"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Thursday, December 31, 2009

December Recap, Part 1: On Getting My Name in the Paper

There is so much to recall that I’ll just attack various facets of this month in shorter excerpts. One memorable event was the city-wide Christmas banquet held for all the foreigners living in Xiaogan (population is around 400,000). The event was hosted by several city officials, including the mayor of Xiaogan, and attended by several locals, including President Zhang (my school) and several other school administrators.

This was a rare opportunity to meet some of the other foreigners in the city (about 40-50 or so in attendance), most of whom I’ve never seen, though I think I recognized one gal from the dairy section of the supermarket. Some of these foreigners are teachers, either employed at another university in town or working at a secondary school. Many were businesspeople. And a good chunk of them were apparently here for some sort of military parachute training, such as Haleem from Egypt and I-can’t-remember-his-name from Bangladesh who kept calling me Michael. So I assume Xiagoan must have an exceptional training program to draw participants from such great distances. There were people from India, Africa, Russia, France, even a few Americans...all over the place, really.

The evening began rather late. There is a tendency among leaders here to show up when they show up. Maybe this is common in the U.S. and I’ve just never noticed it before. But city officials do it, and school leaders do it all the time. The event starts when they arrive, which may inconvenience those waiting, but, well…those waiting are not the honored leaders. I’m guessing it is different here, because of the depth of China’s honor culture. But it makes it hard to honor such people when you’re hungry.

The banquet was held at a fancy hotel. It was a classy meal, for sure. Lots of gourmet dishes, and great, prompt service. Within ten seconds of setting down my empty wine glass, one of the waitresses would come and refill it. Needless to say, we were all in good spirits that night.

Once the program got going, several speeches were made, by the mayor, the vice-mayor (I think that was his title), and even me. I was asked earlier in the week to prepare a short speech; the only prompt I was given was to express gratitude to the city of Xiaogan. It was quite an honor, really, as I was the only foreigner at the banquet asked to speak. Though when I read my speech to one of my classes, they giggled at all of the parts that spoke about how wonderful Xiaogan is; they obviously disagreed.

But that night I shared these Xiaogan-affirming words, talking about the experience of living in China, being away from home at Christmas, the hospitality I’ve received, and how Xiaogan has become a second home. Apparently, my comments about the city being “home” really touched the mayor, who then asked for my name and some more information about me. He later came over and introduced himself and toasted me, expressing gratitude for my kind words about his city. He was really touched. So touched, in fact, that I was told a couple days later that my name and comments about Xiaogan made the city newspaper in an article written about the evening. I sense such praise for Xiaogan is rare.

I have yet to track down the article, but that will definitely be one to save. And I meant what I said, mostly. Xiaogan would certainly not be high up on my list of places to settle down. But I do feel a connection to the city, because it has become home for me. Most of my world travels have taken me in and out of cities quickly. Even in America, I’ve not lived in any one place for more than ten months since I was a teenager. So for a transient like me, four months in a strange and different world is enough to give me a sense of connection to a place, enough to call it a sort of home, if only temporarily.

The rest of the night was a blast, aided by delicious food and good and plentiful wine. Some of my fellow foreign teachers and I prepared a Christmas medley of songs. Following this, Joann and I sang “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” a song we sang frequently together throughout her stay in China, so much that I think it kind of became “our song” to many here.

And then, the (what I should have recognized as) inevitable happened. The crowd, especially the mayor, wanted an encore. More specifically, they wanted Joann and I to sing “My Heart Will Go On.” Keeping my resistance internal, I agreed with a smile and proceeded to strum and sing, faking the words with Joann where we couldn’t remember them. The crowd’s response was so amusing and varied. There was one woman—probably an American—who rolled her eyes and covered her face as if to say “oh please God, no, not this song again!” I just gave her a knowing look and a shrug, and kept on singing. But several in the room, including the mayor (!) were singing right along with us. Haleem was in the back, standing up at this point, waving his hand in the air like he was at a rock concert, belting out the words with us. What an unforgettable moment. Just brilliant.

After this, the evening kind of opened up for impromptu performances. A woman from France sang a French song, a woman from Russia sang a Russian song. I accompanied my roommate Will on guitar, who did his usual (and high-quality) MJ-esque dance shtick. After the mayor visited every table (probably 70-80 in attendance) for toasts and well-wishes, all of the foreigners went up to the stage for a photo and a final farewell song. It was then that Haleem came over and told me he so badly wished he could have sung “My Heart Will Go On” with me. Actually, he wanted to sing it right then; he broke out singing it right in the middle of “Auld Lang Syne.” Hilarious and tragic. I cannot get away from that song.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Slowly catching up

Though I’ve been relatively silent in past weeks, it certainly does not reflect the actual circumstances of my life. The last two and a half weeks have been filled to the brim. With Joann’s visit (now ended), the excitement of the Christmas season and the resulting slew of banquets, performances, and parties, memorable excursions, and some precious and tender moments with my community here in Xiaogan, I would say without exaggeration that this December has been one of the most special months of my life.

Expect numerous posts, pictures, and reflections in the coming days—as soon as I catch my breath.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wonder at a Wonder

I've walked the Great Wall of China.

It was truly surreal. So majestic a sight, so mind-blowing the amount of labor that went into its construction, so breathtaking the scene of both the wall itself and the mountain range through which it weaves, so serene the quiet morning of our visit, so nostalgic the feeling of being transported through centuries of history. So profound in its display of the creativity and capabilities of both God and man.

I will post pictures when I’m able, of both the Wall and the many other spectacular sites Joann and I visited in Beijing. But it’s the Wall that more than anything moved me, left me stunned and in awe.

Two world wonders down (visited Machu Piccu in June 2008)...five to go.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Christmas is in the air (sort of)

“Sort of” meaning that Christmas here doesn’t quite have the fanfare it would were I home in the States. No Christmas TV specials to watch, no houses decorated with Christmas lights to admire, no egg nog to be found, no visit to The Grotto this year, no family to share the season with.

But that doesn’t mean there are hints of it here. I walked passed an American food restaurant (KFC-ish) today that had a couple pictures of Santa Claus posted in the windows. I was also able, after a long walking quest across Xiaogan, to find a miniature (fake) Christmas tree for my home. I’ve found lights too, and have decorated my room a bit. And in a few short hours, Joann will be here to share the holidays with me (sure to have pictures to show and plenty to say about this in the weeks ahead).

I’ve also been teaching my students Christmas songs, bringing my guitar to class occasionally and doing some sing-along’s while also explaining the English. Though, it seems that explaining the meaning of Christmas songs is much more challenging then explaining how to talk about what you did last weekend or how to describe a friend’s appearance or whatever particular English lesson we’re on that week. For example, it’s not really common speech to say “Gloria in excelsis Deo” or “don we now our gay apparel.” It becomes a lesson in Latin and in outdated words whose meanings have changed over time. Most of the students know at least the tune to Jingle Bells if not all the words, so we sing that one a lot.

But everyone knows about Christmas here and does celebrate it to some extent—though I’m still learning how extensive that awareness is. They know something about Santa Claus, and something about Jesus, but mostly I think they just have images in their mind, not stories—trees, presents, lights, snow, maybe the baby Jesus. But I’m still figuring this out.

They do have a fun Christmas tradition here involving apples. Apparently the Chinese word for “apple” is very similar to the word for “be safe” or “be at peace” or something like that. So everyone stocks up on apples just before Christmas, then gives them to their friends as a gesture of goodwill. How wonderful is that?! What a neat way to express the spirit of Christmas.

The spirit of Christmas being peace, or giving, or generosity, or togetherness? I’m not making a statement, just genuinely asking because I’m not sure what the agreed-upon way of articulating it actually is. Seems like you'd probably get different answers from different people. If we’re going theological, I suppose it has to do with self-giving, self-emptying, sacrifice, seeking peace and reconciliation, hope—all words that seek to capture the significance of God-become-man and/or what we tend to think God hoped for in entering our world. If we’re talking about our experience of the holidays year-to-year, maybe the spirit of Christmas is something like nostalgia, togetherness, thoughtfulness toward others, celebration. (Or things like consumerism or commercialism, as Charlie Brown has attempted to show us.)

Whatever that spirit is, I suppose we all know it, and maybe can’t articulate it in a word but know it when we feel it. I think it’s probably all those things for me, because it feels like Christmas when I look at lights and am reminded of childhood; when I sing “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices” and feel the power and richness of those words and the truth they imply; when I receive something somebody bought for me because, well, I'm human I guess and enjoy "stuff;" or when I think of how excited I am to go load up on apples for the 50 or 60 (or more) students whom I want to bless by showing them not only that they matter to me but that the distinct way in which they express such appreciation for one another matters to me as well. I think all of that probably fits into the Christmas spirit.

Also, I’ve been warned to buy my apples early, since stores mark up the price in the days leading up to Christmas. I have plenty of friends here, so plenty of apples to buy. I’m on a homemade applesauce kick lately, so maybe I’ll make this instead as my own unique twist to the tradition here.

One other awkward-turned-funny moment regarding Christmas. I was chatting with some students about my own Christmas traditions and explaining the part about going to church on Christmas Eve to remember the birth of Jesus. I asked for clarification’s sake if they knew to whom I was referring, and most of them nodded. One girl said something like “yeah, and Jesus killed…that’s Easter, right?” I nodded in affirmation, but Angel—another girl present who I know to be a Christian and whose English name truly fits her personality—responded with something like “no, not Jesus killed.” I looked at her a bit puzzled. She looked slightly nervous and uncomfortable, and then told us “at church they tell us not to say ‘Jesus killed.’”

I was so perplexed, and kept probing to understand her meaning in case I was missing something. I insisted that no, Jesus was indeed killed later in life and assured her it’s very well-documented. She kept shaking her head, seeming frustrated, but I figured mostly that she couldn’t articulate her point in English. She told us to move to another topic, and at that point I thought maybe she was hesitant to talk about her faith. But I was so confused, thinking maybe her church was preaching a different Christian story than the one I’m familiar with.

So about twenty minutes later, after the other students had left, I took Angel aside to ask her once more for clarification about what she was saying (or trying to say). Finally, clarity came. She told me that the girl in our conversation who’d said “Jesus killed” was wrong; in fact “Jesus WAS killed,” Angel said. It was an issue of grammar, not faith or historical fact. Her pastor told her to say that Jesus WAS killed, I guess to make sure that Angel didn’t preach a gospel that made Jesus out to be a murderer himself. Man, did I have a good laugh about that one. I should start making a list of all these language-related misunderstandings.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A few comments…

…ON KARAOKE. I may start a karaoke revolution when I return home. I recently went with a group of students to “KTV,” a Chinese karaoke chain, which felt more like a karaoke hotel than a karaoke bar. It’s all very fancy, with a main hall and several small private rooms, to where the waitresses or hosts or whatever they’re called guided us. It’s different than how I imagine a karaoke bar in the U.S. (though I don’t believe I’ve ever visited one), where you’re potentially singing in front of strangers. Here, each private room has couches, a mini-stage, a large video screen for music videos and lyrics, and a computer to pick songs and set a song list.

And the whole thing is a blast. What makes it work is that everyone goes all out and doesn’t mind looking foolish. The students (both those present and those I’ve observed at various school karaoke functions) are pretty uninhibited, willing to perform for their peers regardless of their vocal level. For as shy as students can be here, this has surprised me. So for me, the more I play it up, singing extravagantly, gesturing, even prancing around, the more fun everyone has. You take away from the group experience by being too self-conscious. I just have a hard time imagining going out with my friends back home to karaoke and really diving into the experience; I think we’d all feel a bit “above” it, too cool, or perhaps just afraid of looking foolish. But how fun it is to be a fool! Whether singing “Beautiful Day” (U2), “Hero” (Mariah Carey), “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” (MJ), or a handful of Chinese songs—the more abandon, the richer the experience. There’s a more broadly-applicable truth in that, I think.

…ON THE COMING OF WINTER. We were blessed with a couple days of snow in mid-November, signaling (in my world) the arrival of Christmas. At least, I permitted myself to start playing the Vince Guaraldi Trio to welcome in the holiday season. It usually only snows about one day a year in Xiaogan, so we’ve either had our one day early or may just see a more snowy winter. Anyway, it was a nice experience that took me to that bittersweet nostalgic place and also reminded me that, sadly, this will by my first Christmas away from home. So it goes. One can’t have it all…a begrudgingly-written admission for someone with many dreams and desires—many of them often in conflict. At least when Joann arrives in a week (!!!), I’ll have a special piece of home with me; I sure hope she brings me some Starbucks Christmas Blend. I mean, her love and affection is nice. But, coffee beans are nice too. But, whatever. But, beans.

…ON MY RECENT “FIELD TRIP.” The greatness of this trip was felt in watching my students’ sense of awe and gratitude for the whole experience. I took 17 freshman students to Shuang Feng Shan, a mountain range about 50 minutes outside of Xiaogan. We spent the day wandering a series of trails that led along creeks, up hills, past old ruins of battlements from past dynasties, and several temples. It really is a holy place, not just because of the places of prayer but because of its natural majesty. And in contrast with the loud and rather dirty Xiaogan, the freshness of the air, the clearness of the water, the scope and grandeur of the mountains, and the stillness all around made it a spiritual experience, even for my students (though they probably wouldn’t have identified it as such). It was a great time of connection, complete with snowball fights with what was left from the recent snowfall and with a lovely communal style of eating, where everyone brings snacks intending to share with others. Every ten minutes or so I was offered some new strange cookie or biscuit or nut or pseudo-fruity substance. It’s really touching the way they do it.

But the most poignant moment came when, upon seeing how tired some of my students were, I suggested we head back to the base to await our bus and relax. The outcry was unanimous. Everyone insisted we wander and explore until the last minute of our allotted time, regardless of their exhaustion. Catherine said something like “this is unforgettable; we don’t want it to end.” And she spoke for the group, which was when I realized how profound the whole thing was for them—an outing with their teacher (rare), their first real fun class event since moving away to college, the novelty that all freshman feel at experiences like this (been there), and the depth of both the bonding that was taking place and the experience of natural beauty. But also, these students work so hard and have such a packed class schedule, with lots of pressure to excel in school and get a high-paying job; my guess was that they may have simply enjoyed the break from that a reality—a chance to simply play for a while.

…ON THANKSGIVING. We were able to celebrate the holiday here in some different ways. At English Corner we focused our discussion on articulating those things for which we are grateful, and made “hand turkeys” (kind of a kindergarten-level activity, but it worked). It was fun to hear students’ comments of thanksgiving, especially because they’re not often challenged toward such contemplative thinking. It was also good to share a bit of American culture, though I’m not sure how truthful we were. That is, we told them about a holiday in which we count our blessings and consider the goodness of what we DO have, but failed to tell them that the very next day is itself a sort of holiday in America, where we are charged, via heavy marketing and good sales, to consider what we DON’T have (at least not yet). To complete our holiday experience, we were treated to a Thanksgiving meal by some friends in Wuhan who own a diner and provided for us a filling meal, with all the Thanksgiving essentials, from stuffing to sweet potatoes to pumpkin pie. Nice to have a “taste” of home.

…ON CONTINUED ENGAGING DISCUSSION. It’s sweet the way students I don’t know initiate conversation with me, very sincerely trying to connect with me, even if they ignore my questions in favor of the scripted conversational phrases they’ve studied. Sometimes it’s best to just let them lead the way and follow their script. :) But as I’ve recounted in past weeks, those more thoughtful conversations occur from time to time. The most recent one involved me sharing my many experiences traveling, including where I went, why I went there, and how I’ve funded it all. They listen wide-eyed and with longing, for nearly all of them would express a desire to travel abroad, but all say the same thing: they can’t afford it. To which I usually respond, “neither can I.” I think it’s much more about the pressures they feel to stay on the straight and narrow path toward security and success, which as I’ve suggested before, often involves a very noble and loving commitment to family. I would guess this is the real barrier, not money. Because I’ve had the total freedom to chart my course and make choices about how I want to live my life, I’ve been able to explore the world with the aid of student loans, a research grant, and occasional contributions from family and friends. It’s not personal wealth (though arguably my country’s wealth has enabled me to some degree), but decisions I've made where the benefits far outweight the consequences.

I guess I’m trying my best to offer them hope that such opportunities are possible, though they may have to wait a while. And I try to sympathize with their very different situation, though encourage them not to lose hope, to be patient, and to consider what their priorities are and live their life accordingly. They understand the formative power and adventure of travel; I think they just feel stuck. I feel at times like John Keating in “Dead Poets Society”—the “dangerous” free thinker among pliable young minds who both liberates and stirs up trouble while challenging the status quo. It's really a role I love, especially knowing that I'm being liberated here as much as I'm doing the liberating.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

All play, no work.

Working the camera at a karaoke bar.
I may try to start a karaoke revolution when I return to the U.S.

From a recent hiking "field" trip I took my students on, in the mountains outside of Xiaogan.

Stopping halfway for rest and to admire the view.

Lunchtime at the top. Everybody brings food to share.

Thanksgiving dinner! The Ann's and I enjoying turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, everything...pumpkin pie to follow.

Esther, a sweet Chinese woman, dancing for us after dinner--odd and unexpected, but so beautiful, sweet, and sincere.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dialogue, I think, I hope

I’ve had some fun conversations lately that I think are worth recalling. (Be warned--slightly longer post.)

I had a rich discussion with a group of twelve or so students at “English Corner” the other day. The conversation meandered from “what our parents do” to “what jobs are desirable among young people in China” to “why we want the jobs we do.” One student commented that, in China, people seek out jobs based on what will gain the most wealth and prestige. One girl in particular wants to be a “primary school headmaster.” I asked her why; she said it was because it is well-paying and would gain her great respect.

I countered the general viewpoint of the group by sharing my belief that, ideally, people should pursue a line of work that fits their personality, their passions, their wiring, that makes them come alive. I told one student that while he was interested in computer engineering, I would not be happy with such a job. One girl didn’t quite get this, thinking I was criticizing the job itself—“why not?” (Essentially, what’s wrong with computer engineering?).

I explained that while the job might satisfy some, it wouldn’t fit my personality, wouldn’t satisfy me. I admitted that often other factors can make finding such ideal jobs difficult (lack of opportunities, immediate need for income), but that we should always consider calling and what we are “designed for.” This really is “foreign” to many of these students, who are convinced that wealth and prestige are the motivators behind career pursuits. But I tried to explain my point of view—that such “rewards” are never enough. One never has enough money, one never has enough praise from others; these can be futile ambitions.

I eventually asked Sarah (one of my students and a very good English speaker) why she wants to be a nurse. She shared her desire to be with people who suffer, to help them, understand them, make a difference; she expressed special interest in working with mentally ill people. WOW. I was so moved by the sweetness and compassion and sincerity behind what she said, in part because there will always be a place in my heart for the disabled in light of my two years of part-time work with this community. But it’s also not every day that I hear such compassion articulated by someone here. I told her I would try to get a hold of a book either by Jean Vanier or Henri Nouwen to give her to both practice her English and read the work of those who have extensively worked with the developmentally disabled.

So I turned back to the money/respect/headmaster girl (Jordan) and asked her if that was really all she wanted. I asked her what made her choose that job instead of another high-paying job. She told me she had no choice in the matter; it was her parents’ will. They chose her major—English Education—which she does not like. This is a common occurrence that is a bit sad and unsettling to me—careers forced on students by parents because of their own ideas of what is best for their children and/or what will be most lucrative for the parents, as children are expected to financially give back. It's a different world over here, where family obligation reigns.

Trying to encourage Jordan in some way, I asked her if she likes “leading”—if she feels she is a natural leader. She responded in affirmation, and I told her something like: “There it is! Primary school headmaster will be a good job for you because you are a leader and you will have the opportunity to lead others!” Maybe it won’t really be the best job for her, but I at least felt it appropriate to subvert the reigning beliefs about vocation by encouraging her to consider her gifts and strengths and seek joy in her job not simply in the potential financial returns or influx of praise, but in knowing she’s doing what’s she’s uniquely created to do.

That topic ended rather abruptly when someone asked me “what’s your sign?” Pisces, I said, followed by several students sharing theirs. Then, another abrupt subject change came when Jordan asked: “do you believe in predestination?” Man, did that come out of nowhere! Maybe in her mind it was a logical next question. So, like a good counselor or postmodern pastor, I answered her question with a question, asking her, “do YOU believe in predestination” and “what do you mean by ‘predestination?’” “That our life is written, written in(by?) the sky,” she said. She then started talking about how Libras and Scorpios are destined to be together (romantically) or something like that; I guess that’s where her question came from.

But I seized the moment and kept it going. I asked several of the students if they shared Jordan’s beliefs; a few “yeses” and one “no”—the “no” being a girl who said she believed in “Buddha.” After illustrating what “opposites” are (black/white, happy/sad) and explaining that predestination and Buddha are not really opposites, I elicited from students the primary alternative to “your life is written.” “I write my life,” several of them said. Good, they got it. (I did tell the “Buddha believer” that I’m intrigued to know more of this religion and would love to go to the local temple with her sometime.)

So then I asked “do you know which I believe?” The anticipation was great, as students got really silent waiting for my answer. “Both,” I said. Several of them either laughed or looked at me like I was crazy. But I insisted that I believed both to be true; that as a person of faith, I believe in God, but believe that I am a co-creator with God, partnering with God to shape my destiny; that God (and circumstances beyond my control) has significant influence over my life in shaping who I am and what I do, but that God has given me a certain level of autonomy and choice; that I am intentional in seeking God’s desires for my life while recognizing that I cannot passively expect God to do things for me. (It took several repeats and some translation help from the stronger English speakers to get the point across, but they got it.) One of the students, after a bit of contemplation, said: “oh, like co-workers with God.” “YES!” I said, “that’s it!”

I tried to explain that sometimes in life things don’t have to be one or the other, but can be both. I worked at this point for a while with a couple of illustrations. But in retrospect, they probably got it pretty quickly, in light of the Eastern values of harmony and balance, of “yin and yang.” I would think both/ands would come more naturally to them, more so than to us in the West. Then again, students here are generally disinterested in religion and have little access even to their own rich religious traditions (though I'm told this is slowly changing in China, as government is apparently encouraging the rediscovery of its ancient traditions, traditions once feared as threats to a country built on communism and subsequent controls and restrictions).

The group conversation closed with a discussion of Christmas, for which they surprisingly have a tradition here: they give apples to their friends as presents. The Chinese world for “apple” is apparently very similar to the word for “be well” or “get well.” So it’s a sign of goodwill to give apples to others. (One student warned me to stock up on apples, because the price will climb immensely in the days leading up to Christmas.)

They asked me what I do for Christmas. I told of my family tradition (which I will sadly miss this year): going to my Grandma’s house, having dinner with extended family, exchanging gifts, then going to a gathering at my childhood church, where we sing, pray, and remember the story behind Christmas, when we believe God became human; and of course, my mother’s traditional pancake breakfast on Christmas morning (might miss that most of all). The incarnation reference produced a couple chuckles, though I can’t really blame them. After all, it is a pretty absurd and fantastical idea to suggest God became human. I can’t argue with that.

I walked Sarah home after English Corner. I was joking with her about the heavy topics we had just discussed, which prompted some more discussion with her. She asked some great questions, sincerely trying to understand me and my beliefs. One comment she made was that many people here are more concerned about moving upward economically (both individually and as a nation) and so have little interest in religion. We talked a little about the richness of the yin and yang concept in Chinese philosophy and religion as well.

Then she asked me for clarity about my previous comments about partnering with God, asking if I was saying that I 50% believe in God and 50% in myself. I clarified the point, saying that it wasn’t a matter of belief I was getting at, but of how God does or doesn’t work in our lives. I told her I believe fully in God, but recognize that (my illustration) if a stranger falls down and hurts themselves, it’s not simply a matter of expecting God to pick that person up; I must do the picking up, though God may have inspired the compassion and thoughtfulness that led me to extend a helping hand. She understood my meaning.

She also explained that Buddhism believes that humans are good, and that life is spent emptying yourself so that “when you die you are nothing.” I didn’t question the accuracy of her assessments of Buddhism, but told her in a half-serious half-joking tone: “nothing? That sounds sad!” While I told her the thought of “nothingness” was unsettling, I do think there is much about Buddhism that is honorable and good. She also juxtaposed Buddhism with Christianity, asking me to confirm that “Christianity believes humans are bad and need God’s help.”

I responded with an answer that again had much in common with traditional Chinese thinking: “are humans good or evil? Well…yes.” I explained the diversity of viewpoints within Christianity and how Christians are historically divided on this question. But I told her that I usually try to take a more pragmatic approach to theology and not only consider ideals but how things actually seem to be. My point being: humans appear to be a mix of both good and bad, so I guess that’s what they are.

I told Sarah that I think of us as being made in the image of God (or as I put it, made to be like God in some ways, or to be like little mirrors that reflect God), but that we have indeed fallen down and need help getting up, that we are lost and need help finding our way again. So are we innately good? I guess pinpointing our nature doesn’t matter as much to me as responding to what's before us—celebrating and replicating the good, eradicating the bad. At least as much as it is in our power to do either.

And actually—I think Buddhism is not all that interested in whether we are good or evil. If anything, Buddhism does lean more toward innate goodness than evil, though I think it also stresses the inseparability of the two. However, good and evil are worldly concerns, and since the goal of Buddhism is not good but transcendence and liberation, good and evil are ultimately irrelevant (an admittedly rudimentary summary).

Finally, Sarah asked me if I believed that “people who do good are blessed by God” and “people who do bad aren’t.” I asked her what she meant by “blessed by God,” to which she cited things like “be kept out of jail” and “have lots of success.” I asked her what she thought; she considered it for a moment, then said, “I think that’s how it SHOULD be.” I agreed with her innate sense of justice, but suggested I didn’t really believe it to be true, at least in this life. I suggested that often bad people are very successful, often cheating or hurting others on their way toward success (I cited Bernie Madoff as an example, which, not surprisingly, she did not recognize…although I suppose his judgment has come with his imprisonment, so maybe he’s not a good example of a “successful bad person” anymore).

I also cited others who have often stood up for good causes, and either been imprisoned for their godly actions (like Nelson Mandela) or have simply had their godly lives go unnoticed because of steady, unflashy faithfulness. However, I did suggest that many religions believe that people face some sort of judgment in the afterlife, where even if they succeeded as bad people or went unrewarded here for their goodness, God or the universe or who/whatever would give them their proper reward “according to what they’ve done.” That seemed to satisfy her. I told her that above all, I personally believe that God is fair, and that God deeply loves every human being that ever lived. That also seemed to satisfy her.

One other related conversation to recall. I was recently at lunch with my friend Thomas, discussing what I intend to do when I return to the States. I told him one thing I am interested in is finding a church where I can serve as a pastor in some form. He was a bit perplexed, asking what kind of jobs there are in churches. I explained that most churches have staff, often a lead pastor and one or more assistant pastors. He was surprised, and confused about where the money comes from. I further explained that a church is essentially a non-profit and funded by people within the church, who pay the salaries of the pastors. Funny…I felt a bit sheepish as I was explaining this. Namely, why would people in the church give money to pay salaries (usually a sizeable portion of a church’s budget) instead of just using that money to more directly meet needs in the community? Well…I guess I better get over this if I want to be a paid pastor, eh? :)

Thomas seemed really intrigued that the religious realm was my hoped-for line of work. I asked him if he knew much about his own country’s religious traditions; “very little” he said. He explained how difficult it is to learn even about their own religions here, as information is so restricted. (Which by the way, hail to Obama, who is currently in China and has been advocating for less restrictions by Chinese officials on the flow of information, especially via the internet with its brutal firewall. This is a human rights issue, but it’s also a “benefit-Matt” issue—meaning, I’d be able to catch up on all the episodes of 30 Rock and The Office I’ve missed because of blocked websites.)

Anyway, Thomas also said it’s hard to learn about Christianity because of such restrictions. So I asked him if he’d be interested in a Bible, if I could track one down. He enthusiastically said yes, saying it would be a great way to learn about western culture and Christianity. I told him I’d buy him one. I’m not sure what is more exciting: the “Bible distribution” and religious interest, or the relational aspect of it—that he’s so interested in what’s important to me. All of the above, I guess.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

So much to say, so much to say

The weather has turned cold turn of late. We recently had a spectacular thunderstorm in the middle of night that sounded like a series of bombs going off overhead—my initial half-awake, irrational assumption. I eventually concluded it was a storm, not an invasion of my apartment. Anyway, such storms precede cool weather here, so hot days and air conditioning have been replaced with chilly days and heaters. And mittens.

This week marks the one-quarter mark of my contract in China. I think what I feel is something like urgency—25% of the year is past…will all my hopes come to fruition? As a person cursed—or blessed (or both?)—with high expectations and hopes, I often face this challenge or “mini-crisis.” On the one hand, the more I expect out of life, the more intentional I will be in my lifestyle and choices. On the other hand, maybe the more grandiose my hopes, the more likely I am to miss the simple, precious moments there for enjoyment every day. It’s a tension to be held. But as a friend recently observed, "(you are) enjoying life’s everyday moments as though they were profound...(and) in reality, they are.” So, maybe I'm doing okay.

I do want to live life as though it were epic and profound—because I believe it is—as long as I'm able to glimpse those epic and profound qualities and moments when they are present (and perhaps subtle). Actually, this connects with my beliefs on purpose. I believe the Christian message should not focus only on salvation, but on opening our eyes and the eyes of others to the goodness of creation: to become increasingly aware of the presence of God in all things, to train my mind and heart to increasing sensitivity to the ways God’s beauty, truth, and goodness are to be found everywhere—whether in the simple kindness of a stranger, the complexities and intricacies of life at the molecular level, the taste of my favorite dish, the wonder of color and light, the miracle of consciousness, or the wonder of God become human.

My assumption in coming to China was never that I was bringing God to China but, rather, that I was coming to discover God in China. I believe in seeking out and celebrating God’s presence in the lives of others—a commitment that lends itself toward reconciliation and peace more than the assumption that God is only to be found in us and our own religious life. It is easy and natural to assume “we’re right and they’re wrong, they need what I have, I possess truth while they do not,” etc. But I think the better approach demands we look for God in others, to approach all people and contexts with a readiness to encounter God.

I recall the Westminster Catechism and its exhortation to the Church to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Enjoying God—perhaps done not simply through repeatedly thanking God for saving us and loving us even though we haven’t prayed in a while or lost our temper that one time or whatever. Important things to be grateful for, no doubt. But I’m challenged to think that maybe "enjoying God" means more than just being directed inward to a place of gratitude to what I feel God has done for me personally and, instead, thrust outward into the lives of other people and the life of the world, eager to discover God and God’s craftsmanship and activity all around me. Enjoying God and “glorifying him” might mean broadening our assumptions about where God is to be found, and becoming ever more attentive to the simple moments and encounters of daily life. I do believe we live in a “fallen” world, but not an “obliterated” one.

I suppose this is the theology behind how I am trying to live here in China and what being an ambassador of Christ means to me. I think the most obvious way this can be done is through affirming the worth of others. There is certainly no better model than Jesus himself, who not only made people aware of their need for salvation, but also operated within this “creation paradigm” by opening the eyes of everyone to the worth of the lowliest in society. Jesus pointed out not only our fallenness but our sacredness, not only the ugliness of the created world but its beauty. Similarly, I hope in my teaching and interactions with students that they might sense God’s affirmation and love.

I try to seize the opportunities as they arise. I think of sitting with Grace, Christina, and Anna at dinner recently. They told me I’m "friendly and caring" as a teacher and that they "really appreciate me." I thanked them for their kind words, but redirected their focus. I explained to Grace the meaning of her name, and suggested that whatever goodness they experience from me is not because I’ve made myself into a man of high character, but because God’s grace has captured, transformed, and inspired me. I believe in grace, have experienced it, and seek to replicate it for others. I had to simplify and repeat this a few times, but they got it.

A great thing about our role here is that students generally agree that the foreign teachers are more friendly and caring than their Chinese teachers. This is not meant to be a knock on the Chinese, but a commentary on the warmth and care our students feel from us and our different “style." So…the students here already think highly of us; I imagine the more they understand the faith that informs our lives, the more likely they will sense and discover the power and significance of devotion to the way of Christ.

It’s also surprising how often I am able to share my faith when I’m with students. To all the skeptical, there really is a way to respectfully evangelize. :) And I’m using the word “evangelize” in the way I understand its original meaning—not simply as “proselytizing” but as sharing what we believe to be good news about who Jesus is and what difference it makes that Jesus is who he is. When I get asked about my master’s degree, or why I’m in China, I don’t really sugarcoat my answer. I tell people: “a Master of Divinity—essentially a degree in religion, Christian spirituality, culture, leadership, and spiritual formation.” As for why I’m here: “to discover and learn about your culture, values, spirituality, perspective on all facets of life…and to dialogue with you…because I believe that we both have something to offer one another.” Often times, this piques some interest. Other times, another student chimes in, “what do you think of Chinese food?” Eh…what can you do? :)

These moments arise occasionally, and I do my best to testify to the Truth as I believe and understand it. Just today a conversation about American history led to my crediting followers of Christ (Quakers) with combating slavery pre-Civil War, because they had a Jesus-inspired view of the worth of individuals. I also got into a conversation today with students about what “we want out of life.” I heard “money” and “respect from others” often. One girl said “peace and happiness and beauty” (which I loved). When it was my turn, I told them I want to feel like I know God’s love ever more fully, through my awareness and receiving of it and my ability to pass even a fraction of that love along to others. The opportunities are there to proclaim God’s truth without being pushy or belittling the way others see life. Probably in America just as in China.

On an entirely different note, I must brag. We recently had a big teacher-student soccer match. My team lost 6-4. However…I scored the first goal of the game! To be fair, it was a team effort, as I received a pretty good pass, which was probably the more important play than my actual goal. Still, it goes in the books as a goal for me. :)

On another note: thievery. Mim and Maria’s home was recently burglarized. Several men climbed in their third-story window and rummaged through the house. They were unable to find money, and did no harm to the girls—other than the slight paranoia these girls now deal with—but did steal Maria’s laptop and Mim’s camera. This was pretty serious stuff. The school felt terrible, and responded by buying Maria a new computer and ordering that bars be put on all our windows. As nice as people are here, it doesn’t mean there aren’t a few people who will act in desperation with little regard for others—whether it be to literally feed themselves or to “feed” a computer game addiction (common here).

Now for a bit of irony. Several men were installing bars on our windows last week. They were working while Will and I were home. Around noon they all left—the foreman to return to finish the job, the other three men finished as they were only hired for temp work. About thirty minutes later, I heard footsteps outside of my slightly-open front door while in the kitchen. I looked over and saw my USB flash drive sitting in the doorway, then heard footsteps running back down the stairs (remember, I live on the sixth floor). I ran down the stairs, yelling at whoever was running. I caught up to the man, one of the workers there that morning, and motioned to the USB drive in my hand, unable to communicate with words but giving him a look that essentially said “what the hell is going on?!” He just pointed to his phone and walked away…which made no sense to me.

Will and I conceived of several possible explanations, the most logical one being that one of the men had pocketed the USB drive at some point that morning; then, one of his co-workers saw it, scolded the man, and returned it. He did it secretly, leaving it in the doorway, probably because he knew the whole situation looked really bad for him and his co-workers. I reported the situation to the school, and they are addressing the issue. I guess I got my stuff back, so no big deal. Maybe the man felt sorrow and shame for what he’d done. I don’t know. It’s not hard to forgive them, because the situation is almost more puzzling and laughable than frustrating. Although, it makes me think twice about having men I don’t know in my house. Is that actually unforgiveness, or forgiveness with caution?

One final observation. I occasionally face the helplessness of not being able to communicate. I’ve already mentioned the challenge of trying to order food or buy a belt without the use of words. But there is also something that happens here where people are constantly looking at me and pointing and laughing. Much of the time it’s best to assume it’s positive or sincere intrigue; they either are fascinated by the white American in their midst, or they know who I am and just want to be friendly. But occasionally, when students are in groups, they go into that gang mentality, which usually means I watch several students (usually boys, who are shyer than girls here) talk to each other about me. And there’s not much I can do. I don’t really know if they’re mocking me, so I have to seek detachment and avoid being too paranoid. And I can’t really banter with them, or take jabs at them. All I can really do is say hello, kindly smile back, keep walking if they don’t want to talk or stop for a moment if they do.

It definitely makes me ponder the meaning of Jesus’ silence in his final moments, where he clearly saw the wretchedness in the way others treated him, and could have easily used superior argument and rhetoric to humble his opponents, or could have “put people in their place” by using the same miraculous force that made God human and made a family-sized meal into a meal for thousands. Yet, he didn’t, choosing for many possible reasons the way of non-violence, non-retaliation. I’m not trying to equate these two scenarios, but to point out the challenge I feel to remain peaceful and warm and fight that urge to retaliate that comes with feeling threatened or mocked, instead telling myself “they know not what they do.” Or, maybe in my case, just remind myself, “I know not their language.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Friends and Farewells

Some mid to late October photos of some of the important people in my life in China...

Admittedly kind of an awkward photo. But Alex (left), Mark (center), and Andrew (right) are a trio of students I often connect with, usually for basketball—all super thoughtful guys (don’t know the guy with glasses…he just sort of snuck into the picture). Not sure what’s going on with Alex’s waist grab and my slightly-biting-my-lower-lip smile. And yes, those are bunny ears. Boy, he really got me with those bunny ears, didn’t he? :)

It’s intramural basketball season; this is a freshman team made up of girls from my English class. They’re not great basketball players, but they have fun and put on a good show. I suppose maybe the same could be said of me when I play.

Same story, but these are some of the sophomores from my computer class. I love Chelsea’s nervous-looking pose/gesture. But don't be fooled—she’s a feisty player, especially good on defense.

Jesse and I enjoying a hot-pot (Chinese fondue) style meal, where meats and vegetables are cooked by the customer in a simmering pot at the table. This is the same meal where I “enjoyed” the aforementioned pig blood. Yum.

Ok, vote: who went the most all out for our Halloween party? Mim the lion, Dorothy the cat-mouse hybrid, Maria the black cat, Ann the vampire, or Matt the She-man? I’m wearing Mim’s clothes, and used rolled up T-shirts for “the rest.” The students thought it was hilarious, although some in Mim’s class were apparently worried and confused, not sure “why, because he’s so handsome, he would want to dress like a woman.” I think maybe they misunderstood the spirit of Halloween.

Pizza! During our recent weekend excursion to the big city (Wuhan), we enjoyed some American delights—Papa John’s pizza, DQ blizzards, and, of course, Starbucks. As big as Xiaogan is, it’s really kind of the boonies compared to the larger and much more international city of Wuhan.

Playing Mahjong for the first time, a traditional game here. It’s actually a fairly addictive kind of gambling for elderly people, at least in Xiaogan.

A farewell party for Jesse, with several of his long-time friends, some dating back to junior high. He is moving to the U.S. to finish flight school. I have mixed emotions about this; Jesse has become my closest Chinese friend. I’ll say more about this bittersweet happening in a future post.

A good Jesse-and-me shot. I mainly included this because of my Clint Eastwood-meets-Ludacris pose. I think I’m probably more photogenic when I smile.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Some lighter (but essential) lessons learned

CHARADES IS NOT WORTH THE EFFORT. Explaining myself to non-English speakers via “charades” continues to be ineffective. The one exception was ordering lunch the other day. I was trying to figure out what kind of meat I was being served, and proceeded to imitate a pig and a chicken in front of several vendors and customers on the street. It worked; my questions were answered. However, in the process, I imitated a pig and a chicken in front of several vendors and customers on the street…to the mocking (or just puzzled) laughter of many. So…overall…more to my detriment than benefit, it seems.

THEATRICS (IN THE RIGHT CONTEXT) ARE QUITE EFFECTIVE. Not for ordering lunch or finding milk or buying a belt. But if I’m teaching or performing, my "soul" and extravagance can captivate where my words cannot. At a recent karaoke party (far more popular here than in the U.S.), the students insisted that Matt the foreign teacher sing a song. I turned down the usual requests—“Hotel California,” “You are Not Alone,” “My Heart Will Go On”—and insisted instead on singing a Chinese song, which I would "translate." So I pseudo-translated, and improvised a song that moved thematically from candy to fruit to vegetables, with a long, passionate tag on the end about potatoes. And I got really into it. I’m sure they picked up a few of my words, and maybe just gave me the benefit of the doubt that what I was singing was legitimate content—even though I’d assume people in the U.S. would not find the humor, thinking instead that I was the joke rather than the content of my song. Anyway, I sold it.

BE READY FOR ANYTHING. This is a continual theme of life here, as information is often relayed at the last minute. Like being told yesterday that I would be in a ping-pong tournament that night—TOLD, not asked. It wasn’t a problem, just an amusing way of doing things. Flexibility is assumed here, whereas I think people in the U.S. generally would feel more entitled to a warning or at least would want to feel like they are more in control and have the freedom to accept or reject a request. This probably ties back into the contrasting values of American individualism and Chinese collectivism. Anyway…I actually beat a Chinese guy yesterday, and advanced to the next bracket, only to lose today in the 2nd round. So it goes. That first guy may have let me win.

GIRLS ARE FRIENDLY BUT FIERCE COMPETITORS. I’ve been watching my female students play intramural basketball. They’re not good, but they have fun. But they vacillate between moments of levity and outright feisty behavior. Every game usually yields a few scratches, bruises, and near-wrestling matches as “jump ball” calls are made frequently. It’s good entertainment.

I LIKE BEING THE HERO. Ann (Filipina teacher) was locked in her bedroom today. Because of classes and other, uh, “needs,” she preferred not to wait several hours until the locksmith could arrive. The second option was climbing onto the ledge outside the window (6th story) and moving to the neighboring window where I would guide her and pull her in. But I didn’t feel that great about suggesting someone climb out a window that high onto a questionable ledge. Option three was breaking the lock. So, a la Jason Bourne, I slammed my body into the door and broke it open, the hero of the damsel in distress. Can’t say I’d ever done that before. I’ll admit, I felt a bit manly (guess it doesn’t take much). Anyway...I hope I don't have to pay to fix the door.

MY PERSONAL "WHEN IN ROME" RULES MAY APPLY ONLY TO "FIRSTS." I recently tried—I cringe at some of your reactions as I write this—pig blood. It was served in a gelatin-like form, to be dipped in sauce. I initially declined, but decided to be adventurous. I argued that vampires eat blood, not people; Jesse politely corrected me: “vampires DRINK blood.” So because of his compelling argument, I tried it. Probably the last time I will eat pig blood.

SMOKING IMPROVES YOUR BASKETBALL ABILITIES. So, that’s not really a legitimate insight. I more mention this because I am amused and confused by the smoke breaks some students take while we play basketball. A water break I can understand. Am I the only one who sees a disconnect between simultaneously smoking a cigarette and playing sports? Smoking is more common here among male students and definitely “cooler” than it is in America among young people. I asked some of my female students about this, who told me that they don’t find it “cool” when a guy smokes. Maybe I should pass that memo along to the guys.

ATTEMPTING TO LEARN ANOTHER'S LANGUAGE IS A MARVELOUS GESTURE. Even the simplest attempts to speak Chinese are appreciated. It’s a natural point of connection, as I often find myself asking people for help, honoring them in a way by making them teachers and expressing my dependence on them. And, it’s fun; there is always a lot of positive laughter from both parties when such efforts are made. Related, we (foreign teachers) recently performed for another program, this time singing “Love” by Chris Tomlin, a song originally featuring a couple lines in an African (Ugandan?) language, which I translated into Chinese: “wo men xu yao ai,” or, roughly, “love is what we need.” I thought we really pulled it off, and I think the crowd loved our efforts toward singing in Chinese, even if they didn’t experience the full force of the lyrics. But I continue to grow fascinated by language in general. Chinese is a “tonal language” and so different from any of the European-originating languages…a far greater challenge than learning Spanish was for me. And I think I’ve only scratched the surface of how the meaning of a culture, a people, their values and traditions, and the nuances of their worldview are wrapped up in language. Maybe my true calling is linguistics. At the very least, it would be a good side hobby throughout my life.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pondering Purpose

Plenty of excitement around here, as daily life continues to satisfy. The longer I’m around and the more exposure I get as one of the foreign teachers, the more people want my time. It has the potential to be draining, and I’m learning my own boundaries/rules about when to say “no” here—but it’s exciting too.

Students wanting me to come to their club meeting, wanting to help me order food, wanting a picture with me, wanting to practice their English, wanting guitar lessons, wanting me to make their party “cooler” by showing up. People I’ve never met saying “Hi Matt,” usually met from me by a “Heeeeyyyyy…” Not surprisingly, more people know my name than vice versa. I guess I do kind of stand out here. I’m really the only person that walks around outside in flip-flops.

I love the rhythm I’ve begun to develop in recent weeks. Despite the initial necessary adjustments to my expectations of “normal life” upon arriving in China, I’ve begun to settle in—as least as much as is possible in a world so different from my own. I recognize it is essential for my own happiness but also sense of purpose for me to always be taking in, always reflecting, and always giving back.

I believe I have found that “harmony” in recent weeks. My intellect has been engaged by literature on everything from the relationship between faith and politics to recent Pauline scholarship to the soul journey of a “saint” ("Godric," Buechner). But I have also found such reading to be relevant to day-to-day life here in China, and have tried to maintain a continual pursuit of praxis—to connect my ideas and theology with real life and real people.

As I regularly consider how to contextualize my beliefs into relevant words and actions in this particular time and place, I truly hope others are catching glimpses of Christ through me, whether through my honest revelation of the beliefs that shape my life, or through my actions—perhaps the true test of whether or not my beliefs actually mean anything to me.

New relationships continue to emerge. I think of Thomas, who sensed my heaviness the other day and gently and sincerely, with his limited English, probed for an explanation while showing his compassion through being extra touchy and, uh, “lean-y” while walking (just trust me, it worked for him). I think of my first-year students who continue to flatter me with their enthusiasm, not only making teaching fun but opening the door for mutual affirmation as I seek to offer praise, validation, and respect back to them in various ways, both in and out of class.

I think of Jesse and Eric, friends with whom I’ve shared numerous meals, basketball games, and discussions which often (language permitting) venture into the deeper things of life, such as religion. I think of Andrew, Alex, and Mark, another emerging circle of friends, who invited me to my first true Chinese college party tonight (think tea and karaoke, not liquor).

I think of Tommy, who answers far too many questions with yes (“How are you doing Tommy?” “Yes.” “No, Tommy, I asked, ‘how are you doing?’” “Yeah.” And so on.), but with whom rapport is growing, as are mutual favors (I recently played my guitar and gave a speech at an event he hosted, while he bought me an Americano this morning).

Considering how to relevantly articulate my faith is exciting; but in a setting where effective verbal communication is difficult, I probably more often consider whether or not my belief in Love is actually demonstrated in day-to-day interactions. I think of all people as children of God; does my patience, warmth, attentiveness, verbal praise, or willingness to adjust my plans for others’ sakes all reflect this? Sometimes. :)

I also love discovery and becoming familiar with new ways of thinking and “being.” I’ve been challenged to recognize the limitations of my own worldview and to live with a “confident but humble” epistemology that permits me to treasure my own beliefs and way of life but to be open-minded, appreciative of and challenged by the thinking and lifestyle of those here. I often find myself challenging my students along a similar vein; it seems we are all at risk of slipping into this kind of egocentrism.

I hope while in China to maintain this balanced view of myself as student/teacher: ready to receive new insight about all facets of life, while not shying away from teaching, contributing, challenging, even—forgive the potential overstatement—liberating. May God be glorified through my life. At least as much as is possible.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wudang Mountains

Festive times in China. School was closed for a week as China recently celebrated its “Mid-Autumn Festival” or “Moon Festival”, a 3,000 year-old holiday connected with ancient moon worship (though contemporary celebrations are only loosely in touch with these origins, maybe paralleling in ways American celebrations of Christmas and Easter). It’s a fun time for people to celebrate and be together, especially by watching the moon and eating “moon cakes,” the festival’s traditional food. The date (Oct 3rd this year) varies each year, depending on the Chinese calendar; this year’s celebration coincided with the 60th anniversary of the PRC, a huge deal here.

Nine of us—five teachers and four students—spend several days earlier this week in the Wudang Mountains, a place of great cultural and historical significance in China, famous for its natural beauty, its Taoist temples, and its association with Martial Arts. We had a great time exploring the many shops in the town below the mountain, a challenging but adventurous time navigating trains and buses to get there and back, and a rich and rewarding time making a 3-hour hike up an old stairway to the top peak of the mountain range—incredibly challenging, though the payoff of reaching the summit was well worth the effort.

A recap in pictures:

A Taoist monastery at the base of the mountains, with a Kung Fu master leading his students in warm-up exercises. There were several foreigners here training; it seems people come here from all over the world to study martial arts.

Meet Thomas, one of the students who accompanied us on our travels. I’ve included this pic for two reasons. One, unlike the other teachers, I hadn’t yet met Thomas; the best word I can use to describe him is “delightful,” maybe a 21-year-old, Chinese version of Dick Van Dyke. Two, I’m drinking coffee out of a soup cup. I bought instant coffee at the supermarket, then got hot water and a soup cup (no coffee cups) from a noodle restaurant. Don’t judge me.

This might be one of my all-time favorite pictures of myself.

The stairway up the mountain.

A view of some of the various temples (which are scattered all over the area) taken from about ¼ of the way up; note the temples in the center peak and the lower left of the picture.

A temple we passed at about 90% of the way to the summit.

View from the top, looking down at a lower level temple area.

The “Golden Temple”—a heavily symbolic temple situated on the highest peak of the range, the destination of many religious pilgrims.

The “victors”: only four of us—Will, Thomas, Emily (another student), and myself—made the trek all the way to the top.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"Gotta Lose It to Find It" or "A Well-Worn Phrase Given New Life"

A story I find worth recalling…

I have been spending a lot of time with Jesse, a part-time, non-traditional student (he’s 25), who spent a year in the U.S at a pilot training school. He’s been the closest thing to a peer among the Chinese people I’ve met, which is not to say I haven’t enjoyed relationships with my younger students or with the older administrators (by the way, Chairman Zhang recently destroyed me at Ping-pong, humbling me once again). But Jesse has been fun, taking me out to dinner and introducing me to some of his friends, who are noticeably more mature than many of my students. We’ve even begun to have some simple, spiritually-themed conversations.

The post title may be familiar to some. “Gotta lose it to find it” was the devotional theme of a week-long semi-local mission trip I participated in as a teenager, based on Jesus’ words about being willing to forsake old habits, values, and priorities to truly experience the full, substantial, true (and often risky) life that Jesus suggests comes with, essentially, following in his footsteps.

And this theme is brought to my attention every time I lift weights while looking in the mirror.

That is to say, the pithy but theologically rich statement was stamped on a T-shirt whose sleeves were long ago removed; it is now a workout shirt for me. (It also serves as nice motivator for me with its double meaning, not intended by Chris, the creator of the shirt: “gotta lose” that stomach flab to “find it”—“it” being a muscular six-pack. Wishful thinking, I suppose.)

But back to the point. Most of my witness to the gospel of Jesus comes in more subtle, indirect ways. For one, I attempt to treat people with the kind of respect and love with which my Inspirer would demonstrate. I also don’t hide my genuine interest in religion and spirituality in China, an interest motivated not merely as a conversation-starter for me to eventually share my opinions, but as a genuine curiosity to have my own faith experience enhanced by these other religions through discovering God’s presence and activity in them. And I love trying to translate what an MDiv means to my Chinese students when they ask about my education—no easy task.

And I often cringe at trite expressions that seem to reduce the adventure of the faith journey to an easily digestible nugget—like a church billboard in my hometown I passed several times this summer: “Got sinburn? Apply Sonblock!” Yuck. Sorry to those for whom such phrases have brought deep transformation…but…yuck. I think there are better ways to put the creativity of the body of Christ to work than through the creation of phrases about putting on your "Jesus ointment."

But here, such sayings may not be as cheesy as they would be back home. Instead, my green workout shirt provided the occasion for the most explicit proclaiming of the gospel I’ve yet had here. Jesse and I were playing basketball when he asked what the words on my shirt meant. He had asked me a couple days before if I believed in God, while we were riding on his scooter, which surprised me a bit. Most of the people I’ve met just don’t talk, nor seem to think extensively, about religion/spirituality, despite its significant place in China’s history (Granted, this is based on a small sample size and mostly 19 to 21 year olds, and a few adults).

The moment provided a neat occasion for trying to contextualize one of the keystones of Jesus’ message, trying to use words Jesse would understand with his limited English. I brought in the sayings of Confucius, as well as the prominent Eastern spiritual theme of self-denial, and emphasized Jesus’ call away from a life marked by self-preservation, consumption, and an individualism that shows little regard for others, and the simultaneous call toward following in the way of Jesus who preached and demonstrated how life was meant to be lived—a life that honors God, self, and others and is marked above all else by self-giving, active, extravagant love.

And I left it that, because I sensed this was my call for that particular moment. Jesse then shared a story about a preacher he had heard in the U.S., a man who had no legs. I think he was partly trying to connect with me, and partly trying to express what a moving experience it was for him, despite the language barrier…and partly the idea of “losing” something reminded him of this legless preacher. This led to a brief discussion about how those who’ve experienced loss and setback in life seem to be the ones most in touch with God and spirituality. It was a great moment, one I hope is replicated in various forms and with various people this year.

I guess what is trite to one may be intriguing to another.

We’re currently in the midst of the mid-autumn festival, a huge celebration here in China, not to mention the recent celebration (10/1) of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. I’m leaving for Wudang Mountains tomorrow for a few days. It’s a retreat-type area, a place famous for its association with martial arts (scenes of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” are filmed here) and Taoism. Should be restful and reflective.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Enthusiastic Freshmen!

Semi-new pics in the post below.

This past week was marked by the beginning of classes for freshman. I now teach ten hours a week of Oral English to freshman (in addition to my four hours of word processing for sophomores…a full load is 14 hours).

These students are a joy. There are 29 students, all amazingly enthusiastic about being there and learning English. They have a lot of energy, which in turn energizes me and makes teaching them really easy. It’s been really rewarding to watch students improve and learn—even over a short time—and know that I’ve played a part in that. My teaching experience is really pretty limited, though I’ve long felt like a natural teacher. Having a setting in which to explore this “talent” and/or “desire” has been special.

Some recent memorable moments from class:

-Giving out names. English students here traditionally choose an English name to use for their current and future interaction with English speakers. I felt like a parent naming my children. I printed a list of the 100 most popular English names in the US from each decade back to the 70s, and students looked over the list and chose their name. A few of my favorites are Sophia, Ava, Grace, Fiona, and Devin (who changed his name from a name previously given to him, “Potato”…good change, I’d say).

-After exchanging with my students the names and pronunciation of our respective presidents, I offered a brief commentary on the value of people of differing values seeking understanding and common ground, something I suggested applies not only to Hu Jintao and Obama, but to them as students. Trying to seize those moments to preach peace, curiosity, and reconciliation when I can. :)

-Humor isn't always culturally transcendent. Or my students are adorably nerdy. Or both. I’ve quickly learned and accommodated accordingly to the fact that what makes students laugh is not my wit but my extravagance and silliness. The more animated I can be, the better rise I get out of people. A lot of humor does not translate across cultures (not to mention to students whose English is simple and undeveloped). With five minutes left before the end of class, I suggested two options to my students: leave early and began the next topic tomorrow, or stay an hour longer after class to work on new material. About half the class enthusiastically voted for an hour longer. With a puzzled look, I repeated the question several times to make sure they understood the options. They still preferred to stay longer. And they weren’t just sucking up; they said with genuineness that they love English and enjoy learning from me. I laughed, told them I was joking with them, and told them to go home. Heck…I didn’t want to stay another hour.

Some other various brief snapshots of life here:

-I have now jammed with the same group of musicians a couple times, both sessions in which they insisted on singing/playing “My Heart Will Go On” (Titanic), because it’s one of the few American songs they have memorized. Hmm. Trying not be imperialistic about my culture, values, etc….but I may have to “expand their territory” in regards to musical taste (apologies to Jabez).

-We really do have a unique place in the lives of students as foreign teachers. Some of the local teachers gave a confused laugh when I asked if they considered students their friends; the student-teacher separation is strong. But students trust their foreign teachers, knowing we will keep their words confidential (unlike local teachers, apparently); they also sense our warmth and kindness toward them, and a deep level of respect for them as peers. It’s a great gift we can offer them.

-We recently had a Luau party for the birthdays of Maria and Miriam (fellow U.S. teachers). It was a blast…we must have had about 50-70 students come—packed house! There was limbo, speeches, dancing…it really felt like a college party atmosphere…just with Fanta instead of alcohol.

I’ll stop there for now, as this post is getting lengthy, and save a fun story I have to tell for another post to come soon.

And one more thing: happy 27th birthday, my dearest Joann Renee.