My expectation when we first moved to China was for pretty simple and even bare conditions, all based on what my husband told me of his situation back when he taught in Nanjing during his college days. I was thinking; concrete walls, exposed piping, one room apartment kind of thing. So I was more than overjoyed and surprised at how nice and somewhat normal the first place felt when we walked in six years ago, even if it was overdone according to my sparse American taste, with crystal chandeliers in every room and glossy wood built-ins everywhere you looked. At least it had several rooms and no exposed piping.
Living as a foreigner in China for the most part means a fair bit of transience when it comes to your home, which is typically an apartment of some kind. The reason for this is that, with few exceptions, most foreigners have to rent, not buy their apartments, and are therefore subject to the whims of each individual landlord (as apartments are owned individually much like condominiums) such as leases not being renewed, landlords selling the place or deciding to move in themselves, and of course the transience of the foreigner themselves who may decide they need to change location, or find a better place, a better rental price, etc.
In the past six years we have lived in three different apartments, and this one we just moved into is now the fourth. This latest move was because our school building is changing location and we were too far away for the commute in our old apartment. So before heading back to the States this summer, we had to find a place and then move our stuff in, three days before boarding the plane.
The place we had found was a true answer to my many little prayers, as over the last six months, I somewhat feebly and not very boldly asked for things I knew I didn't deserve or need but thought could make all the difference in helping our family thrive in this country. I asked for space; for four bedrooms, or at least more square footage (not easy to find in our price range, or sometimes at all. New construction in China is on the small side). I asked for light. Light is important when I am home most of the day and the skies here are often on the gray side. In many ways, I think light just makes everything in the world better. I asked for (and here I closed my eyes and squinted, sort of wincing out the request) the crazy extra bonus of in some way being able to garden, which meant a first floor or a rooftop.
After many tiring weeks of searching for new housing for our entire staff (I was on the housing committee for this task) and not seeing anything that would work without a lot of gulping and probably crying in the closet on my part, I went one day to see a place with some friends who had given me a lead. It was on the seventh floor, with no elevator. It was a rooftop, and it was huge. Four bedrooms, lots of light, an upstairs with a large room (like a basement for kids but on top, I thought!) and a garden/patio area. It was within our price range. And it was completely trashed.
Josh and I decided it was worth the extra work and money to us to take this fixer upper on, and we planned to sign a four year lease on the place that week. At the contract signing with the landlord, our company GM and maintenance guy came along to do inspections. They found significant water damage coming from the rooftop area and showing in the apartment below. After much discussion with the landlord and among ourselves, our GM made the hard call not to rent the place if the landlord would not agree to fix the roof leak. She refused. We walked away.
I was pretty devastated. It was desperately hard for me to let go of what I had thought was such an answer to my unreasonable prayers, what I thought was purely a gift from God. I had told our kids about it as we left for the signing. They were beyond excited at this provision. So WHY, I cried out, did I have to even see this place at all, if it was not going to work out in the end? Why was that necessary?
For some reason I had been re-listening every morning to my good old friend, Elisabeth Elliot, who I have read off and on through the years but had not picked up in quite some time. She can have a hard message, or a stringent one at least to our modern ears. But I wonder if when your soul is most needy, it is only the real food, the good stuff, even if hard at first, that really nourishes and sustains you. Her message for me was, Trust. And in a thousand ways over those few days I had to work through that. I DO trust Him. He is certainly trustWORTHY. Why do I think when things go awry or look so wrong to me from this end that this means He is messing up. Of course it does not mean that. But it does mean that the trust I have to offer is that much more costly. It definitely cost me something this time to trust him. I had to offer that house, that house that wasn't even mine, right up there on the altar and watch it burn. It's just a house, I know. But the provision of it, and the house itself had meant so much to me. I let it burn, and trusted that God was making something infinitely more beautiful out of me in this process than if I had that house in hand. I felt silly comparing myself to Abraham, but at the same time I was so thankful for Abraham being there, with his Isaac on the altar story. Maybe a million times in my life or more, there will be big Isaacs and little Isaacs, and they all get given to the same God. He always provides.
A couple weeks later, I got a phone call from the GM. The landlord had called back. She said if she fixed the roof, would we still be interested in renting? There it was. The ending I thought would never happen. He gave me back my Isaac. I couldn't believe it. This house, with all it's neediness, was nothing short of a provision from the hand of God. And that is how we saw it and see it still. It's a great story for the faith of my kids. And I think better even as they had the opportunity to walk with me through the initial disappointment, the choice to trust, and the wonderful ending at last.
So it's true that this place needed and still needs a ton of work. But for now, let me tell you the things I love about it.
- For the first time in six years I do not have a bathroom where the toilet is located in the shower. I think about this every day and am thankful for the separation of these two activities. Shower, and toilet. To each his own.
- I have four bedrooms. My parents did not even have a four bedroom house when they were raising their four kids, and I have seen other large families here cram into small spaces and make it work. This place with its rooms and the square footage is nothing short of a massive gift of space. I look at it every day and breathe a prayer of thanks.
- The light is everywhere, in every room. I don't have to leave lamps on during the day. They all stay off, and the light just blows me kisses.
- The kitchen is huge. It has an arched window, an arched window!
- It has a separate place for laundry. No laundry in the bathroom. No laundry in the kitchen. It's on a porch off my bedroom, tucked in its own corner. This, I love.
- It has a rooftop. It's moldy, and the garden is in disrepair. It will need a ton of toil and labor and probably tears as it takes me longer than I want to get it together. But it's there. And I never ever thought I would have something like it.
That is all. That is my House Story. I love it and still think about it, and remind myself of it when other things about it are hard. There is so much overwhelming good to be thankful for and I truly feel like it is the most undeserved of gifts.
And pictures, you ask? Well, I'll just have to try to pull some together here and post them next time.