Family Photo
Involvement in church activities and in an association of home-schooled Shanghai youths has helped Janna Lewis feel at home.

SHANGHAI, China — As a 13-year-old in Colorado anticipating her first middle-school experiences, Janna Lewis looked forward to choir and the drama club. Her sister, Adrianne, was just as eager to start high school.

Then came the news from their parents: Stayner and Dori Ann Lewis and their two youngest daughters were headed to China, where Stayner works as a self-employed consultant.

Now, almost five years later, Janna remembers being both excited at the unique experience and disappointed by the prospects of missing the typical teenage experiences, including the "Big Three" of driving, dances and dating.

"Now I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything," she says of family life in Shanghai, one of the two major metropolises in the People's Republic of China. "It's all here."

Not everything is "all here" in the same way as compared to her cousins in the United States — church dances come only once a year, social life is admittedly limited, and the plethora of low-cost bus, subway and taxi options means a driver's license hasn't been necessary.

But Janna is proof that a relocated teen can both survive and thrive as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints half a world away from her native America.

The same is true for her as a young member of the Shanghai Branch, one of the city's two branches in the church's Shanghai China International District.

While the church is not formally recognized by the Chinese government, expatriate members are allowed — with certain restrictions — to meet and worship together and participate in limited activities.

"I think coming to China helped me realize how much I took the church for granted before," she said.

Janna's not alone in Shanghai — at least during the school year, when the Shanghai branches have more than a dozen youths each. However, as foreign-member families return home for summer vacations, the numbers dwindle.

Because she's schooled at home in Shanghai, finding good friends was initially hard but eventually achieved, thanks to other youths in the branch and in the vicinity of her home. The result was a United Nations-like collection of friends, especially since 15 different nationalities are represented in her branch.

Involvement in church activities and in an association of home-schooled Shanghai youths helped — especially when groups reached out to focus on serving others, whether it be singing and playing games at a school for the blind, interacting with students with cerebral palsy and helping them with stretching activities, or doing some private English tutoring work for the children of a nearby Chinese family.

Janna is like other young women and young men of the church living in China — they relish any opportunities to get together with peers from other cities, whether it be for school-related extracurricular activities or occasional fellowshipping activities among members.

Because of the youths' situations, church leaders make special efforts to help the teens connect with others from similar expatriate branches in China — sometimes with weekend visits, sometimes with an overnight camping trip for the young women in the late fall, and perhaps an annual church dance.

She chuckles when American friends and relatives talk about how the frequent youth dances in the United States have become, in their words, boring. "Here they're so much fun because they're the only ones of the year," she said.

In the past, she's taken a part of China with her to the United States for summertime visits with cousins, who were amazed with all the purses and jewelry Janna brought for them and their low cost.

And Janna realized something traveling to the United States.

"That's the country I come from, but this is my home," she said of China. "I feel like I'm at home here."

Adrianne has long since completed graduation-equivalent requirements in China and is studying at Brigham Young University. She tells Janna she misses "real" Chinese food and buying baked sweet potatoes as snacks on the streets of Shanghai.

Within a year, Janna hopes to follow her sister back to the United States for college and is currently completing an application to attend BYU-Idaho.

Even a year out from returning to the United States, Janna again has mixed emotions — similar to the jumbled-up feelings of her arrival in China.

"I know I'll be homesick," she said of China. "I know I may not fully appreciate it as it's happening now, but I'll really miss it."


E-mail: [email protected]