Thursday, March 21, 2013

18 Years

Last night I was buying vegetables at the underground market near our house. As I was selecting healthy-looking carrots, cucumbers, and zucchini, the friendly vendor asked me where I was from. I looked up and replied, “America.”

“How long have you been in China?” her husband asked me. “18 years,” I said as she was weighing my cauliflower and broccoli on the digital scale. “18 years?!” they exclaimed, and the husband repeated it to a nearby vendor across the way. “She’s been in China 18 years!”

“No wonder your Chinese is so good,” the woman praised me as she handed me my hefty bag of vegetables. “Oh, it’s not that good,” I returned. “After 18 years, it should be even better.” We smiled at each other as I paid her the equivalent of $4 and we said goodbye.

It wasn’t an unusual encounter for me. Some of the most common questions I get asked are “Where are you from?” “Are you a teacher?” and “How long have you been in China?” But I carried a smile in my heart as I left the vegetable vendors and stopped to buy some eggs at another stall before heading home. I was hoping, from their warm and positive reaction, that 18 years of living in their land communicated a sincere love for the Chinese people. A love that would keep me here that long.

But I didn’t always want to stay. The initial decision of coming to China was settled when I left medical school behind and married Charly. And before that, I had wrestled with God and come to peace about leaving my family behind in order to live overseas. It was clear to me before we came to China that God had opened the door for us and was leading us to this land.

And in God’s provision and perfect timing, He blessed us with our firstborn after just 13 months of marriage and we moved to China as a family of 3 in 1995 when CJ was 4 months old. Joshua was born 13 months later and I was 8 months pregnant with Jordan when we returned to the US in 1998 for Charly to get his Masters at the University of Kansas.

Those three years in Tianjin were more challenging than any other time period of my life, and just about all of my self-confidence was stripped away. My self-evaluation during that time was that I didn’t fit in China and I didn’t have anything to offer. Charly was clearly the gifted one—in the language and the culture, in his teaching skills, and with his extroverted personality that drew his English students to him like a magnet.

After we arrived in Kansas in 1998, Charly was thinking of how we could get back to China as quickly as possible (so he decided to cram all of his Masters classes into one year). And I realized that I didn’t really want to go back. It felt so refreshing to “fit” in America. No one asked me (as all of Charly’s students had) “What is your ideal job?” Being a stay at home mom with three preschoolers was quite “normal” in the very welcoming Christian community we connected with in Lawrence, Kansas. God’s leading us back to China no longer seemed that clear or desirable to me. Why couldn’t we stay?

Charly and I butted heads over this issue for several difficult months, and I finally realized that there was no way I could change his mind about returning. I thought the perfect plan would be to work with international students (because now I could really understand their struggles with culture shock and homesickness!) But Charly was sure that God’s place for us was China, so I resigned myself to going back, but my heavy heart was dreading our return. Until February of that year.

Then I had the opportunity to attend a Women’s retreat with Grace EPC. It was Jordan’s first time to take a bottle and Charly’s first time to take care of all three kids for a weekend by himself. Looking back, we are both incredibly thankful for that time because it turned out to be life-changing for me.

Jean Fleming was the guest speaker and the theme of the retreat was Quiet Times. She referenced Isaiah 65:1 in one of her stories about playing hide and seek with her grandchildren, when one of them liked to jump out from behind the curtain and yell, “Here I am!”

We had some quiet time to reflect after her message and I decided to flip to Isaiah 65:1. As I read and reread that verse, God’s Spirit penetrated straight through my self-absorbed heart and completely changed my attitude about returning to China. My focus had clearly been on me—on my inadequacies, my fears, and my feeling completely out of my comfort zone. God used this verse to shift my focus: to be able to see His heart for China—a nation to whom He was revealing Himself and saying, “Here am I!”

What a privilege that He would allow me to join Him in what He’s doing! My previously resistant heart was now truly excited about upcoming our return to China. I almost couldn’t believe it, the change was so drastic.

After our first three years of cramped living in two dorm rooms on a college campus, it felt like such a gift to move into our own 3 bedroom apartment, with storage space, a kitchen, and an actual living room with couches. And what a blessing it was to live in a Chinese neighborhood with other families—the place where our children would grow up for the next 12 years, our Home.

Another positive change after our return to China was that Charly and I explored ways that we could use our very different giftings to compliment each other, in order to be a better team. Instead of feeling like God had given Charly all the good gifts (that I wish I had), I could now see that 2 Charlys in our marriage wouldn’t make a very good team. I began to appreciate more how God had uniquely made me and to believe that He really could use me here. If our first three years in China were the time of stripping away all my self-confidence, these years were a time of rebuilding my confidence—not in my own abilities but in my “competence that comes from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5).

My Chinese language ability also began to improve so that I was better able to connect with people on a heart level. I am still longing to grow in my ability to communicate, and I’m excited to be studying again with a Chinese tutor—one of my classmates from the Women's Class at the mosque.

My desire is for my love for God and my love for people to continue to grow deeper, and for God to use my life as a channel of expressing His love to the people around me, the people who are so dear to His heart.

It’s not the years. It’s the life in the years. May my life and the years You give be for your glory, Lord.

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