Saturday, December 20, 2014

Pretty Much Everyone, Myself Included

We don't want intellectual rigor.
We don't want social diversity.
We don't want reconciliation.

We want our cherished beliefs to be unchallenged.
We want sanitized social landscapes.
We want to be free from encountering ideas that may cause us to question our own.

We prefer to think of ourselves as the former.
We prefer to live in an ignorant bliss of our own construction.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Food taxes? Huh?

One thing I loved about China was the lack of sales tax. Let me be more specific. Although there are taxes on consumer products, these are added into the overall price set by the supermarket or shop. Thus, when you want to buy, say, a notebook for ¥2.5, shampoo for ¥15, cooking oil for ¥27.3, and bread ¥7.2, you will pay exactly ¥52 at the register. It was a great system.

That's one of the reasons I love shopping for food. Ohio, Nebraska, Iowa, Texas: I've lived in all of these places at one time or another. Food = no sales tax. I assumed that's how the US system worked. Articles like this from NPR also seem to take it for granted that food, in general, is a non-taxed item. It makes sense. The most vital resource needed by anyone, rich or poor, is food. There's no reason to stick  it to those in poverty by adding a tax onto the only thing they really need.

Then I moved to Arkansas.

I went about life as usual, assumptions and all. It was near the end of our first week that I noticed an interesting tax record on a receipt:
A recent receipt containing both food and non-food items.
Tax 1 and tax 2? What is that?

After crunching the numbers, it became clear that the 9.750% was the regular state and local sales tax and the 4.750% was the state and local sales tax for food. The state calls this a "reduced state food tax". Meanwhile, Washington county and Fayetteville, just tack on their local sales taxes with no reduction whatsoever. This seems somewhat reprehensible for a state that ranked 45th in per capita income in 2012 and had the 4th highest poverty rate in the US in 2012.

It makes me miss China. I'm sure there were taxes involved in the pricing, but at least we didn't have to think about them. At least we could live life as if those taxes didn't exist.

Do you pay sales tax on food? Do you think states or local governments should charge food taxes?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Putting your hand to the plow

Image from
There is a short dialogue in the Gospel of Luke that goes like this:
Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 
Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
It's a short dialogue, one in a series of three in Luke 9. A few weekends ago I heard a pastor link it to the call of Elisha in 1 Kings 19:
So [Elijah] departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him.
The pastor later likened this to a business owner burning down his business (as opposed to selling it) to be overseas missionaries. (If you want to listen for yourself, go to 29:50 here.)

It got me thinking. One of the reasons that coming back to the US has been so difficult for me was that I took my hand off the plow and didn't turn back. I was in China; I didn't need to maintain all my professional ties (e.g. organizations, departments) in the US. I was in China; I didn't need to save or invest money in the US. I was in China; I didn't really need to keep up on all the ins and outs of US living.

It's not that I couldn't have done those things. It's not that it wouldn't have been useful in some ways. It just seemed superfluous. "I'm not there (US); I'm here (China)." I missed a decade of raises, promotions, and professional development; relationships, family history, and community investment.

Paths diverged. I took my hands off the plow. I burned it. I didn't look back. Then I had to return, without plow and without vision.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Trying to make ends meet

Northwest Arkansas is a good place to be, though not without its struggles.
The disparity is obvious.

There are obvious advantages to living in the US generally, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, specifically. I've written some about these before. Clean air is a wonderful thing, as is safer food. Crossing the street in considerably less dangerous. The internet is open (i.e. no Great Firewall of China). Green space is abundant. Fayetteville bike trails are amazing; I can commute by bike without traffic concerns in 35 minutes. Considerably less time is spent driving in Fayetteville than in Texas, so my gas bills are way lower.

But in the US my family will barely scratch by. With government-backed medical coverage for the kids, we'll scratch by.

I've been running numbers through our budget. If we stop spending money from one account, Liao Sha and the kids may be able to go back to China for a month or so toward the end of the summer, but I'm not sure when another opportunity would arise. I think we can save $100 a month toward our next used car. I think we can afford to save $50 for each child each month. After that? Retirement funds? They don't exist.  Toys for the kids? Maybe I could take it out of their savings...

I never thought about problems like these in China. We lived in a developing country, but my job supported a modest, frugal living standard. I had health insurance through my employer, and medical care was (comparatively) cheap even without it; I don't recall ever using it. But in the US, even with employer-sponsored health insurance, we'll pay a not insignificant amount each month, not to mention the high deductible. Thankfully we're in good shape.

In China, we were able to purchase a home (a loan, at least) and make early payments. Money for a down payment on our own home here in the US? I don't know where it will come from, not without selling our home in China, which would feel akin to saying we don't plan to return, especially since the mortgage is being paid by renters. In China we were able to give and lend money to many people and causes, but we'll be hard-pressed to do much of that here.

Then again, I've heard someone say (paraphrased), "It's not giving unless it interrupts your lifestyle."

A pastor at a church we attended last week gave an example of a household with a $70,000 income, and then rhetorically asked what happens when they get a raise to $80,000? His answer: They think they should no live at their $80,000 level. Hearing this, I thought: "Am I among people who think that $70,000 or $80,000 is a normal salary?

I'll never see that much. Nowhere close to that much. Not without major occupational changes.

I didn't go into teaching for a high salary or high standard of living. I didn't go to China for a high salary or high standard of living. It's never really bothered me, and I don't really care about standard of living now. But I've also never before had to face the reality of being almost poor (lower lower middle class) with a family.

This a learning experience like I've never had before. The learning curve is steep, and the margin for error is small. I'm sure I'll learn a lot along the way. Let the good times roll!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Amos and the metamorphosis of pronunciation

The Famous Amos brand logo in its Thai incarnation

My youngest son's name is Amos.

It's not a common name, but it could be called a "classic". I suppose it could possibly be becoming one of those retro trendy names, but I wouldn't know.

It's Amos, just like the name in the classic radio show: Amos and Andy. I'm not sure if people nowadays consider the radio show offensive or not. It was before my time, anyway.

It's Amos. Amos as in Famous Amos, the cookie named after Wally Amos, the founder of the brand. Famous and Amos: They rhyme. Here's the IPA: /ˈfeɪməs/ and /ˈeɪməs/. (Test it yourself at PhoTransEdit.) Notice they're the same, except for the initial /f/ on famous. If you know how to say famous, then Amos should be easy.

Evidently it's not.

Since returning to the US, I've been astounded and annoyed by the inability of people to pronounce his name. The most common mispronunciation is a clear strong 'o', like in most (IPA: /moʊst/) rather than the schwa (/ə/) found in general American pronunciation. There's also a stress difference. Thus, I usually hear /ɑːˈmoʊs/ not the correct /ˈeɪməs/.

I have five ideas to explain this, all of which may be partially the case:

  1. People in this century simply don't recognize the name any longer, so they don't know how to pronounce it.
  2. The effect of Spanish and Spanish speaking people on US culture and language has become so strong over the decade I was away that people not see Amos, and assume a Spanish pronunciation, such as in the surname Ramos or in the word/phrase vamos (Let's go!)
  3. Most people named Amos in today's world are hispanic, and the commonly used pronunciation follows that trend.
  4. I've only been in Texas and Arkansas (with a few phone calls about Amos from New Jersey). Perhaps the rest of the country does just fine pronouncing Amos.
  5. Tori Amos has such a huge fan base, that people have made her surname's pronunciation is the standard.
Would you have struggled with this name if you saw it on your list? If you know his surname (Showman), would you assume a general American pronunciation or a Spanish influenced pronunciation. If you weren't sure, which side would you err on?

All in all, I never imagined people would have difficulty with the name Amos. It seemed like such a classic name: not common, yet not unfamiliar. I guess I was wrong.

If you see me and you see my son, please learn how to say his name. I won't get angry with you, but I will feel annoyed.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hopes for my children

Baby dedications were happening at the church we attended last weekend. It was here, if you must know. One particular dedication struck me: that of a family dedicating three children they'd adopted last month. I don't know any particulars. Were they brothers and sister prior to adoption? Were they the children of relatives? I don't know anything, but it moved me.

But digress.

What I really want to write about is the "life verse" practice. Each family had a verse picked out for the each child being dedicated. Not a bad practice. I suppose the verses are the hopes of those parents for those children. It led me to ask what I would cite for my children.

The immediate answer that came to mind was, "Weep with those who weep." As I sat there, I started thinking through that passage from Romans 12, realizing that I don't think I could do a life verse. I love context too much. It would have to be a life passage.

Here's the passage within some context:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.
But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)
I can't explain why this stands out to me, but as I sat there ruminating the text, I can to the conclusion that, yes, this is what I want for my boys. It's what I want to see in me. I don't think it's an idealistic picture of life. It's a call to really live.

I'm not there. I hope to be. I hope my boys will be.

And just to be provocative: It's difficult to never pay back evil, to feed an enemy, and to overcome evil with good when pointing a gun at that enemy.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Between two selves

Present life often seems more like a child's scribbles than a well-composed narrative.
How long before I'm whole again? When does the feeling of weightlessness lift? When does life cease to feel like a mirage.

This morning I received an email from one of my closest friends (in China) about his new album, including songs we once performed as a duo and in our short-lived band Tarheel. I quickly downloaded it and ran through the tracks. Memories flooded back as if from a past life. Where am I?

Two months ago I wrote this:
I wake up every morning knowing that I'm in Texas, knowing that I'm at my father's home, knowing that ahead of me is a day of activities mostly revolved around getting a job and getting my family into its own quarters. At the same time, I wake up every day as if in a dream, as if I could wake up and still be in Changsha, in my apartment, in my bed, breathing emphysema-inducing pollution, ready to face a new day.
I'm not really here.
Now two months on, not much has really changed. I have new habits (e.g. making coffee daily as opposed to just on the weekends; checking out library books). I have new craft beers. I have new friends (whom I will soon basically leave behind again). I have a new, much less polluted environment.

But I'm still not fully here.

I suppose I would describe it as being two selves. There was the self I knew, the self of my post-university adulthood. That was the China self, the self that had grown confident, capable, comfortable in its own skin. The China self knew its place in the world, or at least thought it did, which is almost one in the same. The China self is the self of my memories.

Then there's the self I'm still trying to get a feel for: the new US self. This is the self that's somewhat uncomfortable, somewhat ill-fitting, and completely unsure. The US self doesn't know its place. The US self has no cache of memories or anecdotes to draw on. There have been both losses and gains, but the US self still doesn't know how to react.

What happened to China? It seems a world away, and it kind of is. It seems a lifetime ago, if it ever happened at all. Perhaps I'm Rip Van Winkle and I've awoken from a decade-long Chinese nap, bewildered by what has changed and what hasn't.

I'm watching cardinals hop around in my backyard. Cardinals are odd to me. They're completely ill-suited to a green environment, yet they persist, they survive, and they even seem to thrive.

A child's transitions to a new country

As difficult as it has been for me to transition from life in China to life in the US, I suspect it’s been more difficult for my eldest son. The younger son isn’t old enough to remember China. He’s only 8 months old and has been here for most of that time. My eldest, however, remembers.

He remembers relatives.
He remembers friends,
He remembers foods.
He remembers activities.
He he knows things are different, even in what he doesn’t remember.

Would you spend your Thanksgiving at a Chinese light exhibition? We did.
People say kids adapt quickly. People say kids are resilient. I’m sure they are. But I don’t wake up inconsolable in the middle of the night (four of the past five nights, twice last night). I don’t wake up from naps frantically looking for mama. He does. Neither of these things happened in China.

I suspect he still feels out of place. He still observes groups of kids more than plays with them, which was not true of his China social life.

I suspect the month away from mama last year has affected his sense of security.

I wish he could tell me what’s going on. He’s made new friends, but I wish he had the language and cognitive ability to explain his feelings. He understands cars and car seats, but I wish he could explain his need to held for hours after a nap. He loves story time at the library, but I wish he could explain what’s happening when he starts wailing at midnight.

In all of this, my wife and I are just guessing at how to parent well. What does he need? More firmness? More gentleness? Do we need to indulge his need to be held at the loss of hours in a day? Does he need be held and spoken to calmly at night or would it be better to firmly tell him to go to bed? (We’ve had marginal success with both.) I hope we don't screw him up too much. I really hope we don't screw him up too much.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The world is full of awesome flavors! (If you give them a chance...)

"If a food is going to help forge a cultural identity, it must be an acquired taste, not a universal one."
(Michael Pollan, Cooked)

A package of kugua (bitter melon) from an Asian market in Arlington: a sight not beheld in most local supermarkets.

Coffee or baijiu?
Bitter melon or grapefruit?
Cheese or stinky tofu?

Which of these foods and beverages have you consumed? Which do you like? Which wouldn’t you even try?

While in China, I watched my wife gain a fondness for coffee, black coffee to be precise. Most in China only drink the heavily sugared and creamed versions. She long ago acquired a taste for cheese. I don't mean pizza, but cheese, real cheese. Just a few days ago, she remarked that she now enjoys grapefruit, and plain grapefruit at that, which may be more my influence than US cultural influence.

As for me, among many other tastes, I’ve acquired a taste for baijiu, a very strong flavored Chinese liquor that averages around 110 proof and is largely panned by non-Chinese. Kugua (bitter melon) is a vegetable I don’t really dare make for most Americans, but it’s a diet staple I miss now. Stinky tofu was never my favorite, but it's not bad, and I must admit to loving the packaged stinky tofu packets people sent us from China.

One of the more intriguing (and frustrating) ideas I’ve encountered, both in China and the US, is the idea of “not liking” a food. Specifically, not liking a food that is fairly common in another culture but not in that culture. The reality is that people generally don’t really dislike any food, even strongly flavored foods; they have merely not acquired an appreciation for it.

Foods with strong flavors, especially in the sour and bitter realms, and foods with strong aromas are all acquired tastes. Coffee is not something most people naturally like. People in China routinely remarked, “Oh, it’s too bitter,” when I decline sugar or cream. Nor is baijiu a natural preference, as Westerners routinely metaphorically compare it to paint thinner or worse. At least, I hope they aren't actually drinking paint thinner on the side.

Whether it's cheese for western folk (and these more European than American), stinky tofu for Chinese, kimchi in Korea, or hákarl (rotten shark) in Iceland, these are foods that aren't automatically enjoyed. These are tastes and textures, flavors and fragrances that have been acquired as people grow up in their cultures. They aren't universally enjoyed, like french fries. They aren't easy on the palate like birthday cake. They are difficult, yet acquirable. And they can be acquired by adults, if only we let ourselves.

Watching my wife acquire new tastes, I can’t help but love her more. She’s gastronomically adventurous. When we were first married, the idea of eating steamed carrots sans salt or oil was bewildering to her. She thought they were tasteless. Eventually, she started tasting the natural sweetness and now loves them.

It bothers me when I meet non-Chinese who continually speak negatively of baijiu after having it once or twice (or even a dozen times). It bothers me when Chinese try whiskies or tequilas and automatically pronounce them “no good”. In general, it bothers me that people say they “don’t like” something and therefore don’t eat it, especially if they say it a lot. I understand having preferences. I understand declining foods for health reasons, which I often do, as long as I'm not someone's guest. But rejecting a food or drink, especially one made for you, that seems both ill-mannered as well as ignorant of how taste preferences can and do evolve.

Why would anyone choose to limit their palate?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Leaving never stops being difficult (but you get used to it)

Oh, how we will all miss story time with Donna ayi.

"If anyone knows how to say goodbye to people, it's you."

That may not actually be a direct quote, but something to that effect was said to me by a good friend a few days ago. Left by itself, divorced from context, such a statement could have a very vibrant life of its own, not necessarily a positive one.

But I understood what my friend was communicating: Over 10 years, saying goodbye to family and friends in the US, saying goodbye to the parade of expats coming and going from Changsha, goodbye has become as normal as a birthday. It's almost a rite of summer. You get used to it.

That doesn't mean it's easy.

And I hate being the one to leave.

Though not so extreme as going from China to the US, we're slowly getting ready for another big move: from Texas to Arkansas. This time, rather than the huge cultural change were readying for a lifestyle change, one of trading the safe harbor of my fathers'' home for the uncertain currents of independent life.

But as with China, we don't just leave a place; we leave a people.

We haven't put down roots in Texas, so to speak, but neither have we been rootless. Liao Sha's been involved with a mother's group. I've been involved with two morning mens' groups. Our family has been meeting with a city group hosted by one of my old Des Moines roommates. We've enjoyed our time with my fathers' church in Weatherford. We've felt at home with the Chinese church in Fort Worth and have grown close to a Korean family in that body.

These are people we've prayed with and for. These are people who have prayed for us. These are people with whom we've shared concerns and meals. These are people who've extended open hands of friendship and open hearts. These are people who've surprised us time and time again with clothing and toys for the boys, food products, invitations, and even money. There are people we don't even know who are right now contributing to a project initiated by my wife's friends to gather up household goods we may need in Fayetteville: dishes, blankets, etc.

And soon we will leave them. For the second time in less than eight months, we will uproot for a new horizon, and new people, and a new way of life. It never gets easier. At least it doesn't for me. And I would always prefer for people to leave me than I them. Yet, off we will go.

Something that just hit me yesterday is that this will be the second time since November that Barnabas will have his social world turned upside-down. (Perhaps annihilated?) He still occasionally mentions old friends in Changsha, most commonly Mai-mai, Chu-chu, and Enosh (in that order of frequency). Now he'll say goodbye to his seven-year-old cousin (whom he adores), Marley jiejie, Dong-dong meimei, Stephen gege, and Naomi meimei among others. He'll lose story time with Donna ayi and playtime with relatives. When I thought of this yesterday, it nearly caused me to cry.

This post is for our friends and family in China, whom we still miss on a daily basis.
This post is for my friends and family scattered across the US, whom we hope to see.
This post is for our friends and family in Texas, whom we will miss and already grieve leaving.

Thank you for being part of our lives.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fatherhood and "danger" in the US

Standing on the edge having just climbed the retaining wall

In China I somewhat prided myself in the fact that we let our son do things that many Chinese parents and grandparents simply would not let their kids do. I liked that my son did "dangerous" things like jumping off ledges twice as tall as himself, climbing ladders a month after he started walking, putting sand on his head, running on the grass. (Yes, I've actually heard Chinese grandparents tell their grandchildren not to run while on grass because it's dangerous.)

Now in the US I find myself nervous. I know CPS employees and hear their stories. I hear other parents comment about what kids can and can't do. I feel like I'm on a fence, trying not to fall off into the "irresponsible parent" side.

Here are some questions I've found myself asking, some to myself and some out loud, some more ridiculous than others:

  • If I get a tricycle for my son, will he need a bike helmet?
  • Is it okay that I let him run around the backyard shoeless, knowing that there are occasional sand burrs in the grass?
  • Can I just let him play in the mud in the mostly dry creek bed?
  • People won't think we're neglecting him because his hair is long, will they?
  • It's okay to let him climb up the retaining wall, right?
  • Should I tell him not to walk on top of the retaining wall?
  • Will I get blamed if he gets bit by a snake or a black widow?

I know why I'm nervous. It seems all Chinese have heard the story (it may have been a movie) of a Chinese parent losing custody of their children in the US after giving the child a cupping treatment. Cupping is thought to prevent certain illnesses, and the process leads to large bruises. In the US, this was considered abuse. I've been asked by many Chinese, "Is this true? Would police really take away children for this?"

I don't know if CPS would take children away for cupping or not. If so, it really reveals a lack of cultural knowledge and a hypersensitive idea of what constitutes a danger to a child's wellbeing.

But could they? It has me worried. How crazy is it in the US now?

The scary thing is that I don't know. The funny thing is also that I don't know.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Have you considered being a foster parent?

I used to want to adopt children. I still do. Yet, Liao Sha and I are beginning to look at foster care as the option we should pursue.

How many kids are hidden from view, waiting to be found, waiting for a home?

These past few months in Weatherford, I've had the privilege/opportunity to be in regular communication with a Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) employee and a Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteer. I've heard stories that have broken my heart time and time again. It was from the CASA volunteer that I heard the following statistics, which my CPS contact estimated to be accurate: In Parker county there are more than 350 children currently in or in need of foster homes. In Parker county there are 8 or 9 foster families.

I heard this a few month ago. I recalled it again yesterday morning while with my CASA friend. Does it not seem outrageous? First, that there would be so many children in need of good parents or caretakers is astounding. Second, that only 8 or 9 families here in the heart of the Bible Belt would be willing and able... The word appalling comes to mind. As does this scripture:

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)

There are a variety of reasons for this unmet need:

  • Honest, innocent ignorance: Many just don't know. I wouldn't had I not interacted with these people.
  • Chosen ignorance: How many people talk to CPS employees or CASA volunteers everyday, possibly even hear a story or two, but never ask what the needs are? I only know because I specifically asked.
  • "Horror stories": There have been people robbed and hurt by foster kids. Some foster parents' own kids have been abused. THIS IS THE VAST MINORITY OF EXPERIENCES. Yet these stories are the newsworthy stories, and the news has had an effect on some.
  • Lifestyle preferences: Some just don't want to have their lives changed or upended.

A friend mentioned that he'd once had friends mention that they considered being a foster parents, but they thought they might get too attached to a child, and then it would hurt too much too let the child go. Somehow this seems the worst of all possible motivations. I thought: "One day your wife or husband will die and that will hurt a lot. Does that mean you should not have married?"

I'm not saying every family should be foster parents. Some are ill-suited for a variety of reasons, both good and bad. Others can't meet the requirements. I'm not sure Liao Sha and I can meet the requirements in Arkansas.

Nevertheless, in our time here, we've been alerted to a need, a need that we could potentially meet. Given how it has affected our hearts, to cast it aside, to forget about it, to allow it to slip from our consciences would be to reject the working of the God in us. For us, this may be the only faithful option available.

A man at men's group this morning mentioned that his father and mother were foster parents up until his mother died. In those four years, 22 children went through their home, from newborns to 16 year olds. When asked why they did it, he remarked that his mother replied: "Because at least once in their lives, I'll know they were loved."

That about sums it up for me.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Both homes have their strengths and weaknesses

I naturally gravitate towards thoughts of what I lack rather than what I have. I have to remind myself to look at what I already have and have been given. I would guess most people naturally do the same, but I don't want to presume too much.

Unexpectedly back in the US, I have to remind myself often of the good things I have here. People in China used to ask me whether China or the US was a better place. I used to respond that they both have strengths and weaknesses. Now I remind myself that my life in both places, though different, had and have both good aspects and not as good. Let me alternate through a few, eleven to be exact.

Advantage US: The food is safer here. That is, we worry less that unsafe food is going to hurt us.

Advantage China: Changsha has public transit; it's wonderful. The US built up around car culture, and now we all basically need them and their accompanying expenses. I hate it on a daily basis.

Advantage US: The air is cleaner here. The air pollution in Changsha is is nothing to sneeze at (but coughing is certainly likely).

Advantage China: In Changsha, basically everything you needed for daily life could be obtained just outside your door. In the US, residential and business areas are often quite separate.

Advantage US: In the US, my son can get the medical care he needs. In Changsha, he'd would already undoubtedly be mentally handicapped. (This is obviously a HUGE plus for the US.)

Advantage China: In Changsha my kids had regular playmates. I mean, we walk outside and there are all the kids in the development playing together outside. Here... You all know what it's like in the US: play dates, meeting times, etc. My kids have take a huge social step back.

Advantage US: In the US, I don't have to think about people going crazy about my kids, trying to touch them, prod them, etc. Here we're just a normal family, which I appreciate.

Advantage China: I miss the the renao, the commotion, of China. Social activities and social venues might be loud and busy in the States, but they're nothing line Changsha. On a recent date with my wife, did we pick a quite romantic location? Nope. It was a loud "grill and bar"/ We felt right at home.

Advantage US: The internet in the US is wide open, so I don't need a vpn to access internet content or blog. If I couldn't access Youtube, I'd have no way to take the courses in which I'm currently enrolled.

Advantage China: I had better reading times in Changsha. The 45-60 minutes I spent on buses commuting to and from work were great reading times. Now I'm busy at home (like I was in Changsha). I will be busy at work (like I was in Changsha). But given the lack of public transportation options in most of the US, reading times have become harder to locate.

Advantage US: The US public library system is amazing! Of course it could be better, as could all things, but I certainly won't complain.

Advantage (mostly) China: We're now considered a low-income family. That just adds a stressor I didn't have before. In other ways it's a positive: It will force us to be more creative; we'll rely more on faith; we'll truly be laobaixing. And I can be thankful that China taught me to be low demand with regards to my material environment.

Educating Showman: Teachers need high-quality feedback

Educating Showman: Teachers need high-quality feedback: During university I changed my major to education after becoming enamored with the process of learning and acquisition I saw in children. I&...

Friday, March 21, 2014

Different communities

Saturday evening my wife an I went on our first date since early October. It was everything I could've hoped for. We had coffee. She drove in an empty parking lot. We had dinner. We shopped a bit. I joked about leaving town and not coming back.

It was a rough 5+ months. Obviously we should not wait so long between dates, so why did we wait so long?

There's a certain cultural adjustment that needed to be made and will continue to be needed: Babysitting.

In China, this was so much easier for us.

On one hand, there were a relatively large number of expats (not all American or even North American) who were willing to watch our kids. Some even asked to do so, inviting us to go out. Here the important factor was not entirely cultural, but mostly relational. We'd been there a long time. We knew people we could trust. People knew us and wanted to help. The only cultural aspect was that expats seem to become more helpful toward and rely on one another a bit more than people do in the US, so asking for help is less awkward.

The bigger cultural difference is family.

In the US I have to recognize that my parents have their own lives. They have their own friends, their own interests, and their own events, all of which need to be considered. Given that living with them is already a major act of generosity on their part, asking even more help to watch kids is a bit sensitive. At least, it feels that way to us.

Things aren't the same in China. It's not that Liao Sha's parents don't have their own lives, their own friends, their own interests, etc. It simply that family trumps all in China. As my wife has said, "Family are the only people you never have to worry about asking for help." We didn't overuse their help, but we didn't feel constrained from asking either.

I'm not blaming my parents or praising Liao Sha's. It's simply that the culture is different, and in lieu of having enough money for a trustworthy babysitter or living near people who can/will take care of your children, adjustments need to be made. We're still in the adjustment process.

From the mouths of babes

I took a walk Thursday afternoon and had a thought: If my son could express his thoughts more fully, what would he be thinking right now? What questions would he be asking? What would he think of his daddy?

My eldest taking a picture of my with his "camera".

Below is what I think he might be thinking:

I like it here in the US. I only have to wear one shirt in the house, not a full wardrobe like in China. I wonder when we'll go back and see grandma and grandpa and uncle and auntie. I miss the playground and the other boys outside our home.

I like playing with kids here, but we always have to sit in the car for so long before we see any of them. My favorite is when my cousin comes over. But mama says we won't see him so much. I don't know why they said that, but it makes me sad. They said I'll make new friends. Again?

What happened to our food? What happened to the food grandma used to make. Why do we basically only have spinach? What happened to all the other green leafy vegetables? And what's with casseroles? Seriously, people here eat that?

I'm not sure why daddy's home all day. I like seeing him. He doesn't seem like he likes seeing me. He spends all day typing on the computer or talking on the phone. He gets angry all me a lot when I'm playing, especially when grandpa's home, or when I hit the dog or my brother. He says I'm too loud. He seems sad. I don't what I should do.

I hate doctors. And dentists! Fie on them!

My little brother sure has to go to the doctor a lot. Mom and dad say he's sick. He doesn't seem sick. Well, he does have a runny nose, I guess, but so do I.

Mostly I just need to keep an eye on mama. I remember she was gone for a long time before we came to the US. I can't let her out of my sight now. If she's gone again, maybe I won't find her again. Amos knows what I mean; that's why he cries for mama all the time. Why can he do it but I can't?

I can't wait until grandma gets home so we can play blocks.

My goal over the next few weeks is to give my kids the relaxed fun daddy; I fear they've become too accustomed to the stress-out, on-edge daddy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Years of linguistic effort being lost

My wife's cousin got married in Changsha last Saturday. We were here in Texas. Though she could see lot's of pictures on Weixin, I could tell my wife was sad to be away. Knowing how close her family is, I would've been, too.

A pic from a more studious era: The Hunan Normal Years. This was taken at a classmate's birthday party.

 She wanted to record me saying a Chinese best wishes to the bride and groom. I refused. Why? Is is because I don't like them? Not at all. I loved sitting and talking with this cousin, and her husband (then boyfriend) seemed like a nice guy when I met him. So why did I refuse?

In short, I was embarrassed. I can tell my Chinese is degrading more quickly than I could have imagined. I try to study, but it doesn't always happen. It happened once two weeks ago and twice last week and not yet once during this week. There's only so much and hour of listening or reading or writing practice can do to maintain skills.

Don't let the cake on my face fool you; I was in complete study mode, like a machine, I tell you.

After years and years of hard work and devotion, I am losing my ability, and I see no way to arrest the fall. If I'm here for a year, ok. What about five? Five years from now, if I've been here working, living and socializing in English, will Chinese remain? Will it be like my German: seemingly gone, never to return? (If I try to speak German, I just start speaking Chinese after a few words.)

I'm getting older everyday. Everyday it becomes more difficult to maintain let alone acquire language ability. Add in the fact that my decade in China limited my English vocabulary growth, and I'm in a linguistic state I don't want to be in.

Are relationships supposed to be considered distractions?

Leaving the local public library this morning after the children's story time, I overheard a conversation between two mothers. It dealt with where they chose to do their grocery shopping. It was distinctly American.

The relevant part and point of agreement went something like this:

I don't go to Brookshire's to shop because every time I go I run into someone I know. You stop and chat, and then it takes an hour to finish everything.

It caught my cultural attention because it exemplified a very American value: efficiency. The problem was that running into people one knows requires an investment in time. This time investment disrupts the person's carefully constructed schedule, thus lowering efficiency. Socializing is at odds with productivity. In the end, this mother considered the social aspects of life a distraction from efficient use of time.

I simply can't imagine this being generally true in China. Isn't running into people the very thing that makes shopping enjoyable? Yes, people in China are also busy. In many ways they have less free time than their US counterparts. But that someone would desire efficiency over meeting friends or even acquaintances is virtually unthinkable. Occasionally one might be in a bad mood and prefer to be alone, but it's not a trend. I daresay that meeting people when doing one's shopping is the preferred phenomenon. Efficiency and productivity does not trump social interaction.

There's a lot more that could be said, but it's enough to draw attention to the distinctly different value system. It caught me off guard. Not knowing anyone in this city, I never run into people I know. This encounter reminded me that I'm in a different place.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A chair, a switch, and enlightenment

At some point, Barnabas learned how lights work.

The little green time-out chair

This dawned on me just this morning. A few minutes ago, in fact. From the living room I heard his little green time-out chair being pushed across the tile floor so that he could reach the bedroom light switch. I knew that's what it was because he did the same thing yesterday morning. But today the question came to mind: When did he learn that?

I realize now that he made the light-switch-light-bulb long ago. In both the living room and the dining room I've had to tell him to stop playing with the lights. That in itself is an abstraction, because he wasn't playing with the lights, but rather with the switch. Before that he was telling me to kai deng when entering a dark room.

When did he realize that the switched controlled the lights? When did he realize that he could do it himself? Somewhere along the way I missed it.

I'm somewhat stopped in my tracks. How many other moments have I missed? The number is likely to large to count. But the application is much broader. How many wonderful things going on around me do I miss every day because my mind is focused elsewhere? How many wonderful things about living here in the US am I neglecting to notice because my gaze it set on China or those things I've lost?

How many more moments will I miss?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Like Sinatra, "Regrets... I've had a few."

Sometimes (like today) I regret being a teacher.

In happier days, doing what I loved, with a stack of papers as tall as me.
I love education. By extension, I love teaching. It's what I love. It's what I value. It's in my blood. As my wife says, "做老师很适合你." (It suits you.)

The problem is that such a love or "suited-ness" seems all but useless to me now.

My soon-to-be (I think) brother-in-law came to Texas less than a month ago. He wanted to get into sales. It's in his background, though he hadn't been doing it over the past few years. His personality is definitely suited to a position in sales. Within two weeks he had three good local job offers. He's working now.

Me? Friday will be the four-month mark of my arrival in the US. Still no job. Prospects I've had. One job I had to turn down, as it wouldn't have met family needs. I was a finalist for a program coordinator position that went to another candidate. Interviews await. But as of yet, nothing.

More and more it looks like I'm fitting the stereotype of foreign teachers in China: people who couldn't cut it in their own countries, so they go to China.

Teaching skills simply aren't transferable. At least, they don't seem to be. What can someone who has trained exclusively as a teacher do? Teach. Nothing else really. It's a dead end road in many ways, unless one has the personality to break into other arenas. When your personality is "suited" to teaching, however, alas, there's no where to turn. At least not if you want to be a professional as opposed to an unskilled laborer.

Of course, I could look in the public schools. My teaching license is being renewed. But do I dare? Do I dare try to face an academic culture in the US that is essentially anti-academic? Do I want to deal with stakeholders who find athletics more important than academics? Do I want to be blamed for not motivating students well enough when the real problem lies in a culture (a) that de-emphasizes studies for more important things like social life, entertainment, and the aforementioned sports and (b) whose parents expect too little from their children and are not invested enough in their scholastic achievement.

Sounds appealing.

Perhaps I'll just apply at Panda Express and be done with it. Maybe I could use Chinese there.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The good-natured mechanic

I was talking with a mechanic today. A good guy. A local charity often refers people to him, as he tries to do discounted work for people in difficult situations.

He mentioned that sometimes he feels bad working on people's cars because he knows that, given the state of many of these cars, not long after they leave his shop, they end up needing something else fixed. This led to a conversation on the general state of cars ownership. Oddly, for a man who makes his living fixing cars, we share almost equally negative views on the pitfalls of car culture.

We discussed how difficult cars make life for those of meager resources. People with means buy nicer cars that generally break down less and consume less fuel. Thus, they save money on both repairs and fuel. Those without means buy cheaper, older vehicles that are more prone to break down and generally consume more fuel. Thus, though they spend less on upfront costs, they (the people who can lease afford it) end up paying much more to use the vehicle.

Then consider the time lost for work whenever a car breaks down. People with good jobs tend to have the types of jobs that allow for time off when (rarely) the car needs work. Those one the lower side of the economic scale tend to have jobs that pay by the hour. Frequent breakdowns mean lost pay and, if it happens enough, lost jobs.

Do those who've never been poor understand this difficulty, this impediment?

Our car's been in the shop a lot recently. Hopefully this mechanic can get the final bugs worked out. I've though many times: If I had a job right now, how would I ever get this car looked at? (That's what you have to think when you're a one-car household.)

I liked the mechanic. He's trying to help people the best he can with his skills. Good for him, and good for his community.

Monday, February 24, 2014

To live in love or to live in doubt... Which would you choose?

"Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

I recently met a man who has been looking for a job. He found a great opportunity selling new trucks and vehicles for a large, reputable dealership. The boss loved him, and he was excited about the opportunity. When it came time for the insurance company to bond him, he was rejected. The boss, disappointed, had no choice but to reject him.

What was the problem? Nearly a decade a ago, in his relative youth, he spent a year in prison: a felony. Though it has been nearly a decade and he's been a model employee since then, the insurance company simply would not accept a convicted felon. It seems even when "correctional facilities" work and the people start making better choices, some people won't ever let them forget where they came from.

Fast forward to today.

I man, perhaps a bit older than me, came to the door selling magazines. He had a badge with his picture and the logo for magazine sales company (which I will not name). He had a story about recently being out of prison and trying to get his life going again in a good direction. Did I really believe his story. No. Did I believe the company? No.

But what should I do? Should I ask him to wait while I scour the internet to check up on his credentials? Do I just say I'm not interested and close the door? Can I love my life doubting every person that comes up to me with a life story of struggle? What's the difference between a person with a heartbreaking story and my family but that I've had very generous people help me? Do I act like that insurance company?

So, what did I do? I decided to trust. I wrote a check to order Zoo Book for my son. Will it ever arrive? Maybe. Maybe not. Was the man legit? Maybe. Maybe not. Was I a fool to give him money that truly has never been mine to begin with, but that it was given to me? Maybe. Maybe not. Will he think I'm a naive fool? Maybe. Maybe not. Do I care? No.

I'm not here to hoard for myself. I'm not here to live life assuming the worst in people. I'm here to facilitate shalom. I'm here to love. If I can't spare $24 for the potential of helping someone work their way back into society, what good am I? I will bear; I will believe; I will hope.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Blowing in the wind

Why am I in the US?

Of course, I know the answer. If not for family medical needs, I'd still be in Changsha. Yet at the same time, it's a uniquely human quality to search for meaning in life's circumstances. We seek the greater "why" that goes beyond the surface cause.

Why a picture of two towels? The answers are blowing in the wind.
Approximately two years ago, Liao Sha and I were both under the distinct impression that we should have a "sabbatical" of sorts. We didn't know what form that should take. In China, the US or elsewhere? For study, training, or work? We pursued the idea for a while and had a few good leads. In the end, we did nothing, reasoning that we didn't really have a desire to go or do anything in particular.

Could this be a providence forcing its hand?

Liao Sha and I have both discussed adoption. I have long wanted to adopt. In the end, research into the process of adoption being in China and having two nationalities became too difficult, so we gave up the idea. We also never knew if we'd be able to afford it.

Could this be a providential blessing, one that will one day enable us to adopt?

The struggles and trials we go through in life ultimately can be and are used to aid others who go through similar struggles and trials. This is the most difficult time either of us has experienced, but in the experiences we're learning. We're learning about new aspects of life. Trials many never see or understand (or intentionally ignore).

Who will we meet in the future that will need to learn from our lessons? How should our experiences lead us to work for positive change for those in the future who may face the same difficulties?

Questions abound. Answers will become clear. time. Now we wait and wonder.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Being and becoming, US style

Baijiu in the US: Is it out of place? Is it just who I am now?

Sociologically, social identity is always in the process of being and becoming. Of course there are times of greater change than others. Early childhood and the teenage years come to mind. Right now, I feel that process has ratcheted up in myself.

My social identity had been fairly fixed and settled for years. I was a foreigner in a foreign land. I taught English and was recognized within my Changsha sphere as a good, knowledgeable, hardworking teacher. I did my extracurricular activity. Yes, things changed. i became a husband. That was a big life adjustment, but the change in social identity was fairly straight forward. The same can be said for becoming a father.

But now that social identity is in flux.

I am not a foreigner, but neither am I a local or even a native. Not really, anyway. I go through my days in a bit of a dreamlike state, in half expectation that I'll wake up or turn around and be back in Changsha.

Right now I'm the guy who just came back from China. But how long can I be that? Six months? Nine months? A year? Eventually, I have to be the guy who used to live in China. Even when I transition into that socially, internally I'll still be the guy who wants to get back to Changsha.

How long can my stories start, "When I was in China..." or "In China..." without annoying people? People cognitively understand that I was gone for a decade, but they don't truly understand waht it means socially. They don't really understand that more than a decade of US stories were lost while I gained those China stories. Aside from my high school and college years, I have no US stories to tell, not yet anyway.

Am I that knowledgeable, hardworking teacher I once was? I'm unemployed. I hope that status changes soon, but it is my present reality. I often feel lacking. My active English vocabulary is ridiculously poor. I blame it on a decade of a simplified English environment. I don't know the terms and protocols used in schools today. Without recent US work experience, I find people sometimes don't want to trouble themselves to find out what I can do; they just see that I don't fit the boxes they want to check off.

What am I here? I'm still a husband, though the needs of that role are in flux. I'm still a father, though I oddly end up spending less quality time with my sons now than I did in China. Odd, given that I was working full-time there and I'm not employed here. I was an independent man (as much as one really is "independent", which Americans tend to overestimate), now living off of the generosity of others, living with my parents, and getting Medicaid for my kids.

From stability to instability. From relative consistency to flux. What is my social self now? I don't really know. What will my social self be? That's even less clear? Will I ever be settled again? That's a good question.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Food, guns, and the individual

Human behavior is a continual source of intrigue for me. Perhaps that's why I gravitate toward the social sciences: sociology, anthropology, linguistics, etc. Human behavior rarely ceases to amaze and confuse, stimulate and perplex, amuse and frustrate. I'm rarely shocked, however. I end up asking a lot of questions, only occasionally out loud.

I find that the questions I regularly ask in the US are different form those I asked in China. Obviously, this is due to cultural differences in habits and common discourse. Below are a few questions I find myself asking a lot here.


The US diet, at least the diet I see exemplified by most of the people I'm surrounded by in the US, is confusing to me. Just two days ago I came across these two sentences in an article from the Harvard School of Public Health: "the average American gets a total of just three servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The latest dietary guidelines call for five to thirteen servings of fruits and vegetables a day (2½ to 6½ cups per day), depending on one’s caloric intake."

This pretty much matches a comment I made on Facebook Nov 11: "It may just be that I'm in Texas, but after three days I'm already asking what Americans have against fruits and vegetables." Three months later, I'm still asking the same question. I have legitimately seen people go entire days without eating a single fruit or veggie. I usually get three by the end of breakfast.

I understand that health information is confusing and conflicting, but the vast majority of the world's cultures understand the value of vegetable matter, and those that don't typically live in extreme conditions with limited access to vegetables. After decades of public health education in the US, you'd think the average would be higher than three. Why isn't it? Why do Americans seem to fear vegetables?

Trigger fingers

People really are crazy about guns. Granted, I'm in Texas, which is crazier than normal with regards to guns. Even my mother has a gun now. Nevertheless, having lived in China where gun possession is outlawed, suddenly coming back to Gun Land is disorienting.

I suppose my questions are these:

Do people really think we're safer without guns?
I've known two people who've been shot in the US, and I've seen a man crumple to the ground after being shot. In my years in China, I've only known of (through a third party) one person who's been stabbed. I'm not saying China's more safe because it has fewer guns, but it certainly doesn't seem more dangerous.

Is society going to collapse if certain types of guns or ammunition are banned?
I understand hunting. I understand wanting to protect one's family. I understand that there are places in the US without a police force (e.g. parts of Montana). I understand that US history was gun-fueled. Does that mean every kind of gun is needed or should be available? Will the fabric of society be irreparably damaged if assault rifles or large magazines are off the market? I just don't understand.

The cult of the individual

When did people start becoming so focused on the self interests and preferences over good manners and goodwill?

Maybe the US has always been this way. Maybe I just didn't notice. Still, I would like to think that the influence of the Bible and/or China's face-saving culture has given me a new perspective.

Even when I was a vegetarian during university, when people made a meal containing meat, I ate it. It seemed the polite, kind thing to do. When in China, when people offered food or drink, I ate it (or at least tried to), no matter how nauseating the idea, taste, or texture of the food seemed. It seemed polite: a good way to love people. I'm confused by those who say, "I don't eat that," or "I don't like _____,"after someone has worked hard to cook a meal for them.

Last week I was on the phone with a dentist while waiting in line at Walmart's self-check area. Suddenly a man next to me leaned over and aggressively stated that I needed to wait in line. Granted, I was pacing, and Chinese culture is still a bit queue-challenged, so I can see how he might have though I was trying to cut in line. Still the whole situation was confounding. What has happened in that man's life to think (a) that I was going to breach social etiquette so blatantly, (b) that he had to be so protective of his "rights", (c) and that he had to assume I was up to no good rather than viewing me through a lens of goodwill?

These are just two recent examples, but they exemplify the question well. At what point has our focus in individual rights trumped that of respect for others? When did our own individualist worldview cause us to dishonor even friends simply because we have preferences?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

American isolationism

How do you throw a birthday party in China? Take food out to the playground. The guests will already be there.

The US has anything but an isolationist foreign policy. This seems to be in stark contrast to the way modern life and society seem to work in the US. At least that's my take on it.

I am an extrovert (though not as out-going as I'd like), and I have been almost continually lonely since I've been back to the US. Yes, my wife and children are around me. Yes, I see family everyday, as we still live together. My reprieves are two morning men's groups (Thursday at 6:30 a.m. and Friday at 6:00 a.m.), a Tuesday night gathering of mostly young families, and Sunday late morning and early afternoon at a Chinese church in Fort Worth. This may seem like a lot to some, but it's a struggle for me.

Part of the blame is my own. Despite trying to live as normally as possible in this small town, I admit that I've neglected to pursue a few community involvement ideas simply because I know I could be gone at basically any time. Also, not yet having a job, living off the charity of others, it doesn't seem wise to go out to social events that require spending. And with the cold winter we're having in the US, people aren't outside hanging out much. Options are limited.

Where do people congregate here? Perhaps a better question is whether people do congregate. To hear people talk, once out of college, you've basically got bars and churches. I find the habits I'd built in China are all but useless right now. There aren't dozens of people and children just walking around outside in a central location, playing, talking, laughing. There aren't events like English corners or  discussion just popping up for no reason other than to have one. There aren't hundreds of people who are all next-door neighbors.

Of course there are other factors. Living with my family, for example, means it's not my home. I can't just invite people over, especially not families with young children. Nevertheless, even if we were in our own place, I suspect it would be difficult. Makes me yearn for the days of apartment living.

What non-work, non-church, non-bar things do you do you to meet people and socialize in the US?

Friday, February 7, 2014

What are parents for?

What would you ask your parents to do for you? What wouldn't you ask them to do? Do you worry about burdening them? About asking too much?

The last whole family picture (minus sister-in-law and nephew) taken in China

Being in the US living with my family has shed light on a major area of cultural difference between how my wife and I view our relationships to our parents, and if I be so bold, between Americans and Chinese in general. It is a clear division between collectivist and individualist thinking. It causes me not a little tension.

Since we've been in the US, we've had to ask Liao Sha's mother and father to help us do numerous things back in Changsha. Some of these things have required them to spend money. All of them have required expenditures of time. One day I expressed that I feel bad that we're here but still bothering them so much, that we're still interfering in their lives. Liao Sha looked at me and said, "We don't think like that. Parents are the only people we never have to worry about bothering."

I don't think like that here with my family. I am constantly doing chores so as to "do my fair share." We make sure to buy enough vegetables and whatnot so that everyone can eat, figuring (a) it's the least we can do given that we're not paying rent and are interfering with their daily lives, and (b) it's a way of "pulling our own weight". Whereas if in Changsha, we'd be training Amos to comfort himself to sleep, we don't dare do so here for fear of bothering everyone.

Do you see the contrast? Raised in an individualist, highly independence-minded culture, living with my parents is embarrassing enough without causing extra strain on them. Thus, I worry about being a burden. Raised in a collectivist, community-minded culture, living with parents would be completely normal, and asking parents for help is 理所当然, a matter of course. Thus, Liao Sha lives at complete ease, never worrying about being a burden to her family.

What do I want my sons to know? How do I want my sons to think about Liao Sha and me when they grow up? I imagine the healthiest of views is somewhere in the middle, but how do we get there?

Monday, February 3, 2014

马年快乐!Happy Year of the Horse!

(A version of this post was originally posted here on my more professional blog.)

Being back in the US for Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) has been odd for both my wife and I. For her, it's the first time she's ever been away from her family over Spring Festival. For me, I simply miss a festival that had become such an important part of my life. Last Thursday night I even ended up watching performances from the CCTV Spring Festival Gala (春晚) on Youtube with my eldest son. The family eating together at the end of this performance made me cry.

Making jiaozi during a Spring Festival of yesteryear.

I thought for this post I'd simply share a few things that I love, or at least miss, about Chinese New Year in China. These are in no particular order.

1. Baijiu (白酒) with the menfolk

Foreigners tend to unfairly bash baijiu (Chinese "white" liquor) to no end, and I admit that it took effort for me to acquire a taste for the stuff. Nevertheless, drinking with my father-in-law and other male relatives had become a highlight of every holiday and birthday celebration. It bonded us together. It's when I really felt one with them, and I may be so bold as to say it's when they felt most at home with me. Effect of mild intoxication? Hardly. I'll give the simple explanation people gave me: This is Chinese culture. If you really dive into Chinese culture, you'll find that is really the perfect explanation.

2. Fireworks

OK, I don't really miss the fireworks. I mean, between the air pollution, the 5:00 a.m. (if you're lucky) wakeup call, and the constant use that makes one crazy on about day four, it's not really something I could miss. Still, not a single firework? Not even one?! It's a bit disappointing. 真扫兴!

3. Preserved meats (腊肉)

Not only did I miss meat-hanging season, but now I don't get to eat any myself! 非常扫兴!

4. Big family dinners

Not all Chinese families are large, but my wife's is. Aside from New Years Eve, when it was just us, her parents, her brother, and her brother's wife, Spring Festival dinners usually hosted no less than 20 people. Day after day, home after home, dinner after dinner. Eventually I grew sick of all the food and renao, but I miss being a part of it. In the words of Joni Mitchell (or glam metal band Cinderella), "You don't know what you've got, till [sic] it's gone."

5. Seeing the joy on my wife's face and on the faces of the children (mine and others')

Last Friday morning I asked my wife if she wanted to stay here on Saturday and make jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) with my family or go to the Chinese church to celebrate with them. Eventually she decided to stay home and teach my family how to make jiaozi. We made filling, made the wraps, and made the jiaozi all while listening to the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. Eventually she remarked that she finally felt a little of the Chinese New Year spirit. Before that moment, I had mourned that the Spring Festival delight that had always been present in previous years was not in her eyes this year. Not seeing her delight gave me a sense of loss, as well. At least I saw a glimmer Saturday evening.

Making jiaozi this year.

So, readers: If you've experienced Chinese New Year but are spending Spring Festival 2014 abroad, what do you miss?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Interstitial space

I'm not here, not really, not fully anyway.

Family reunited in Texas: early December 2013
This is a thought that has occupied my mind since last week. I can't recall which day. The full force of it hit me Thursday night while watching this performance from the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. At end of bit: a family dinner. I saw it, and tears welled up at once.

I wake up every morning knowing that I'm in Texas, knowing that I'm at my father's home, knowing that ahead of me is a day of activities mostly revolved around getting a job and getting my family into its own quarters. At the same time, I wake up every day as if in a dream, as if I could wake up and still be in Changsha, in my apartment, in my bed, breathing emphysema-inducing pollution, ready to face a new day.

I'm not really here.

I know I won't see the food venders lining the road, but I know they should be there (unless, of course, the chengguan makes their rounds).

I know I won't see the high school kids from my building waiting at  the bus stop, but I know they should be there.

I know I won't hear the abrasive yet warm (with a hint of aggressiveness) tone of the Changsha dialect, but I know I should hear it.

I'm now almost three months into this transition, one that I didn't want to make but knew I had to make. I know I've pushed myself too hard over the past few months, not using the time I was gifted to actually let myself face the transition head-on. Perhaps now I'm letting myself do so.

I didn't want to make a personal blog. I wanted to just stick to my "professional blog". Probably that was the smart thing to do, as the first few months were more about being disappointed and angry and a slew of other emotions. However, I think this may be a good way to process and invite others into the process. I may discuss my own state. I may discuss cultural observations based on the contrast with China. I may pose questions I have about the US. I may even quit blogging when I feel the moment has passed.

Want to join me on this journey?

My last few minutes wife family in Changsha: November 6, 2013