"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.