My husband and I stood in front of a filmy window looking out at Beijing. Our arms wrapped round each other, a small comfort for the sinking sensation in the pits of our stomachs.
We had just arrived in China a few days before, having never visited the country before. We had made a three year commitment to this place, and one thought that was now playing on repeat in our heads was, “What have we done? What have we done?”
There had been so much anticipation building up to this move, so much wonder and joy we subconsciously expected when we stepped off the plane. But from that first step, the differences of this culture seemed to bombard us with a harshness that left us stunned. We felt lost and helpless, the waves of doubt pounding hard.
If I could peel back through the layers of time and step into that room, if I could come as some sort of future vision of myself, here’s what I would do. I would pull younger me away from the window, sit down on that rock hard bed and say this:
“It’s okay. Really.”
I know that the books say you will go through an initial ‘honeymoon’ phase of cultural adjustment. But guess what, not everyone does. I know that when you’ve been in other countries, you felt those gushing feelings of amazement that had you saying, ‘I love this place!’ It’s okay that you’re not feeling that right now. In fact, it’s okay that you’re feeling the opposite of that. Lots of people skip straight over the honeymoon phase. That doesn’t mean you misheard God and somehow ended up in the wrong corner of the globe.
This country, this culture, and these people, they will slowly, over time, work their way into your heart and affection. You will crack through the rough coconut shell and discover the milky sweetness of this place. The harsh edges and the bitter bits will always be there, but so will the goodness.
So take heart.
Believe it or not, you will be here long beyond your three-year commitment. In fact, you’ll start and grow a family here. This massive city and these streets that make you feel so lost right now will one day hold precious memories for you.
You’ll ride by a store and remember the day you bought a pregnancy test there. You’ll drive in a taxi across the city and remember the day you nearly gave birth in the back seat. You’ll see the park where your favorite students took you paddle boating on a golden afternoon. You’ll pass by restaurants that make you salivate at the sight of them.
These streets will one day feel familiar. This place that is completely overwhelming to you right now, will one day be dear to you. You’ll find your way.
So fear not. You heard God right. He’s got you here for a reason.
Then I’d take a deep breath, and say, “There’s something else I need to tell you…
As much as I’d like to end on that note, I can’t have you thinking it’s going to be all happily ever after. Because … it’s not.
There will be days, many in fact, where you’ll feel drained and dried up, where you’ll wonder how you can keep doing life in this place. You’ll want to blame the cultural stresses for giving you headaches.
But listen closely, because I want you to hear what’s actually at the root of it all.
You’re going to do too much.
You’re going to try to meet all the needs and expectations, trying to live up to this image of who you think you should be, of who you think God and your supporters expect you to be, and that will leave you running on nothing but fumes.
You need to learn a very important word. It’s spelled N-O. So let’s practice. Repeat after me:
‘No. I see that this important, but it’s just not something I can do right now. I cannot be the one to meet this need.’
Hard isn’t it? But if you don’t learn, here’s what will happen.
You’ll wear yourself out doing good, and then you’ll be good for nothing.
The crazy thing is that in doing too much, you’re only going to feel like it’s not enough, like there’s always more you should be doing.
Remember that there are many, many things you could do, but not many you should do. Because when you say ‘yes’ to something, you’re saying ‘no’ to something else. Think about what you’re saying ‘no’ to before you say another ‘yes.’ Because you could be saying ‘no’ to your personal spiritual well-being, or to the health of your marriage, or to the fleeting childhood of your children, and then you will probably see your ‘yes’ becoming much less.
How will you able to lead the lost into wholeness and thriving if you’re not living it yourself?
You need to find that wholeness, and here’s how. Know that God is completely satisfied in you, right now, today, before you’ve done a darn thing for this country. Know that you and grace are enough.
That’s what you need to know to survive. That’s what you’ll need to know to thrive in this place.
I’m telling you this now, but know that it will take a long slow journey for these truths to seep into your soul and flow out in your life. And that’s ok… Remember grace.
Now go back to that window and look out again, this time with hope.”
In hindsight, that’s what I’d tell my fresh-off the plane self. What would you tell yours?
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