Lonely

Chinese lady and kids

I lived in China in my early twenties.

The best way to describe China is the way my sister did when she came to visit. Instead of arriving in a different country, she said felt like she stepped off the plane onto a different planet.

The swarms of people staring at us foreigners took some getting used to; but this challenge was only second to the language barrier. Not being able to read anything or ask where one might find a (sanitary) restroom proved tougher than I imagined, but I had friends to stumble through Mandarin alongside, so everything felt doable.

That was until I went out on my own and loneliness set in.

I initially moved to China with a group of like-minded Americans, but then I took a leap of faith and went back on my own. I moved into an apartment by myself and really tried to step out of my comfort zone with my Chinese friendships and language (which made for many embarrassing linguist snafus).

I have never experienced the ache of loneliness like I did living alone in a foreign country. I wasn’t alone all the time, but I felt isolated most of the time. I went to class, made friends, engaged in conversation with the street vendors, so it wasn’t like I stayed in my apartment all day, everyday. But despite living in a city of 13 million where I was constantly bumping shoulders (and bikes) with people, my heart ached.

I wanted to be known. I longed for community, for my friends back home.

And then something miraculous happened. I didn’t suddenly have a jam-packed social calendar. My phone didn’t ring with calls from new friends. But the room that the ache of loneliness left in my heart gave room for something else. For someone else.

Her name was “Xiao Li”. A mother of three girls, she was an illiterate, vivacious Chinese lady who made her living as a housekeeper. She came to my apartment once a week and her joyful presence coupled with my lack of busyness often left me following her around the house while we talked and laughed.

One day as she finished up at my house, it was around 5:00 and I asked her if I could take her out to dinner. She nearly tripped over her mop as she insisted it wasn’t necessary for about five minutes until she finally agreed. I can be pretty persuasive.

We went to dinner and it’s strange how our personalities and character traits translate into other cultures. She opened up about some very hard issues she faced and I listened, trying to comfort her the best I knew how with my less than stellar vocabulary. At the end of the meal, I said, “If you ever need anything or get in trouble, you know I’m here for you.”

We left dinner, linked arm in arm, and wandered our way back to my apartment where she headed across town on her scooter.

Three days later, my phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Xiao Li and she explained in panic that her arm and maybe her leg was broken. A heated marital dispute left her needing to go to the ER.

The story is long and tangled, but I spent the next month with my friend and her youngest daughter in the hospital while she awaited surgery. After being released, Xiao Li and her daughters came to live with me for a while before finding a new home away from her abusive husband.

There are many layers to this story, but I’ve been reflecting on loneliness ever since my friend Andrea wrote this excellent post about the topic.

An aching heart gave me a window into the hearts of others. Loneliness gave me room for people–people I might have considered less important if I was surrounded by friends. It was perhaps the only season in my life where busyness didn’t demand all my attention and drive me away from perhaps the people who matter most.

When Xiao Li’s daughters had a jump rope competition completely naked in my living room and shrieked with laughter every time I miscounted (it’s hard to count to 400 in Mandarin), I realized that without loneliness I would have missed this incredibly rich experience.

Have you experienced loneliness? What have you allowed it to teach you?

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Comments
14 Responses to “Lonely”
  1. Ahhh, Ruthie. I loved your poignant thoughts today. I think you were lonely much in the same way our nieces initially were when they came to us from China.

    It’s such a God-thing knowing that love transcends language barriers.

  2. k says:

    “An aching heart gave me a window into the hearts of others. Loneliness gave me room for people–people I might have considered less important if I was surrounded by friends. It was perhaps the only season in my life where busyness didn’t demand all my attention and drive me away from perhaps the people who matter most.”
    I like this paragraph- I like the whole post-Karen

  3. Summer says:

    Wow, this is incredible Ruthie. What a story (& what a beautiful heart you have)! Perhaps this woman & her kids are the reason God sent you to China. Thank you for sharing & inspiring us with your loving response to her in her greatest time of need!

  4. Maggie says:

    I actually had a very similar experience when I was living abroad as well. As you point out in your piece, it’s very possible to feel alone and isolated even when one has friends and other things to occupy time; I definitely know the feelings of loneliness you describe, especially as it relates to being in a culture different from one’s own.

    Your thoughts have really forced me to reflect on what I learned during that season of my life. One of my main takeaways (at least spiritually) was God’s faithfulness. When I look back on it now, in those times I felt alone (which I definitely did experience), I wasn’t nearly as alone as I thought. I was blessed to have a lovely support system and friends, and His faithfulness saw me through.

    I also learned a lot about how to be a better friend and how to make friends. Although it was surprising to me at the time, I wasn’t the only expat I knew who felt alone, nor was I alone in these feelings amongst locals. I learned over time to reach out and love others as my own personal antidote to loneliness, and felt my feelings of loneliness decrease somewhat. We were made to live and love, and living abroad really challenged me to apply my beliefs about living in community and loving those close to me to the best of my ability.

  5. Natalie says:

    thanks for sharing the perspective of loneliness, I wish you move to CA, and we can speak Chinese all the time! I still remember you called me in your mid of night in the ER trying to know how to get hot water, when I was enjoying an ice Starbucks Americano in a sunny afternoon at Vanderbilt. Time flies so fast and I’m glad you reflected this way to draw connections of even bad times with amazing riches in lives! I’m proud of you to find your own apartment in China, where I could not help you…. you even translated YuNan dialect to me for the guy who changed water for us, remember?? :-)

  6. rachel says:

    I can relate to this. Everyone can relate to this whether living in the city they grew up in, or a foreign country.
    But what is so striking is that instead of turning to self-nurture and coddling, making it about us and our loneliness, it can have the sole purpose of opening us up to others hurting just as bad or more.
    I love it when I am slapped in the face with realities like this.
    thumbs up

  7. Kiley B. says:

    Hey girl!
    I love this post- it’s so parallel to what I wrote earlier this week. We tend to look inward when we feel lonely instead of up to The Lord and out to His people! Love how he used you. Check out what he’s doing with me right now: http://www.preservethelight.com/2013/10/28/whats-your-status/
    Cheers and blessings- Kiley

    PS- This part is my fav: “An aching heart gave me a window into the hearts of others. Loneliness gave me room for people…”

  8. Megan says:

    “Loneliness gave me room for people–people I might have considered less important if I was surrounded by friends. It was perhaps the only season in my life where busyness didn’t demand all my attention and drive me away from perhaps the people who matter most.”

    Wow, that’s an awesome perspective, thank-you. I’ve struggled with loneliness a lot lately but seeing it as a chance to slow down and notice and reach out to others, that is lovely.

    • Ruthie Dean says:

      Hi Megan,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m sorry you’ve been struggling with loneliness, but my hope is you will fill your time with the right things and right people.

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