Tag Archives: foster mothers

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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Why I don’t regret the regrets

“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.” ― poem by Mary Jean Irion*

When I hear people proclaim the motto “no regrets,” I can’t help thinking that it’s a little prideful, short-sighted, and disingenuous.

I’m not advocating for living life on the bench, or engaging in some sort of flagellation that leaves not only the body, but the soul with real wounds.  And I appreciate the zealousness of trying to live life with vigor and intent.

But I think a healthy dose of introspection, when it comes to our mistakes, can also be enlightening.

With a foster family in Hubei.
With a foster family in Hubei. Photo by Jason Fouts.

Last night, as I realized that it’s been almost a year since we left our life in China, all I could think is if I had it to do over again, I would have spent more time at the feet of the foster mothers, hearing the trials of their lives during the Cultural Revolution, the story of each baby they’d raised, and their fears about the future.

I wish I’d looked out the window more often at those soaring karst peaks and endless fields of green rice paddies, because who knows when I’ll see them again?

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I wish I’d accepted every invitation to a bowl of rice noodles, a strange feast of chicken feet, or a home out in the countryside without running water or electricity.  It was in these places that I saw life lived with an irrepressible human spirit…and ate some of the best dumplings of my life.

With a dear friend.
With a dear friend.

I wish I’d told my friends all my fears and hopes and dreams, because I treasure the secrets they shared with me.  I recall them and revisit them like precious gems when I miss their friendship and their confidence.

I wish I’d made far more trips to the market, taken many more jogs around South Lake, and sat many more hours peering into the square from our balcony, and all despite the sticky heat.

Beside South Lake Park in Nanning, China.
Beside South Lake Park in Nanning, China.**

In short, I wish I’d slowed down to only love the people in front of me and nothing more.  I wish I’d treasured the normal days, for one knows not how many there will be.  I wish I’d known how extraordinary China and its people were before I left it.

One might call them regrets.

But I’m also left with gratitude for the simple joys God afforded me while I was there and some wisdom for living this life tomorrow.

*Special thanks to my friend, Kate, for posting this poem the other day.
**Bottom three photos by Evan Schneider.**

Armfuls of grace and mashed potatoes

I feel like I’ve entered a phase where I’ve been forced to live here a bit more, to let others care for me, and receive the grace and abundance of this community.

The gates of Princeton University. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And while sometimes I feel sad and confused that China and her people are feeling more distant to me day by day, at my wisest, with God’s presence near, I realize it’s not an either/or.  God doesn’t want me to or ask me to choose between people in China and people here, but to believe that God’s omnipotence leads to impossible community and connection.

Not last night’s presentation but another one from this season.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But it’s not just God, it’s God’s people who do that kind of work–the people in my life who generously let me babble about the foster mothers I’ve met until I’m breathless, the people who sat through my presentation last night and inspired and encouraged me with their enthusiasm for my study of families in China, and the people who value and understand that work is not just work to me, but the stuff of vocation, passion, and calling.

Photo by Kayla Nymeyer, Yunnan province.

And so as we enter this season of giving thanks season, and China feels further and further away, I count the blessings so near and pray for God to come closer.  Not just closer to me and mine, but to God’s people in China and people everywhere, because that’s God’s thing–doing the impossible globe-trotting ministry of presence.  

More beauty in Yunnan.

And the rest–the believing and the boldness and the taking in big armfuls of grace just as we do extra helpings of mashed potatoes and turkey–well, that’s all up to us.

Women of humility, women of valor

Rachel Held Evans is featuring an essay contest and a series on her blog, encouraging people everywhere to bless women in their lives who are women of valor (Proverbs 31) by sharing their stories.  She’ll be posting some of the winners this week, and you should definitely check out these inspiring biographies (there’s even one about an American foster mom!).

Not surprisingly the women that came to my mind are the foster mothers I’ve gotten to know over the last two years in Southwest China.  My essay doesn’t necessarily fit the mold, because I couldn’t choose just one, but maybe you’ll see why…

A foster mother and her foster daughter.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

I’ve only been home for a month, so I’ve just begun to pour over the field notes about foster families from which I will craft my dissertation.  I’ve been sitting in storied libraries and campus clubs on the grounds of a prestigious American university and finding myself instead along dirt roads that lead into China’s countryside, reminded of hope and transformation in unlikely places.

The picturesque terraces of China’s Guangxi province.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

These women, who foster China’s abandoned and disabled children, are by and large elderly, poor, and humble.  They grew up in a period of fundamental instability, their childhoods, youth, and education interrupted by one of the most dramatic revolutions the world has ever known.  Many hardly completed middle school, barely speak Mandarin, the official language of modern China, and their plain clothes, heavy accents, and the dirt under their fingernails betray them wherever they go as poor, ‘backward’ farmers.

But while it is perhaps their humble circumstances that first led them to foster these children with all of their so-called disabilities and deficiencies (they earn a small stipend from the state for doing so), it is that same humility, that equips them, as well.  These parents may not understand complex diagnoses of autism or cerebral palsy.  They don’t trust modern medicine, and they don’t believe there’s much more to raising a child besides food, clothing, shelter, and love.  But it is because they don’t understand the upper limits of these children’s abilities that they hardly see limits at all.

A foster mother and her foster daughter in Guangxi, Guilin.

I have seen overwhelmed experts, officials, and parents in China point out difference and disability among children who are abandoned in an increasingly competitive society that demands perfection from its singletons.  “Look, he walks with a limp,” a social worker might exclaim, of a boy who is doing his best to fit in in an urban slum, or “there’s something wrong with her ear,” of a perfectly lovely child. 

Hot peppers. Photo by Evan Schneider.

But when I turn the corner, off a dusty street and look out on the limestone peaks and the rice paddies, I’m not only greeted by the sweet, spicy fragrance of drying peppers from which these people make their living, but also the laughter and the sight of disabled children playing in the streets, and the chorus of older parents who can only see the possibilities for these children versus the limitations.

“This child doesn’t have autism” one mother says defiantly of the little girl who has been in her household for just six short months.  “She can listen, she understands me, see, look how well-behaved she is.”  “These children couldn’t walk when they arrived from the orphanage,” another beams proudly as two girls with cerebral palsy totter around the dirt floor.  And this July, in a little country house flanking green fields, under a pile of ashes on a simple altar in a dark room, I met a ten year-old girl whose mother could not cease in singing her praises.  “She’s gifted and she’s smart,” the mother bragged as the little autistic girl knitted, read for us, and even spoke some English.

The author with a foster family in Nanning. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I tried so hard to hide the fat, sloppy tears that streamed down my face in this place where such displays of emotion are discouraged.  Indeed, when I praise these women of valor, for loving these children as their own, for seeing what they can do when others can only see what they can’t, they shrug off my accolades, dismissing as matter-of-fact this life-changing work that they do everyday.

But when the children are eventually adopted half a world away or by rich, urban Chinese families, publicly, these mothers embrace the bright future they feel they can never give these children, and then weep hot tears in the quiet of their homes.  “When the first child left, I didn’t eat or sleep for a month,” one mother comments.  “I couldn’t look at the photos.  The only cure for the heartache, is to take in another,” she says, smiling, and gazing at the children playing happily at her feet.

I cannot possibly choose a single woman of valor, because over the last two years in China I’ve met so many.  And while the world hears frequently of women in China who so painfully and tragically abandon their newborns, I marvel at such love as this, that flows forth from the humblest of homes, and such valor among these women that leads them to foster two, four, or fifteen children over the years.  They patiently raise others’ children, and in so doing, these children know life outside the orphanage walls, and their communities begin to see their value rather than their disability.  

A foster mother holds a baby with heart disease.

Perhaps valor begins with humility, quietly imparting dignity to others, and teaching us what it means to love unconditionally in a world where it is tempting to put limits where God just doesn’t see any.

P.s.  J.R. Goudeau, whose blog I totally admire, featured this post over at Love is what you do: I’m so honored, and I hope you’ll check out J.R.’s blog and the great work she does on behalf of refugee women in the states.

Pinching myself

A couple of months ago a good friend who was visiting asked me as we sat out on our balcony, enjoying our coffee, and overlooking this city of nearly 7 million Chinese, whether I ever pinch myself and say, wow, I’m in China.

The view from Green Mountain, with Nanning’s skyscrapers in the distance.

I can’t say that I’ve done much of that over the past two years.  

Sure, there’s the occasional marveling that whole segments of my life have been conducted in another language, or the sense of feeling so close, yet so far away from Chinese friends and Chinese culture.  But for the most part I like to think that living life here has been so challenging, consuming, and rewarding that I hadn’t gotten to that kind of contemplation.

Now that we’re leaving, though, I pinch myself every two seconds.

A view of the Yong River in Guangxi, Nanning.

On my couch the other day, my breath caught in my throat when it hit me that at the rate China’s changing, even if I return one short year from now, I’ll hardly know it, I’ll hardly know anything.  Today, on the bus, between foster visits I caught myself musing in Chinese, and realized how lonely it will feel when I return to the US and am expected to speak (and only understood, in) English.  Or today when I had the honor of consoling a foster mom whose first foster child left and was adopted, I wondered whether this was the last time I’d do that.

Those are the hardest driving-it-home-that-we’re-really leaving moments.  

Minority villagers visit in Yunnan province.

The having to say no–no, I can’t go out to the countryside this month, no I can’t visit next month with your family, and no, I don’t know when I’ll return either.  Gulp.

And I’m often tempted and guilty of letting the worries in.  I worry about each no, each goodbye, about the ones I’ve said and the ones I won’t have time to say.  We just bought our tickets home today, so it’s only natural to begin sensing the finality of it all.

The forest surrounding Green Mountain, Nanning. All photos by Evan Schneider.

So my new mantra is to embrace the imperfection, to expect and allow things to happen, and not be foolish enough to try to control it all or miss the trees for the forest.  

So many things unfolded with such surprising timing and fortune for us here in since we’ve gotten to China and that’s no fluke.  I just have to trust God that the transatlantic, bumpy road ahead of us is already in place no matter what comes…that, and maybe pinch myself a couple hundred of times everyday until the end of July.

Understanding China

A temple in Kunming, Yunnan.

It was nearly four years ago that I enrolled in my first Mandarin class at Princeton University, gradually began to transition my dissertation project from a study of women in the Pentecostal movement in Mexico (I still plan to get to that one day!) to one about the lives of foster mothers and orphans in Southwest China, and ultimately embarked on this great journey to understand the perplexing, elusive nation that is China.

I’m at the stage in my research where I’m starting to pack up and stare down the oodles of notebooks and scribblings that I’ve made over the past two years.  And because I didn’t know where to begin, I returned to a familiar sage, Fei Xiaotong, and his deceptively simple From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society.

Lahu minority villagers.

I’m continually amazed how this short book, a collection of lectures from the late 1940s is so eerily descriptive and prophetic of the present-day divides between urban and rural China and Eastern and Western cultures.  Fei puts a name to the social structure and phenomena I’ve been observing firsthand over the past few years, and his descriptions Chinese culture and personhood are provocative.

On a more popular note, this past week NPR‘s famous radio show, This American Life, ran an episode on Americans in China, that lends such insight into not only expatriate life here, but the great differences between Eastern and Western cultures.  I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a glimpse into life in China, and I’m impressed with NPR’s at once critical and nuanced take on the challenging topic of contemporary Chinese culture.

There are still days where I scratch my head and wonder what I’ve really learned over the past two years here, but both these sources have started to put together some of the puzzle pieces for me about this complex, beautiful country.

Yet another view of the dragon back rice terraces in Guangxi. Photos by Evan Schneider.

For more recommendations on readings about China, see my post or consult the menu from Seeing Red in China.

Full Circle

I realize I’ve never told the story of how we got to China.

There’s more to it than can fit in one post, of course, but last night a good part of the journey kind of came full circle.  You see, back in 2009 when I was searching for a city in China to meet foster mothers and study foster families and was shooting off emails to anyone I knew who had any connection to China (and fretting about taking a trip to an unknown place where I knew no one!), a friend of mine came through with a list of close to forty names of friends who might be helpful.

And I sent practically everyone on that list an email, but as it sometimes goes, I got only a few back.  One was from a family that had lived in Nanning a few years ago, and the woman said she knew foster families.  We started corresponding by email, and I’ll never forget how she called me up out of the blue in March of 2009 and said, why don’t I just go with you, why don’t I take you to meet my friends?

Visiting Angel House in Nanning in 2009 with friends.

We met up with she and her husband in Nanning for the first time in June of 2009, and true to form, she introduced me to everyone she knew, people who would become my research contacts, my tutors, my trusted friends.  And many thanks to she and her husband’s introductions, when it came time to choose a place to do my research, a place for my husband and I to make our home for the next two years, there was no question in our mind that Nanning would be the right fit.

Camping with our friends in 2009.

We camped with our new friends and their four kids in August of 2009 in the states and moved here the following one.  And last night, our friends who played hosts to us in Nanning that first summer had the chance to return to Asia for a brief trip, and share a meal at our apartment in China.

We filled them in on the adventures of our lives over the past two years here: our experiences traveling in Yunnan and meeting with minority Christians, the ways in which my research with foster families has unfolded and grown, and the countless learning experiences in faith and culture we’ve shared in this place.

Minority children in the mountains of Yunnan.

We teared up as I recalled the way this woman, who has become a lifelong friend, embraced my project as her own three summers ago, marching around the city and in her limited Chinese asking everyone and anyone whether they knew foster mothers. She inspired me so much, teaching me what it truly means to be bold and serve others and trust God.

Our friends prayed for us as we prepare to leave China, and we had a chance to thank them for their commitment and goodness to us.  I told them how my friend who’d emailed me all those names awhile back recently reflected that she’d almost failed to include their family’s information, fearing they’d be too busy or wouldn’t have any connections to China.

And when I think on God’s intricate plans, I know there are none more excellent.  It was so meaningful to hear their blessings prayed over us last night, people who in so many ways are responsible for the success of this journey.  And while it will be bittersweet to leave this place, the foresight of God to bring these people into our lives across the distance and over the years reminds me that God has been and will be faithful in this and every step of the journey.

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.