But I Thought it was Chocolate

He just wanted a quick, informal tour of the local hospital. We never expected he was going to become the town’s top news story.

My parents were visiting me in our small town in China back when we first arrived 20 years ago. My dad, who is a doctor, and my mom, a nurse, asked if they could simply see the hospital. Our wonderful university leaders graciously called, explained the situation, and asked if we could come “just take a look.”

We weren’t ready for the tv crew, the blinding lights, and the auditorium full of hundreds of medical staff waiting to hear a speech from the visiting American medical team. My dad, who is quick on his feet, whipped out a speech in no time flat, and pulled it off like a champ. We drank tea with the hospital administrators, smiled for the cameras, and left with a thank you gift from the hospital for my parents: a plastic toy that played “It’s a Small World After All.”

Maybe some of us can’t shift a car, but I bet one thing we’re always learning is how to shift gears pretty fast in this overseas life. We constantly reposition, adjust, realign, rethink, reimagine, transition, flex, rewrite, redo. When we engage other corners of the world, we learn to shift our expectations, our understanding of culture and people and traditions and friendships, our own homes, our time management. Even our boxes for God get shifted.

We are experts at shifting gears. How often have we learned to release expectations, downshift, and reposition ourselves for something we did not see coming? How often do we change from one team to another, from one role to another, from one country to another? We learn to shift gears all the time…

We eagerly bite deep into the pastry we bought at the bakery only to realize that red bean looks remarkably like chocolate.

We renovate, paint, and buy all kinds of furniture for the apartment we thought we’d live in for years – and then the landlord sells it 6 months later.

What we thought was a martial arts competition for our boys ended up being the half time entertainment at a fashion show in the mall and they performed TaeKwonDo on a glass catwalk.

We thought we were giving a quick speech at another university in a nearby town, but end up on an 10 hour tour of every factory the town had.

We get on an airplane and hours later find ourselves back in our passport country, but feel completely like a foreigner. (How do I do life here and make friends here and be an acceptable insider? What is the polite thing to do with chicken bones at dinner in this place?)

Most of the time shifting gears is exhausting. It’s tough to transition from one expectation to another, from one community to another, from one reality to another. It makes me feel rootless and restless and out of control. So, sometimes I grip so tightly to that steering wheel that my knuckles turn white. I can fight the stick shift with all I’ve got.

Or,can choose to allow my gracious God to teach me how to enjoy the ride, to release my tears and my fears to Him, and to trust that He really is good. Everything within us gets stretched as we shift gears. Our understanding of culture, people, ourselves, and God changes as we live this wild life of shifting gears. My rigid ideas become softer, and my disillusionment that I am in charge gets shaken. I learn, as the old catechism teaches, that I am are not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior. This world – and all that is in it – is His. He really can be trusted.

How kind of our good God that not all shifts are hard. Sometimes He brings a changing of direction that we could not have imagined. Our Father does delight to give good gifts to us.

We shift gears when teammates we never expected become lifelong friends.

We shift gears when the beggar on the street becomes a friend, and then a brother.

We shift gears when the culture we thought we’d never embrace actually takes root in our hearts and we find ourselves aching for it when we are away.

We shift gears when the PhD student who had no interest in spiritual things contacts you years later to tell you that the seeds have grown into real fruit & he is joyfully walking with our Father.

Not all gear shifting is pleasant (I’m looking at you red bean), but praise the Lord that He can redeem everything. That means all shifting can be an avenue for growth and grace, an invitation to lean in closely to my Good Shepherd.

How incredibly grateful I am for a good, perfect Father at the wheel (and that some pastries in the world really are chocolate!).

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash


  1. Ruth Felt October 3, 2018

    Renee, I always appreciate your stories – and the fact that I could picture you telling them. “I’m looking at you red bean.” You gave me a good laugh as well as understanding, both of which are always needed!

    1. Renee October 3, 2018

      That is so kind, Ruth! I love how we can continue to connect across the miles through Velvet Ashes. Blessings, sister!

  2. Amanda October 3, 2018

    Love this. Written so well and speaks to so many of the things in my heart that I just couldn’t put words to. Also, Vegemite looks like chocolate. But is definitely NOT chocolate.

    1. Renee October 3, 2018

      Thanks, Amanda! So encouraging to hear from you. And – wow – thanks for the heads up that there are actually even more things in the world that camouflage as chocolate. Blessings, sister!

  3. Maggie VanSlooten October 3, 2018

    You’ve all seen the small sample soap you get in hotels. When my daughter was small, she bit into the soap because she thought it was white chocolate!

    1. Renee October 4, 2018

      Yes! That is hilarious about the soap. I bet we could have quite a list if we together wrote down all of the things that our kids have eaten by mistake. Ha! Hope you have a great week!

  4. Mandy Carpenter October 3, 2018

    This made me laugh. We had a similar experience with the “red bean” not being chocolate when we were in Korea, as well as my husband thinking he was buying a Poweraid, when in fact after the first drink, he realized it was windshield wash fluid. Life overseas is certainly an adventure :).

  5. Pam Moeser October 4, 2018

    Renee I always read your posts with anticipation of a good laugh and a good reminder of our good God. Thanks.

    1. Renee A Aupperlee October 18, 2018

      Wow, Pam. Thank you for that very kind compliment! Praying for you, sister!

  6. Spring October 4, 2018

    You hit the nail on the head. So many times I walk into situations thinking I know what is going on but I really have no clue! My husband tried to explain the stress of not knowing cultural expectations. I think the guy also didn’t know what he meant.
    Then there is the returning to a passport country. A place where I don’t stick out like a sore thumb, yet I feel like it. Last summer we returned and I didn’t know how to use the “chip” in my credit card. My brother explained to the cashier that I was a foreigner. She laughed. (and I felt like a foreigner with a native accent)

    1. Renee A Aupperlee October 18, 2018

      I can totally relate, Spring! I remember coming back one time to my passport country and seeing the debit card thing at the end of the check out lane for the first time and wondering what in the world that was (as I was getting my faithful check book out of my purse). What crazy moments we live. May we remember our sense of humor when we most need it! Blessings, sister!

  7. Michele October 4, 2018

    I like red bean. There, I said it. Not sure when that shift happened, but it did.

    1. Renee A Aupperlee October 18, 2018

      Ha!! Michele, you crack me up. Love this!

  8. Liz Bolt October 4, 2018

    It has been 7 years and each time I return to my home country I go to the restroom and have to remember that toilet paper actually goes into the toilet!

    1. Michele October 5, 2018

      Twenty-one years… Same problem. That one gets ingrained, doesn’t it?

    2. Renee A Aupperlee October 18, 2018

      Oh my word, Liz. YES! And when we went to our passport country, I didn’t want to actually re-teach my house full of boys about toilet paper because I knew we’d be going back overseas soon. Ah, the joys. Thanks for the laugh, Liz!

  9. Renee October 4, 2018

    Oh my word – the Poweraid! Glad he didn’t drink too much of it! Always an adventure is right! Blessings, Mandy!

  10. Ashley Felder October 18, 2018

    ” We constantly reposition, adjust, realign, rethink, reimagine, transition, flex, rewrite, redo. When we engage other corners of the world, we learn to shift our expectations, our understanding of culture and people and traditions and friendships, our own homes, our time management. ”

    This hit home for me. Our dear friend Keri reminds me often that living overseas is overall way more exhausting. These sentences above spell out why! Although, now being back in the States for the next year, I feel some of the same adjustments, transitions, repositionings happening in this old/new “home” culture of mine. I find myself staring (that’s inappropriate here, right?) at those around me to figure out how to act. And nearly every time at the store, I have to remind myself and resist the urge to bag my own groceries!

    1. Renee A Aupperlee October 18, 2018

      Oh my goodness, Ashley. YES! Yes to all you said — life overseas IS overall way more exhausting – and the amount of internal processing and work we do is really astounding. Now that we have lived back in our passport country for a couple years, I’m amazed at how all of that internal work and repositioning and adjusting all the time has truly shaped us. It really IS a work of His grace in us – I think it really does make us more soft, more flexible, and less easily ruffled. Oh, I pray that this time in your “home” culture will be filled with laughter, sweet moments of His kindness, and loads and loads of grace for yourself! Praying for you guys and your whole awesome pack of kids!

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