Monday, August 7, 2017

Extreme Highs and Lows

walking up the old city streets of Kashgar
This past month has been memorable... in many ways!  On a positive note, our family took the most incredible trip through the southern part of the region that we live in.  We saw sights that were breath-taking, pedaled more kilometers on bicycles than I thought we could handle, laughed with friends in the midst of camping in the rain, and ate things that I'd rather not mention!

The gooz (grassy wetlands)
jewelry store / dentist combo
There are two American families in the city where we are who have started a company that does tourist excursions throughout Xin Jiang, the far western region of China.  They had several bike trips planned for different tourist groups this summer, all of which fell through, but since the itineraries were set and bikes already lined up, they decided to allow those of us who live in their same city to participate at a reduced cost.  Originally the plan was for only older kids to be able to ride, but then with the number of younger kids we had wanting to attend, they made provision for even Noah (who just turned 8) to do some riding.  So after a two and a half our flight to a city well known to be a cultural hub for one of the main minority people groups of this region, we started off with a group of 28 western tourists (and two Chinese friends--our Chinese teacher and her older sister were dying to go when they found out what we had planned!) to bike through a huge part of the mountainous region where we are.  Every aspect of the trip was spectacular.  We had our eyes opened to all sorts of cultural things that we hadn't previously experienced (the tour group arranged an amazing race for us to do a scavenger hunt through major tourist attractions in the first city we were in, which included everything from the largest mosque in the region to the old city built on a crumbling wall that was there for protection against invading enemies)... it was fascinating!  I even found some pottery to bring back home as my souvenir!  One of my favorite finds was when I was out shopping with a friend before we left town.  We entered into one place that looked like it had antique jewelry and pottery pieces.  It did, and it also had a dental chair with a patient sitting in it--right behind the jewelry counter!  It was a hilarious blend that caught my friend and me totally off guard.  I managed to discreetly take a quick photo...
Stone Fort of Tashkorgon

4 countries within 50 km!
We then bussed the 7 hours to a remote location--a small city rich in culture and history, and dominated by fascinating minority people groups that don't look anything like what you picture as being "normal Chinese."  Because of the location, we were stopped probably 4 different times on the route to get off the bus and walk through security, with everyone showing their IDs.  It was only because our tour guides had done such excellent preparation (and providential grace!) that we were able to make it to our final destination!  Add to the security issues the geographical factors (we were winding through a huge mountain range that makes the US's 14,000-feet peaks look like a joke!), and we were so grateful (and a bit car sick) when we finally arrived.  We had topped out at 12,000 ft. at the highest point on the road during our journey, and we all felt the effects of the altitude (light headedness, some nausea, etc.) at this part of the journey.  The next two days were spent exploring.  We were able to check out an old stone fort (in the background within 50 km of this photo of Kevin is the meeting point of 4 countries--Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China) and spend the day romping around the "gooz"--the wet grasslands where the local people allowed their livestock to graze.  We also attempted a 50 km bike ride, which turned into more like 38 km due to our slower-pedaling group, people getting hungry, and bad weather setting in!

traditional meal in a yurt
The next day we did a longer ride that had a large amount of downhill, so the km went by much more quickly!  We saw more breath-taking views and even met some of the locals.  Some of the Tajik people had us into their yurts (it's like a round tent that fits a lot of people inside; this is where they live, eat, sleep, etc.)  They cooked an authentic meal for us, which included milk, milk, and some bread!  The rice served had milk in it.  And the other dishes all were dairy-based (from the goat that they raise).  My biggest shocker of the meal--the tea had salt in it!  It was the saltiest tasting drink I'd ever had, and honestly, quite hard to get down.  But the experience was unforgettable...
traditional Tajik game--get the goat carcass into a hole!

After that we headed on the road to do more biking to a campground run by some Kyrgyz by a lake.  The only bummer on this leg was the weather.  We had days of rain, which unfortunately leaked through the yurt's canvas top, leaving us all soaked through.  I was shocked how cold it got at night (can't say I was totally prepared with how I packed for us all!), so we were a bit chilly for those few days.  But memories were made, nonetheless, and the kids had a ball playing in the mud and playing inside card games, too.  (They had their two families of best buddies along on the trip, so everyone was having a blast getting their tanks filled with sweet friend time!)

Kev and Noah on wheels
The trip wrapped up with some more biking and a final day in a hotel with a swimming pool (such a treat!) and some quick souvenir shopping.  We flew back home after the week-long trip, feeling like we'd experienced a part of the country that was previously totally unfamiliar.  And the cultural insights were enlightening and also served to open our eyes to the vast differences that exist in this one small pocket of the world.

We returned to discover that our uninvited house guests--aka, bedbugs--had truly vacated our apartment!  We moved right back into our normal living arrangements (with the boys back on the floor of their bedroom) and have continued to have NO BITES since that time (which was about 6 weeks ago)!!!  We're so thrilled to get to stay in our home, and only at the cost of the boys' furniture being tossed out and their room being somewhat torn apart.  They've continued to be great sports about the whole thing...

Noah and his broken leg
The Lows that we've felt as of late have mainly been due to health issues.  Almost 3 weeks ago, the boys were outside playing a game of tag when Noah fell really hard and hit his shin on a concrete slab around the edge of a building...resulting in a fractured tibia (shin bone).  He immediately knew something was wrong when he fell, shouting to Eli, "Eli!  Go get Mom!  I broke my leg!"  Eli came up calmly and got me (Kevin was out meeting with a friend at the time) and we went to check on Noah.  I honestly thought he was being dramatic, as there was no visible outward sign of the injury that had taken place, but after continual tears and his unwillingness to put weight on his leg, I ended up carrying him upstairs to our apartment (it's only 3 flights up, but the boys kept saying how glad they are that I do CrossFit with them so I could carry Noah that far!).  After 15 minutes of him still being in a great deal of pain, I called Kevin and asked him to start heading home.  We then got on the phone with our American doctor that's in our city to get counsel from him.  None of us thought it was broken at the time, but did decide to take him in and get x-rays to confirm that and see if he'd maybe done some other damage.  At this point, Noah had been crying out in pain for about an hour, and that is really atypical for him.  His brothers like to say that he really only cries when he's mad, not because he's hurt (because it just doesn't happen that often!).

kids' sleeping arrangement for Karis to be on-call  night nurse!
So Kevin and I left the other kids at home with a phone and took him to a nearby hospital where we were able to get him x-rayed remarkably quickly.  Kevin's Chinese employee at his baseball company, who is also a dear friend, came with us to help navigate the Chinese hospital and to make sure we were understanding the details of what the doctors said.  A Chinese hospital is unlike anything we Americans would call "normal."  The hoops you have to go through, the lines you wait in, and the sheer number of people are all pretty incredible.  So we went through the whole process to discover quite quickly that Noah had definitely broken his tibia and then the doctors suggested surgery.  We knew we weren't going to have surgery there. (One of the main rules about getting medical work done here is that you don't want to have anything invasive done; there isn't the same perspective on germs and sterilization that we have.  This is evidenced by the fact that there is no soap in the hospital bathrooms. [There aren't even dispensers to TRY to keep soap stocked!.]  There was bloody gauze that I had to move and blood smeared on the table where Noah had his x-ray, with no concern by the medical personnel in the room to remove it before the next patient comes in.)  So we had a cast put on it by the doctors there while we scrambled to be in touch with our American doc for his counsel.  The doctors who put on the cast told us to return the next day for a more permanent cast to be put on.

game of chess to pass the hours on the sofa
We did, and spent 5 hours at the hospital only to find out that this specialist didn't want to put a new cast on, so we left with nothing to show  for our long visit.  We did return the next week to get the promised new cast, but also found out that the bone seemed to have moved more in the week, leaving the bone more off-set than it had been when it was originally broken :(  So through many tears of my own, we had to let Noah know that the doctor wanted to try to re-set the bone with his hand and then re-cast it.  It was horrible.  Kevin had to help hold his leg down while the doctor pushed gently and then with much more force on his broken tibia.  The whole process with the doc probably lasted 5 minutes, but it felt like forever.....Noah took it like a champ.  I helped get him through it by promising he could have whatever he wanted for dinner.  He chose ice cream.  And ever since that was over (the whole process took 9 hours that day), he's been feeling great.  The bad news is that the x-rays taken after the attempted re-setting of the bone don't look any better than the ones taken before the doctor tried to reset it, so there's still a chance of surgery down the road.  But for now, we've been blessed to have four doctors look at the x-rays and all agree that surgery is not necessary at this point, but it just needs to be watched and x-rayed regularly to see if it doesn't straighten out a bit more in the natural healing process.

getting a head start of fall school work
After our nine-hour day at the hospital, poor Kevin was so tense that he went into his CrossFit workout the next morning probably more tightly strung than usual.  He ended his workout early after tweaking his overly-sensitive back (thanks to too many pitches thrown in his former bball playing days).  His back went steadily downhill, and within the next 36 hours he wasn't going anywhere.  He had to spend the next 4 or 5 days pretty laid up, resting and taking muscle relaxers to try to get his back to get back into working condition.  It was a long week for all of us!  Between Noah not getting out of the house (and making him generally less agreeable than normal), Kevin's back hurting, and our temperatures reaching about 100 degrees for about 4 days in a row (our apartment temp was only getting down to about 90, and that was with 3 fans running in the living room!), we have all been stretched to an extraordinary degree as of late.

We did have some fun celebrating Kevin's 41st birthday on Tuesday, the day when his back really started doing better, and we've even had the temperatures drop into the upper 80's--which makes a huge difference in all of our energy levels!  I had one really funny exchange with our landlord (not the crazy, flower-eating one, but the other lady).  She saw me outside with Hudson and Eli as they were running around together, and knowing about Noah having broken his leg, she questioned what the boys were doing.  Not really understanding her meaning, I explained that they were running, and confirmed that yes, Noah was upstairs resting his broken leg.  She kept pushing me on the matter, and then I understood.  She was questioning why I was allowing the other two boys to keep running and playing outside when I had the obvious results of such actions laying on the apartment sofa!  She made it clear that they should be inside, too, after Noah had broken his leg!  When she asked, "Well what will you do if they fall down also?"  I was able to respond, "I guess I'll take them to the hospital as well!  At least I know where it is now..."  I'm not sure she appreciated my humor and she left shaking her head in disbelief!
Hud and Eli on bike trip

morning view of camping in the yurt

Karis' best buddies

Joseph kids on the mountain descent at the lake

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