The Gift of Presence

I find myself in that place again. That place where my life is packed into boxes, and I’m trying desperately to navigate the pains of saying goodbye to the place I call home and the people I consider among my tribe and family.

As an expat, it’s easy to become disillusioned and hardened by the pain of constant goodbyes. It’s tempting to distance and disengage ourselves to protect and cope.

But I decided a while ago, that the only way I would live well within this expat nomad life of mine, was by being intentionally present. And that meant I would approach the place I lived and the people with whom I interacted with an openness and hunger that wouldn’t leave space for regret when it was time to move on.

It also meant I wouldn’t put any prerequisites on meeting and getting to know people; that there would be no rules regarding who I’d invest in, and that there would be no minimum stay requirements.

I was all in.

But this also meant that the risk of loss would be greater. Despite the pain, I have found a deeper and more profound purpose in living fully in the moment, in developing and cultivating relationships with the people where I am, and in embracing loss as part of joyful living.

I’d be lying if I said this was an easy path. It’s not. It’s fraught with deeper mourning and a greater awareness of what I’m leaving. But it is also full of more profound friendship, fuller experience, and greater joy.

The risk of pain involved in saying goodbye to the people and places we have deeply connected with is great, but the loss of never connecting is greater.

And to me, that is the greatest loss of all.

I will miss Shanghai on many levels. I will miss the people, my tribe, my work, and the life I lived while here. But I have no regrets. I don’t wish I’d been a little less connected or vulnerable or invested. To me, the far greater loss would have been missing the opportunity to meet and connect with so many wonderful and exciting people and places.

So while I wade through this transition time and say my goodbyes, gratitude overwhelms me. I am grateful for the time I’ve had, the people I’ve loved, and the person I’ve become because of it all.

One More Ride

Every time I ride my scooter, I feel free and alive and part of something more.

I’m just like everyone else when I’m out there in the midst of it all. The chaos, the fumes, the people, the near misses. Being out there on the road brings me closer to this place. I am rarely more aware of my mortality and life in these moments, and it is a unique kind of bliss.

When I came to China the first time, I managed not to get on a bicycle let alone a motorized vehicle. I was young and more full of fear and hesitation.

My how things change.

And now I’m leaving again, and I have a whole host of emotions. I’m going to miss this place no doubt. I had just settled in. I have friends I adore, a life I enjoy, work that’s fulfilling, and a scooter.

And it’s this damn scooter that is hard for me to let go of. It was the first sign and symbol of something that really changed for me- a step of bravery, a release of fear, and an embracing of a culture.

And now I am leaving it all.

It’s selfish really. I know I am blessed. And I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m richer for having lived here a second time. My heart is fuller for meeting the people I have met. I am forever and more profoundly changed by this year in China that I allowed myself to be during the previous assignment in its close to five-year span.

So tomorrow, I will go for one final spin on my scooter before I hand it off to its new owner. And like every time before, I will weave in and out of the harmonious chaos marveling at what a wonderful and unique experience I have had the privilege of taking part in.

Things You’ll See in Shanghai On Any Given Day

I’ve been in Shanghai collectively now for 5 years. When we moved here for our first assignment in 2007; I started a blog and named it The View From Here. It seemed appropriate for a number of reasons; but particularly because my new apartment was on the 58th floor of a high-rise. The name was also meant to serve as a reminder for me. I knew that I would eventually fall out of awe with my surroundings; and I wanted something that would keep me present in my experience.

Expats face a great deal of challenges. We learn to live out of suitcases and tread the waters of transition for months on end; all while navigating a new culture. If we have children, we have the added weight of helping our little people process through the loss, grief, and fear associated with such a massive transition.

We are more susceptible to depression as we grapple with feelings of displacement, home-sickness, and a whole host of other challenges. One of our most difficult challenges is maintaining a healthy level of awe. We all go through this. After a few months of excitement; the routines set in, the newness fades, and the things that once entertained us now likely annoy us.

Our ability to thrive will depend largely on how well we adjust and adapt to our new surroundings, as well as how well we master being present in the moments that surround us.

Our outlook, attitudes, and how well we are able to explore and embrace our new countries of residence can make or break our time spent on assignment.

With so much pressing in on us, it’s no wonder the path to assimilation can look more like a crash course than an easing- in. There’s an unfortunate irony to this whole process too. As we try to blend in and start living life in our new normal as quickly as possible; we may actually undo the sense of awe that makes our transition more bearable.

It’s in our haste to assimilate, that we run the risk of becoming numb and losing sight of what makes our new homes so interesting, unique, and enjoyable.

Even in a rapidly changing and dynamic city like Shanghai, life begins to feel mundane and normal after a while. Many of the things I initially found amazing and even taboo or off- limits, have become part of my daily life.

I had to get creative after a bout of “winter blues” this year. To rekindle the wonder; I started to compile a list of unique things I see in Shanghai on a regular basis. Reflecting on these things has been a great way to reset my focus onto where I am and what I have the opportunity to be a part of. It’s also been a fun reminder that the life that’s become so “normal” to me, is actually quite extraordinary.

Things Seen in Shanghai on Any Given Day:

If it’s under 70 degrees, you’re likely to see children so heavily dressed, they look like the snow suit laden little brother from A Christmas Story. If you happen to have a child with you who isn’t dressed similarly, be prepared to get some stern looks and maybe even a little unsolicited “advice”.

Monstrous globs of rubbish (Styrofoam, boxes, recyclables, you name it) moving ever-so-slowly down the middle of the road. You know someone has to be on a bike somewhere in the midst of it all, but you can’t see them. The reality is- they probably can’t see either.

Kids peeing on the street or in the garbage can  (with the help and guidance of an adult of course).

Stray dogs. Stray cats. Pet crickets.

Cricket fighting.

Large groups of people dancing in public parks.

Morning tai-chi in the park.

Workers dressed in matching company uniforms doing warm-up dances outside their workplace before the start of their shifts.

Pop-up Mahjong games. If you can fit a folding table, you’re good to go.

People wearing pollution masks and respirators.

Grown people wearing matching pajama outfits in public.

Scorpions on sticks.

Uighur flat bread in portable ovens.

Street vendors roasting sweet potatoes in old oil drums. They may not be the safest to consume, but they’re sure to make your stomach grumble.

Couples in matching tee shirts.

Stores dedicated to selling these matching tee shirts.

Motorbikes with families’ of 3-5 people teetering from all possible angles. Gravity doesn’t seem to exist here at times.

Clothing hanging from lines out windows, inside storefronts, on cars, on power lines, or anything else that seems suitable to hang ones wet clothing on. Don’t forget the lucky red undies.

What those of us in trendy parts of the West like to call “pop- up restaurants”.

Street-side wet markets selling hairy crab, frogs, and “what-the?” in colorful plastic buckets.

Smelly tofu (literal translation). I place this under the list of things “seen” as the stench is so great you can almost see it. You will most definitely see me fleeing its reach.

Split pants. What kid needs a diaper when they can just have a split in their pants and squat as they need?

Ducks hanging out on the sidewalk in front of a shop in the middle of the                         city…seemingly kept as pets.

Grown adults walking hand in hand with their parents.

Grown friends of the same gender holding hands.

Men carrying their partners’ purse.

Screaming people. Arguing people. People fighting over anything from who pays the bill to who’s fault an automobile accident is. Loads and loads of screaming people.

People sleeping anywhere at any time. You will see them on motorcycles, in parks, on benches, and my personal favorite- beds at IKEA. (Since writing this, I saw a man sleeping on his motorbike that was stopped at a light.)

Spitting, spit, and more spit. The sound effects are particularly charming when one is “clearing” oneself of pollutants while you’re attempting to enjoy lunch alfresco.

Excessive personal grooming. And this isn’t always a personal process. While it’s more common to see a man digging to the tip of his brain with his finger, you’re almost as likely to witness a woman clearing out her partner’s ears or plucking his grey hairs.

The “Beijing bikini”. It’s ok if you have to look it up. You’re probably better for not knowing what it is. Picture hellish heat and men rolling their shirts up just below the nipple line.

Men standing around on a hellishly hot day in their not so “tighty- whities”.

People washing their hair or brushing their teeth on the sidewalk.

Elderly folks heading to the public loo with portable toilet seats on stands. Because squatty potties.

Squatty potties.

These are just a handful of the interesting things I see on a regular basis. As I thought about what to include in my list, it occurred to me that I needed to include it all. I don’t think I’d like Shanghai as much if it looked and acted like any other cosmopolitan city. The same quirks that drive me to shake my head (and maybe occasionally curse under my breath), are the same quirks that add to its character.

Anyone can live in Shanghai, but I’ve found that thriving here requires a certain level of abandon and acceptance.  You have to grab the package, tear into it with curiosity and wonder, and take it all in. To truly understand and appreciate this city, you must take it as it is- the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly.

If You Give An Expat Time…

They might just change their ways.

I’ve been in Shanghai for 6 months. When I arrived, I tried not to go outside on high pollution days. I monitored air pollution numbers obsessively. If I had to venture out on a “bad air day”, I would wear a mask for anything over 100 ppm. Now I don’t even check the numbers before I leave my house.

The first time I saw my friend on her electric scooter with her children, I thought she was insane. Then I got a scooter. When I got it I told myself I would only ride it slowly, on my own, while wearing a helmet. Now my children ride with me. The other day I forgot my helmet and didn’t go back to get it. (Please don’t tell my mother.)

In the beginning I would never shop at a wet market. As a foodie, I particularly loved visiting them and taking in all of the culture and elements; but when it came to actual cooking and consumption, I did my best to buy from reputable stores. With the close proximity and fact that most of my neighbors shopped there, I decided it would be okay on occasion. Soon, I was shopping there for most of our produce.

One day I went to get some fruit and I watched in shock and horror as the manager of one of the more popular fruit stands sprayed raid onto some “imported” apples. Apparently, this was necessary to ward off cockroaches; and so normal an occurrence that she didn’t hesitate to do it in front of me. I frantically sent out a neighborhood-wide WeChat to inform everyone of this atrocity. I didn’t shop there again… for a month or two. Now I send Ayi there to buy our fruits and vegetables every day. I tell myself I send her because she gets the best prices; but if I’m honest, it’s so I don’t have to know.

“You’ve changed”, my friend told me the other day. She knew the Shanghai Jen of 2007. But this new Jen; the Shanghai Jen of 2015, had changed. When we lived here before, I wouldn’t think of riding a bicycle; let alone own and operate an electric scooter. I’m more adventurous (though some might argue more foolish), and willing to try things I wouldn’t have the last time around.

When my husband and I were discussing a possible return to China, we talked a lot about what we missed and what we would do differently if we got another opportunity. I think we lived life well the first time around; but when we left, we spent a good deal of time reflecting on how we lived and what we would have changed. When we started to compare our lists, three very similar themes emerged- relationships, risk, and adventure.

If and when we went back, I was determined to be more intentional with people, more present in moments, and more adventurous with life in general.

I’ve found that getting a second chance has opened my mind even more. I’m no longer letting a fear of the unknown and unfamiliar guide my decision making. I’m going and doing and seeing. Most importantly, I’m present in these moments. I’m meeting and making new friends and building relationships that I will carry with me through life. Most of the things I found absolutely insane, have now become part of my day-to-day.  As a result, life is riskier, fuller, richer, and much more of an adventure.

 

 

 

 

The Drug Window

There’s a brief window of time that I’ve come to cherish immensely; a time when I get to experience my child without the haze of drugs clouding his mind and personality. I call it the drug window.

When my son was first diagnosed with Epilepsy, I felt such relief. We had been living in the unknown for close to 3 years, and I was thrilled to finally have an explanation for all of the falling, mental confusion, emotional outbursts, and fatigue. A diagnosis also meant we could move forward with a treatment plan.

In the beginning, all looked hopeful and bright. In my mind, he was going to start his meds; they’d gain control of his seizures; and we’d look forward to the day he’d grow out of them. But life is complicated and epilepsy is not an easy disease to treat. We currently find ourselves in the ultimate catch-22 where the drugs are absolutely necessary and beneficial, but the side-effects seem equally great.

Soon after taking his meds, my son slips into a strange and subdued place known as medically safe and seizure free. I have a love-hate relationship with these drugs. On one hand, they have the potential to control the epilepsy and save his life. On the other hand they’ve taken over his physiology. He’s easily agitated, horribly uncoordinated, showing signs of drug-induced ADHD, and generally out of whack.

I’ve gone from having a child with an unknown illness, to a child who’s stuck in an epic battle somewhere between drug and disease.

And I miss him terribly.

I get an opportunity to see him and his true personality before each 12 hour dosing- once after waking in the morning, and once again before bedtime. He may emerge at moments throughout the day, but nothing compares to the clarity I see in him at those particular times.

As such- I’ve come to cherish our windows more and more. I approach and await the waking and unfolding of my child day after day. I sit patiently and savor the moments when he emerges; the moments when I get to experience all that his mind has to offer in its less encumbered state.

Disease has a way of reminding us how devastatingly beautiful and fragile life is. It can crush and destroy us; but it can also push us toward perspective and focus.

I’m in the early stages here. Most of my days are still a mix of devastation and beauty. The devastation comes when I watch him stumble and struggle through seemingly simple movements and tasks, and wonder if he’s had another seizure. Beauty is found when his perseverance gives birth to breakthrough, when we celebrate his triumphs, and when we take joy in simple moments.

As I contemplate the future, I wonder what his quality of life will be like, how our lives may continue to change, and how to manage this disease while ushering my children through our new life here in China. It’s overwhelming really. So much has changed for us. We are in a new home, in a new country, and dealing with an illness that has and will continue to change the dynamics of our family. I would not hesitate to wave a magic wand and make the epilepsy disappear if I could; but I am grateful for the new insights and perspectives I’ve gained along this journey.

I’m beginning to see glimpses of what I would be missing and moments I would likely be pushing aside if I didn’t see my children through this new lens.

The early mornings that once exhausted me, have become a sacred time- one that I look forward to with excitement. I find it ironic that I spent days of my parenting life sleep-training my children, and now I’m the one drawing out bedtime. What I once viewed as tedious and unending nighttime conversations, are now treasured moments where I get to engage with my child and gain fresh insights into who he is.

I count myself among the privileged rank of parents who have children with special needs. Our journeys are challenging. They are often fraught with concerns, fears, frustrations, and loneliness. But they are also full of perspective, hope and joy.

I’m learning to grab a hold of joy amidst the sorrow and frustration; and to value this new gift of perspective and what it has ushered into my life.

In the short time since my son’s diagnosis I’ve learned to slow down, look closer, take less for granted, and approach my children as gifts waiting to be unwrapped.

I’d like to think I would have learned these things without such a serious medical situation, but I don’t know that I would have. I do know however; that should we choose to slow down and fully engage, we all have the ability to approach our children like we do any other gift- with interest, curiosity, excitement, and celebration.

In doing so, we have an opportunity to take part in one of the most profound and beautiful exchanges a parent and child can share in- the pure delight and joy of experiencing someone for who they are. And this I’ve found, is one of the greatest gifts we can give to another.

One Foot In

The haze of pollution hangs heavily over the city. My nose is more stuffed up than usual. My head aches and my ears burn. It’s a high pollution day here in Shanghai. I’ve heard about these days, but I’ve never experienced one quite like this.

My handy little air pollution app has turned red, and the number 236 glares at me in accusation. Why would anyone choose to live in this? It asks. How could any benefits to your children possibly outweigh the health risks of living in such pollution? It scolds. I set my phone down and look away.

Days like these pull me back into the reality of living in China. Days like these make me wonder if it is worth it if this is the right thing for my children. I think about all of the people who live in the reality of extreme air pollution because they have to, and I am again reminded that I am a mere visitor in this place.

This is one of the double-edged swords of being an expat. We live where we live, often, because it’s where we want to be. There are varying degrees of this reality, but a good number of us choose to say yes to our assignment because we know it will benefit our career, fulfill a desire to live in a particular country or scratch our adventure itch. This very reality; and the fact that we can choose to move out as freely as we moved in, makes it difficult to feel fully at home.

Many of us do our best to live in our host countries as more than mere outsiders. We attempt to learn the language, function within the local customs, keep an open mind to cultural differences, and absorb what we can. As someone who has moved back and forth between my home country and foreign lands- I have learned the value of absorbing the culture around me, as well as the importance of living in the moment. But it’s on days like these that I’m reminded I live with one foot in this world and one foot back in my home country- where the grass seems greener, and the air breathes cleaner.

 

 

 

 

 

Above All- Kindness

I’m going to get myself into hot water on this one.

I have been in Shanghai for close to six weeks now. In that time we have moved into permanent housing, the children have started school, and I have begun the work of settling into our villa.

In the beginning, all was new and exciting. The boys were getting ready to start Kindergarten, and we were going to move into our new home and neighborhood filled with children. With these events came the prospect of many new friends.

Day one of school came and went. The boys got a little more comfortable with the routine of it, and all seemed relatively well. They would each come home with stories about things they learned, things they loved, and things they didn’t like so much. I was particularly surprised by how often they talked about other kids being unkind to them. I figured 1 of 3 things was happening. 1- My children were annoying others and getting push-back (very likely); 2- my kids were being far too sensitive to the way others treated them; or 3- kids in the international schools were a little tougher to navigate for one reason or another. I imagine there was and is a healthy mix of all of the above going on. So I have been listening and observing and trying to guide them to be good friends in their own lives, to ask first what they might be doing to contribute to the conflict, to speak up for themselves; and to ultimately shake off the way others treat them.

More recently, however, I have shifted from silent observer to aggravated mother. I see the way some of the children here act, and I find it sad if not outright appalling at times. I try to keep in mind that troubled children have trouble for good reasons and that I do not know what battles they are fighting through. My kids are socially weird for a variety of reasons. I can acknowledge that and trust the process of socializing with others to work out their rough edges.

It’s the mean and unkind that I can’t understand. I have to think that if children are mean- just flat out mean- it has to do with parenting or lack thereof. I am not trying to get on any soapbox here either. My failings as a parent are vast. My kids are bad at sharing and taking turns and following directions. They talk over people, like potty talk way too much, and have no desire to exhibit self-control. They are not the quietest or the most well- behaved.

In spite of all of these aggravating behaviors- they really love life and people. They like to meet other children. They are excited about what pants they are wearing, if their shoes light up, the horn on their bike, and loads of other little silly things. I realize that as much as I focus on the misbehavior that drives me insane; and on their tendency to do exactly what I don’t want them to do- the most important thing I can focus on is their heart.

I will take kindness over all the other behavior stuff any day. In the long run- these kids will learn how to behave as society expects. They will eventually get the food in their mouths when they eat and sit at the table until they finish their meals. Some day they will stop pulling their pants down at the drop of a hat. And sooner than later (I hope) they will stop introducing themselves as “Hi- my name is butt” in Chinese.

The world that surrounds our children will not shape their hearts well. It will not honor and care for their innocence or sense of wonder. This may be one of the more heartbreaking realizations I have had as a mother. I’m realizing; indeed realizing that if I spend my time and energy focusing on behavior over heart- I am not making the contribution to society that I want to make. When I as a parent focus my time and energy(the little that I have) on symptoms (behavior)- I miss the greater opportunity and impact that I can have on others and the world.

Everyone is talking about bullying these days. We all want to stop bullying. So let’s start in our homes. We have to recognize that we are shaping humans here, and as much as we want to say they are their own little people- let’s not fall prey to this notion that we have no influence. We can shape them into individuals who embrace or push away; who seek justice and clothe the poor or feed their own bellies in pursuit of their passions. We can raise children who look out for those falling behind and who notice the lonely kid in the corner, or we can raise kids who run past others without an ounce of thought.

It’s our choice. We do have a say. And today, I’m choosing kindness above all else.