The “Best” of Language School – Navigation

Navigating Blind

Imagine living in a city of seven million people. Imagine that you have no private mode of transportation beyond your own two feet which means that you rely daily on the city’s public transportation to navigate your way around the urban jungle. Now, if you can, imagine with me that you can’t make sense of any of the bus signs, station names, or notices squawking through the loud speakers on the bus. That is the life of so many people that Sarah and I know living in China and it was our life before coming to language school two years ago.

As before, this post is dedicated to highlighting one of the “best” things about our time at language school. I realize that it might sound hyperbolic to say that learning how to read a bus sign qualifies as a “best” after two years of language school, but if “usefulness” is one of the criteria, reading bus signs surely tops the list! Two years ago we not only didn’t understand how bus signs were organized, we also couldn’t read Chinese characters. Without those two pieces of knowledge, getting anywhere in China (other than the largest cities) via public transportation can be a huge undertaking.

I thought maybe the best way to help you understand why we are so happy to finally be able to read bus signs would be to breakdown what it looks like to decipher a sign at a bus stop near our apartment.

Click on the first photo below to browse through the various components of a Chinese bus sign. 



The “Best” of Language School – The “Chinese” Side

From: Stefan

Six-weeks. That is all that remains of our time at language school. It’s so hard to believe this season of learning is in it’s final weeks. It feels like just yesterday that Sarah and I sat in our hotel room in Thailand and drafted an email to all of you back home sharing with you the Father’s vision and calling as He led us to language study. As we finish out the next few weeks here, I thought I might share with you all a series of posts about some of the things we feel have changed most in our lives as a result of studying language.

By far, the best and most significant change that our time at language school has brought about is new and hugely refreshing depth of relationship with Chinese people. During our first year in China, Sarah and I really struggled with the feeling that our relationships were limited by the fact that all of our friendships existed only in English. This of course meant that most of China (those who don’t speak English) remained inaccessible to us and that to some degree, there was some side of our Chinese friends, what I like to call the “Chinese side”, that we couldn’t get to know. This saddened us greatly and was one of the major motivators in our decision to come to language school.

Thankfully, it didn’t take long once we got here, only a few months, for us to begin seeing changes in this area. Now on the other side of language school, I can’t tell you what it means to us to be able to listen to older Chinese people (very few of whom can speak English) tell stories of their childhood growing up during the “Mao Era”, to be able to catch or maybe even venture to tell a joke in Chinese, and to be able to listen and care for our friends as their share challenges they are facing in their lives. There is something intangible about speaking another language that gives you the sense that when you speak it you are not simply communicating with a different set of phonemes, grammar, and syntax, but that you are actually accessing something altogether different from what you might receive if you were speaking in your mother tongue. It is this “something”, this “Chinese side” that makes the difference in the relationships and which Sarah and I have had the privilege to get to know over the past two years!

Flying Back for the Birth

From: Sarah

I promised to share with you all how God faithfully kept his hand on our journey home and made each and every step go incredibly smoothly, so here is your story!

We have finally acquired enough air-miles from our flights to earn 1 one-way ticket home for Stefan and I, and since we aren’t sure when Baby Roo will make his appearance we needed to only buy one-way tickets home anyway. When I bought the tickets, I noticed that all the layovers were rather quick. I was a little concerned, but our options were limited since we were using air-miles.

The morning we set off, we got out the door a little late (doesn’t that always seem to happen when you’re going somewhere important?). At 9:00 am, after two trips down seven flights of stairs, Stefan got all our bags to the ground level and within 60 seconds we found an empty taxi (our city has a shortage of taxis, so this was amazing!) We took the taxi to a hotel in town where the airport shuttle bus leaves to go out to the airport every 30 minutes. We needed to be on the 9:00 bus, but we obviously had already missed it, so we were hoping that the 9:30 bus wouldn’t leave before we caught it. As we pulled up to the hotel, the bus driver was outside closing down the luggage compartments to leave. Stefan ran and caught him and he agreed to let us board!

10:15 we arrived at the airport for a 12:00 international flight. We only had to wait in line for 10 minutes (just long enough for me to sneak in a trip to the bathroom!) before they ushered us through customs, through the bag check line, and then through security. We only had to wait about 40 minutes for our flight, and then we boarded and took off.

We had an hour and thirty minute layover in South Korea, at an airport we’d never been to before. When you layover in another country, they ask you to go through security again, which is always difficult to know how long that will take, so we were a bit anxious. But our plane landed at gate 40, security was right next to the gate and had almost no line, and our next flight took off out of gate 42. We had just long enough to log in to the internet and send out an email of our progress before our next flight boarded!

For our long flight we had hoped to secure bulkhead seats for the extra legroom, but unfortunately all the bulkheads are also emergency exits-where pregnant women can’t sit. As we sat in the middle seat and aisle seats of a full row, we noticed across the plane there was an EMPTY row of 3 seats! I was anxious to go take them, but we decided to ask the attendant first. She asked us to wait until the doors to the plane were closed before moving, and unfortunately in that time someone else got the same idea and didn’t bother to ask. However, the flight attendant came back to us and told us she had two seats in their own row where we could move to in the back, right next to the bathroom and a large standing/walking space. Being so close to the bathroom was a big bonus for such a long flight! Neither of us slept much, although Stefan managed to get in a few hours of naps. Being so pregnant, it is already hard to sleep even in my own bed, laying down, so I wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t get to sleep sitting up.

In San Francisco, we had a three hour layover- tight when you consider you have to go through customs! But as soon as we got off the plane, we noticed an airline employee with our names on a sign- she had two “express passes” so we could skip the 500+ person long line and take a shortcut in the 10 person line! Because we got to skip the several hour wait in customs, we had just enough time to grab a bite to eat before our next plane boarded!

Our last flight wasn’t very full so we got a row of three seats together and I finally got in a little sleep, laying across two of them and Stefan’s lap. And although there was quite a bit of turbulence, we landed in Denver with no hitches. My sweet mom met us at the airport with a mattress in the back of her Suburban and an oxygen tank to help combat any altitude sickness and make up for 24 hours of plane travel so late in pregnancy.

I don’t think we’ve ever had a trip that went so smoothly with no delays or crises along the way, and we will never be able to travel that distance so quickly again! Each layover really was the shortest it could be without being run-through-the-airport-like-madmen crazy. We are so grateful that God’s hand was on us each step of the way to make our trip so smooth!

God of Wonders

From Sarah:

We still serve a God of miracles. I know because he recently has intervened on our behalf in several situations in a way that can only be described as miraculous.

Last month, I went to the bank about halfway through the month to pull out grocery money on my way to get groceries. I knew that we’d had some unexpected expenses come up recently, so I knew it would be tight, but when the balance flashed on the screen my stomach sank in despair. I have gotten pretty good at penny pinching, but the amount of money left in the account was only enough to last us 3-4 days, maybe 5 if we cut out meat from several meals and used beans instead. I still had to find a way to feed us for 2 whole weeks! I called Stefan just to make sure they hadn’t been an accounting error, but he confirmed that he’d paid bills the night before and knew we were getting lower than normal. Sick to my stomach with worry, I pulled almost all the cash out and headed to the market, fighting tears.  I battled with the Father in my heart. Don’t you promise to provide? Haven’t you asked us to be here, living on faith from month to month when the money comes, or doesn’t come in? Have we heard you wrong? Is this a sign to go home? How can things be getting so tight now, when nutrition is so important for me as I am pregnant? I angrily put the thoughts out of my mind, determined not to burst out sobbing in the middle of the noisy Chinese market. I made a few last minute changes to the grocery menu, trying to think of the cheapest meals to eat and ways to stretch them a little further.

An hour later, I set my bags down to check my list once more. I couldn’t believe that I had finished my list already! Stefan asks that I track our spending carefully, and after every single stall I’d logged how much I’d spent into the app on my phone. Nothing had seemed particularly cheap, although I’d bought more fresh veggies and less meat than normal, but not drastically different from a normal trip out. On average if I cook all our meals in, I can buy a week’s worth of groceries for 350 kuai ($57), 450 ($73) if we have several import-store-dependent ingredients or splurge on salmon to get fish oil in our diet. According to the app on my phone, I was done shopping and had only spent 200 kuai ($32)! I begrudgingly sent up a half-hearted prayer of thanks, but assured God that I still wasn’t happy at how close to the wire we still were.

The real miracle started as I prepped the meals that week. Monday was chili with biscuits- a meal that can stretch well if you add cheap beans and leave off the “foreign dependent” toppings like sour cream and cheese. I chopped tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions, opened a can of Chinese beans, and browned a little less than a pound of meat. As I slowly added ingredients to the pot, I swear they started multiplying as I turned my back. By the time I finished cooking, I had at least double the amount of chili I should have. I shrugged it off and figured it must be an optical illusion or something and served up our chili over rice (another great way to stretch chili). But after each of us had a second bowl, it seemed that the pot was no less full than when I’d just finished cooking. I had planned on getting 1.5 meals out of this dinner, as usual, since I always take leftovers to school for my lunch (Stefan doesn’t mind the cheap cafeteria food). But that chili lasted through my lunch the next day, dinner, and lunch again!

Maybe that doesn’t seem that miraculous to you, but it didn’t stop with the chili. Every meal we made that week, as we ate to full (which as I get later in pregnancy, is more and more food!) we were amazed at how much food was still left. That one weeks’ worth of usually cheap groceries lasted us well into the second week!

I had a chance to share about this experience with a local sister and I was reminded of how often God works in our lives and we conveniently forget to share, or find ourselves embarrassed to share. I have thought of all the ways people would rationalize away my experience, or think I’m just irresponsible and haven’t paid attention before how much money we really need to live. I can guarantee you we live very consciously of how much (or little) we can get by on, and I double checked the money that was left after that trip, just to make sure I’d counted correctly.

If you are still unsure, wait a little while, this is only the first miracle we’ve witnessed this month. Be watching for the second installment.

My strange hobby

Hey everyone! So I haven’t posted any Sleeping-in-public-Chinese people recently. This is the part of Chinese society that tickles me to no end. I am always amused to see how and when they can just fall asleep! So… without further ado, for your viewing pleasure, the sleeping masses of China!

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Gifts, Gates, and Watchmen: Reflections on Becoming a Father

From: Stefan

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.” – Psalm 127

Two years ago, when Sarah and I found out that we were pregnant for the first time, I cried. I cried tears of joy for the opportunity to be a father, but I also I cried tears of fear for what I didn’t know and understand at that time. Sitting behind the locked door of the bathroom stall at the office building where I worked, I strained to choke back the tears, but they kept coming. I read the words of Psalm 127. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” It was as if God was speaking directly to me.

Children are a Gift:

During those first few days after finding out that we were going to have a baby, things seemed fine. Our plans to go to China seemed on course and largely I didn’t have a sense that anything needed to change in my heart. I was excited and happy! But, God saw what needed to change. I didn’t know it at the time but I needed to learn that every child is a gift from God. Yes, that’s right. Every. Single. One. The “planned” child. The “unplanned” child. The orphaned child. The aborted child. The “special needs” child. The miscarried child. Yes, they are all gifts.

It was only a few days later that we got a phone call from the company we would be working with once moving to China. During the course of that phone conversation, we were asked to consider postponing our planned move to China for at least a year to avoid going through culture shock and the addition of a new family member all at the same time. Wait. What? Change the plans? Now there was a tension. Going back to that story of me crying in the bathroom stall, I had just come from explaining to my boss how our plans had changed. I still needed my job for at least another year. Sitting there in the bathroom, I wrestled with myself. How could I feel so conflicted? Having a child was a good thing! But, now we weren’t going to China. It felt bitter-sweet. “children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward,” read the passage. There was not equivocation. No disclaimer. No loophole that disqualified any situation. There was just that truth. Little did I know that in just a few weeks, God was again going to take us through another change of plans. A change that involved a miscarriage, through which He would show me the other side of the pain I felt, all so I could both say and understand this truth: the fruit of the womb is a reward.

God is Giving me a Heritage:

Heritage. Warrior. Gate. Shame. These were words that, as I sat in the bathroom stall that day, I didn’t quite understand. Though they gave me courage, I didn’t know why. That was okay, because in hindsight I can see that at that time God was helping me understand the word reward. He planned to deal with these other words once we got to China. Growing up in the States, I knew what the dictionary said about heritage, and I had an image of what a warrior might be like, but gate and shame were words I didn’t really understand. Thankfully, God as the author of culture, was about to put me in just the place to learn about these two words.

Gates are everywhere in China. One of the first things you notice when you drive through any Chinese city are all the gates that, to us Westerners, seem oddly out of place. They are in front of apartment complexes, school campuses (preschools all the way through universities), government buildings, public parks, and just about any other important gathering point that you might find in a city. In fact, that’s one of the primary functions gates served in the ancient world too. Gates were places where the city gathered to make plans, trade, and celebrate together. Gates also acted as “choke points” during times of war, through which you could more easily defend against an enemy trying to enter your city or your home.

But what did it mean to be put to shame in the gate? Again, my American upbringing wasn’t helping me much in understanding what it meant to be put to shame. In China, however, shame (and its antonym, honor) play a huge role in society. To be put to shame is to be publicly ridiculed. It is to lose esteem in the eyes of other people. It is for your shortcomings or failures to be pointed out in the full view of the public. So, why does the Bible pair these concepts? Heritage and honor? Warrior and arrow? Children and gate? They are paired because ancient Hebrew culture and Chinese culture understand something that we as Westerners sometimes struggle to fully grasp.

Ancient Hebrew culture as well as ancient (and modern) Chinese culture understood the fact that very few things that you have or do while you are alive continue on after you die. One thing that does continue, however, is the heritage (in modern English, we often say legacy) you leave behind. You can see how much ancient Hebrew culture valued this in Abraham’s quest for a son. Even after obtaining the promise that his descendants would be like the sand on the seashore, Abraham goes so far as to sleep with his female servant to make sure that God’s planned heritage doesn’t “mess-up” somehow. Now, imagine that you are fighting (or at very least speaking) with your enemy at the city gate. Having many children would be a huge help in preserving your legacy! The man who has no children is easily overcome. He is like a warrior standing on the gate without any arrows. Without men by his side or arrows in his quiver this man will be killed and his legacy will end. In Asian culture, there is no greater shame. The one thing (your heritage) that continues beyond the grave is gone.

As I prepare to welcome our little boy into the world a few months from now, I am reflecting on what a heritage means in the life of a Christian. There is the physical heritage that was given to Israel in the Old Testament. There is the spiritual heritage we receive as members of God’s family. And, Paul also speaks of the church at Thessalonica as his children in the Lord. It is this last image that I have been focused on. Children are not just a physical heritage, but a spiritual one as well. In the life of a parent, there is no greater calling than to raise your child in the fear of the Lord. There is no greater discipleship relationship than the relationship between parent and child. It is my hope and prayer that, despite my failures and shortcomings as a parent, Roo will grow up understanding and valuing the amazing work that God has done in Christ. In Jesus both justice and mercy are married together in one man, meaning that we are set us free from the consequences of our spiritual criminality against God. Whatever little Roo’s choices may be later in life, in receiving this opportunity to teach God’s story of redemption, I have to come to understand that God is giving me a spiritual legacy. A relationship in which I can pour the love of God and live out the Gospel commands.

That leads me to my last reflection on Psalm 127…

The Lord Watches this City:

What if Roo doesn’t believe? What if he doesn’t see God’s plan for salvation as a miraculous, ingenious, or beautiful? Psalm 127 says, “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” and “It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” I have come to realize over the past two years, that like the builder, I lay the foundation for my children. Like the watchman, I watch over my children. However, I am not God. The Creator of the universe presides over my children and watches them. God stands ready, better trained than any builder (read parent) in building foundations, better equipped than any soldier (read parent) in guarding a city, and he offers me, as a parent, rest. The final responsibility for my children’s choices and well-being are not mine. As I think about all the ways in which I am afraid I will mess up discipline and not be a perfect father, I am given peace, knowing that in spite of anything I do or don’t do, God is in control. Just like two and a half years ago when we lost our first baby, God is still in control.

What’s In a Name?

From Stefan:

For anyone who has ever lived abroad or perhaps studied a second language, choosing a name is an important part of developing a new identity in your new home or in the new language. Recently, I realized that though Sarah and I have had Chinese names for about a year-and-a-half we have never shared with many of you back home our Chinese names or what they mean. This is actually one of the aspects I love most about the Chinese language. Unlike many English names, the meaning of Chinese names are very obvious!

Before coming to language school our students and Chinese friends began asking us if we had Chinese names yet and if we wanted names. Of course we wanted names, but we told them we didn’t have any clue how to choose good Chinese names. I especially wanted to make sure that whatever names we chose, we didn’t fall into the trap of just transliterating our names into Chinese phonetically. This usually misses the beautiful nuances and subtleties of the Chinese language and almost always screams “foreigner!” to any Chinese speaker who hears your name, even if he or she has never seen you.

So, thankfully one of our close Chinese friends volunteered to spend time thinking of good names and give us a few options to choose from.

Chinese Naming Customs

But, before we get to our Chinese names, let me give you a short lesson on Chinese naming customs. First, the majority of Chinese people have three characters in their name (though traditionally, Chinese people only typically had two characters). When written or spoken, the family character comes first in order. This is called a “姓” (pronounced something like “sìng”) and is passed down generation to generation from your father’s side of your family. When two people marry, the woman does not typically change her family name. The second and third characters are considered your “given name” and are usually chosen for their meaning, sound, and/or your parent’s hopes for how you will turn out as an adult. Unlike English names, Chinese people don’t really have a “middle” name. Usually the last two characters are pronounced together and are together considered your given name. These last two characters together are called your “名字” (pronounced something like “míng-z”). When addressing a Chinese person, it is considered polite to use their full name, including their family name. Usually it best to do this in formal settings or if you don’t know someone very well. However, if you have a relationship with someone and the setting is casual, it is common to call someone by their given name (last two characters) only. So, now that you know a little bit about Chinese names, here are the names we chose!

Stefan’s Name

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The first character in my name “谢” is considered my family name. It is pronounced something like “she-eh” and is a part of the one Chinese word which many Americans might recognize “谢谢” or “she-eh she-eh” which means “thank you.”

The second character is my name is “天” and is considered part of my given name. It is pronounced something like “tee-ehn” and literally means “sky” or “heaven” but is also often used as an euphemism for God.

The third character in my name “佑” is considered the second part of my given name. It is pronounced something like “yò” as in “yo whad up, homie?” (okay, okay, I’ll stop!) It is a part of pair of words (保佑/保护) that mean protection or blessing.

When read together my name means something like, “I am thankful for God’s protection/blessing” and by implication “I have God’s protection/blessing.” Again, this is one of the things I love most about the Chinese language. Who I trust is obvious from the beginning. No etymology needed.

Sarah’s Name

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The first character in Sarah’s name “仁” is again, considered her family name. It is pronounced something like “wren” (as in the small bird!). It is part of a two character word (仁爱) which means “mercy” or “kindheartedness.” This is a play on our English last name which is also pronounced like the virtue “mercy.”

The second character in Sarah’s name “心” is part of her given name. It is pronounced something like “seen” and literally means “heart”.

The third character in Sarah’s name “琪” is the second part of her given name. It is pronounced something like “chee” and is a stand-alone word which means “jade” and communicates something very pure and of great value.

When read together, Sarah’s name means something like, “One who loves with a pure heart” or “one who loves with pure motives.” Again, the subtlety of the Chinese captures one of the things I love most about Sarah, her ability to be “real” and “raw” in her love for others and our Father. For her, it’s not about a “game face,” it’s about being honest.

Hopefully this post gives you a little bit of a taste of how beautiful and unique Chinese is. Names are important. They are what family, friends, and strangers alike call us. They communicate something about who we are. In English, the meaning is there, though often somewhat hidden. In Chinese, it’s there for all to see!

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