12 lessons in 12 months

Maria Niechwiadowicz


I can now officially say that I have been a Global Mission Fellow for one year, which means there is just one year left of my service in China. It is amazing to look back and reflect on the time that has passed! What a journey of joys, struggles, understanding, and confusion this year has been. Needless to say I have learned a lot, and the learning is not over. In fact, God’s wisdom is just beginning to show it’s light in my work, in Guyuan, and in me. Here are 12 lessons I have learned in 12 months:

1. No matter how much I learn about China, I will never know enough. 1.4 billion people. 5,000 years of history. Various news sources from multiple cultural perspectives. Enough said.

2. Mandarin is the hardest language EVER (dialects make things difficult). I am a little ashamed to say that after spending 11 months in China, I still can’t carry on a full conversation in Mandarin. Survive? Yes. But conditions vary. The guyuanhua dialect here is still incredibly hard for me to understand and even with standard putonghua, my vocabulary is limited.

3. Every day is an adventure. Living abroad turns normal activities like grocery shopping and walking to the bus stop an adventure where anything can happen. I am challenged on a daily basis to adapt and take everything with a dose of grace. Here are just some of the thoughts that run through my head on a daily basis:

  • At the grocery store: Pear-flavored sausage? Ok…
  • Walking down the street: Pig heads on side of the road, no big deal. 
  • Upon hearing fireworks going off: Either my apartment is being attacked, or it is a holiday, or….neither, I live in China. 
  • After being invited to an official banquet: How lovely! When is the banquet next week? I mean, of course the banquet is tonight. I’ll cancel my plans. 

4. Butter is not better. I’ve always been more of an Italian, olive-oil-believing cook rather than a French butter-snob, but when it comes to baking, butter has always been king. Well, butter is scarce and expensive in Guyuan, which means research and adaptions have been necessary and successful! After perfecting a super moist yellow cake recipe with an oil base, I don’t think I will ever make a yellow butter cake again!

5. Ningxia is to South Dakota. (I’m gonna make a big generalization…) Ask an east-coaster where South Dakota is on the map of the USA and they will stare at you blankly. Ask an eastern Chinese person where Ningxia is…same response. What state/province are you referring to? Similarly, the biggest complaint from locals living here in Guyuan is that the weather is “changeable” and oh so terribly cold in the winter. Let’s be honest, South Dakota weather is way more schizophrenic, and hey, I don’t have to worry about tornadoes in China. Let’s just say I had ideal wardrobe for moving to Ningxia.

6. Being a (young, Christian, female) foreigner is complicated. Sometimes I feel like a supermodel, a security threat, and a little kid all in one day. For example, going to the bank takes 2 hours of paperwork. Walking down the street after jogging in my sweatpants still inspires locals to tell me that I am beautiful. Holidays are the only excuse to share “Western religious” culture in class. At the mall I am mistaken for a student, which means the surprised faces upon sharing that I am a teacher are priceless!

7. Time slows down when I am disengaged and unsatisfied, but speeds up when I am living and engaging in the moment. 

8. Breaking expectations is important. Redefining concepts is essential. Even if you enter a new place or experience thinking you have no expectations, the truth is that they are hiding in the back of your mind. This was me. Despite coming to China with a “fresh” heart and mind, I really struggled to acknowledge and release those hidden expectations, especially when it came down to the spirituality in Guyuan. I ultimately had to prayerfully sit and redefine my pre-exisiting concepts of mission, justice, and even religion. It was the healthiest spiritual decision I made over the year!

9. Opening your eyes is the first step to actually seeing. Along with #8 comes a new concept of seeing. I have learned that it is important to listen and observe the culture surrounding me, but also intentionally see from my heart to theirs. That is, looking beyond the surface level and really trying to understand where the Holy Spirit is working.

10. It’s the little things in life…that make your day and ruin your day! A small square of imported dark chocolate can make my day, or a simple meal with a student will bring sunshine all week. But a minor language problem at the store will frustrate my spirit in seconds, and one meal with invisible MSG will sour my stomach all week.

11. God will use me. Even after being here for a year, at least once a week I ask myself, “why am I here?” Living abroad isn’t easy. Teaching isn’t easy. And trusting God isn’t easy. I am constantly reminding myself to trust God’s Wisdom and remember that he uses me in both big and small ways on a daily basis. To highlight some of the “bigger” events, I have been able to coach singerscook in class, and direct the annual play competition!

12. It’s all about the journey and it’s all about taking risks. In the words of Chef Francis Mallmann, “You don’t grow on a secure path. All of use should conquer something in life, and it needs a lot of work and it needs a lot of risk. In order to grow you need to be at the edge of uncertainty.”