Why did my husband get all the good spiritual gifts, while I was stuck with the wimpy ones, I wondered.
We had discovered on our honeymoon that we were opposite in nearly every way, but our first three years in China loudly amplified those differences. Charly had gotten a two-year head start living in the Foreign Student Dormitory on campus as a language student before we got married. So when we returned for him to teach English there, it was already home to him.
For a strong introvert, squeezing into two connecting dorm rooms, squeezing Chinese lessons into baby’s nap times, and squeezing my bike through narrow passageways of bicycle traffic to the market, made me feel like I was being squeezed all. the. time. Pushed. Out of my comfort zone.
God must be disappointed in my selfishness, I decided. Did I love – or even like – the people all around us? Look at the way I wanted to set limits on the times when Charly’s English students could come over to visit. I dreamed about going on a family walk without feeling like we were on a parade. I longed to slip past the old men at the front desk of our building without telling them where I was going or listening to their advice that our baby wasn’t wearing enough clothes. I wanted to blend in with everyone around me. But anonymity could never be reality for our family in China.
Charly appeared much more selfless with his time and space: he loved to have students drop in for spontaneous visits (usually all eight roommates together). Anytime. Day or night. Visitors made him come alive and he was more than happy to switch over to Chinese when their English vocabulary ran out. While he could have done without grading papers as an English teacher, his conversation classes naturally brought out his stand-up comedian side. His students adored him.
Extrovert. Gifted in the language. Teacher. People magnet. Life of the party. Flexible “P” on the Myers-Briggs. God had clearly made Charly for China.
But I didn’t fit.
Stay-at-home moms were not a “thing” in China, and when I answered his students’ most frequently asked question, that my ideal job was “to be a mom,” there was no category in their brains to put me.
And so I struggled to believe I had something to offer.
I struggled with the language. I struggled with homesickness. I struggled with being flexible. And I struggled to be affirming of Charly’s gifts, when I secretly wished God had given me his gifts instead of mine.
Introvert. Not-so-gifted in the language. Listener. Seeker of silence. First one ready to leave the party. “J” on the Myers-Briggs. What was I doing in China???
Over time, God helped us to see how we could better complement each other in our marriage and helped me to understand that our opposite giftings were not intended to be competitive. We were able to see how my value of quietness could be a strength after all. Once we had more space in an off-campus apartment, God opened doors for me to spend one-on-one time with Charly’s former students who were married and had babies of their own. They now had a category to put me in and opened up with their struggles and questions. As my Chinese improved, I became a better listener and discovered that studying the Bible with seekers and believers was truly life-giving to me.
I had finally found my sweet spot of living out who God had made me to be, both among our local friends and among our homeschooling expat community.
Our China season has since come to a close and our family has relocated back to the U.S. Last year we opened our home to several Afghan refugees for a season, and those glaring differences from our first three years in China surfaced again.
My ongoing struggle with migraine headaches was at a high. My soul felt cracked. And I needed more downtime where I didn’t need to be “on” for guests. Clear boundaries had become a necessity. But while I was trying to figure out how we could do less, Charly was pondering how we could do more.
Needless to say, parallel to what was going on in the world, we had our own refugee crisis.
We talked about how I had wanted to put a sign on our dormitory door, letting Charly’s students know when we were eating and what time they could come back, yet Charly had instead insisted on an open-door policy. And that’s the same way our refugee crisis made me feel: that to my husband, the needs of others were more important than mine.
Ultimately though, I reasoned, extroversion and the ability to offer unlimited hospitality would be better, wouldn’t it? What felt like a spotlight on my selfishness and neediness revealed a me I didn’t want to be.
On a recent soul care retreat, God spoke to me about the times Jesus felt misunderstood. I was comforted that He understood both my desire to be more hospitable and my struggles with feeling limited.
God assured me that my need for boundaries was okay, even if not everyone understood them. Most importantly, He enabled my husband to understand them and to accept that my limitations were also his limitations.
We came away from the retreat with greater peace and unity. I could affirm Charly’s gifts of desiring to help the refugees, while at the same time experience freedom that our family could step back from opening our home for this season.
I could be fully me.
What does it look like to serve and live in your context as fully yourself? What have been theimpacts of being in a setting where you didn’t feel like you could express yourself authentically?
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