Tag Archives: China

Doing What Matters

Suppose we did our work

like the snow, quietly, quietly.

leaving nothing out.

–Wendell Berry

It hit me in the midst of another inglorious diaper change, the consequence of some digestive discomfort following Lucia’s recent surgery, on a late Saturday afternoon on which we, like nearly everyone else on the east coast, were holed up riding out the incessant blizzard.  We’d rushed home from the hospital on Friday night, eager to get ahead of the storm and heal together only to find that the new feeds were irritating Lucia’s bowels, she was still achey from her incisions, and on account of the snow, we were stranded without nursing assistance.  As I washed my hands and looked rather grumpily into the mirror, I had one of those flickering thoughts laden with resentment, wondering what it was exactly that I’d been doing all weekend.

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A view of the storm from Lucia’s room.  My photo.

When I began spending time with foster mothers in China I found that if they didn’t live in farming villages or shacks on the outskirts of the city, they lived in dilapidated six or seven story walkups–big, domineering concrete shells with no elevators.  For slight elderly women (the people of Guangxi are extremely small-boned) whose knees had long grown tired from years of hard work and whose backs were already curved, such daily climbs were challenging enough.  But when I first watched one of these women sling a foster daughter of about eight who couldn’t walk to her back to take the stairs, I gasped.  Observing these women climb six or seven flights of stairs with such enormous burdens strapped to their backs over and over, I admit that I often wondered, what are they doing?  Why are they doing this day after day, week after week, year after year?

Like any good Westerner, obsessed with efficiency, ingenuity, and supervising, I also marveled at the ridiculousness of it all.  It rather pained me not necessarily that the sacrifice was so grand but so unnecessary, so overwrought, and that it had become so mundane and accepted.  Many of the foster mothers had husbands and other children who presumably could have stayed home with their immobile foster children, yet they chose to carry them up and down the stairs.

Why?

Years later as I barely sweat to change yet another disposable diaper in my warm home, I’m sure I will never quite comprehend the backbreaking work that those foster mothers did, but I think I know now why they did it, and why they continued to do it.

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A foster mother with her son in Guangxi, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

Because it matters.

In doing that daily work of caring for their children with special needs–climbing, bathing, and feeding–they were doing work that matters.  And I think that care mattered not only to the children who wouldn’t have been able to venture outside, have a home, or even a mother without them, but also to the foster mothers themselves.  I remember many times catching a glimpse of a seemingly impossible smile upon their faces, a laugh upon their lips, or even a lightness to their steps as they climbed and climbed those stairs.    The smiles weren’t always present by any means: caring is hard work, and I don’t want to diminish it as such, but I think the care that foster mothers gave their children mattered, because they did it not to their children, but with them.

I think there’s an emphasis on making the time we have in this life, especially in this country, count.  There’s an emphasis on being efficient, responsible, and wise with the way we spend our time.  I even hear people talking about doing things because they’re wanting to “make memories” for their children for the future.  And I think there’s a lot of good in responsibility, wisdom, and intention, but I gulp a bit when I think how viciously and flippantly I began to judge those matter-ful moments spent together this past weekend.  It will always be easy to assume that things can be done better and time certainly is a scarce resource.  But I there’s something upended about judging some memories wanting and others foreordained, in dismissing some work as mundane and inefficient, and failing to see what matters most.

What did I do all weekend?  I rose when my baby cried, I tried to ease her pain and comfort her, I wiped her bottom and changed her pants too many times to count, I snuggled with her by the fire, I worried about her, and I doubted myself for a moment.  But today as I threw her in the stroller to venture out into the white, white snow, I thought of those long treks up and down the stairs in China, and I smiled.

It’s work that matters: it matters to our kids and it matters to me, too.

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Silly Sunday Selfie.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Leaving the field

Is this how it feels to know you’re soon to be leaving a country you’ve learned to call home, soon to be leaving what was always to be a temporary moment of cultural immersion and learning, but also people who have become your friends, your kin, your world, all the same?

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I don’t think we anthropologists do a great job talking about the process of fieldwork with all its insecurities, guilt, anxiety, joy, pain, and meaning.  Sometimes we prefer to speak in theories and codes, leaving all that humanity–ironically the object of our study–in relative obscurity.

A temple in Kunming, China.

But I’ve discovered that I’m not very good at that.

And I’ve discovered that while I’ve enjoyed the feeling of being transported to somewhere else visiting friends and hosting family here in China, I’m feeling overwhelmed about the last month of research in China, about being sucked back into my life here, and wondering how and where the research ever ends.

You can leave, but you never stop feeling, you never stop caring.  

I’m a ball of mixed emotions these days, wondering whether the comfort I’ve felt at times that the sacrifice and devotion of these lowly foster mothers will be honored in another lifetime is merely an attempt to assuage my own guilt at leaving them and their children behind.

The faces of the gods at a temple in Kunming.

I’m feeling so racked with shame about the lovely invitations my family make to my friends here in China to come to the US, because I know they’ll never be able to afford the trip, let alone get the visa to do so.  Or I just worry about the myriad of children here who grow up without parents, for whom it may get worse before it gets better.

I know I’m not to worry.

I know it’s not in my power or my purpose to change things, and yet the very concept of fieldwork, becoming a confidant, a compatriot, a companion, just feels trite when one gets to the leaving part.  

And so I stumble on, forced to embrace the fact that life is unfair, imperfect, unjust, and I’m actually quite small in the grand scheme of things.

And then again, things wouldn’t hurt like this if I hadn’t been changed by the people around me, made to feel and understand things in a whole different light.  And that’s no small thing, I suppose.  And the journey wasn’t without its moments of doubt, fear, and pain, either.  When I think how far I’ve come, I can’t help but be thankful, but that doesn’t make leaving any less discombobulating.

All photos by Evan Schneider.

 

Fatigue

I’ve been hitting my snooze button a lot lately.

A fellow passenger off the overnight train from China, catching some shut-eye in the early morning by Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi.

About a year ago if I’d been letting my body sleep in like this, I’d have probably launched into a stream of self-criticism and guilt and then willed myself to get about life and the business of working on my dissertation research here in China and all that entails.

But with just a few short months left, my perspective has changed.  

It’s not only that I’ve learned to adjust to the rhythm of life here in China, allowing the week to take shape by way of others’ last minute phone calls rather than relying on my best laid plans.  I’ve learned to sleep when I find the time, work when the time is nigh, and throw all that American work-balance stuff out the window!  But I’ve also submitted to a certain desire, a need even, to sink into life here and relish these moments with foster mothers, trusted friends, and brothers and sisters.

Chinese ladies dancing in the square.

This life in China, this life of mine is about to change dramatically, and I don’t want to miss the goodness and the blessings it has provided by worrying or planning the time away.  Nor do I want to add to the fatigue and the fear of change by hurrying its process.  In due time, I keep telling myself.  Because truthfully, I don’t know how to gracefully exit a life where I’ve made such deep friendships, where I’ve been so changed and challenged by another culture and others’ faith.

And so I muddle on, slightly fatigued, but my spirit deeply satisfied with all that I’ve learned and all there is to continue to learn.  And I let my eyes rest a little bit longer in the morning, knowing that the days will be long, but full, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Holding a foster child.

All photos by Evan Schneider.

 

 

Design Show Junkie

I didn’t watch nearly any design shows before I came to China, but a combination of the eclectic offerings on hulu, and I think a general nostalgia for Western rooms and taste quickly had me watching quite a few of them as a guilty pleasure.  In many ways, these shows sort of reinforce my anxiety that decorating and design are duanting, when you’ve got a blank canvas, and you have to make all these color and style decisions.

But I’ve also learned a few simple things by watching them, that I will take to some fictional home in some place when I begin living like a real adult.

And those laws of design would be:

1.  I will paint my bedroom grey.

Designers often bemoan the fact that people are afraid or hesitant to use grey, but it’s actually a very soothing, calming color and perfect for a bedroom environment.  In fact, one of the things I’ve learned in general about design is that working with neutrals on the walls and in the furniture, allows pattern on the floor or in accents to stand out, which brings me to…

Are you convinced yet?
Grey bedroom with bohemian accents.

2.  I will invest in beautiful, graphic rugs.

Designers like to say that the floor takes up 30% of the room so you need to treat it as importantly as the rest.   I love dark, hardwood floors, and bamboo, but what I love even more is a plush rug that grounds and defines an area.  My husband and I skimped on rugs in our first apartment because they’re so darn expensive, but now I know that they’re money well-spent.  Check out some of these options– I’m a particular sucker for blues and yellows.

Check out this baby.
Love this shape.
Nice!

3.  I will invest in built-ins.

Pretty much every room I admire has some custom built-ins that make every book, every piece of art, every dish look like it’s on display and it was meant to be there.  Although built-ins aren’t cheap either, in my mind they are what make rooms looked lived in, polished, and luxe.

Need I say more?
Love ’em in the kitchen/dining area as well.

4.  I will not be one of those people who complains about small closets.

Okay, so warning, I’m about to get on my soapbox, but one of the things I can’t stand about design or house hunting shows is people who complain that closets are too small, or things need to be “updated.”

I heard someone recently say that houses are really just boxes to put our things in, and I think this is one reason I’m so resistant to think about “settling down,” because of the stuff we acquire, stuff we begin to believe we actually need.  A house is no good if it’s not opened up to others, and closets are no good if they keep convincing us that we need to buy more things to fill them.

In China, many people have just a few pairs of clothes, and the amazing thing is they don’t feel a need to have many more.  Before we moved to China, I pared down my own closet dramatically, and it was a liberating feeling.

But these lessons in contrast are quite difficult for me to swallow and live out, too–here I’ve written a whole post on things I want, and now I’m preaching about what I don’t need!

How do you reconcile your guilty pleasures, your splurges, and living a life of honesty and simplicity??