shanghai taxi

A Free Taxi Ride

Who do I blog for? What is the purpose of my blog? I have never been able to figure out the answers to those questions. But for some reason I’ve felt compelled to keep posting every so often. Back in high school I took 2 semesters of keyboarding as an easy excuse to stay on campus my senior year, but I didn’t expect to gain anything from it. All these years later I still really enjoy the feeling of easily getting thoughts out of my head through the strokes of the keys. (Thanks short, funny teacher from Pittsburgh whose name I can’t remember!)

Every day I speak to God, but I don’t use my lips. I use my hands. I type out my daily prayers in a kind of journal/letter-to-God. It’s a strange way to talk to God in some ways. Like how I can delete sentences that don’t come out right, for example. (Something I’ve always wished I could do when praying out loud.) But it’s very meaningful to me. What I’m realizing is that those prayers are probably the best spot for a lot of the thoughts that I’ve previously put into this blog. This space should be for someone other than God and myself, otherwise why make any of it public?

When I went home in the summer, I had a few people tell me they enjoyed reading along with our experiences in China. Almost every positive feedback I’ve ever received about my blog has been people saying how they enjoyed the funny stories. So, I think that’s the direction this thing will take. What that means is that posts might be few and far between because China is a hard place to put into words. My fear is always that when I do try to put things into words, everything comes off as negative. The truth is I have a lot of complaints about this place. A LOT. But what I’ve come to see is that this is a place of extremes. I will be absolutely fuming one minute and the next minute something so wonderful will happen that the anger melts away and I think I never want to leave for fear of missing the crazy times. I will give you an example to finish off this post:

About a week ago I got into a taxi to go across our little town and meet the other foreigners at a bar. Really, I should say THE bar since this place is so small. The taxi driver was visibly beside himself because he had some Americans in the car. (He knew where we were from because my entire Chinese vocabulary is contained in three sentences. They are, “We are Americans.” “We are teachers.” “Jinsha.” The last one is the name of our school. I don’t know how to say “We work at ______”. I developed this skill specifically for our frequent taxi rides. The drivers often want to know about us and start asking us questions. I’m not sure what they are asking usually, but the response is always “We are Americans. We are teachers. Jinsha.” That usually satisfies their curiosity.) Ok, back to the story. This guy was so excited about us that he started asking questions that “We are teachers” didn’t seem to cover. So he got out his phone and called someone. I assumed he was calling a friend to tell them he was driving with foreigners (happens all the time) or to ask how to say something in English. Suddenly, he thrust the phone over to me. This was a fair move by him because I’ve done this to taxi drivers on several occasions so that a Chinese friend can explain something to them that I can’t. So I took it and said, “Hello?” On the other end was a 10- maybe 11-year-old voice saying “HELLO WHATS YOUR NAME!” I finally understood what was happening. The driver had a son (or daughter. hard to say.) that was learning English at school and he wanted to give them a chance to talk to a real-life English-speaker. Feeling a little annoyed, I indulged him with a few basic questions. “Hello! My name is Josh, what’s your name? How old are you?” The kid wasn’t faring very well so I gave him a few seconds to respond and then said “Ok, nice to meet you! Bye bye!” and handed the phone back. The driver was very excited and thankful. I felt a little bad for being annoyed, but when these kinds of things happen all the time it’s hard to always see them for the endearing experiences that they are. Sometimes when you want a taxi ride you just want a taxi ride, ya know? When we arrived at the bar, the driver emphatically refused payment. At first I didn’t understand and tried to hand him money a couple times. I pushed him a little bit but he wouldn’t budge. It was one of those exchanges that really make things fun here.

You’ll Never Have It All

On August 20th we returned to China for our second year of teaching at our current school. Before that we enjoyed a whole month in the US. We were able to use that time to travel around the East Coast and visit a lot of friends and family. It was great for so many reasons, not the least of which was spending time with our dog.

There was a conversation that we found ourselves in on multiple occasions with different people. Just about everyone we know is really supportive of us and it’s always nice to be able to share some of the stories and experiences with them. So many people say the same thing to us: that this is the best time for us to do something like this because we are young and don’t have children. That’s how we feel about it too and we really love the adventure God has brought us on.

But those conversations got me thinking. This is the 4th school year out of the last 6 in which we are living outside of the US. Over the course of those years I think my feelings towards living abroad have changed. I used to put this lifestyle on a pedestal. I hate to admit it, but I used to think myself to be quite interesting because of the places I had been and the cultures I had experienced.

So what changed my mind?

Well, mostly it was watching all of you. You being my friends and my family. In the last 6 years I’ve seen my best friends have children, buy houses, move up in their careers and eat food that I used to love but can’t eat in my current location, like Chipotle. I’ve seen a lot of you hang out with the same people that you’ve been friends with since college or even HIGH SCHOOL.

Something a lot of you might not know about ‘expat culture’ is the constant ebb and flow of community. It’s been a regular theme everywhere we have lived that people have their hearts broken a lot because friends come and go. There are seasons of loneliness mixed with seasons of very intense closeness with people.

I used to think that traveling gave people a more well-rounded perspective on life. I’m not sure about that anymore. ‘Well-rounded’ implies complete, whole. I have learned so much about the world from traveling, but it’s not complete. Remember, whenever we say ‘yes’ to something we are always saying ‘no’ to something else. We have said ‘no’ to a lot that I wish I was experiencing.

Am I saying I regret the decision to come? Heck no! I thank God often that I’ve been blessed to see so much of the Earth He created. It’s a passion that Toni and I share to see new cultures and new places. Am I saying I would trade it all for a life that involved staying put? Yeah, actually. IF that was God’s calling for me. Laying down roots sounds so interesting to me. I dream about having a coffee shop or a bar ‘where everybody knows my name’. There’s something special about that. Also, I miss my dog a lot.

We can’t have it all. I sense this conflict in a lot of other expats that I meet who are caught in that reality. There is a quote that I’ve read from Daniel Yankelovich, a social analyst, who says, “If you feel it is imperative to fill all your needs, and if these needs are contradictory or in conflict with those of others, or simply unfillable, then frustration inevitably follows. To [many people], self-fulfillment means having a career and marriage and children and sexual freedom and autonomy and being liberal and having money and choosing non-conformity and insisting on social justice and enjoying city life and country living and simplicity and graciousness and reading and good friends and on and on. The individual is not truly fulfilled by becoming ever more autonomous. Indeed, to move too far in this direction is to risk psychosis, the ultimate form of autonomy.”

So keep following God’s calling, wherever that leads you. If you live abroad, thank God for that amazing gift but don’t think too highly of yourself. If you live in the town where you were born, hug your family and friends and thank God for that love.

Top 5 Moments Being My Mom’s Son

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, I decided to rank my favorite memories that I have of my mom from growing up. I narrowed it down to the 5 that I think capture the full spectrum of experiences growing up as my mom’s son.

5. Convenience Store Black Out

The details of this one are a little fuzzy to me. I must have been in middle school at the time. My family and some other friends from church all went to a lake to go swimming for the day one summer. To this day I only know the lake as “Tea Lake” which is what all of us kids called it because from the shore the water looked brownish and it kinda tasted like tea. We spent the entire day there swimming and playing on a pretty hot day. I remember it being awesome. When it was time to leave we all piled in the car to go home, but along the way we stopped at a High’s convenience store for some ice cream. While the moms were at the counter ordering, I was browsing the sunglasses rack. Suddenly I realized that I had no peripheral vision and I felt kinda funny. I walked over to my mom at the counter as my vision continued to get blurrier and blurrier. I remember it was like the end of those old cartoons where a black circle swallows everything up. When I got to the counter my mom asked me if I wanted chocolate or vanilla ice cream. “I don’t feel good,” I replied. That was when I totally lost control of myself and could no longer stand. As I wrapped my arms around moms legs for support and slid down them like a fireman pole, all I could hear was “Josh! Stop it! What kind of ice cream do you want?!” I think there was even some gentle kicking as she tried to make me be serious and tell her chocolate or vanilla. That’s when everything went black. Evidently I had spent the entire day at the lake without drinking a single drop of water and I was totally dehydrated. I only passed out for a second and the next thing I knew I was in the bathroom of the High’s being handed some ice water and my mom apologizing for not believing me. It’s my favorite funny story to tell about her.

4. Disney Road Trips

Mom raised us to all be Disney kids. We had all the movies and could sing all of the songs. Our family made more than one trip to Disney World during my childhood and we always did the 14-hour trek in whatever minivan we had at the time. We got more creative with the minivans as the years went on; taking out the middle seat so it was more like a limousine, jerry-rigging a stand for a small TV so we could watch movies during the trip, etc. We would spend hours listening to Disney soundtracks, watching Disney movies and of course sprinkling in some Adventures in Odyssey. These are some of my best memories with the family and I definitely think my mom is to thank for injecting all the Disney magic into our lives.

3. The Stunner

I hope it doesn’t embarrass her for me to tell this story because it’s seriously a great memory for me. One time my mom and sister were trying to co-plan a party for some guests. They were having some disagreements and they were arguing in the hallway outside of my room as it was quickly escalating into a shouting match. Mom was standing outside my door when I heard my sister storm off in anger. She just slowly turned her head to look at me and calmly said, “Ya know, it’s times like this that I just think…” What followed involved words I had NEVER heard her say before. I just stood there in stunned silence, not knowing how to react. I’ve always loved this memory because I felt like we connected. She voiced her frustration in a very raw, authentic way and I appreciated it. It made me want to buy her a beer or something.

2. Every Christmas Ever

Along with the inability to sleep without a fan in the room and a taste for spaghetti with plain Hunt’s tomato sauce, my mom has passed on to her kids a serious love of Christmas. We grew up in one of those houses where Christmas was truly a magical day. We looked forward to it for weeks and I can’t remember it ever failing to live up to the hype. Mom was serious about getting the decorations up and playing constant Christmas music. Every year we were told in late November, “Guys… money is tight so I think Christmas is gonna have to be pretty small.” But it never felt that way. Christmas would roll around and she always found a way to make the tree a cornucopia of gifts. Christmas morning is a true ritual in our family. The kids all come down the stairs together to find the gifts that Santa left unwrapped and sitting around the tree. Next come the stockings. Then, we take turns opening gifts one at a time. It takes hours; most of the day actually. It always feels epic and it’s because Mom always does such a great job of making it special.

1. My First Break Up

When I was about 16 I had my first serious relationship end. I was totally crushed. Mom came home to find me really upset in the basement. Up to that point I wasn’t really comfortable talking to her about my relationships, but I was so distraught that I told her everything that had happened. The way she handled it was so amazing. She was gentle, understanding and not at all judgmental. It was the first time I had ever experienced that side of Mom and I think it was a major turning point in our relationship. That evening I learned that I could really trust her enough to open up on deeper levels. I think I also began to notice that other people also find comfort in talking to Mom when they are hurting. It’s a gift that she has and I benefited from it big time that night.

Obviously there are many more memories I could share, but these 5 were the ones that stood out as I was thinking about what a great mom I have. The older I get, the more I can see the ways that she influenced me and how much I have to thank her for.

Happy Mother’s Day!

How to Say “Ni Hao” in English

I may have mentioned before that I live in a Chinese city with around 500,000 people in it and of the half-million, around 10 are obvious foreigners. This city is rapidly urbanizing so there is a big mix of farmers and businessmen. It makes for some very interesting interactions between us and the Chinese, many of whom have probably never met a foreigner before.

There are a variety of different ways that we are greeted by the locals in this city and I’ve tried to put them into categories. Because we are the center of attention almost everywhere we go, I’ve had to develop a filter to know when it’s appropriate to react and return a greeting and when it’s probably best to just ignore the other person.

Here are the 7 most common ways that we are greeted to better explain what I mean:

1. The Eager Mother

In general, the Chinese here are sweet people and sometimes they are really excited to see foreigners in their city. Many parents with children will approach us and try to get their kids to say hello to us. This greeting passes through the filter with no problem. It’s always a fun exchange as the kid stares blankly, almost terrified, and the mother prods over and over, ‘hello! hello! hello!’ We always do our best to greet the kids in a non-threatening way so they will actually say the word and get their mother off their back. I’d say there is a 20% success rate here.

2. The Dumbfounded Silence

The most recent example of this was a few days ago when I was sitting in a cafe. A man walked in and stopped dead in his tracks in the doorway. His jaw had dropped and he was staring at me. A small crowd of people also trying to enter the cafe was forced to wait for him to regain his ability to move. This greeting is always filtered based on my mood. If I’m in a good mood I will try to throw the person a bone by either waving with a smile or saying ‘hello’. If I’m not in a good mood I will just ignore it. If I’m having what we call a ‘bad China day’, I will stare back with an equally dumbfounded look.

3. The Stalker

Several times we have been approached by a Chinese person that we didn’t know who claimed to know who we were. Sometimes they’ve been able to tell us our first names. Once, a person I didn’t know texted me a picture of myself and another of my wife. Another time they even told us that they had seen the video of our interview for our job. Super stalkers? Nope, this is just China. Networks are everything here and if you interact with the foreigners you tend to post pictures of it and tell everyone you know. This weirded us out at first, but once we got over the initial culture shock we began to let that pass through the filter.

4. The Screamer

This is the one that gets filtered out for me every single time. Sometimes people aren’t at all interested in getting to know us, they just want to see if we react to words in our own language. It’s like pressing a button and watching what happens. So, from about 50 yards away someone will scream “HELLO! HELLO!” and if you turn to look, they have gone back to what they were doing so you won’t know it was them. I don’t want to be rude to anyone, but screaming at me as I ride my bike past is just not the way to get to know me. I’ve gotten to the point where I can filter it out and not react without giving it any thought.

5. The Giggle and Go

There is a fine line between the people who just want to get a reaction from you and the people who really want to know if you’ll say ‘Hello’ back to them. This one is really charming actually. Most of the time it’s the kids who do this. They see you passing and say ‘hello’ very nervously. When we return the hello, they look at each other, giggle hysterically and run away. It’s funny.

6. The Say-Whatever-English-Word-You-Know

This is a favorite of our students and unfortunately the English words they learn on their own tend to be cuss words. So when we are around a crowd of students there are inevitably horrible words being spoken around us to see if we will react. Now, if they do it in my classroom (which they almost never do) I immediately put an end to it. But if they are standing around outside at a school event and I have no way of knowing who said it, I filter it out. I’ve realized that the only way to combat these kinds of things is to deprive them of the reward they are seeking which is any kind of reaction from us. The exception to this was the other day when I walked out of the gym next to a girl and our bikes happened to be next to each other. She was unlocking her bike and all I heard was ‘blahblahblahblahEXPLETIVEblahblahblahblah’ (the blahs represent Chinese that I don’t understand) She wasn’t even looking at me and didn’t appear to be talking to me or anyone in particular. So, in the same manner, I went about unlocking my bike and just said ‘No, that’s a bad word.’ Then I repeated the word, still not appearing to be talking to her, ‘No %&*@, No %&*@.’ She picked up on it and finally said ‘Hello’ and I said ‘Hello! Yes Hello! No %$*@!’ That one turned out kinda fun because it was so odd to begin with.

7. The Sincerely Curious

This is the best and most endearing one. People in this city who know a little bit of English and find themselves near us in a restaurant or in line somewhere will sometimes be brave enough to say ‘Hello’. They are so kind and the first thing they say is almost always ‘Welcome to China!’ They learn a little bit about why we are here and we learn a little bit about where they learned English. Sometimes we will exchange phone numbers and we have actually made some great Chinese friends this way.

I still haven’t figured out what I’ll do if someone decides to combine them all and walks up to me, stares at me then screams, “HELLO, JOSH!! @#$%!!!! MY DAUGHTER WANTS TO SAY HELLO TO YOU! WHY ARE YOU HERE?! hehehehehehe!” *Runs away*

Back to Basics

Toni, Marcel and I have begun reading through C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity together. I bought an e-book discussion guide to help spark conversation and I’m pleased with how our first go at it went.

For anyone not familiar with Mere Christianity, it’s Lewis’ attempt at outlining the most basic beliefs that lie at the core of Christianity while intellectually defending those beliefs. It’s probably the best non-biblical starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about what Christians believe.

It’s actually a great resource for our little group because even among the three of us there are differences in the ‘frills’ of our individual faiths. By that I mean that we grew up with different kinds of worship services and we differ on some church doctrines. It’s nice to be taking a long look at the things that unify us and also separate us from other worldviews.

The first chapter of the book, which was the basis of our first discussion, wants to establish two points:

1) That all human beings believe that there are ways that they should behave
2) That they don’t behave in the way that they believe they should.

Living in China presents a unique challenge to our belief in an objective morality. For example, before moving here I would have said that all humans everywhere believed that it’s wrong behavior to spit on the floor at the gym. Now I know that I have to take certain issues like that out of the ‘universal morality’ category and put them into the ‘cultural norms’ category, just like I have to take my sweatshirt off of the gym floor and put it into a locker.

It’s such a privilege to be able to explore God’s truths outside of a Western World context. American Christianity can sometimes blur the lines between what’s cultural and what’s universal. Can’t wait to go further.

Sha-la-la-la-la-la My Oh My

Screenshot 2014-03-13 at 2.13.07 PM

Screenshot from First Kiss by Tatia Pllieva

 Can we please talk about this for a minute? This week it felt like everywhere I looked online people were posting, tweeting and sharing a video of strangers kissing each other. The reactions to the video were almost universally positive. The word ‘beautiful’ was the word I saw thrown around the most. As I watched it I found myself more confused than excited. What is beautiful about two strangers making out with each other?

After the video blew up, we all found out that they were actors and models and the whole project was an ad for clothes. That means that one of the things these people do for their job is use body language to convincingly portray emotion.

I guess that might ruin it for some people since the scene wasn’t that authentic after all. It doesn’t make a huge difference to me. Frankly, I don’t understand why we were so surprised in the first place that people would enjoy making out with someone else, even a stranger. I have good news if you’re into that kind of thing, it’s happening regularly at a bar or club near you!

In reading through the comments sections I saw a lot of people commenting on the beauty, emotions and bond that the people were sharing. I’ll just go ahead and use this post to ask the questions I have after seeing all this and you can feel free to jump in and answer them for me.

1) Are we supposed to think that it’s beautiful because it shows how literally any two people can be asked to kiss and they’d enjoy it?

1a) If that’s true, doesn’t it follow that when all is said and done, enjoying kisses has nothing to do with who the other person is?

1b) And if 1a is true, then what is it about kissing that’s enjoyable?

1c)  Does it matter if it’s a person at all or would we enjoy kissing anything that was soft and covered in saliva? (Ugh, try not to think too much about that.)

2) Are we supposed to think it’s beautiful because we believe there is an actual connection being formed between these two people through a kiss?

2a) Does that connection have anything to do with who they are as a person?

2b) What if after this video they got into a conversation and it turned out the other person spent their free time drowning puppies in their bathtub, would that change their desire to kiss them?

2c) Would they still look back on the connection they shared as beautiful or horrifying?

2d) What does it mean if you shared a connection with a puppy-drowner?

Ok, you all get it. The last point I’ll make is similar to one I made in another post, and that is this: would all of the people who thought this was a touching video also find it beautiful if their significant other met an attractive stranger with whom they shared a 3-minute make-out session and then never saw them again? Wouldn’t that be a painful betrayal, even though they only shared a connection in that 3-minute period? I feel like the ‘WHO’ of our kisses is important.

State of the Union

The other day Toni and I were Skyping with some friends from back home and they asked us how our marriage was doing. It was actually a nice question to be asked since we don’t have much opportunity to talk to other married couples about things like that here. The honest answer was that things were (and are) going pretty well. This whole move to China has forced us to communicate better, work on problem-solving together and form new friendships with people together. But after that, the next thing I said was, ‘ The toughest thing we face right now is the fact that we literally spend every single minute of most days together.’ The friend’s reaction was to say, ‘Yeah that’s not good.’

From one of my favorite comics, "Zits" by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Check it out at zitscomics.com

From one of my favorite comics, “Zits” by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Check it out at zitscomics.com

I’m actually proud of how we’ve handled the challenge. We both miss having our own jobs to go to during the day, our own work-friends and the ability to come home and tell each other about our days.

But I think the hardest thing so far has been the ways that she and I have completely different work habits. Our teaching styles couldn’t be more different. We have a lot of conversations that are kinda like this:

“Hey, I noticed that you assigned the class a lot of homework for tonight.”
“Uh huh.”
“Are you sure you wanted to give them THAT much?”
“Yeah. Why?”
“Nothing! No! No, I just wasn’t sure if they did something to make you mad and you’re, like, punishing them with that much homework.”
“You think it’s too much?”
“No no no, I think it’s fine   …as long as you’re OK with the fact that they won’t have time to finish it.”
“You know what! You’re right! I’m being too hard on them. I’m gonna go in there right now and give them a big hug and tell them I’m sorry and that it’s OK if they don’t want to do their homework. In fact, they never have to do anything in my class ever again! We’ll just listen to music and party from now on! That’s been working really well for you, right? They’ve been learning A LOT in your classes, right?”

I like to let you guess which voice is whose.

We’ve also been using Google Docs to collaborate on activities for class. Today I was purposefully moving my cursor around the document so the little flag that said “Josh” would get in the way of her typing. It was annoying and immature but I had a good laugh. This is an example of a thing that doesn’t help the situation.

It’s possible that we might have to be intentional about finding our own activities to get us out of the house and provide some space. But to talk about the general state of our marriage, I’m really blessed that I have a wife that I get along with so well. If you were to look at certain areas of our personalities you would realize that we couldn’t be more different. I’m realizing that I can either allow that to get under my skin or I can take advantage of the fact that my wife is skilled and competent in some of the places where I am most inept.

I think we make a good team. Plus, she also likes the idea of coming home after a long day and curling up in front of an episode of House of Cards so most of our days end pretty well.