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

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Story

The first week of my winter holiday has been nice, highlighted by a few days in Wuhan visiting some of its more famous sites, including the Yellow Crane Tower and Mo Shan (Mo Hill). But before my blog shifts in the coming weeks to recaps of my holiday escapades, I’d like to recall one particular happening from the end of the term.

Something significant happened (or is happening) outside of the classroom involving some of my students that has challenged me but also left me a bit dumbfounded. I write with a bit of hesitancy, because this is in ways resolved and unresolved, and full of complexities that make a right course of action—a godly course of action—far more ambiguous than I’d like it to be. The whole thing has certainly challenged and stretched me.

A couple weeks ago, I ran into Daisy (not her real name), one of my students, at the noodle “shack” I frequent. I joined her and asked her how her lip was doing. She had missed class one day the week before, then came to the next class with a mask partially covering her face, apparently because she had to go to the hospital to get stitches for her lip. She didn’t say much and wouldn’t say what happened. So I asked her again, at lunch. After a deep sigh, she explained.

Daisy lives off campus with two other girls. Additionally, Daisy’s roommates both have boyfriends who practically live there but don’t pay rent. This has bothered Daisy for some time, partly because of the mooching, but more so because she sees the unhealthiness of these relationships, especially that of one of her roommates and very close friend, Jill (also not real name)—also one of my students. Daisy has a certain depth of understanding that really does set her apart from some of her peers.

So Daisy doesn’t like the boyfriend of Jill, and it’s known. Apparently he is controlling and abusive—emotionally and physically. So, in a moment of clarity or something, Jill broke up with her boyfriend—seemingly a victorious moment. The guy came over to the house, and got in shouting match with Daisy, who among other things, told him to leave the house. He got so angry, that he picked up a small table, and whacked Daisy in the face.

I was absolutely stunned. At first I didn’t know what to feel. This was a very new scenario for me. I know this stuff happens, but never has it happened to someone about whom I care so much. I was livid. This may surprise some of you who see me as rather peaceable, but I was ready to find him and beat the **** out of him. Maybe get some of my student entourage and throw a bag over his head and take him in a dark alley. I craved vengeance.

But perhaps I am rather peaceable because that didn’t happen, for several reasons. After I cooled off and started thinking a bit more clearly, I realized the potential challenges with such retribution. A teacher punching a student doesn’t exactly bode well for my professional track record. And I also couldn’t reconcile that action with my belief in the ineffectiveness of retributive violence in most situations in human life. I saw Jesus going berserk in the temple throwing over temples, and felt inspired to let my rage play out. But I also saw Jesus on the cross—the ultimate symbol of nonviolence and trust in God to be the ultimate judge of wrongs.

So I figured I should tell the police, or at the very least tell the school. Because, while this was the first time he’d struck Daisy, this was not an isolated incident, as he apparently has a bit of a temper and has previously physically hurt his girlfriend, Jill. But I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone, other than some of my fellow foreign teachers. We said nothing of it to any authorities. Why not?

Well, it’s complicated. For one, domestic violence is just not taken as seriously here. I’m told by other foreign teachers who’ve been here for longer that the men would for the most part write it off a small dispute. Especially among older generations the attitudes toward male and female roles are such that this kind of abuse is not so rare, and women for the most part put up with it. (Forgive me, those who know a bit more about China, if this is an unfair generalization…it’s based off what I’ve been told and, to some extent, what I've seen in subtle ways here at the school where guys seem to have a bit of control over their girlfriends).

But beyond this, Daisy asked me not to say anything. She is actually breaking school rules by living off campus, as are her roommates, and if the school knew, not to mention her parents back home, she’d get in trouble. Beyond that, she fears for her class; they have a lot of conflict already, and Jill, her classmate, would likely hate her if she reported this abuse.

Which—I failed to mention—Jill is back with her boyfriend. It was ridiculously predictable. Only hours after my initial conversation with Daisy, in which she described how Jill had been crying a lot and really feeling empty, missing her boyfriend she’d only days before broken up with, he persuaded her to take her back. Sounds like a familiar story, doesn’t it? Apparently the boyfriend gave a sort of apology to Daisy about the table incident, asking Jill to apologize to Daisy for him. Not acceptable in my mind, but whatever.

Daisy has made some good but tough decisions, however. She is moving out of the apartment, and back into the dorms, and is distancing herself from Jill. It sounds as if Jill is the one that has caused the most hurt to Daisy, even more than the physical violence of the boyfriend. But Daisy really wants to just move on, and not talk about it anymore. She said to me in a text the other day: “the world will not stop turning because I was hurt.”

I felt a bit helpless. Not to sound like this situation is about me, but I felt responsible to do something and couldn’t see a clear solution. We, the foreign teachers, offer a great gift to many of these students in that they can trust us, knowing we will listen, support them, and not punish them for wrongdoing or condemn them in the way they feel many local teachers would. There’s certainly a line, however, when it’s not worth keeping a secret anymore when somebody could be seriously hurt. After much reflection and discussion with my fellow teachers, we feel all we can do is support the girls through listening, empathy, and verbal encouragement.

Well, that's mostly all. Once I moved on from macho visions of heroism, I at least desired to talk to the guy (through a translator), and let him know how I felt—that I had no respect for him, he’s a horrible person, or something similar. But I eventually felt that wasn’t best either—partially because Daisy really doesn’t want him to know that she has told her teacher, and partially because such words still felt violent. So I came up with another solution. I’m going to befriend the guy.

I’m not yet sure how this will play out, and the challenge of having the purest of motivations is a bit daunting. Meaning this: I was very angry with him, and naturally villainized him for hurting one of “my own.” But, as I eventually admitted to myself, he’s hurting too. He’s lacking something. As awful as it is what he has done and continues to do to his still-girlfriend, he needs healing as well. He needs a better understanding of what it means to be a man, a strong, loving, wise man who knows how to appropriately treat women.

I shared this idea—which really came out of nowhere, like an “aha” moment of clarity—with my fellow teachers. The response was mixed. Some understood my intentions, but were nervous about how it would play out, or the potential fallout (maybe he fears/suspects I know about everything and am planning to embarrass him or report him, and he snaps and hurts the girls again). I think there was a bit of a sentiment too of "why would you befriend the enemy," which brought intuitive resistance to some, even me, as I’m not sure if I liked my own idea.

But…I’ve come to a place where I’ve forgiven him (enough) to be able to have compassion for him. And because of this—because I’m not trying to be covert or sneaky and win him over and then throw a bag over his head and take him in a dark alley—I feel good about this. If I can’t help in any other way, directly, I can at least place myself in his life and hope through the validation—not of his actions but of his true self—that comes through being befriended by a foreigner here, that he will himself be in some way touched by the presence of Christ in me and be changed by it.

The boyfriend is a great dancer and offers some instruction to other students. I’ve joked before about getting some dance instruction, though with enough seriousness that I’ve thought it worth pursuing. So I’ve talked to a mutual friend who receives instruction from him, and asked him to ask his dance teacher if I can spend some time with them and learn dance from him. It’ll have to wait until March (new term), but hopefully this really manifests and some kind of relationship forms. And, as was important to me, I’ve received Daisy’s blessing on this. She understandably does not have any respect for him or desire to be around him, but knows I can do what I want and understands why I’d want to do this. I didn’t want her to feel betrayed by me, and it seems she’s not.

So that’s where this stands at the moment. I’m still in the middle of it all, so new clarity of perspective and right action may come with time. But I haven’t yet shared the most tender moment of all this. As I was following-up with Daisy the other day, she said that she just wants to move on from all this, reaffirming what she said in her text, referenced above—that she’s not that important in the big scheme of things. I respect her desire to move on. However, I don’t agree with the sentiment.

I often wonder if in America, our brand of Christianity encourages us to think too highly of ourselves. A lot of our language is very me-centered and self-esteem-driven, meant to empower the individual, and might often sound as if God is at our service, rather than the other way around. As much as we need to know our worth and that every individual matters to God, I think we could often use a healthy dose of disillusionment and be told that we really are pretty small and insignificant, when you consider the human population or even the size of the cosmos. There’s a balance to be held here, a tension not necessarily in need of resolution.

However, I think Daisy, and many others in this culture, need the opposite. I told Daisy I was uncomfortable with her feeling that the “world would keep turning” regardless of what happened to her. I told her that I was fine with her wanting to move on, as long she understands that what happens to her does matter, that she is incredibly valuable, and should never think that she should just accept wrong done to her because she is simply a cog in a machine, insignificant other than in her relation to the whole. I told her she was not worthless, and needed to know that.

She got silent, fought tears for a few moments, then gave up the fight and said, with her voice cracking, “thank you.” I gave her a quick hug. A moment later, she grabbed me again and gave me a much longer hug, holding me much more tightly this time. I think I told her what she needed to hear, what she’d been longing to hear from someone.


Coby said...

i miss you

Barb said...

Matt, you are a man after God's own heart.

Heather said...

Life sure can be messy. Blessings on your friendship efforts.