Your Essential Travel Guide to China

So you are going to take a trip to China? Great choice! There is so much to see and do in this diverse country that you will definitely run out of time before you run out of activities.  You are bound to see and do things that you never will in any other part of the world and with a little bit of pre-planning you will set yourself up for a memorable and enjoyable trip. This guide will help point you in the right direction. Have fun, and let the planning begin! Read more

Finding the EXTRA in the Ordinary

Sometimes something happens that is extraordinary. You may have experienced it a hundred times before, but this time it is different.

Last week it snowed in Shanghai. Some people referred to it as a blizzard. Schools across the city had a snow day on Friday. In reality, snowfall totals were about one inch. Back home in Michigan, we would hardly bat an eye to such a small amount of snow. However, here in Shanghai, one inch of snow is enough to shut down an unequipped city.IMG_7629

Now back in Michigan we are used to a few snow days per year. Schools actually add a week to their calendar to allow for such days. But a snow day here? Unheard of. A bad air day, perhaps, but never a snow day.

You can imagine the palpable excitement amongst the children when they woke up on Friday to find that not only did they have the day off of school, but upon looking out their windows discovered there was actually snow blanketing the ground. The neighborhood was buzzing with excitement and snowmen were popping up everywhere. This excitement was not limited to the children. Gardeners walked around in awe admiring the snowmen and trying to figure out how to clear snow from the roads. Some of the children in our neighborhood had never seen snow. In fact, some of the workers had never seen snow either. People stopped in their cars to take pictures of trees, and snow-covered rooftops. Watching others enjoy something for the first time brought new excitement and joy to me as well. I found a sense of newness in something I had experienced many times before at home.

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Along these lines, I was reminded that since we are living abroad, away from our every day, things become new again. You are afforded a fresh perspective on life. It is such a blessing. Many times we fall into a routine knowing what to expect out of people, out of the weather, out of our errands, etc. It is such a huge opportunity to see things anew again and to get excited over the ordinary.IMG_7660

There is an old saying: “the devil’s in the details”. I beg to differ. I say God is in the details. When you look at life through fresh eyes, you experience new richness and detail you may have only walked past before. I took two long walks during our snowfall. Walks I had taken many times before. However, things look different when covered in a blanket of snow. A quiet hush falls upon the earth allowing you to walk and just be still. A bridge I have passed dozens of times before caused me to stop and take it its graceful lines and architectural detail. It looked beautiful dusted with snow. A small green bush with red berries dazzled in the sunlight because it was coated with a layer of ice. God is in the details. I am thankful for the snow. Because it was such an extraordinary occurrence here, I took the time to slow down and see His artistic hand upon the ordinary things I pass every day.

The snowstorm also reminded me to never give up hope. Sometimes we need the confidence of a child to remind us how to have hope, and that sometimes finding answers to your prayers may come when looking at the outcome from a different perspective. My 11-year-old, Jack said to me on Wednesday night, “tomorrow will be a snow day”. To which I responded, “it’s highly unlikely, don’t get your hopes up”. The next morning we woke up and school had not been canceled although it was snowing outside. While I thought Jack would be completely forlorn, he happily looked out the window and said, “see, I told you it would be a snow day”. Well, he was right! It was snowing, so it was technically a “snow day”. The next day school was actually canceled due to the snow. Jack simply said, “see, I told you we would have a snow day”. Wow! What an example of child-like faith, and always looking at things with a positive perspective. I know it sounds simple, but it was a powerful reminder to me to always have hope no matter how unlikely the outcome may be.IMG_7568

Every day things happen that are ordinary. My question to you is how do you take those things and make them EXTRAordinary? Take time. Slow down. See things from a fresh perspective. Find beauty in the details. Most importantly, never lose your child-like faith, and always hope for the best. One last thing, if you have snow where you are, put on your snow boots, get out there, and build the best darn snowman you have ever built before!

 

A Different Kind of Christmas

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
-Bing Crosby-

Although living an ex-pat life means constant change and adaptation, there is one tangible thing that has kept me grounded. Our home back in the U.S. I always knew no matter how many different life scenarios we faced while living abroad, we always had the comfort of our house to return to whenever we went home. A place where, for 12 years we hung our hats and made memories. A place where our kids grew up, traditions, and routines were created. I knew where everything was, painted every wall, hung every picture, planted every tree. Yes, our home remained a place of comfort and stability in our ever-changing world.IMG_2809

Now, while I say this, I will admit, it is a bit of a glorified picture of our house back in Michigan. I won’t even go into the headache of owning a house half-way around the world. Renters that did not keep up with maintenance, mail that got missed which led to overdue bills. A yard that was not properly tended to. It seemed every time we went home I would play catch up on all the things that had been neglected over the course of six months. It was a hassle and a lot of work. The last time we went home, I traveled there alone with two of our boys. After a 14-hour flight and arriving home utterly exhausted, all I wanted was a hot shower and cozy bed on which to lay my head. However, we arrived to find the hot water heater broken. Many hours, tears, and dollars later, it was replaced, and I was able to relax. Things like this seemed to happen every time we went home.

Last spring, we were blessed to be given a chance to extend our assignment overseas. We had been hoping for such an opportunity as we wanted to get our oldest child here to graduate high school before we headed back home. Since we knew we would be staying longer than initially anticipated, and keeping our house back home had proven to be such a headache, among a host of other reasons, we decided to sell our house. I will admit, while I knew this was a good idea for every reason imaginable, I am not always practical. My heart tugged at me and made it difficult to leave our memories behind. Silly, right? I mean, you can always take your memories with you, but there is a lot to be said about seeing those memories within the walls in which they were created.IMG_0525

But the decision had been made, and I knew deep down it was the right one. So I took a two-week trip home to prepare the house to go on the market. My mom met me there, and we went right to work. After many hours of purging, organizing, and staging, the house was ready. Thankfully, sheer exhaustion kept me from becoming overemotional about the reality of what we were working towards. I became cutthroat in deciding what needed to stay and what needed to go. But still, everything I touched required a decision. 12 years of clutter is not easy to rummage through. But we did it, I went back to Shanghai, and the house went on the market. The first day we received an offer, and the house was sold. It was a blessing, and a heartache but I had prayed God would be very clear in His path for this part of our lives, and I know this was His answer to my prayer. It’s difficult to argue with that kind of clarity.

So the house sold, we moved out, I cried, but we continued to look forward knowing this was what we needed to do. Then came plans for Christmas. All of a sudden my confidence was shaken. No Christmas in our home? No Christmas tree in the corner of the family room? No kids sitting at the top of the stairs waiting impatiently on Christmas morning for the ok to run down and look under the tree? What had we been thinking?

We began talking about all the different ways we could spend Christmas. It wouldn’t be fair to pick one parent’s house over the other to spend the holiday. Our daughter’s house is too small to squeeze all of us in and really, did we want to pay money for a house rental in Michigan in the winter? Who in their right mind would choose such a cold vacation destination unless they had to?

So after going around and around, we chose Seattle, Washington as our Christmas destination. My husband lived there as a child and still has family there. It is warmer, and we figured it would be a bit easier for us to get to; but at the same time allowing easy access for the rest our family to come join us, if possible.

Decision made, we announced it to the family thinking, of course, everyone would want to come spend Christmas in the Northwest. Well, our daughter and her husband could not get the time off of work to travel across the country. Again, I wondered what we were doing. Why did we sell our house and lose the opportunity to spend Christmas with everyone? But, once again I needed a reality check. Sure, we saw all the family when we went home, but it was only for a day, maybe two, tops. Is that really a reason to keep a house? One you have outgrown and can no longer consistently take care of?

So this year we will be celebrating a different kind of Christmas. It is the first one we will not spend with our daughter and, like any mother, it kills me, but also like any mother, there needs to be a time when we let go of our children, no matter how hard it may be. Our daughter now has the opportunity to make her own holiday traditions and memories, and although I will miss her dearly, I am happy for her. I know how special it is to sit in front of your own Christmas tree, bake cookies in your own oven, and hang stockings in front of your own fireplace.

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As for us, I don’t know how the holiday will go. Being in a house rental in an unfamiliar place is going to be very different. Will it just feel like a vacation? Will it feel like Christmas? I know, Christmas is supposed to be about celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior surrounded by those you love, and we will.IMG_5304 Our oldest son and my mom will be joining us. But I am such a traditionalist. Despite having all the boxes checked in order to have an enjoyable holiday, will it still FEEL like Christmas? I don’t know. It will be yet another way living an ex-pat life has given us cause to adapt to any and all situations. Sometimes that is easier said than done.

Although this Christmas will be different, I am happy and excited to have the opportunity to visit yet another new place. Despite the fact that we will not be in our own home, I know we will continue to make new Christmas memories. Who knows, we could love it so much with all the pressure being off all the Christmas “to-do’s” that we may want to continue this tradition in the future. We will see.

I wish you and yours a wonderful Christmas and hope you are surrounded by those you love whether in your own home or elsewhere. Merry Christmas to you all!