For Love of China
For the love of China. Pt. 1
For me it started as curiosity. What had convinced people I loved to sacrifice and scrape by only to turn around and put everything they had into a month-long trip every two years? What had broken fears – serious travel phobias and anxiety – to send a mother away from her husband and kids for months to foster a single friendship? What had deeply changed a reverent & calculated man to abandon everything and begin a new kind of retirement with his wife in a foreign country whose language was completely unknown to either one?
I fell in love with my husband’s family at a young age. His sister, Joy, and I became close friends at a young age. Her aunt Penny had reached out to me as an elementary school kid and welcomed me into her family's life. Ties were created early on. Joy and I were both quiet girls, especially in large rooms of people. But together we felt connected and would talk for hours at a time.
When Joy and I met up after years apart we were both in college. At a noisy downtown bar, we reconnected over martinis. We shared stories, struggles, and within minutes it felt as though no time had passed. With her grandparents living in China full-time and her brother planning a return music tour in two years, traveling back to China was a frequent topic for discussion.
Fast forward two years: I had become a part of Joy’s family and had fallen in love with her parents’ non-profit, Inter-United Foundation. iUF focused on international music and soccer exchanges with two universities and multiple primary and secondary schools in Yunnan, China. I was able to experience a year long exchange when they hosted a young college athlete, Dan, in their home to teach him coaching and athletic training. After Dan returned to China, we began planning a return exchange to Yunnan and a subsequent music tour.
My interest has been long since captivated. As tour plans began, I spent time developing a website for Inter-United. I found myself writing the stories of previous exchanges. While writing and wading through images, the stories began to become my own.
For James, his love of China was wrapped around two new friendships. During his first trip to visit his grandparents in China, James fell in love with two hilarious musicians with a heart for their people and teaching music. James had travelled to China to be a part of the first soccer exchange with an local university; being a performer, the music followed naturally. His energetic performances eventually led to additional invitations into new cities and schools.
James’ love of his new Chinese brothers has kept his mind on China for the past 7 years. His desire to communicate – joke, speak, encourage – led him to enroll in Chinese courses during college. Eventually an opportunity opened up for him to spend four months studying abroad in Shanghai. James and I had been dating for about six months at the time.
Although spending four months of our new relationship across the world from each other didn’t sound like the most fulfilling choice, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. James left in August. The most painful and beautiful months of our dating relationship began. With time differences and a course load that challenged him more than we could have anticipated, our communication relied on writing during those months.
I moved into a small studio apartment and tried to focus on work. I had recently begun a new wedding and portrait photography business. Life was complicated and busy, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. In a matter of months, I would be traveling half way around the world to reunite with the man I loved and experience for myself the culture and people that had captivated his heart.
The four months dragged by until finally it was time to make the trip across the world…
For the Love of China pt. 2 | Travel.
I raced through the Newark Airport with a half full Jamba Juice smoothie stuffed in my hand along with smashed tickets and a passport. With thirty pounds of camera equipment on my back and a purse filled with the essentials - in case my bag got lost between Florida and China - I raced through the airport. I had just gotten off my delayed flight from Orlando to discover the departing gate that was once right next to my arriving gate had moved clear across the airport.
When I finally reached the gate, I struggled to get my huge camera bag into the packed overhead compartments. Finally, someone much taller (read: stronger) than me came over and helped me rearrange a bulky rolling bag just enough to slam the door shut. Only 17 hours to go.
Once we settled into the flight, the Chinese woman beside me offered some wine. Perfect! I thought. Just what I needed to fall asleep. Little did I know her “wine” was in fact rice liquor. I choked back the burning liquid. The offer of light and fruity wine was met with bitter liquor. I continued to fake a sip here and there until she fell asleep to slip the full cup to the stewardess. Traveling alone and rushing adrenaline left me sleepless for the remainder of the flight.
I arrived in the Shanghai airport, this time without a rush. I had a few hours to retrieve my luggage, clear customs, check in again for my next flight, and figure out my route across the airport terminals. After about an hour of walking in circles, I finally made my way through a small security line. Exhausted and greasy, I sat down to wait in a drafty and deserted terminal next to a TV blasting a Chinese cartoon on repeat. Seeing a blonde haired Jen, James and Joy’s mom, walking through the airport has never felt more nostalgic than in that moment. Overwhelmed by the new sounds and sights, the rest was a blur.
After a quick three hour flight, we arrived in Kunming. We were greeted by two familiar faces. James’ grandparents, Tim and Ginny, had been in China for over five years and could function normally through the cities and transit systems. Everything was easy going - even trying to get our oversized luggage into the tiny trunks of cabs. Back at our hotel and exhausted after 24+ hours of travel, I plopped down and instantly regretted my decision. Jen and Joy laughed heartily as I rolled over and screeched in pain. Apparently I had forgotten my warning about the lack of padding found on beds in China. James was still a 5 hour flight away in Western China, finishing his study abroad program; another 3 days before his arrival in Kunming.
For the Love of China pt. 3 | Adopting China
Once we arrived in China, I began experiencing frequent, piercing stomach pain – a side effect my body seems to favor after prolonged periods of stress. The few days spent waiting to see James were long and seemingly unending. We spent the days getting to know Kunming, a “small” city in comparison to Shanghai and other large well known Chinese cities. But Kunming is not a menial dot on the map; at 6.5 million people, Kunming is the largest city in Yunnan and the last stop along our path way where we might run into an English speaker. At night, we all attempted to sleep and adjust to the high altitude & new foods.
The afternoon finally arrived when I would pick up James at the airport. After four months away, it was like meeting each other again for the first time. I embraced him hurriedly in a bustling airport walkway. I remember breathing in and hoping to find comfort in his familiar scent, however, my nostrils were greeted with harsh smells of China. His clothes reeked of months spent in the city. Strange smells of cooking oils, public transportation, and polluted air stuck to his leather jacket. With my frequent stomach pain, the smells were particularly harsh. But we were finally together again and that brought me peace.
We stayed in Kunming for a of couple days until the arrival of the rest of our team. Once our team was in place - with a day of “rest” under our belts and barely any sleep - we climbed onto a bus and travelled to our first stop in Mengzi. Mengzi is the city where James grandparents had spent the past few years of their life in China. While in Mengzi, Lala and Lulu had been studying Mandarin at the university and teaching English to locals. We were greeted excitedly by the head of Honghe’s International Study Center, Ma Kun. Without a second wasted, Ma Kun pulled up two vans beside the public bus and quickly loaded our luggage to whisk us away to Lala and Lulu’s home. In a whirlwind of less than a week, I had been immersed in Chinese culture and this was just the beginning.
Over the following three weeks, we would spend almost every day with a full itinerary, moving all over Yunnan and putting on concerts at local bars, minority schools, middle schools, primary schools, and the university. The pace was fast and some of us never quite caught up with “China time”. But the people we encountered and the established relationships I quickly became a part of captured my heart. After only a few days in China, the culture and friendships resonated within me; it felt natural to be there.
I had fallen in love with our friends in Yunnan. The culture captivated me. I felt more freedom in that month of travel, however hectic and challenging it may have been, than most times living in the vast comforts of home in the U.S. I fell in love with the friends that James and his family had poured into over the past five years through these exchanges and his own trips back as frequently as finances would allow.
I believe that a single person is all it takes to completely shift your thinking and plant the desire to pick up and move across the world to be a part of their life. Friendship is a motivating force unlike any other.
My month in China completely shifted my so-called plans for the life I would lead.
For the Love of China pt. 4 | Today & the Future
As I sit in my cozy little corner of the town we have grown to love (fight as I did, this city became near and dear to me) we are less than a month from moving back to China.
In 2012, James and I moved to the Yunnan Province for 5 months to prepare for our team's arrival and the 4th tour of the region by his band, iU. (A small archive of some of the posts I wrote during that time are available here.) It stretched me and grew our marriage in unbelievable ways. We learned to trust and rely on one another. Life became suddenly and drastically different. I wouldn't change a moment of that time.
When we returned home in early 2013, I couldn't shake the longing to return. I had fallen in love. The hard times and adjustments were so outweighed by the unbelievable feeling of purpose that we experienced serving our friends in China. We returned to a community that was experiencing authentic and selfless love for one another. Amazing things were stirring at home and we felt called to stay for a while and settle into life again. Our adopted cousin, Luke, arrived in June of that year. James' language study became a part of his daily routine as he joined in the effort to welcome this beautiful, blind Chinese boy to a new life with a forever family. Meanwhile, I opened a studio space in our tiny historic downtown and studied to become a yoga instructor. We moved, started new businesses, welcomed new friends and a Chinese exchange student into our life, and fell into a beautiful rhythm surrounded by friends and family.
I don't want to say something was missing, because that would be an embellishment. Life has been so full and fulfilling. We have learned, taught, grown and served here. The desire to move back was always there, so we waited and rooted down into our community.
About a year ago, we finally felt released to pursue the move. We had a timeline, a city to return to, and a vision for what might be ahead. I wrote this recently for the iU website, and it sums up the month or so ahead:
In the winter of 2014, iU will return to foster and renew friendships in cities along the southern Chinese border through a performance that seeks to bring hope to the individual's heart. iU's plans include performances for audiences in 8 cities - from elementary to high school students, local music venues to university campuses, and remote village communities - with performances spread across the Yunnan province.
The performance will be a combination of original music written by iU and Chinese originals, with over 80% of the performance delivered in Mandarin. Through long-established relationships with school leaders and local officials, iU is returning to build and encourage relationships among new & old friends of Inter-United Foundation.
...Following the 2014 tour, iU artists' James Powell (& wife, Kate) and Preston and Heidi Moreau will stay to continue to pour into the friendships established during this & previous visits.
Currently, Megan and I are starting a narrative photography project called the Sojourn Project. We hope to authentically document the months ahead - the challenges and joys of moving across the world. While we are moving away from family and from a language and culture we know, there is much to be excited about.
There is vision, purpose, and open ended ellipses at the end of every "what if..." There are orphans to advocate for, friendships to return to, and dreams to unfold. There is anticipation for the joy found when finding and loving the least. As the next few months unfold, we are grateful to our community for loving us enough to send us out.
I am so thankful for those reading this for joining in our story. We hope, above all else, that you will be encouraged and awakened by our small step towards living openly.
On to the moments ahead...