided to forgo our travel plans to the countryside and spend the full two weeks in Paris.

The River Seine at night.  Photo by Schneider.
The River Seine at night. Photo by Schneider.

And we never felt like we were missing out.

The welcoming lobby at Hotel Sainte Beuve.

When we had to scramble to find another hotel for the time we’d planned to be outside the city, we stumbled upon this gem, the Hotel Sainte Beuve, nestled right off the Luxembourg gardens in the 6th arrondissement.  Walking off the chilled streets into the warm living room with its burgundy and pink color scheme and crackling fire place afforded all the warmth of a cozy cottage, and the rooms were a soft mix of comfort and sophistication, much bigger than the closets you get in many areas of the city, featuring floor to ceiling windows, airy balconies, and spacious bathrooms with eclectic black and white tile.  The staff spoke a myriad of languages, booked us at many of the local eateries, and the hotel even had its own fragrance, that we bought and often spray around our bedroom to recall our memorable time there.

Of course this experience totally converted us into Paris snobs, who were quite unwilling to venture too far outside the city center, much less stay on the outskirts.  Why would we, when some of our best meals consisted of picnics cobbled together from local cheese, cured meat, and wine vendors, and then enjoyed on the lawn of the nearby Luxembourg?

Picnicking on the lawn of the Luxembourg.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Picnicking on the lawn of the Luxembourg Gardens. Photo by Evan Schneider.

The neighborhood had plenty other charming spots, including Cafe Vavin, where we’d enjoy heaping plates of charcuterie, foie gras, cheese, and wine around 5 or 6 pm before we’d enjoy a late dinner at the teeny, white-tabled clothed Le Timbre, or the bustling Julien Pattiserie around the corner where we’d grab an exquisite espresso and croissant before heading out to the day.

Appetizers!
Appetizers!  Photo by Schneider.

These were some of the cheap thrills of discovering the neighborhood around the hotel, but for some other memorable meals, I scoured the Paris By Mouth blog, which helpfully lists restaurants by arrondissement, and provides detailed, accurate reviews.  This is where we discovered the delightful Semilla, in the much-adored Saint Germain de Pres neighborhood.  The menu changes daily so each experience was different, but the food was rich, delicate, and refined.

Another great meal, or should I say the best buttery, melt-in-your-mouth plate of scallops I ever had, took place on a friend’s recommendation at Pramil, the tiny, yet cozy wood-beamed restaurant off the quiet rue Vertbois in the third arrondissement.  If you go, be sure to make a reservation (we didn’t, and we almost missed out as it quickly filled up!).

A bustling intersection in Sainte German de Pres.  Photo by Schneider.
A bustling intersection in Saint Germain de Pres. Photo by Schneider.

Besides the food there were two books I enjoyed reading that were set in Paris and provided a virtual and ethereal tour as I read along.  One was the frivolous Lessons in French by Hilary Reyl, the other Kati Marton’s sophisticated and bittersweet Paris: A Love Story.  I’d recommend both for your touring pleasure.

Photo by Schneider.
Photo by Schneider.

Of course, the sights and sounds of the city nearly rivaled the food and the flavors–that first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower coming up from the subway that I didn’t expect to care anything for, the quaint courtyard and the sounds of the organ in Saint Suplice, the eerie beauty of the cemetery at Montmarte, dotted with the tombs of artists and saints, or even Monet’s sprawling gardens, packed with tourists, were as beautiful as everyone says they are.  We can’t wait to go back and lap up escargot and enjoy wine by the carafe, but for the moment, especially on a day like today, Paris remains but a wonderful, distant warm memory in the dead of winter.

The view from Sacre Coeur.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The view from Sacre Coeur. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Hitting our stride

My husband and I celebrated our fifth anniversary of marriage in Paris this May.

Paris at sunset.  Photo by Jeremy Wance.
Paris at sunset. Photo by Jeremy Wance.

I usually let him lay low as far as this blog is concerned.  He’s the kind of guy who has plenty of opinions, but is also content to let me play the public internet persona…though his tidbits of wisdom still sneak in from time to time.

I wanted to write about marriage from a personal point of view, though, not because my husband and I are above the vulnerabilities of any other couple (and believe me it’s scary out there), but because especially when we’re feeling vulnerable I think it’s important to share our joys with one another, too.  I wanted to share what we’ve learned in a short period of time, which is enough to tell any newlyweds that it gets better, much better than you could imagine.

Many moons ago, we weren’t really the types who saw ourselves getting married, and I remember wondering even as I said the words, “I do,” how anyone in their right mind could promise forever and eternity, especially someone like me who had only lived twenty-six years up until that point.

But I’ve come to believe that marriage is a lot like faith–we promise impossible things, not because we’re capable of them, but because we believe that through practicing faith, we grow to be faithful.  We believe that our faithfulness, our devotion, and our love mean more to marriage than our abilities, our faults, or our failures.  I believe that a healthy marriage, like a healthy faith, relies on grace, mercy, and love.

At the top of a minaret in Cairo, Egypt.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
At the top of a minaret in Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Ben Robinson.

I haven’t always had that kind of faith.  

The first few years we were married, things were kind of rough, and our relationship teetered because of imbalances in careers, contentment, and expectations.  We weren’t very graceful with one another most of the time.  We were just trying to hold things together so they wouldn’t fall apart.

Over the years, we’ve learned that it’s not so much about holding things together, as practicing trust, compassion, and understanding.  It’s a bit of a slight of hand–when things feel like pushing a boulder uphill, it’s usually the pushing that’s not helping.  But when things look effortless, there’s a lot of building, trusting, and caring that’s going on behind the scenes.

A few years ago I remember sitting in a classroom in China, where my Chinese teacher outlined marriage patterns in their culture.  She drew a little chart where she demonstrated that men with Ph.Ds marry women with masters degrees, men with masters marry women with bachelors, and men with bachelors marry women with a high school education.  She pointed out that my position as a female doctor would be very lonely in their society, where men are still threatened by women’s academic success and earning power.

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Crowds at night. Photo by Evan Schneider.

As I walked home that day, threading the e-bikes and seas of people, I realized how much I had taken my husband’s undying support for my academic goals for granted.  He’s never once begrudged me my success or my dreams, in fact, he’s always there right behind me, supporting and encouraging me (it’s not like the man is an underachiever, though, I mean the man has two masters).  The point is, when I wasn’t looking my husband was investing in not just me, but our marriage, silently and without fanfare, but in one of the most meaningful ways.

I’ve found someone with whom I share a passion for travel, for service, and for justice.  And I’ve grown as I’ve let this person shape me, too, with his love for China, his passion for learning, and his commitment to community.  My goal these days is to outdo my husband in my respect for him and in trusting his love for me, to rejoice with him as he excels in his new job, and to challenge him to achieve his goals as well.

Lately I’ve been so filled with gratitude that I enjoy spending time with this guy just as much, if not more than we were first met.  It’s a thrilling thing to be–and I know this is cheesy–falling in love with your husband more and more everyday.  But it’s also a sobering thing to choose that love and commitment day after day especially at the moments when it would be easier to say something prideful, spiteful, or just walk away.

In front of the dragon's neck rice terraces, Guangxi, China. Photo by Kelly Raffety.
In front of the dragon’s neck rice terraces, Guangxi, China. Photo by Kelly Raffety.

I guess that’s how one promises forever, one day at a time, until ten, twenty, thirty years have passed before you know it.

For now, I’m satisfied with five.  I feel like we’re finally hitting our stride, and I’m in for the long haul.

A preface of sorts

I’m learning that writing a dissertation is all about excess.

A botanical garden outside of Boston.  My photo.
A botanical garden outside of Boston. My photo.

You write and write and write (or at least this is the way it has gone for me), without any sense of the whole, blindly, and at best, faithfully, and when you generate enough material, things start taking shape.  You’re no longer writing so much, but sifting through material, arguments and descriptions, and assembling something piecemeal, slowly and methodically.

It works best when there is excess, but that’s hard to accept when you’re first getting started.  You want it all to fit.  You want not a moment to be wasted.  But not everything will make its way into the larger work.  There will be pieces that stand alone, and pieces that are ultimately set aside.

Here’s a bit of excess for the moment.  Something I wrote months and months ago and finally came back to, and liked, but who knows whether it will make it into the dissertation.

Consider it a sneak preview!

***********************

I remember sitting with my Chinese professor in his office in Princeton explaining my intent to go to Southwest China to study foster families.  When he heard Guangxi, Nanning his ears perked up, and he bellowed a guttural laugh, “I don’t even understand a thing they say there, ha!  Good luck!”  I remember not only the cacophony of languages and accents upon touching down in Nanning, but the pervasive smell of mildew, the sea of e-bikes stretching across the broad avenues, and my first forays through neighborhood markets searching for foster mothers alongside a friend who swore they could be found.

E-bikes in Nanning, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
E-bikes in Nanning, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I met not a single foster mother that first summer.  Instead, I met many people, all Chinese, who told me emphatically that they did not exist.  Most people who I met in Guangxi apologized obsessively for the “backwardness” of their region, and they urged me to go somewhere of more importance in China.  Chinese professors of anthropology wondered how what I was studying could be called anthropology if it did not concern the Zhuang minority culture for which Guangxi was famous.   They misunderstood the focus of my research to be international adoptions, because as they and many others stated, there was no Chinese culture of adoption.

But in March of 2011 all of my fledgling questions brought me to an unassuming concrete office in the middle of the city, where a small NGO staff assembled and told me they supported hundreds of families in Nanning and thousands outside of the province to who took orphaned and abandoned children into their homes.  That April, in a nearby city orphanage, an elderly woman with a kind smile told me how she’d started foster care projects in Guangxi in the early 1990s out of necessity, poverty, and concern.  Guangxi, it turned out, despite the naysayers, was at the center of a disperse, yet expansive foster care movement.

When you’re sitting in classrooms and carrels imagining anthropological fieldwork, you can only think in systems and power and theories.  It was no different for me, and despite the draw of foster mothers’ joy and pain, I imagined a China in which movement of children from public orphanages to private homes represented an unprecedented receding of the state from private family life.  I conjured a sophisticated state, modern cities, and rapid social change.

Fishing alongside the Yong River in Guangxi, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Fishing alongside the Yong River in Guangxi, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

But instead what I found is time nearly standing still in the cinderblock homes of foster families, whether they lived in the capital city or off the rice paddies between mountains where people plowed with oxen, a rickety tool, and their own two hands.  I learned that despite the narratives about the strength of the Chinese state in my textbooks, power was always locally negotiated.  Despite the myriad of books on China’s urban centers, the people of Guangxi are, as Fei Xiaotong wrote decades ago, firmly “of the soil.”

And I discovered that despite the literature on families and family life in China, nothing prepared me for the sudden expressions of emotion I would encounter on the inside—the secrets people confided in me, illegitimate children, illegal adoptions, and how parents clung to me briefly and then physically pushed me away.  So powerful and yet fleeting were these displays of emotion that I often wondered whether I imagined them, or if they did occur, what it was inside of me or between us that elicited such rawness, even as I relished the intimacy.  Even if you know in your heart that you are dealing in the realm of truths and the kindred, there is, for the anthropologist, always the concern for what will someday make it onto the page and into the readers’ conscience.  And the fact that your informant is never so concerned with representation in these real moments, but only concerned with living itself, that’s what always gives me a sinking, slithery uneasiness.

A foster mother and her son in Anhui, China.  Photo by Jason Fouts.
A foster mother and her son in Anhui, China. Photo by Jason Fouts.

I once read a warning from another writer about the tendency to make the people we meet and learn from and love, “dear, little tragic figures in the story of me,” and the phrase struck real fear into my anthropologist soul.  Even as I write these words now back in the glass towers of Princeton University, it’s been hard but necessary to come to terms with the fact that what I write will inevitably be a sort of fiction—irrelevant and inaccurate—because these people, these friends, are not characters I invented, but people whose lives go on, quite independently, quite functionally from mine after I’ve left China.

For every anthropologist of China there is this sense that you become irrelevant once you leave and China goes on changing at the speed of light.  And for every human being who has ever done fieldwork or loved another they’ve left behind, there is also this hope that while others will go on living, that you’ll never, ever be the same.

Visiting foster homes with an orphanage director in Anhui.  Photo by Jason Fouts.
Visiting foster families with an orphanage director in Anhui. Photo by Jason Fouts.