I just started reading a book about expectations and burnout in women who live overseas. One of the things that struck me was that one of the factors in developing unrealistic expectations is the materials we have encountered from people who work overseas. From those letters and presentations, it often sounds like they spend most of their time doing important work and basically that it is amazing all the time, and that there were dramatic Answers to the crises. But the truth is that life overseas is still life. It takes a lot of time and energy just to live overseas (particularly in a developing country).
I want to strike a balance in my story telling. Because I have amazing days where I love living here. And then I have normal days where there are things I love and things I love less. Sometimes there are even days that border on horrible. I’ve heard Neal Plantinga talk about ministry being like “death by a thousand paper cuts.” It is a lot of little difficulties that add up. Likewise, I think that living overseas, and culture shock, is often stress by 1,000 paper cuts. Its a lot of little things that add up. In the spirit of keeping it real, here are some of the things that are sources of stress, anxiety, or friction in my life right now. Most of them are not particularly bad by themselves but they add up to an increased stress level.
About once a month or so I come home and find a very small (think 1-2 inch square) picture of a scantily clad woman stuck in my door. There is always a phone number on the ad and sometimes sayings like “24 hour service.” The latest one promises you’ll love their service (and it can come to your door). Although I feel frustrated and angry every time this happens, there is nothing I can do except pray for the people involved. It is a blatant reminder of a fairly common Chinese attitude that it is okay for men to “have a side dish outside as long as they come home for the main course.” This one probably effects me fairly strongly because it was a point of major culture shock the first year I lived in China. I’ve never had these ads in the door before though, because I had always lived on campus. Friends here in Beijing who live on campuses also don’t report this problem but others who live off campus do.
Being Really Early or Really Late
When I lived in Grand Rapids, I knew how long it took to get places, with maybe five minutes of give or take, depending on lights or traffic. Here, I feel like I rarely know. I often arrive places either much earlier—up to 20 or 30 minutes–than I anticipated because the traffic wasn’t as bad as I planned for or later than expected because the traffic was worse than expected. I like being on time, and this is just frustrating.
Going to the Bank and the Post Office
I’ve had pretty good experiences with the bank this time around, and difficult experiences with the post office. But in my previous time in China and stories from others, I know that the banks aren’t always so accommodating, either. And so I try to go as little as possible and leave lots of time in case there is a long line and basically expect the worst. That way when it does work out, I feel really accomplished.
Being Jostled in a Crowd
Personal space is not really a thing here, which I understand. There are a lot of people–at least 1.3 billion in the entire country and over 20 million in Beijing. But even when the bus or the sidewalk isn’t very crowded, people still stand really close together and I often get jostled. In my head I’m thinking “if you moved to the left six inches, you wouldn’t have touch me. Why don’t you just do that?!?!”
Any vegetable and fruit I eat has to be washed carefully and/or peeled before eating. If I’m going to peel it or cook it before eating, I wash it in tap water. If I’m going to eat it raw or can’t peel it, then I use a vegetable wash imported from Canada and rinse using either boiled or bottled water. So there can be a couple extra steps, but more stressful is the worry that comes with it. The worry of: is this the time I’m not going to wash something well enough and get sick? For the record, I’ve only been really sick once and it was from muffins that went bad (continuing to eat them when they tasted off was a very poor life choice).
My Wood Floor
I have a love-hate relationship with the floor. From a distance, it looks awesome. It is warmer than a tile floor. And yet, it is a case of things in China are not always what they seem. When I first moved in it had been newly installed and was in perfect condition. As the months passed, I noticed that in a lot places the wood pieces don’t fit together snugly and the gaps are filled with particle board pieces that come out when I try to sweep and/or swifter the floor. Many of them have now fallen out so there are just gaps. Also, there are places where the boards are a bit loose and it feels like there is empty space between the floor and the sub-floor. Something is not quite right. The quality of the installation is lacking, although that is not surprising. Again, it is just annoying (and hopefully I don’t loose any of my deposit because I walked on the floors).
The Dry Beijing Air
The air, at least in winter, is very, very dry. The positive side to this is that even though I don’t have a dryer, I can have dry clothes just a couple of hours after hanging them up. I also don’t ever worry that my clothes will get mildew while hanging to dry. The downside is that my body is very dry, too. Even though I drink lots of water and run a humidifier in my room at night, my skin is still really dry and flaky. I also use lots of lotion and anti-dandruff shampoo. My hair also hates the dry air and I’m still working on figuring out how to help it.
So, life isn’t always perfect. There are plenty of things that cause stress living here. On the other hand, the flowering trees are blooming! If you were wondering why the photos in this post are flowers it is because I don’t usually take pictures of things that cause me stress, but taking some photos of the pretty trees in my courtyard was good stress relief! If you live with a higher level of stress, you also have to figure out how to lessen some of that stress.