Surviving Gray Clouds

“Winter Blues” by MaDonna Maurer

It’s February, and Chinese New Year is fast approaching. This time of year means beautiful colors, loud noises, and yummy eats. The bright and beautiful colors on this little island does not mean the sun. It is usually gray and dreary this time of year – oh, and cold. It has always struck me funny that this time of year is also called “Spring Festival” when it feels nothing like spring. Okay, the cherry blossoms are sometimes in full bloom. So, if you have any nearby you can gaze on those beauties, but in my experience from the past few years it has been gray and cold the entire Chinese New Year.

If you can’t tell, my attitude is totally affected by the weather. I need the sun. I live in a place where the sun disappears from January to March/April. It is a time of year where one learns the art of wearing multiple layers of clothes to not look like they’ve gained 5kg. It is also the time of year that my hot water kettle is always ready to make a cup of tea or hot chocolate. The blankets are thrown on the chairs and couch, not for decorative purposes, but for convenience. Okay, I may have a hidden desire for my living room to look like one of those country home magazines, but who am I kidding? They look like someone tossed them quickly as they scrambled to the next warm spot – their bed.

I remember the first time I realized that my attitude was being affected by the weather. It had been raining nonstop for about a month. I had young kids, so we didn’t go out so much. One afternoon the sun crept out and blazed an electrifying orange streak across the gray. I immediately exhaled, relaxed, and felt my skin and eyes smile. Trust me, you may not see your skin and eyes smile but you can feel it. I felt like a new person with tons of energy and I know my kiddos were excited to have that mom back!

After a bit of research, I discovered that we need a daily dose of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is free when you have sunshine. When you don’t, you have to go out and buy some. Well, that made sense to me. I bought some Vitamin D the first chance I got.

All that to say, I’ll be taking my Vitamin D tablet this evening.

Your Turn: Do you see a pattern in your life where weather affects your attitude? Share you story below. I really do love reading your comments.

**Please note that I wrote this a few days ago when it was super cold and dreary. Now? The sun came out and I had a little skip in my step walking from the subway station home from school. I love free stuff! 

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How do you Thrive Overseas?

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Photo by MaDonna Maurer

For the past few years I have chosen a word to be my theme for the year. Gone are the list of resolutions. Instead, I just choose a word. This year it is THRIVE.

Since I’ve chosen this word about a month ago, I’ve been spending time thinking, “How does one thrive in a country not their own?”

Here is what I came up with – though it not an extensive list, it is a start.

Get out – Maybe you just arrived, or maybe you are stuck inside with your kiddos, but either way you have to open up the door and step outside. Go to a local park or a playground to let your kids run around. Take time with your ipod and go for a run/walk by yourself. Sometimes we just need to unplug, and we know that exercise is good for the mental health, too.

I’ve found that living in the city has taken a toll on us. We need to get out of the city regularly, so we’ve planned times to go to the mountains or the beach every few weeks. Being in nature is just good for the soul – so even if you can’t get that far away, be creative and try to find some place where you can be outside and get some natural Vitamin D. Plants don’t thrive without some sun – and neither will you.

Get connected – Find friends. Be proactive (and this is very difficult for this introvert to do). The reason you have to be proactive is that most likely, they will not find you. They have their circle of friends, their needs are met. I have found that this circle of friendship is open to others, but the outsider has to break in. Ask someone to go for tea or a coffee. Ask them over for a dinner. Meet up to go to the beach or to the mountains. Either way, make some friends – local or expat, but really a mixture of both is even better. The locals can teach you so much more about the country you are living in and the expat can relate to your blunders and heartaches. The catch to thriving in this connecting way is to make sure that your connections encourage and strengthen you, not bring you (or the country) down. Most of the time, these friends end up being extensions to your family tree.

Get positive – This can be tagged to the last thought. It’s easy to find the negative in a culture you don’t understand completely. Sure maybe the people stare, touch, want pictures, or maybe the country is dirty, smelly, just a hard place live. Try to look past all of that to see the beauty in the place. Find others who know the beauty of the people and places and connect with them. If you really despise the place you are living in or agitated with the people, you won’t connect, you won’t go out, you just won’t thrive. Something has to change – either your location or your attitude. You attitude is a whole lot cheaper – just saying.

Please note that you will have days where things are hard – this is normal. It isn’t your culture, and you won’t understand and will get fed up, but DON’T stay in that place. Don’t let those days become weeks and then months – you will find yourself wilting. And a wilting flower is not very pretty to look at…

Get the language – I put this last because, well you can get out and start to get connected before you “get the language” like a pro. Trust me, charades and mime like gestures has gotten my cabinets filled with food many of times. And though smiling and nodding to the neighbor and her toothless grandmother can begin a connectedness, it isn’t going to go any farther until you learn the language. And this takes lots of work, but so worth it. If you have kids, it’ll amaze you how fast they pick it up and end up being your walking translators – but don’t let that become your crutch. Sign up for a class, get a tutor, have a language exchange with another mother – just get out there and learn the language. All this to say, if you can understand and be understood you will thrive – but just as a seed takes time to bloom, so to will language. So be patient with yourself, but keep pushing yourself forward.

It’s not easy to thrive in a country that is not your own, where your comfort food from “home” can’t be found, or where you find you can’t be understood at the local market – but it can be done. And though I’ve lived overseas for some time, I still have to work on the above list because well, to be honest, I do slip back into old habits once in a while – and my kids do make very good translators these days.

Your Turn: What has helped you most to thrive where you are? Please share in the comments below.

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Todays posting was inspired by Velvet Ashes, The Grove.

Learning Simplicity

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Birthdays. That word seems to have lots of emotion attached to it, doesn’t it? Think for a minute. A child begins counting down the days until the BIG day comes immediately the day after their birthday – unless you celebrate Christmas and then there is a mini-break. They are excited for the presents, the cake, the anticipation of it all. As we get older, many of us (not all) dread watching the number of candles added to the cake until it looks like one big fireball about to explode. Parents of the birthday child…well, planning out a party can be stressful, especially if you live overseas you have this idea of making the party a top-notched one right off a Pintrest page.

I admit, I have tried to be one of those moms. I have lugged party hats, plates, cups, napkins, banners, etc for all three kids half way around the world. I have a patient husband. I loved making the cakes, decorating, and planning the games to all go around the theme. Then the day of the party would come, and I’d be nervous – I’d be smiling and laughing, but deep inside I just wanted it to end. I was afraid it would flop. I know silly me, it isn’t about the party, but about the child… A few years ago, I caught on…sort of. My son got older and didn’t want the theme. He just wanted his friends, cake, and playing at the park. It was one of the best parties for me. It was easy and the kids still had a blast. Same for Mei Mei, simple with friends equaled fun.

But, what do you do for a child who has no friends?

Jie Jie has no friends. Really. She has tons of people who love her and who she loves dearly. These people range from adults, kids in her school, to people at church, but she doesn’t have friends. This isn’t a huge issue until her birthday comes around and I try to plan a party. I think her last party was when she was in Kindergarten and we invited her class – the special ed class in the local school. Of course, it was themed – Penguins!

Then we started homeschooling, and I’ll be honest every year I dreaded her birthday. Each one reminded me what she lacked – and it wasn’t just friends. I’d be reminded that she was one year older and farther away from the learning curve of other kids her age. Both facts punched the gut and I couldn’t plan anything. So, the past few years we’ve just gone out for supper and had some cake with a few presents. Then guilt would pour over me for not planning a nicer party for her. Nasty cycle.

We just celebrated her 11th birthday last week. A week before her birthday, I felt the pressure, the dread. My husband informed me that we were having a party this year. I asked, “Who are we going to invite?” He told me, “No one, we are going to have a family party.” I’ll admit, I dragged my feet and didn’t think it was going to be much fun – but then he made me go out with him to buy presents. We bought her a calculator, a flashlight, amongst some other things. We talked about what we could do – like games to play, simple decorations, and planned a trip to the zoo for that weekend. Amazing how attitudes can change once the focus shifts to more positive thoughts. My husband is such a great and wise man.

The day of her birthday, I brought her and the kids home early. We frosted the cake and set up the game, “Pin the Tail on Bullseye” that my sister had sent to use for her birthday last year. Ge Ge blew up the “Toy Story” balloons, also from last year’s package that we hadn’t used. When my husband got home, the party began. We all played the game, ate cake, and watched her open presents. We took her out to eat for supper and the restaurant sang to her and gave her a birthday balloon. This past weekend the five of us went to the zoo because that is what she wanted to do. She wanted to see the giraffes.

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It was the best birthday party we’ve had in years for her. You know those moments you sit back and watch the world around you – in amazement of your family and how grateful you are for each one? That was sentimental me this past week. I know that she would have had a blast with just cake and presents, but playing the game and laughing together was what I needed. A reminder that simple pleasures like a party is good for the soul.

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So, how do you do birthdays? Do you go all out (don’t worry, I won’t judge you…in fact, I applaud you!) Or do you do simple family birthdays? Do you have a child with special needs? What do you do? Please share your stories and thoughts in the comments below.

How to Leave Well: Build a RAFT

As you may know, I’m celebrating this week with a giveaway contest of the book B at Home: Emma Moves Again by Valérie Besanceney. In the book Emma goes through the transition process of moving. Though Valérie doesn’t specifically use RAFT in her book, we see Emma building one.

This time of year is bittersweet for expats and their children. The excitement of summer coming means slower mornings – the breakfast rush of passing out pieces of bread to eat on the way to school is almost over. We know that we’ll get a few months break to recharge before starting back up in the fall. The crazy thing is that after a few days we miss rushing the kids off so they have something to do besides telling us they are bored. For me, though, this summer will be about the beach, a nice large cup of cold tea (I’m so addicted to these Taiwan teas), and it’s looking like packing boxes.

Yep, we are moving – just not sure when. Yeah, that is hard, but will save that for another post as I’m still processing the unknowns. Being married to a TCK, I’ve learned a few tricks from my husband in assisting my kids in this process called moving. My husband and I both really believe in building RAFTs, and this time we are being more intentional in helping our now older kids build their own.

I really don’t like saying, “Good-byes”. I’d just rather avoid or ignore all the emotions and feelings I have during this move, but I know I can’t  – I’ve just got to go through it because if I don’t I could regret it. I’ve found that building my RAFT has been the key for me to do it in a healthy and may I say, somewhat, graceful way.

So what is this “Building your RAFT” all about?

Are we building a boat? No, not literally. RAFT is an acronym that the late David C Pollock developed to help people transition. This process of moving can take up to six months or more. Below is the simple form of this model. If you have the opportunity to go to a seminar or workshop – GO! Seriously, it will change the way you do the move – and I’m not talking about a dance step.

R = Reconciliation 

Reconciliation is just that: reconciling with people, making the relationship right. Just because you leave a place doesn’t mean the problem goes away. It doesn’t – instead it goes with you. Research has been done on health related issues due to unforgiveness. Just google it and see for yourself.

A = Affirmation

Is there anyone you are super thankful for? Anyone who has helped you greatly while living in that city? Tell them. Let them know how much you appreciate them and what they did for you, for your kids, for your family. Awkward? Write a letter to tell them – but just tell them. You have the opportunity to make someone feel appreciated – and you’ll feel great that you did it.

F = Farewell

This is the not so fun part; saying good-bye. You immediately think of all the people you want to tell good-bye. An article I just read on this topic stated to rank your friends, which sounds harsh, but I do think is a good idea. Don’t forget to say “Good-bye” to places and things as well. This may sound strange, but it really helps to bring closure. This one is important for kids as well. Plan these “events” on a calendar so you get them in. I’ll write more on this later this week…so much you can do to help your kids here.

T = Think Destination

It’s just that – think about the next place. How will it be different from where you are now? How will it be the same? Go through this dialogue with your kids as well. It will help them in the process as well. Look up on the internet and read about the new place. Check it out on Google Maps. Reminder: It’s okay to feel excited about the new destination as you say good-bye to all the old things. It’s normal.

I’ll be sharing this week a little about how I’ve been using this model in our process of transition.

Again, don’t forget to enter the contest here. Also, you can get extra points here – but remember to let me know the comments section of that post if you want to be in the giveaway.

Deadline is May 30th.

 

Your Turn: Have you used this method when you moved? Or did you use another method. Please share a moving story. Please comment below.

Public Transportation and Children, including Special Needs…

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*photo by nats’ photostream at flickr.com

Imagine getting on this bus with Baby in the front pack and Toddler trying to free his hand from yours. You help Toddler climb the giant steps up, only to find the bus crowed with no seats. With Toddler in front, you tighten the grip of his wriggly hand while you grasp with the other hand the hand grip swinging from the ceiling. The bus lurches forward. You stumble a bit. You close your eyes praying for your lives and cursing yourself for taking the bus. Then someone smiles and gets up so Toddler can sit. You stand swaying back and forth, or more likely jerking forward and backward while bouncing Baby, who at this point has started crying. Somehow the bus gets more crowded. Your stop is coming up. You begin planning the exit strategy in hopes that you don’t loose Toddler and don’t crush Baby. Then, the Mommy Panic Button is pushed – what if Toddler doesn’t get off with you? What if he gets lost? 

Imagination or Real?

Maybe you didn’t have to imagine this because you just experienced it this week AND to top it all off you are in a foreign country. I’m pretty sure I have had this kind of a day. It was WAY too easy to write for me to have imagined it all up.

Transportation Holder

When our son became old enough to have his own transportation card (like a debit card for buses and subways) we bought him a holder that went around his neck. All the kids now have one. Jie Jie just got a new one for her recent birthday.

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“But a transportation holder isn’t going to help…”

No, just having the holder and the card are not going to help. I agree. That is why we decided that in case we should get separated from our kids, they need to have our phone numbers in the holder as well. So, we have my husband’s business card with his cell number inside, too. This card is written in both English and in Chinese. The dual language is important – not everyone can read English, so the language of your host country needs to be on the card as well. The kids know they are to ask someone to call that number if for some reason they find they are lost.

Special Needs Addition

Since Jie Jie is a special needs child, we have added  a little more information to her holder. We also have a card that states, in English and Chinese, that she is a special needs child who cannot speak or have anything by mouth. Then both of our cell numbers are on that paper as well.

I’ve been thankful that the kids have not had to use those business cards to call us. Tomorrow morning we will climb those steps again and face the crowds. We take the bus to school most mornings. Even though the kids have gotten really good about staying close and paying attention when it’s time to get off, I feel a little better knowing they have our numbers in their holders in case something does happen.

Your Turn: Do you use public transportation with your kids? What has been your experience? Share your story below.

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The All Time Hated Aisle

Cereal Aisle

photo by Rex Roof via flickr

Can you guess what the all time hated aisle for any expat is? Okay, the photo gave it away if you were wondering.

I don’t have solid research on this, but I believe this has to be one of the top 5 places expats hate to visit in the US. I have this theory because, having lived overseas for a-hem several years now, every expat I have talked to gets the same look and pretty much says the same thing, Oh, I just stand there for hours looking at all the choices not knowing what to put in the over-sized cart.

What is it about that aisle? I like lists if you haven’t noticed, so here are my lists of why cereal aisles make us tense up.

1. The aisle is a mile. Have you noticed this? I mean it is the entire length of the aisle and at least 4 shelves high. The pure size of it overwhelms me.

2. The number of choices. So, the aisle is a mile long and each shelf has rows upon rows of every kind of cereal you can imagine. Take for instance a simple flaky type cereal. You can get it bran, frosted, fruity, low-fat, and, and, and. And if you know what type of flake you want, then you have 4+ brands to choose from. I’ve gotten used to only have, at the most, five choices to choose from. Period.

3. The shouting of words. I’m a writer, so words tend to jump out at me. The cereal boxes are no different. I feel like the boxes are shouting their greatness, their newness. “Low-fat!” “Low-carb!” “Healthy Eating!” “Great for the Heart!” And that doesn’t even cover the “prizes” that are inside ~ which my kids have now figured out. I think having lived overseas I can’t always read what the boxes are shouting, so it is like they are on mute. You think?

So, what to do about this “problem”? I haven’t totally figured it out. My plan thus far has worked out fine. I tell my mother what kinds of cereal we “like” and let her bring them home. Then when we need to buy more, I search for the exact same box ~ if the kids liked it that is.

Your Turn: Do you like the cereal aisle? How do you tackle it when you are back in the US? Please share in the comments below.

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