After over four months of living in Beijing, I step back into my house on a cold, wet winter day, and as I hang up my coat, the heater blows on my numb fingers. The kids’ toys are scattered everywhere, there’s a pile of dishes in the sink, and the vegetables in my grocery bag need to be cleaned and chopped for dinner. The sum of all those things—the mess included—makes me breathe a sigh of gratitude. It feels like home, and when we were still in Korea and looking ahead toward our move, I wasn’t sure that Beijing would ever feel that way to me.
I didn’t want to come to China.
I was more than ready to leave Korea. God was giving us a very firm kick in the behind to be on our way, but as ungrateful as it makes me seem, I looked at our move to Beijing with more dread than excitement.
While trying to deal with anxiety about the move, I had plenty of friends who reminded me of all the good that would come from it. They were encouraging and offered hope during the days when I felt like I was consistently balancing on the brink of tears, when even the slightest nudge (an unwanted job offer, a poor report from my son’s teacher, a hallmark commercial) would send me sliding down an emotional slope I didn’t always feel I could climb out of.
Unfortunately, for each one of the encouragers, there was another person whose questions, gestures, or intentionally unspoken words, made it clear that they pitied us for the move we had to make.
In the months before we left, well-meaning individuals’ curiosity would lead them to ask questions such as, “How long do teachers usually stay there, anyway?” It seems harmless, but tacked onto that inquiry would be a statement such as, “It can’t possibly be very long with the pollution as bad as it is.” Even if they weren’t saying the words outright, these comments gave the impression that we were leaving utopia for a cesspit. Or something like that.
No, I didn’t really want to come to Beijing. I knew God was leading us here and that I could find joy wherever God would lead us, but that didn’t mean I was going to hop, skip, and jump into the challenge, any more than Abraham was bounding up the hill to sacrifice his son Isaac. (This is an extreme example, I know, but the point is, sometimes God leads us into challenges we don’t always want or understand. Even though we follow, sometimes it’s hard not to drag our feet.)
My family was blessed to have the opportunity to visit China for a week in April before moving here at the end of July. There were several reasons for making the trip. It gave us the opportunity to find a house so we could settle in more easily, the kids could see their classrooms and get excited about school, and my husband got to meet with other administrators and get a head-start on his job. My hope was that the visit would get me excited for the move—that I would see how great China was, how amazing the school and people were, and it would hit me like an epiphany how God wanted to bless us by moving us here.
That’s not what happened. Well, partly it was. The kids loved attending school for a couple days, and it got them very excited about the move. I found assurance that the school really is amazing and the people, as hoped, are friendly and supportive. All of that was true. But the trip also opened my eyes to what the hurdles would be. Having the challenges move out of that nebulous space of understanding into the foreground where I could see them clearly wasn’t a very fun part of the trip.
At the end of our week visit, when we landed in Seoul and disembarked the plane, simply standing in the familiarity of Incheon airport gave me an overwhelming sense of relief—finally we had returned from a very stressful and challenging trip. Finally we were home, in Korea. Instead of praising God for our new opportunity, walking through the Korean airport, my prayer was that of a spoiled, ungrateful brat: “Are you freaking kidding me? You mean I have to move there?”
All I could think of was the constant smell of cigarette smoke. It might not sound like a big deal, but cigarette smoke was ubiquitous in China. One low point of my trip in April was enduring someone’s cigarette smoke inside an elevator while going down to the lobby in my hotel. And, no, that’s not an exaggeration—someone was smoking in an elevator.
The biggest frustration of the trip, though, was that I didn’t accomplish the main purpose for my going—finding a house. I tried. I dragged my two children with me from house to house to house a couple of days while were were visiting. On one of those days, we looked at twenty houses. Twenty. I pushed my children beyond what I knew was their level of endurance on a day when the pollution levels were high and giving me a headache. At one of the houses, my son fell down the stairs. It was a nasty fall. In the seconds it took for him to reach the bottom, I thought that surely his neck would be broken by the time he got there. At the end of that long day, my kids were wrestling with each other—not the fun kind of wrestling. They fought on the dusty, dirty, floors of one of the houses the agent took us to, each one trying to maim the other. It was a hellish day for the three of us.
We did find a house, but lost it because of some legal issues. We tried to get two more. We assumed the third one was a done deal. We had signed a contract and thought it was settled until about a week before we arrived when the housing agent emailed us and said the owner was backing out of the agreement because he wanted to sell instead of rent. All that work—dragging my children around and pushing them past their breaking point, all that time and energy—for nothing.
It is such a petty thing, I know. And for several weeks after that trip, when I was crying and losing my patience and yelling at my children and behaving like an emotional wreck, I told my husband several times how shallow I knew I was acting. We were so blessed—he was making a great professional move, our kids would go to a very competitive top-notch international school, I could take some time off teaching to help our family transition and to chase other goals—all of these were so much more important than a house. With my head, I knew there were countless other families who didn’t have a house, couldn’t afford to eat, couldn’t send their children to school. I knew that. But all I could think about was that I needed a nest. I needed to make a home for myself and my family, and it was unsettling to know we’d spend an undetermined amount of time in a hotel after arriving.
That April trip worried me so much that I had several conversations with my husband as to whether we would ever be able to call China home. Neither of us knew whether Beijing could reach that level of love and comfort that home conveys.
Now, though, I look back at that very difficult trip in April, and I am so thankful for it. I needed a bit of separation between recognizing the challenges and our actual arrival. I was able to size up the hurdles I found in April, stare them down, convince myself it was all about attitude and another way for me to grow. I spent time in prayer and had time for God to assure me that everything was going to be okay—hard, yes, but also okay.
All this to say that moving to China was not easy for us, but God has blessed us profoundly. Before moving, God had confirmed in my heart that we were following His will, but in the process of following Him, I chose fear and worry rather than childlike trust.
I feared leaving a nurturing community where I felt like I had a specific God-ordained ministry. But God gave me a new community, nurturing in a different way, with different ministry needs to fill. God put me in a new community that, in many ways, is more vibrant than the one I left and a more suitable place for me to feel comfortable and connected while I take time away from teaching.
I feared I was leaving a healthy environment for an unhealthy one. It was, after all, hard to have a conversation about Beijing without talking about the poor air quality. Yes, we had some bad luck with air quality while we were visiting for that week, but the air pollution is something that you learn to live with (and isn’t as bad as media portrays). As for everything smelling like cigarette smoke, China passed a new law regarding smoking in public places. They began enforcing it in Beijing only about a month before we arrived, and from what I’ve seen, it’s working—no more smoke in restaurants and elevators.
As much as we loved Korea, it was wearing on our spiritual and emotional health, and it turns out China, even with its bad reputation for air quality and safety regulations, is a much healthier environment for us. My entire family is thriving here. It’s refreshing. And we’ve made it home.
God’s patience confounds me—how often He has to teach me the same lesson, but He does so with such love and tenderness.
How many times has God asked me to step away from a desire or give up a blessing? Every time I do it with reluctance or even fear and resentment. But it seems that every time God has asked me to step away from blessings I loved, so that He could bless me in other ways I never imagined. Trust. It is hard to trust Him sometimes, and only by the Holy Spirit am I able to manage it.