Hold on to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home
Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble—it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home
Home has always been where the heart is. Growing up in a military household, move and change were a common. Home became more than brick and mortar. It was where we were and who we were with that mattered most. I think I realized this for the first time as an adult when we moved from Massachusetts to Michigan. We were very settled in Massachusetts having lived there for eight years. It was there that we bought our first house, and had our third child. However, when the moving van left and the house was empty, I was struck by the fact that it was just a house. We were ready to move and would carry our memories with us to create a new home. It wasn’t easy. None of us wanted to leave, but we did and began making memories in a new home and a new state. When we found out we were moving to China, I wondered if we would ever feel settled halfway around the world. How would we learn to live in such a different environment? Would we ever feel as if this foreign land was our home? Would our kids back home survive without me constantly looking over their shoulders? I have read that settling into life abroad usually occurs in four stages. The Honeymoon Stage, where everything is new and exciting; the Frustration or Rage Stage, involves the reality of cultural differences and difficulties while adapting to the new culture; the Understanding Stage, brings you into becoming more comfortable with your new culture and learning to navigate through your new world; finally, the Acclimation Stage, involves learning to accept your new surroundings, and settling into your new life. Everyone goes through these stages at different points in their journey. Some stages take longer than others, but one cannot feel completely settled until they reach the last stage.
I am happy to say, I think I have gone through all four stages and have begun to feel as if Shanghai is our home. While my heart and half my family remain in Michigan, I am beginning to truly enjoy life here. Many of the things that bothered me when we first arrived have become blurry in the vision of our daily lives and routines becoming more predictable. We get up, the kids go to school, I workout, go run errands or have a fun day with friends, come home for homework and dinner, then maybe watch some tv before we are off to bed, resting up for another day. Weekends are still spent adventuring around Shanghai, but we find ourselves slowing down a bit, possibly visiting one new place and going out to dinner. When we first arrived, I was terrified to do things on my own. Going to the Fake Market was completely overwhelming. Now I may not want to go by myself, but it no longer scares me to go. My negotiation skills have vastly improved over the past few months, and I have come to enjoy the game of negotiating bargain shopping.
Although a house is just bricks and mortar, I still try to personalize it in order to make it our own. Many days here have been spent decorating, painting, and shopping for items to make our house more comfortable. Not to mention, I love decorating. Any excuse to shop is usually one I am willing to make. Although no one in the local hardware store speaks English, I have managed to buy paint in a multitude of colors. If you know me at all, you know that I hate white walls. Color in a house makes it so much more homey. My new found friends and I have visited the Photography Market, furniture stores, antique warehouses, and many more places looking for items to help personalize our houses. It is important to create a home in which you can enjoy living, and create a safe space where your family feels comfortable. No matter where we go during the day, our home is always waiting, a constant in this new world of change.
Another important way to settle into a new environment is to get involved. Meet new people and do new things. Really letting yourself explore your new land helps you to feel more settled and comfortable with your surroundings. I was so blessed right in the beginning to meet a small group of new moms at a school coffee. There we created a WeChat group (WeChat is similar to texting, and a huge method of communication here). It has been a wonderful tool for us to share our adjustment to life in Shanghai. I have been grateful to know I am not the only one who is going through this or that aspect of life as a new ex-pat. It is a difficult adjustment and our small group has become a huge support to one another. Plus, we spend time together exploring and experiencing new things, which makes getting settled much more fun. Just last week a few of us went to a chocolate factory. For two hours we traveled through 135 chocolate tasting stations, gorging ourselves without judgement, and it was awesome!
Although our family is becoming more settled, life here still comes with its highs and lows. Brett works and travels a lot. He comes home most nights after working 13 hours, bleary-eyed and exhausted. He is averaging one work-related trip a month either within China or to another country. The boys are learning to navigate a new school. Things they are being taught here, they may or may not have learned back home so some catch up is needed. The pollution, traffic, spitting, and overall crowds are taxing at times. However, on the other hand, we have a driver so we don’t have to worry about driving through the traffic. Since we have an AYI, or housekeeper who cleans and cooks, we have more free time in the evenings to spend together doing homework or playing board games. Living on a maintained compound, our weekends are not filled with house or yard work, allowing us to enjoy doing whatever we want as a family. Although the boys have some catching up to do at school, they have been given the opportunity to be a part of a prestigious learning environment. There are so many things that carry both a positive and negative connotation here, but being more settled allows us the ability to deal with all the ups and downs in a more healthy way. Now we can deal with one issue at a time instead of the initial monumental picture of overwhelming obstacles we faced in the beginning.
Being settled brings great comfort. Although we will never stop missing our home in Michigan, our hearts are becoming divided. This lifestyle is not reality, but it is very advantageous. We are getting spoiled on some things without a doubt. However, the price we pay is having our family separated and missing them very much. So, although we may now have a house halfway across the world, we always have a home wherever we choose to make it. A piece of us is in Michigan, another piece of us in Shanghai, and yet another piece of us is wherever we may be visiting in the world. Home is where the heart is. We find our hearts getting bigger and the idea of home beginning to change. Overall, our family is becoming settled and we are grateful for this extraordinary opportunity. God is good and His plan is always bigger than our own. We simply need to settle in and bloom where He plants us.