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

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.