Tag Archives: leaving

Farewell, China. And hello, America.

My heart is heavy as I leave China this day.

And it’s not only because we’re attempting to pack two years of life here into two big duffle bags, or because of who we leave behind–people of love and faith who have reached out to us as strangers in a foreign land and welcomed us as their own.

My heart is also heavy because of the brokenness in this world.

A few days ago Evan and I had Hong Kong-style dimsum with some British friends who’ve spend almost ten years in China at a delicious restaurant in the heart of Nanning, China.  We chatted the way only expats can about the joys of being sheltered from the burdens of our respective nations’ budget woes and political spats, and also about the challenges of life in a foreign place.

Evan and I admitted that going back into the political fray, especially during an election year, feels overwhelming and a bit nonsensical.  When you’ve been living in a land where there is effectively no child welfare, people die of natural causes in their fifties, and birth defects and tainted milk are commonplace, it’s sometimes hard to take seriously what (especially from far away) sounds like senseless squabbling over the US Olympic team uniforms being made in none other than China, and the like.

Meanwhile, across China, people often have a healthy, if not exaggerated, admiration for America.  When the cashier in the grocery store finds out I’m an American, or the old man smoking his cigarette in the park, I’m greeted with a thumbs up and cheers for this country from which I come.  It’s just one reason, why, although being a foreigner in China can elicit all too many lengthy stares and smatterings of predictable, surface level questions (Do you like the NBA?  Kobe Bryant?  McDonald’s?  Chinese food?), ultimately being strange in this strange land actually feels strangely warm.

And so over the years, I’ve tried to help my Chinese friends see that I love and respect China for real, sincere reasons.  My Chinese friends are often surprised to hear that they have a more robust, reliable, affordable public transport system than America.  They’re often shocked to hear that we struggle with the question of affordable health care, and dismayed to see that we don’t treat elderly people all that well.  America may be great, but we’re not perfect, and so I’ve tried in my small ways to encourage a more nuanced dialogue between our two countries and cultures in my short time here.

But this week, as the brokenness of our nation reared its ugly head and the entire world remains stunned by the shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, I realize how much despite its faults and seams that show perhaps only to its citizens, America has been and will always be my home.  I’m not ready to talk about the shootings with my Chinese friends who adamantly argue that America has gun problems because we have so many guns (although I do see their point).  I don’t want to talk about how the shootings in Colorado could have been prevented or what we can do to move on, but suddenly I have an urgency to get back to this place and to these people who are hurting, despite the fact that I can effectively do very little to ease anyone’s pain or suffering.

My heart is heavy today to behold that we’re still living in Eden lost, as a fellow Chinese expat-blogger put it, and that no manner of cultural understanding or growth can transcend the grief and pain people feel this day.  I struggled with even writing this post, because I don’t want to appear as though I think my words (written from so far away) can either heal or provide real insight to such deep tragedy.

But I wanted to write to express that especially given the brokenness in my country at this moment, I am an American who is grateful for the things that do make America great.  And I hope these will prove to be our ability to embrace one another during difficult times, our ability to stand in solidarity with one another, and our belief in a power greater than ourselves who suffers alongside those who weep this day.  

It’s with a heavy heart that I bid you farewell China, and begin the journey home, America.

Advertisements

We are a forward people.

As I read scripture this morning, specifically passages from Exodus, Ruth, and Paul’s epistles, I’m struck by the forward momentum of it all.  While the Bible isn’t often known for being a coherent narrative, here are a people, who though they never fully understood God’s vision, God’s plans, were constantly being told of promise and redemption, Church growth and Holy community, that lay emphatically in the future.

Wa minority church building in the mountains of Yunnan.

And I think about the weight of those promises, the power of that vision, especially in a land like China, where one was traditionally born into a family, a profession, and a role that would not change and shift for much of anything.

But I’m haunted, as I’m sure the Israelites were (I mean, remember the Golden Calf and the whining in the desert?  I’m not the only unfaithful one out there, it seems!) by such commands to leave one place for another unknown, and the very thought that my near future is not here in China, where I’ve made my life over the past two years, but somewhere back in the United States.

Dragon’s neck rice terraces–Guangxi, Ping’an.

And though I’ve found God’s peace in the midst of this time, in the interest of presenting a more real self to my readers and to God, I also have to admit to pangs of guilt and dis-ease as I found myself on the floor of the orphanage in Guilin just a few short weeks ago.

You see, all I’d ever wanted, in many ways, was to find myself sleeping on that orphanage floor.  I’d wanted the orphanage directors and the NGO partners to trust me, accept my research project, and treat me as one of them.  And after nearly two years of hard work, they finally had.

But there was a part of me who felt totally deflated that despite two years of hard work and research, I’d only just reached the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding China and Chinese family life.

Mother and child in Yunnan.

And while I’m so thankful for those last foster visits over the course of that week, I also struggled with feelings of ambivalence–of wanting to be so far from that place, and yet, also wanting to know all the people and the places far more deeply than would ever be possible, and then finally feeling selfish and disgusted with myself even as I slept on the orphanage floor by night and held special needs children by day.

It felt cathartic that evening to cry hot tears over the phone to my husband who understands a bit of the jumbled emotions that mark these kinds of cross-cultural transitions, but also this kind of loss.  I’m so fearful of the coming move, of the unknown feelings to come, that I’ve sort of been transfixed here in China and not very attuned to the present loss of this place, this life, these people, and even this self.

As I struggled a few days ago to get one of my foster families to pronounce the two, short syllables of my English first name (they only know me by my Chinese name), the cavernous distance between the two cultures, the two places made itself known.  There’s been these long looks from friends, even Evan’s trusted sellers at the market–perplexed, even a bit suspicious at how we can leave them.  And my gut cringes, then, and I start hearing a little voice that says, If you really loved China, if you really cared, then you wouldn’t be leaving.

Monastery on West Mountain, Kunming, Yunnan.

But at my most faithful, I realize that God is, too, and that’s not God’s voice.

I keep turning to the scriptures, to Ruth, to Moses, even to Paul, and finding that we are a forward people, that we seem hard-wired for pilgrimages, cross-cultural lives, and for growth.  And there’s some solace in that identity, some solace in being one of those stiff-necked people (Exodus 32 & 33) for whom God will go before into a unknown place, despite my failings and my doubts.

Flowers in the mountains. All photos by Evan Schneider.

So that’s my challenge for the moment: embracing this move as both a loss and a promise, and trusting God more than ever.

What’s yours?

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.

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.