Sunday, July 2, 2017

Sorry for the delay!

Boys holding a a hawk
Wow!  Please forgive my neglect of this blog!  It's not for lack of desire that it's taken me so long to get back in front of my computer, but rather an indication of the "full" state of life from which we've been operating these past 3 months.  So.....where to begin....I've actually got a short list of things I've been noting so as not to forget to mention once I finally do get a moment of quiet to process at the keyboard!  So here are some of our more amusing moments over the last few months...things you're not likely to see around town in what most of us consider our "normal" environment...

I was sitting in a restaurant with two friends when a disruption several tables over caused me to turn my attention that direction.  To my surprise, I saw a middle-aged man hunched over by the weight of the old woman he had slung over his back! It was evidently his mother who was not in great physical condition, but obviously still was wanting to be out and about.  So there they were, scuffling through the restaurant with this little old woman clinging to his back like a toddler would, bumping into tables until they reached the rest of the awaiting family members.  It was a sweet act of service that stood out to me....would I have the gumption to make such a scene in a fancy restaurant to bring a loved one into fellowship around a meal?  (Mom and Sandi, if you're reading this, hopefully we won't ever have to find out! :)

The next one was in a more tame environment--one of my best friend's homes.  We were gathering at her home to celebrate one of the kid's birthdays when I discovered her eight year old daughter using the gas stove to light a piece of paper on fire!  Her plan was to then use the flaming piece of paper to light the candle on the cupcake, but the fact that her young-ish daughter would initiate such a hazardous activity without seeming to think twice caught me off guard.  And yet her method worked, and alas, the candle was lit!

We had a CRAZY interaction with our landlord a little over a month ago that has left us all a little unnerved in her presence.  She lives in another apartment that is in our same complex, and so we regularly see her outside.  Well, on this particular day, she yelled out to Kevin on his way home from work and came up to him quite aggressively.  She then explained to him that her stomach was hurting, and she demanded that he bring the flower to her that was in our kitchen window so that she could eat it and feel better!  That's right...she wanted to eat my rose!  Now the backstory on the rose is that Karis had used her allowance the week before to buy this beautiful purple rose from a vendor on the side of the road to give to me as a birthday present.  I had put the pot in my second-floor kitchen window where our landlord could (obviously) see it when she walked past.  Also, roses are commonly eaten in this culture (usually in the form of a jam after it's been sweetened with sugar), as they are believed to help with stomach or digestive issues.  Our landlord was insistent--Kevin MUST bring the rose to her at her home right away.  When Kevin paused and asked for clarification, then confirmed that he was understanding what she was demanding, he then explained that he couldn't give that particular rose to her as it had been a gift from his daughter to his wife.  To this, she boldly declared that he was wrong and again insisted that the flower was hers--that she had left it there when she had moved out (which was more than 2 months before that time, and which was CRAZY as the apartment was totally empty when we moved in!).  Kevin, at a loss, repeated his defense of the rose; the landlord replied that he should return home and ask his wife.  She was certain that I would confirm her claim that the rose was actually hers and should be brought to her  home.  She was, sadly, mistaken, and the rose remained in my kitchen windowsill until it died.  But the interaction left us unsure about the mental condition of our landlord...which hasn't helped in our most recent interactions....

bed bug bite! :(
Bedbugs.  I had no idea.  These things are AWFUL!  And they're in our apartment.  Two weeks after we moved into our new home (at the beginning of March) the boys (all 3 share one bedroom) started awakening with bites.  While the patterns and characteristics of the bites seemed to fit those of bedbugs, we were convinced that that couldn't be the problem because for weeks there were NO signs of them on any of the bedding.  But finally after over a month of getting periodic bites and systematically cleaning out places in their room, checking for what could be the source of the problem, we made two discoveries.  The first was that we found spots on the molding up high where the walls meet the ceiling near tiny holes that were on the shared wall with our neighbors.  The second was an actual bug; Kevin found one (providentially, we believe) trying to scamper back into a tiny hole in the ceiling one evening.  He dragged it out with tweezers and it was confirmed--we had bedbugs.  So since the beginning of May, we've been at war.  And I'm so sad to say that it looks like we're losing.  In spite of Kevin's best efforts (and they have been countless: caulking every crack and cranny in the walls, wrapping mattresses, standing the bedposts in containers of soapy water, washing bedding in hot water all the time, searching daily for signs of eggs or other growth of the bugs, finally hiring an exterminator to come and spray last week),  the bites continue daily.  Our kids (it's just two of the boys; Noah seems to be immune to the poison and never reacts to bites) are itchy all the time.  Friends won't come over for fear of picking up the bugs and bringing them into their own homes.  We're spending countless hours researching and trying new things to get rid of them.  We're all honestly having different fears that come out--some of us in dreams about bedbugs, sometimes having a hard time going to sleep, knowing that bites are's just awful!
Eli in a Crossfit competition

And yet....I'm seeing good coming out of this already.  I know, can that even be possible?  Right now my foot is itching like crazy where my shoe is rubbing a bedbug bite, so I'm a little hesitant to type it... and's true!  We listened as a family to someone talking about there being purpose in hardship.  Trials and challenges make us depend on God more, which is what walking with him is all about.  So while we don't always know why we experience trials, we can claim with confidence that at least one purpose is to draw us deeper into him.  Eli came to me about two weeks ago while I was making breakfast and asked, "Mom, do you know why God hasn't had the bedbugs stop biting?"  I told him I honestly didn't really know why, but asked him what we'd talked about as a family in regard to that issue the week before.  He was able to articulate that trials draw us to depend more on God.   Then this week as we met to fellowship with others, he shared that as a praise; the bedbugs are making him depend on God more and he's thankful for that.  What a praise!  I can't imagine any greater gift than my kids having the perspective that  a good and loving God allows trials in our lives so that we know him and depend on him more.  Can you imagine the foundation that this gives a soul?  I constantly find myself so weak; I expect my life to be easy and comfortable.  What if I didn't have that underlying assumption?  What if I thought that hardship was part of life and was to be expected?  I can't help but think that if my kids can grasp that--that our God can be both loving AND ordain trials in our lives--they could be equipped to endure things with joy to an extent that I sure can't!  So are the bedbugs worth it?   Jury's still out! :)  But for today, we're hanging on and I'm thankful to be able to see good even in the itchiness!

Now I should come clean...this doesn't mean that we're not still actively trying to rid our home of the boogers (this is our affectionate family name for our uninvited housemates).  In fact, we're going in full attack mode as of this next week.  We've tried everything we feel is safe to do (it's really risky here to use pesticides; they don't regulate chemicals like they do in the US), so we're moving on to more drastic measures.  The first step is to clean out the boys room.  We're going to trash all their furniture (which makes us all so sad!) and chemically treat their Legos and Nerf guns, then seal them up.  Kevin's going to take apart as much of the room as he can--including the light and electric outlets and pull off the baseboards.  Then we'll have the exterminators come and blast the room again right before we leave town (we're going on a bike trip as a family through some of the region that will last about a week).  Then we'll see where we are and slowly start moving through more rooms of the house, getting rid of furniture and other belongings as we go.  The worst case scenario is that we need to move and have to ditch most of our personal belongings, but we're sure hoping to avoid such drastic measures!

We've celebrated several birthdays since I last wrote....Hudson turned 10 at the beginning of May, and then Karis and Noah turned 13 and 8, respectively, in June.  And I might have had another one myself at the beginning of May, but we'll leave my age still undisclosed here (although if you ask anyone in China, they can tell you; that's usually one of the first questions I'm asked as people observe me and my small herd of children!)  Here are a few pics to mark the fun memories....
Hud's bday roller blades
Noah's bday

Noah opening gifts in our living room

Karis' park celebration

Thursday, March 23, 2017


I found myself trying to define the word "paradox" for a local friend a few weeks ago (whose English level was obviously quite high!).  My computer's dictionary defines paradox as the following: a statement or position that (in spite of sound reasoning) seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.  Sense that time, I've been grossly aware of the paradoxes that seem to exist in abundance all around me.  One of the most obvious was the woman luxuriously dressed in a long fur coat with her hair wrapped elegantly in a shimmering wrap, high heels clinking along the paved sidewalk as she loudly and publicly blew a snot rocket in the air as she continued on her way.  I think I gasped aloud with surprise at the sight!

We're now into the third day of spring, and yet the snow continues to fall!  We're not in Texas anymore....and while the kids are loving more snowball fights and ice forts, I'm getting a bit weary of mopping up the muddy boots that continue to track through the front door entryway.  Where are those buds on the trees?!!!

We decided to take off two weekends ago and make some memories as a family.  We drove the hour to the mountains with four sleds and a picnic lunch.  We stopped on the side of the road near a large hill that looked inviting and took off trekking uphill.  My kids are mountain goats!  Kevin and I were huffing and puffing to keep up (or, should I say, to catch up?).  We hiked to the top of the hill, found a nearby valley, and spent a few hours sledding down, stopping to enjoy our lunch and then hike/sled back down to the car.  We were all cold and wet by the time we made it back, but the goal of a fun-filled, memory-making day was certainly met!

And speaking of paradoxes--another one would be Khazak movers!  These small men can haul things unlike anything I've ever seen.  There was a team of 6 of them that came to load up all our belongings and move them from our old apartment to our new one.  Our old apartment was on the 8th floor and had an elevator, while our new one is on the 2nd floor (up three flights of stairs) without an elevator.  The way these men used cloth straps to hold the pieces of furniture on their backs and haul it was amazing.  The most noteworthy by far was the piano.  I don't know how much the thing weighs, but it seems like a TON.  Two of these guys got in front and behind and were able to lift it up the flights of stairs.  I was truly afraid that one of the guys was having a heart attack at the top of the last flight of stairs due to the noises he was making.  But thankfully he did survive and we tried to give them an extra thank you by giving them our old treadmill (that they wanted and we couldn't fit into our new home).  We're thrilled to announce that we moved into our new home as easily as we possibly could have, we've gotten settled over the past 3 weeks, and we're really enjoying our new place.  It feels larger and more homey than our previous apartment did already, and we've loved getting to meet some new neighbors (but are still close enough to our old ones to keep up!).  Karis and Eli have signed on to teach one of the neighbors English two hours a week, so they're pretty stoked to be earning some cash, as well.  (They've both decided to start saving up for cars one day!)

Karis and Hud

Noah striking a pose

Eli and his sausage lunch

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Battles Ensue...

We left the USA exactly one month ago.  Since that time, the usual crazy pace of our life has continued and we've had some battles on different fronts.  The most entertaining and humorous, by far, was the Battle of Monkey Island....

Monkey Island
Our family's favorite vacation spot (outside the US) is a beach about a 4-hour drive from Bangkok, Thailand.  We've been going there for years, and it's the home of many fond memories for our family and many friends who have accompanied us there over the years.  On our way back to East Asia, we stopped off in Thailand and got to enjoy several days on the beach.  This year, the adventure to Monkey Island stood out....

fishing boat w Monkey Island in the background
....As the two kayaks cut through the rough water, the sun beat down upon the backs of the 6 Joseph family members.  After half an hour of paddling, the kayaks had covered the 2.74 km to the shallow waters just off the coast of the small island known as Monkey Island.  This small, uninhabited island is aptly named due to the huge number of wild monkeys that roam the beaches of the picturesque landscape.  It isn't uncommon to see small fishing boats draw near for the passengers to catch a glimpse of the monkeys, many of whom are mothers with small ones clinging to their stomachs, who flood the beaches at the sight or sound of an approaching craft.

This day was like any other.  When the monkeys heard the sound of human banter as the boats approached, the monkeys swarmed out from the tree line.  The two kayaks slowly paddled toward the shore--the plan being to disembark for a short time and hand-deliver the bunch of bananas that had been hauled across the open water on the back of one of the kayaks.

As the bottom of the kayaks touched the sandy shore, all mayhem commenced.  As Kevin started tossing bananas, Karis hopped out of the first canoe, much to the monkeys' delight.  It seemed as if they assumed that she, too, was armed with bananas to throw.  Before she knew what hit her, a large monkey lunged and landed on her shoulder, clinging to the life jacket she wore before he slipped off and into the shallow water.  At the same time that her shrieks could be heard, the second kayak where Eli was perched, also came under attack.  As Eli was standing to his feet to brace the boat in the waves, a small group of monkeys approached at a rapid pace, with several jumping into the water and swimming while others lunged directly onto the boat.  Eli, obviously having watched too many Star Wars movies, instinctively took a Jedi stance, his oar as a double-bladed light saber, and started swinging.  Before Ashley could back paddle enough to get the kayak out of the danger zone, Eli smacked two monkeys with the end of his oar, sending the monkeys a short distance away (not harmed!).  In the meantime, Kevin came to Karis' rescue, also using his oar as a weapon to ward off the monkey onslaught.  The remaining bananas were quickly launched onto the shore (thankful for Kevin's good throwing arm) as the two kayaks and 6 Josephs paddled like mad for open water, leaving a few monkeys still hoping for more bananas onboard, following behind.

By the time we got to safe water and caught our breath, the peels of laughter could surely have been heard on the far shore.  The memories of the monkey attack, of Eli and his Jedi moves, of Kevin on the attack to save his daughter, and of Noah and Hudson simply egging on the whole adventure with their yelling, left us with memories that will not soon be forgotten.  And we consider the Battle of Monkey Island a "win" for the Joseph family (mainly because we escaped without any teeth marks on our bodies to show for it)...

I'll stop the drama there, as that was the highlight of the excitement.  I should probably add that we found out later that they fishermen have stopped allowing boats to get close enough to actually physically encounter the monkeys.  They now stop in the open water and throw the fruit on shore.  Apparently there were too many tourists getting physically assaulted by the increasingly aggressive primates.  Oh, and I'm also intentionally leaving out the conclusion of the kayak outing--being that the water had gotten so rough that we were unable to paddle against the current to get all the way back to our hotel's starting point!  We ended up paddling to shore, getting of the boats, and walking them through waist-deep water a full mile down the shore to get to our starting point.  It was a little humbling, but also ended up being more of a full-body workout than we'd intended!  (Man, were our quads sore the next day from the walk through the water!)

Eli and Hud in their snow fort
Battle on the Homefront
So now we're back in our home city and I'm sitting in my nook (my favorite spot in our home), sitting with a throw blanket over me as I watch the snow swirl all around from our 8th-floor window.  It's beautiful.  And cold!  We had one of our 15 bags that was seriously delayed (we got it a full month after it went missing!) that contained all the kids winter boots, their winter gloves and hats, and a few winter coats finally show up, and are we ever grateful!  The kids spent the first 5 days back playing in the snow in their tennis shoes, and they had to come warm up more than once and wait for the ice to thaw out enough for them to not crack when they were on their feet!

Unfortunately, the bags that I so delight in being able to unpack quickly and put away (in order to clear our small home from excess clutter) are still stacked around our entry way and at the foot of our beds, waiting for our big move.  Our landlord sold our apartment that we've been renting for the past 2 years, so we've had an amazingly hectic last week and a half of apartment hunting and packing up as much as we can.  We were anticipating the hunt to be challenging, but I don't think I realized just how far off my expectations were...

Literally the morning we arrived back in town, my sweet husband hit the pavement and didn't stop for about 5 days straight.  He had already been looking on-line and having three friends in town do some leg work to see what was available, and we were discouraged by the responses we were getting.  We were thrilled when we found an apartment about 100 yards away from the one we're currently in, slightly larger than our current 140 square meters (about 1500 sq ft) and in decent condition, and with a landlord who seemed great (willing to let us paint the walls and keep our cat!).  So then began the approval-seeking regiment, and it all fell apart.  In spite of the fact that it didn't make any sense logically to us, we were not permitted to rent that apartment.  After multiple appeals, including me baking cookies and going with Kevin and the landlord to beg, we were still denied and finally gave up.
Joseph boys and their snowman

So the hunt continued, and it was then that we started branching out in widening our search and I saw how different I am than the majority of people who live around me.  Most of the apartments that we looked at had hardly ANY furniture.  The bedrooms had no beds, only rugs on the ground for sleeping.  The kitchens were so small that there literally wasn't a single cabinet for storing food; people here only buy what they need for one day at a time (which is probably why people look at me like I'm crazy and mutter about how much stuff I buy whenever I'm in line at the check-out, placing enough groceries for a family of 6 for at least half a week on the counter!).  Most of the kitchen sinks had no hot water.  The bathrooms were only equipped with a shower head, which was usually inches away from the toilet, making a shower spray water throughout the entire small bathroom area whenever it's used.  And people here don't need (or want) much space!  When Kevin was looking on-line, out of the hundreds of available apartments in our immediate area (within walking distance of our current apartment), almost all of the apartments were under 900 sq. ft.  I got the same response from each of the half a dozen real estate agents who were helping us hunt for apartments when I made the request for an apartment with two bathrooms--a pause and then a blank look.  I think they were trying to figure out if I was serious!  In our week and a half of hunting, there wasn't a single one around.  And there was only one that was as large as our current apartment (the one we couldn't get permission to stay in!).

So as we were getting down to the wire, Kevin was desperately calling places he found that were supposed to be for sale only, not rent.  In doing so, he connected with a realtor who happened to know about an apartment in our current complex (where we knew we had permission to continue living).  He told us on the way over that it was "quite simple," which made us a little nervous.  But I'll have to say that his description is pretty accurate!  Long story short is that we've now got a lease signed, almost all the paperwork we need to officially live there, and the remodeling guy is on his way over now to drop off the materials he'll need this next week.  Kevin and I have both wrestled with the thought of paying to remodel an apartment that we're renting, but there were a few basic things that we determined we just couldn't live without (like a kitchen sink, for example!).  Oh, and there are no handles on any of the doors.  And two of them don't even close because the doorframes are falling apart.

It's still kind of fresh, so I won't go into too many details for fear that I'll take on an overly-pessimistic tone, but our interaction with the landlord in the whole process was terribly disappointing.  She went from dropping the monthly rental price a bit in order to help pay for the necessary remodeling, to then meeting with us and the remodel guy to input her opinion on every single thing.  She had all these extra things she thought needed to be done--like painting the ceiling (which is one of the few things in the place that actually looks really good!) and adding a kitchen door (which I did NOT want in order to keep it feeling more open)--that she was insisting we have done, mentioning that she planned to help pay for the renovations.  By the time it was all done and the bill came in, we proposed to her that she cover a very small amount (about 15%) of the cost--to which she flatly refused!  She has no intention of paying a dime.  So Kevin and I went back through the list of things that could be changed and decided to go with the bare minimum.  It will be interesting to see if she cares enough to go ahead and pay to have the other "extras" done that she had wanted, but I'm sorry to say that it's sure left us with a crummy feeling about our relationship with our new landlord.  :(

The renovations should take a week, and then we'll have movers come to get the big furniture moved over and start living in our new place!  The kids are excited to be in a place so close to where we've been that's familiar, and I'm measuring like crazy trying to figure out how to squeeze in more furniture than we're "supposed" to have, according to the cultural norms around us!

One funny cultural interaction that happened this week was regarding family relationships and how those are viewed.  When I first met our landlord, she told me she had 3 kids.  I thought this was unusual, as most of the people around here of her ethnicity only have 2, but didn't think much of it.  The next day, I met another woman, claiming to be the landlord!  It turns out that the first lady was actually the real landlord's "older sister," which could mean any number of familial relations (like a cousin, aunt, etc.).  And the original lady only has one kid, whereas our landlord has 2.  But since they live together and are family, they answer 3 kids when you ask them how many they have!  I was trying to imagine the response I'd get in Dallas if I told people that I have 11 children (10 boys and one girl), actually including my four, my sister's four, and my brother's three!  A slightly different view on family...

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

We Love America!!!!

Who needs a pillow when you have a brother's head?
We've been back now for three weeks, and we're soaking it in--the time with precious cousins, the predictable traffic patterns on the road while driving, grocery stores that have anything you could dream up all under one roof, being able to get multiple things accomplished in one day....we're loving it all and thankful beyond what words can express.  We are in a borrowed house, driving borrowed cars, and feel unbelievably loved and cared for by the generosity of more people than we can count.  It brings me to tears just reflecting on it all!  And of course, we've had some really good laughs along the way as we all adjust to culture shock.  Until you've lived overseas, you can't imagine how much the U.S. changes in just the two short years that we're away.  We come back to so many things that are different, and the funniest part is watching Noah in particular as he tries to take it all in.  So here are some stories so you can share in our laughter...

Yea for California beaches!
When we first arrived in the US, we landed in the LA area of California for a wedding.  We spent about 5 days there, getting over jetlag, visiting friends, and I'll admit, doing some serious shopping.  (Karis has grown 5 1/2 inches in the past two years, so she was down to 2 pair of pants that she could wear--although I'm now seeing we probably could've gotten away with wearing a few of her high waters, as the ankle length is so trendy!)  Our second day in country, we were at a beautiful park with friends when a caucasian woman walked past with her dog on a leash.  Noah asked me if he could ask her for permission to pet her dog, upon which I responded in the affirmative.  He took off jogging toward her, then turned around and ran back to me, asking, "Um...should I use English?"  It was awesome.  I assured him that yes, he should use English (rather than Chinese), and he was thrilled to jog back and make a new friend.

The next day we were at a mall courtyard area and the kids were exhausted from the jet lag (13 hours difference--so pretty major to adjust to!).  We were eating lunch when Noah put his head down on the table and asked if he could lay out on the empty chairs next to him to take a short nap.  I told him that he could not, and he responded with "Gosh.  I wish I was back in China."  When I asked him why, assuming that he was going to explain that then he wouldn't have to deal with transitioning to the new time zone, instead he answered, "Because in China you can sleep wherever you want!"  We all laughed at how insightful this was, as you truly see people sleeping in all kinds of public places in China without any shame or embarrassment over it!

State Fair of TX
The following day when I was waiting in our hotel lobby for our friends to come join us so we could travel together to the rehearsal dinner, a group of young adults walked in together.  They stood in a huddle, visiting with one another, when one of the guys looked over at me sitting on the couch (a good 8 to 10 feet away from where they were congregated), and asked politely, "Oh!  I'm sorry!  Are we crowding you?"  I nearly fell off the sofa from the shock of it!  Oh, Buddy.  If you only knew what my definition of crowding is after living 7 years in China where personal space is NOT a known concept!

Pumpkins in our neighborhood
So what are some of the things that we're not used to anymore?  Water fountains!  Every time we come back, the kids are fascinated by water fountains, stopping at every one we pass to grab a sip of water.  Wearing shoes in the house!  It's still not unusual for the kids to forget that they don't have to take off their shoes when we enter a home, so they usually drop them at the front door as soon as they come in.  There have been a few times where both Hudson and Noah have dropped to their hands and their knees to start crawling across the floor to grab something they've forgotten (not wanting to take off their shoes).  It's pretty funny to hear the older kids reminding them that it's okay here to actually wear your shoes into the house to get what you need.  Drinks are too cold!  We're all not used to such extreme cold temperatures in our drinks, preferring our usual lukewarm water, hot teas, or only slightly chilled soda.  Church here is an actual building!  On our first Saturday back in town, Noah asked, "So tomorrow's Sunday, right?  Who's house are we going to for church?"  We all chuckled as we reminded him that in the US you go to an actual building for church.  He was excited!

weekend trip to Broken Bow, OK with cousins
It's also fun to see the kids processing some deeper questions that the change in culture brings up.  When we were in California, we observed a huge number of people out exercising on a regular basis.  The kids were shocked at this--especially at how little clothing the women were wearing compared to what is normal in our super-conservative community in China.  When Hudson first noticed and mentioned in the car how many people he saw out exercising, we discussed how physical appearance is important in that part of the country and how people in America typically value exercise and physical fitness more than people do where we live.  His next question prompted more great conversation when he said, "So, is it good or bad that people exercise so much more?"  It was a neat chance to talk together as a family about how valuable it is to be healthy and active, and yet how easy it is to take it to an unhealthy extreme and have that or physical appearance become an idol that can control you.  I wondered if those observations and questions would have come from my nine year old if he didn't have the cross-cultural comparison to make.

Halloween Loot!
Our time so far has been spent visiting friends and family, and we have two more months of that to look forward to!  I'll include some of our favorite pics of the memories we're making...

Monday, September 12, 2016

Party Central!

These past two weeks we've had three celebrations going on around us.  So here's the skinny on each of them, along with a few pictures....

Our 7th Anniversary in China
On September 4th, our family celebrated the 7th year that we've lived overseas.  Each year, we let the kids pick what they want to do in order to celebrate this auspicious occasion.  They ran through quite a few options (including some of their favorite parks, a movie, a trip to the mountains) before all agreeing that going out for hot pot would be their first choice.  Unfortunately, it was NOT Kevin's first choice, so he convinced them to go out for kabobs and noodles (the local favorites where we now live) instead!  So everyone was happy, and I made one of their favorite desserts (which includes some import ingredients, like chocolate pudding) to top off the evening.  We did some talk time, reminiscing on the 7 years we've spent here, and the blessing that it is each year to celebrate one more!

Eli's 11th Birthday
Bday banana pudding!
I can't believe my second-born is already 11 years old!  Oh, how the time flies.  While I enjoyed my kids as babies and toddlers, I must admit, I LOVE this phase of life with them!  Somehow, mom and dad are still cool enough for them to want time with us, and the conversations and activities we can do together are such a blast.  Eli is developing into a young man of rich character--it's really neat to see his personality and his gifts coming out.  He's my regular handy-man.  When something needs fixing, I turn to him before anyone else (don't tell Kevin!).  He loves to pull out the tools and see what magic he can work.  He got my fan taken apart and completely cleaned out last week (and put back together again) and then got the hose re-installed under the (one!) bathroom sink yesterday.  I don't know what I'd do without him!  And he loves running to the market stores for me to buy groceries.  It's really fun to send him out with money and my shopping cart and see him be able to communicate enough now in Chinese to get the job done.  And his heart for littler kids is really sweet.  His gentle spirit and tenacity are the perfect combination for him to befriend and win over some of the young kids in our community (like our Crossfit coach's son, who is present at the workouts in the mornings when we are there).  I'm so thankful for my kids, and it was a fun day to celebrate the young man Eli is growing into!

Eli on his bday "throne"
Eli's Hero workout
So Eli was celebrated early on his birthday morning with having a Crossfit Hero workout named after him!  The coach put together a workout designed with Eli in mind, with each of the numbers of reps and sets being connected to his birthdate in some way.  I think Eli felt really loved and honored by the whole thing!  When we came home from the workout, the house had been decorated by Karis and Noah (who had stayed behind with Kevin) with balloons, streamers, and signs.  So sweet to see his siblings serving him without so much as a suggestion to do so on my part!  He got to open his presents after the workout, and Kevin and I both marveled at one of the positive aspects (I think!) of the life we live overseas.  It's just really hard to find gifts of good quality for a decent price (it's normal for the price to be doubled or tripled on most import products--like Legos).  So we usually go pretty light on birthday gifts for the kids.  This year Eli got a pretty large Lego set and a pair of binoculars (he also got money from grandparents to spend as he wishes--which will be in some on-line shopping).  That's it!  He knows he has a camo shirt (for hunting, which he can't wait for!) at my parent's house waiting for him in Dallas, but other than those few things, that was it for his birthday presents.  And I don't think I'm being naive to say that he really was content!  He spent the afternoon putting together his Lego set, saying thank you several times, and I really think that overall, our kids have just learned to be content with less "stuff" than they ever were before.  Fewer tortilla chips on taco Thursdays, fewer boxed brownie mixes, fewer pair of shoes to chose from to wear each day.  And they're okay with that!  Now, please don't get me wrong--they have a LONG list of things they're excited to do, buy, and eat once we get to the US.  But for where we are now, and most days, they are content with the more simplified life that we (by necessity) are living.  Talk about grace!

Then in the afternoon a group of 4 of his friends came over (all Korean kids who are still here in town).  The kids all played virus tag outside for almost two hours, snacking in between some, and then came in for dinner, Nerf gun battles, and a viewing of Zootopia.  He had a blast, and again, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness at this group of kids and the blessing that they have been to my kids these past few months.

our apt complex's sheep pen
The celebration that is taken most seriously--maybe even more so than Ramadan--by the people who live around us is taking place right now.  The holiday lasts a full week, but the first day or two are the most intense (mainly because that is when each family is supposed to sacrifice a lamb (but we would call them more of a ram, because of the size and the horns).  It's absolutely intriguing--and a bit disturbing for those who are animal lovers.  The day before the holiday begins, you see pens of the lambs all over (this is a new practice; last year the lambs were required to be kept outside of the city limits, but there was a lot of push-back from that because it makes it so hard to bring a lamb home if you can't just walk it there; we saw lots of hilarious scenes with lambs being hauled around town in the back of open taxi trunks!).  Then the day of the holiday, you see lots of people (an entire extended family is supposed to work together to do the slaughter and the butchering of the animal) working together to kill the animal and then prepare it (you're supposed to eat all the edible parts, then you bring the skin, head, and legs to the mosque or give them to the poor).  I was just outside with the kids when we paused to watch one sacrifice as it was taking place.  I'm not totally sure, but it looked like all the family members came and squatted down to lay their hands on the beast as it's throat was cut (you can see the group around the animal in the picture).  And then there's a specific order in which you're supposed to visit friends and neighbors during the week, starting with your closest family members and then moving outward in your circle of friends.  So I've been baking and we purchased some other gifts (like honey and specially boxed jams) to bring to neighbors and to the one friends' home we're going to tomorrow evening for dinner (which is a bigger invitation when it includes a meal, rather than just a drop-in visit).  It's a really neat time to be able to learn more of the culture of those around us, as well as to engage in more meaningful conversations about deeper topics.
butchering of the ram

laying hands on the sacrifice

So that's it for the celebrations!  I must confess, I'm feeling weary.  Four weeks from today we'll be on a plane heading back to the US, and I'm trying not to count down the days!  I'm ready for a break--mainly from the things here that just seem to take so much time that could be short-cut in Stateside living.  I took a picture this week to illustrate--spinach.  In the US, I LOVE to go to Sam's Club and buy one of those huge tubs of spinach, then keep in in the fridge and use it for salads for a week or longer (oh, and don't get me started on feta cheese, or my mouth might not stop watering!).  Here, I can buy spinach, but the amount of time it takes to get all the dirt off, soak it to kill any parasites, and dry it to make sure we're not getting to much of the sink water in our systems makes spinach for salad more of a delicacy than it would ever be in the US!  Sigh....soon enough!  I'll be eating mounds of spinach and letting my kids indulge in slices of cheese (you can find mozzarella here, but it's expensive enough that you can't just eat it freely; and any other type of cheese is a rarity for sure!) in no time!

kids w/ their favorite "stray" dogs

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Blessings in the Gaps

first day of our fall semester and the kids school bucks
I'll be honest--we've all kind of been dreading this summer a bit.  Each of us in the Joseph family had several things that we were concerned about and maybe even a bit anxious over, and yet I am thrilled to report that rather than experiencing our worst-case scenarios, we've been blessed to see provision and joy in the midst of the "gaps"--the things in life that we thought would be missing or difficult to endure.  Here's a brief account...
So many of the kids' friends are not here this summer (in fact, literally none of the western kids within 5 years of their ages are within an hour of our home!) that everyone was thinking it could feel really lonely.  But we have been so blessed to see the provision of new friends and reconnecting with old, as well as unexpected friends who cover a wide age range.  Through baseball, the kids have met a few Korean families with kids who are also their ages, and these kids are just phenomenal!  They are super polite and respectful and fun to be around, and even though they are all in the 10-14 year age range, they are really inclusive of all my kiddos (even Noah, who has a tendency to be a BIG personality who likes to smother older kids whenever he gets the chance!).  They've also had their best local friend, Bob, home from the soccer academy for the summer, so they're getting hours of outdoor activity with this kind young man.  And it's great language practice, too!  The kids have also been able to not only serve some of the families in our community with smaller kids, but also have really enjoyed playing with quite a few younger ones--kids in the age range of 1-6 years old.  It has been an absolute delight to me to see all four of mine growing in their caretaking abilities and their desire to help out with the little ones.  There aren't many babysitting options where we are, so to be able to give parents a break occasionally by watching their toddlers is something that is greatly appreciated in this community.  I often wonder what it would be like if we were in Dallas where it seems like so many kids are only interested in playing with their peers.  Would my kids have the same willingness (and even enthusiasm) to engage with younger kids in play for hours on end?  In addition to older and younger kids, my kids have also had the unexpected blessing of young adults who have made an intentional investment in them.  There were two young men who came for 6 weeks this summer to help out with the baseball company, and then there have been several friends of friends traveling through our part of the country as tourists who we've gotten to spend time with over some meals.  It's been so fun to see our kids getting to interact with these "young people" (mainly college-aged, and I'm embarrassed to admit, are also now closer to my kids' ages than they are to mine! yikes!  how did that happen?!!!).  There are also a few younger couples here in our community who have really pursued our kids and getting to know them as the young men and women they are becoming.  One of my friends with a toddler had her husband away for business for a week and a half, and during that time Karis went over and would just hang out with her and chat it up.  When her water went out for several days, Eli convinced his friends a couple of times that it would be really cool to go over and help haul water in buckets back to her apartment.  It was pretty sweet to see the way their developing friendship with this young couple has been such a mutual blessing to both parties!
our "gym"
my boys as babysitters

When Kevin and I decided not to compete in the triathlon this year, we agreed that having a goal to work toward in our exercise was still a good thing.  So when two of our western friends here decided to start Crossfit, and when one of the husbands/coaches agreed to start a women's group, we signed up!  I convinced my three boys (who really wanted to participate) that it was okay for them to be a part of the ladies' group (and gave them permission to do regular push-ups rather than girly ones).  Kevin would love to join in the action, but with his back so messed up after years of baseball, there's really no way.  He threw it out the last time just by opening a jar of olives for me, so the straining and jarring of Crossfit is just not a good "fit" for him (haha!).  I never dreamed that we would all enjoy it so much!  The group meets 3 times a week and we love every bit of it--the camaraderie from exercising together, using new muscles I didn't think I had, meeting new local friends.  Karis is the one in our family who is much more drawn to the fine arts than she is to physical activity, so she has opted out of the Crossfit exercise regiment.  However, she has been an incredible blessing to our coach and his wife, watching their 1 1/2 year old so the wife can work out while the husband coaches in 3 languages!  Everyone wins!  And Noah has taken a real liking to this precious little boy--they even have matching Wednesday uniforms for the work out, as shown in the photo!

baseball camp in the mountains
Last summer was overwhelming with the heat.  There was a period of about a month where we just felt uncomfortable ALL the time.  We thought with the desert dry heat that we would at least get some reprieve in the evenings after the sun went down, but whether we were just ignorant or if it was a circulation problem within our apartment, I'm not sure.  Either way, we couldn't get a break from it.  There was over a week of above 100 degree temps, and we couldn't get it down below 86 in our apartment.  Couple that with it not being appropriate to wear shorts (for either men or women) or tank tops, and let me tell ya, we were feeling the heat.  I'm thrilled to share that this summer has NOT been that way at all!  There are only two days that I've accounted for the temperature being over 100, and we've actually really enjoyed the weather outside, allowing us to make full use of the freedom in our schedules that summer brings.

While last summer's schedule with baseball was grueling for Kevin, this summer was much more manageable.  Rather than doing baseball 6 mornings a week, they dropped it down to 3 times a week instead.  That, along with the cooler temperatures and the two young men who were in town to help, made the job so much less fatiguing!  Kevin's company was also able to coordinate several games with college players and alumni teams, one of which the boys were even able to play in due to a shortage of players on the field.  It made for some fun memories for everyone involved!
Hud and Trapper

Noah and Trapper--same same
Really, this comes down to just one pet--our cat, Trapper.  I know I've said it before, but I'm still astounded at the gift he is to our family.  Coming from a family of dog lovers, and thinking that cats should remain outdoors most of the time, having a cat in an apartment has been an eye-opening experience for me.  I never dreamed that these small creatures, who can be so nasty when they're "bad" ones, could be such active participants in a family's daily routine.  Trapper amazes me with his patience with the kids as he gets dragged around, used as Nerf gun target practice, and yanked on by the numerous toddlers who come through our door.  He stands at the kids' door in the morning, meowing impatiently until they are out and ready to play for the day.  He follows them around, interested in every new activity they begin.  He literally plays tag with them around the living room, darting out in sneak attack and whopping them with his paw (claws not extended), then darting away again.  Talk about a bright spot in light of the fact that our hope in coming was to get a dog, and we felt like a cat was "settling" for something much less desired.
Hud with his chicken foot

Ice Cream and Chicken Feet
green pea ice cream
This subtitle says it all.  Who would have thought that my kids would grow to love green pea ice cream?!  And chewing on chicken feet would be not only fun, but a tasty treat as well?!  Leave it to living overseas and the continual surprises that brings, but we've obviously enculturated to the extent that our diet has broken out of the typical American norm.  Seven years here and we're eating things I never dreamed we would.  Who knows how broad our horizons might expand over the next seven more!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Poop in the Stairwell

celebrating summer w/ cotton candy
I won't post a picture to give any more of a visual of the title of this post...but I do feel like it's a good picture of what we've been stepping around as of late.  Yes, there has been a pile of human excrement in our stairwell for several days now.  We do have an elevator, but this past week when it went out we discovered the stinky pile as we passed by it (thankfully, not through it) on our way up to our 8th floor apartment.  Gross.  Putrid.  Really inconvenient.  Yet unavoidable, and what are you gonna do about it (other than maybe clean it up myself, which I haven't brought myself to doing yet...)???  So while we're waiting for the pile to be removed or our elevator to get repaired, I figure that the best approach is to be aware of it being there, take heed as we dodge the pile, hold our breath, and press on ahead.  My life, in so many regards....

grass whistles
Three weeks ago, two of the kids were bitten by stray dogs.  The crazy part is that it was two different dogs, on two different days (one on a Friday and one on a Sunday), in two different apartment complexes!  What are the odds?  Now when I say stray dogs, you kind of have to have some context.  In our part of town, most people consider dogs to be unclean, so you should't have one in your home.  But, of course, lots of kids still like dogs.  So you end up with kids getting puppies, but they can't have them in their homes (and VERY few apartments have any sort of outdoor courtyard that could contain a pet).  So you end up with kids keeping puppies in their apartment hallways until they are bigger, then they turn them loose outside to kind of run wild, but sometimes consider these "stray" dogs to kind of belong to them.  So it's really normal to have a pack of dogs living in an apartment community courtyard with different people feeding them at different times.  All four of my kids are HUGE dog lovers, so this really has been a huge blessing to them to have such easy access to playing with dogs in the area.  They have them all named (currently, our complex has a pack of about 6 that are living in a small grassy patch on the other side of our building) and go outside to play with them regularly.  Jasper, my kids' current favorite, loves to roller blade alongside the kids all throughout the complex and also is an incredible frisbee player, retrieving and returning the frisbee every time it's thrown!  It's a bit of a sad situation, too, however, in that these dogs are often severely mistreated by people within the community and they're, of course, quite mangy, as they live off of whatever scraps, garbage, or small critters they can find and never are indoors to get groomed or bathed.  It's also pretty normal for them to just disappear or be known to be killed by workers within a complex (usually the garbage collectors).  So we've had pretty strict rules concerning these dogs; the kids are allowed to play with them but they're not supposed to be petting or touching them.  This has gotten increasingly more difficult though as they've gotten to know so many of these dogs better and the dogs have a huge affection for my kids, some of the only ones who are kind and compassionate toward them.

Noah at the water park
So 3 weeks ago, Karis was playing with several of the dogs in a friends' complex when Tapioca, one of the girls' favorites, got carried away and nipped Karis in the arm.  It was only a small bite, but punctured the skin nonetheless.  Kevin and I weren't sure that we needed to take drastic measures at that point, as we were pretty certain the dog wouldn't be carrying rabies and the bite wound was so minor, but we were still concerned and in the process of talking through the issue on Sunday, when Noah was bitten by a different dog (Freddy).  The kids were outside playing a game of Virus Tag with a group of their friends when Freddy jumped out from behind the bushes and latched onto Noah's arm.  His bite was much more severe, breaking the skin and leaving bruises in several spots, and Noah was obviously shaken up by the whole thing.  Freddy's been around in our friend's complex since this winter, and he's always been pretty mean, but this seemed even more extreme an act of aggression than we were used to, which increased our concern.  As we did the research and talked with our American doctor friend here in town, our fears were confirmed about the seriousness of rabies (once you show any symptoms, it's too late; there is not cure and rabies almost always ends in the fatality of the victim).  We decided it wasn't worth the risk, no matter how minimal it might be, that the kids could have been infected, so we started the hunt for the post-exposure rabies shot.  You would think this would be a simple task; it is not!!!  We took off on Monday morning after researching on Sunday and knew that we were looking for two different shots--one is an immunization that we wanted all 4 of the kids to get, and the other is the post-exposure globulin that is administered if you have been bitten by a dog with (possibly) rabies.  After 6 hours we returned home on Monday having all 4 kids receiving a shot, only to discover after confirming with another doctor that all they had received was the immunization, NOT the post-exposure shot that is so necessary for Karis and Noah who had already been bitten.  And this is after trips to multiple different hospitals and CDCs in town, with everyone we talked to assuring us that this is all that we needed and all that was available.  We even had to fight to get Hudson and Eli the shots, as they didn't have proof that they'd been bitten and therefore the doctors felt like an immunization was a waste of a shot!

Karis and Hud picking flowers
So the next step was getting to some place that did have the right shot.  After an hour-long phone conversation to the international hospital in Beijing, finally ending in me speaking to an American ER doctor there who confirmed that we could get the post-exposure globulin, Kevin got on a plane with Karis and Noah on Thursday to take a four and a half hour flight across the country, wait in the ER for several hours before getting the needed (and very painful!) shots, spend the night in a hotel, then turn around and fly back the next morning so they were back in time for a lunch meeting Kevin had scheduled for Friday.  And the funny thing is, this doesn't seem too abnormal to us!  I guess one of the things we've adjusted to is that living overseas requires a lot of extremes that you would never dream of doing (or enduring!) in the US.  So we're resting much more easily now, knowing that the kids who were bitten have a "good" dose of the required medicine and tomorrow marks the final round of the immunizations needed for all 4 kids (5 rounds of shots total).  The kids are counting down the days till they have permission to re-engage with their dog friends, who have been patiently awaiting our kids' return to the courtyard for a game of frisbee.
Noah's 7th bday celebration (June 3)

We've had a scary instance or two within our apartment complex over the 15 months that we've lived here, but only twice have we had late-night knocks on our front door that left us rattled.  Unfortunately, the one night Kevin was away marked our most scary incident of that nature yet... A little before midnight there was an intense pounding on our front door that aroused me from sleep.  As I ran/stumbled to the door, the banging increased in aggression and there was rattling of the door handle as well as a key going into the lock.  Now this normally would have unnerved me, but the key in the lock sound really put me over the edge because just that afternoon I had gotten a copy of our front door key made at a nearby store.  While in the store, there was a man there who made me uncomfortable, asking me lots of questions and expressing his frustration with American in general (I couldn't quite figure out why.... he was using some vocabulary that I didn't know!).  So the whole time our door is getting pounded upon my mind was racing with the possibility of someone having followed me home, knowing where we lived, having a copy of our key, and their ability to waltz right into our home.  I was still pretty drowsy but had enough wherewithal to start shouting in as deep and threatening a voice as I could in Chinese, and within a few short (but long feeling) minutes, the person on the other side of the door ran to the stairwell and down the stairs.  I was so shaken up thinking that there was a chance still that someone had a key that I spent the rest of the night clutching a baseball bat and fervently asking for help in my heart!  I did have to chuckle at the difference in my response and a friend's.  Upon their arrival here in our city (several years ago), they had a group of men gather at their front door and pound on their door for quite a long period of time, evidently not just at the wrong door but seemingly in anger or disapproval of their new foreign neighbors.  Our friends were brand new to the country, so they were also at a language disadvantage, not being able to ask through the closed door what the problem was.  Rather than picking up a baseball bat and being ready to take off the head of the first intruder to walk through the door (my possibly unsanctified approach to this situation), the husband had his wife and daughters lock themselves in a back bedroom and prepared tea.  He figured if the men outside were to get into his home he would at least try to win them over with warm hospitality and servant heartedness!  Guess I have some room to grow if that is what loving your enemies looks like...
Karis' surprise!

So the next pile of poop came less than a week later.  Karis' birthday was on June 17, and the day before that I threw a surprise party for her.  I had 6 of the western girls here in the city (which is pretty much all of them between the ages of 6 and 15!) meet at our favorite restaurant for lunch then took them all to the plant market for Karis to let her friends help her pick out some potted flowers (this is one of her favorite places in the whole city!).  We had been in the plant market about an hour and were winding down when the group of girls stopped at one tree that had two pieces of fruit growing on it that looked  a lot like kiwi.  Before I could say anything, one of the girls reached out and gently touched the fruit on the tree and encouraged her sister to do the same.  In a flash, the somewhat withered piece of fruit dropped off the tree and into the girl's hand.  We all stood there looking at it for a moment before the vendor walked over, obviously not happy.  He started fussing at us and then pointed to a sign that said the cost of the tree was 600 kuai (about $100) and touching the tree cost you 50 kuai (about $8).  The two sister who had touched the tree have pretty good Chinese, so they initially tried to argue with the vendor that the fruit was already withered and that caused it to drop, but he wouldn't have it.  So they (very maturely, I thought) pulled out their wallets (which they happened to have to buy their own plants) and tried to hand him 50 kuai.  The man wouldn't accept the money, saying it wasn't enough, and grabbed onto one of the girls sweaters.  I removed his hand and told the girls to walk closer toward the door, away from the vendor's stall.  I proceeded to argue with him, urging him to take the 50 kuai or nothing, but he insisted that 4 or 5 girls had touched it so we needed to pay him more money, not specifying an amount.  At this point I told him to take the money or we were leaving, but he said that he wouldn't let us go.  I tried to call his bluff by walking away, at which point it got scary.  This small man grabbed my arm with both of his hands with such ferocity and strength it shocked me.  He managed to literally drag me back to his stall by holding my one arm after I'd walked away about 20 feet.  This is when I realized we were in trouble.  I tried speaking loudly and forcefully to him, telling him to let me go in every language I could get out, but to no avail.  His grip was really hurting at this point!  When I realized that I wasn't going to convince him to release me and I saw the horrified look on the girls' faces who were standing by helplessly looking on I made the conscious decision to starting yelling.  In China, a lot of time you don't get peoples' attention until you make a lot of noise.  It's an honor/shame culture, and someone yelling at you makes them loose face (feel shame), so you see this practiced ALL the time--people yelling at the security guards when they're not quick enough to open the gate to an apartment community exit, at lines at the ticket counter of an airport, etc.  My yelling worked.  I started screaming out my defense in Chinese, explaining that we made a mistake by touching the tree and were trying to give him money, but that the man wouldn't take it.  Then I started yelling for someone to call the police, hoping that would prove to the bystanders that I was convinced of my own innocence in the matter.  Thankfully, right away a few men came to my rescue, one in particular who started yelling back at the vendor and I think (I can't remember this part clearly) actually got the vendor to release my arm.  I didn't even stop to thank my rescuers, but threw the money at the vendor's feet and started running toward the group of girls waiting in tears for me.  We all bolted for the entrance door (the exit was the other way that would have taken us right past the angry vendor) and managed to talk our way out (the security guard there was hesitant, but we kind of just blew past him as I hurriedly explained that an angry man was chasing us and we needed to get out as fast as we could).  We ran to our car and took off, stopping to debrief and pray together before returning home.  The girls were all so shaken up by the whole thing and my arm had bruises on it still the next day from the man's hands and marks from his fingernails.  By the time I was dropping off the last girls, we were able to laugh at the fact that Karis' birthday party had certainly been a memorable one!
bday cupcakes in the plant market parking lot

So how do we handle these piles of poop that seem to be inevitable in where we are?  Good question.... and I'm not sure I have the complete answer yet.  I will admit that the series of events that I've just written about were enough to rattle my sense of safety and security.  I had a period of several days that left me feeling like I wanted to withdraw, curl up in my nook and just read.  I didn't want to get out the door and engage with my community.  I found myself more jumpy when someone I didn't know looked at me funny on the street.  I felt so tired.  But thankfully, I feel like I've pulled through the feelings of insecurity and I'm back on track, ready to take on the world!  The best analogy I've got (besides dodging the piles of poop) is that of a boxing match.  It feels like so much of living overseas is just that--a boxing match where I have to have my gloves up at all times.  It's a fight to not feel overwhelmed and withdraw.  It's a fight to learn another new language and communicate in one that doesn't come naturally to me.  And I sometimes find myself against the ropes, feeling like I'm just getting pummeled.  In these times I'm so thankful for my husband who encourages me, a few dear friends here who hear me talk through my stressors and allow me to cry, times of solace to be still at his feet and realign my heart with his in praise and worship.  Struck down, but not destroyed...  Piles of poop that we try to walk around but just can't get out of the stairwell completely.  So I've had my water break on the bench in the corner and now the gloves are back up.  Ready to face a world that sure knows how to stretch a girl to her limits...

Karis opening bday gifts