The summer I turned eight years old I spent a day at the beach. It was supposed to be fun—a family day with my sister, mom, dad, cousins, aunt, and uncle.
I want to say there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sand was clean and white, and it flicked up behind our heels as we ran. I wish I could tell you that grit stuck to our legs, and we had enough sand throughout our shoes and clothes to build our own beach when we got back home. But I don’t remember any of that.
Maybe I was sweating and sticky and eager to cool off in the water. Maybe I lingered on the beach like I usually do now—only dipping in when my body can’t take the heat, and only long enough to take the edge off before getting out and sitting on the sidelines again.
I don’t remember that, either.
I remember the moments immediately leading up to what happened.
Any time we move into a new country, a part of us will change. We have to. We learn a new language (or at least pieces of one) or other tricks to enable communication. We learn cultural taboos and make sure we don’t commit them. We embrace the differences when we can. When we can’t embrace them, we endure them and try to be positive.
Perhaps the biggest culture shock in coming to China was not the language (having lived in Korea, I was accustomed to getting by with minimal language) or the air quality (I was prepared for the worst and ended up being pleasantly surprised).
The most difficult challenge was the seemingly flippant regard for others’ safety and well-being—mostly on the road. In a previous post, I discussed the morbid Chinese reaction to car-pedestrian accidents. You can read that here.
What do you see when you look at this picture? An old shoe box? Garbage that’s been picked up off the ground? Probably not valuable objects worth saving, right?
This is my daughter’s treasure box.
My three-year-old’s preschool teacher likes to call her a collector. Every time I take my sweet girl outside to play, she picks something up from the ground—a pinecone, a single stone (among all the other stones on the ground) that she has labeled as beautiful, a dropped advertisement that she can’t even read yet, tangled ribbon with a shriveled balloon at the end. She so often doesn’t want to throw her rocks back on the pile or give up the garbage to the trash bin, I finally gave her a treasure box and told her she could keep all her treasures inside it. She had to leave the box in the entryway of the house but could take the box with her whenever we went outside to play.
My husband tells me stories of his family history that are filled with such adventure that the pictures and emotions they conjure up in me linger for hours. In 2007, his grandparents sent us a letter that recounted the details of their expulsion from China in their own words. They spoke of gold strips carried in their shoes, books buried for for their possible return, and a communist officer carefully stepping over their vomit on the deck of the ship. Their descriptions piqued my interest in a time and place I couldn’t quite imagine. Their experiences were so far removed from the world I know.
A Beautiful Mess. If you come to my home unannounced, this is most likely what you’ll see.
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.
The family settling in for the thirteen hour flight to the United States.
When I graduated from high school, my mom gave me Dr. Seuss’s beloved book Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, and, boy, did I believe it!
I had so many things I wanted to do with my life, so many goals I wanted to achieve. I was going to make a difference. By golly, I’d change lives.
As a seventeen year old child, having just graduated valedictorian, I read Dr. Seuss’s famous book and had no doubt I’d reach my destination—I was going to move mountains. How those mountains would move, well, I wasn’t quite sure, but I knew, just knew I could do it.