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

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Exciting times...

Huge news, news even more exciting (and distracting) than the start of Mariners baseball after a long offseason of anticipation.

It's actually probably old news now...but my unofficial engagement to my unofficial fiancĂ©e, Joann, is the real “distraction” of late. The not only sustaining but deepening of our relationship over my nearly eight months in China has been a rich process, the challenges of it overshadowed by the joys of sharing life with Joann these past months, despite a literal ocean between us.

I think our relationship is a testimony to a lot of things—God’s providence, the value of real friendship preceding romance, the longsuffering of two people willing to stick out a long-distance relationship for so long, and of course—Skype. I would not be getting married this summer were it not for the technology of video chatting. So thank you God, or Alexander Graham Bell, or Bill Gates, or Al Gore, or whoever I’m supposed to thank.

“Unofficial.” I (we) wanted to save the formal proposal for face-to-face after my return on July 1 but didn’t think that would allow us time to pull off a summer wedding. So on April Fool’s Day (of all days), I sat cross-legged Buddha-style in my chair, while Joann mimicked back home, and asked her: “Will you plan a wedding with me?” She has no ring, but we’re planning a wedding for August 7th. Hence, un-official. :) We’re ecstatic, filled with anticipation and hope and joy and longing (and a healthy amount of fear).

Yet despite the lure of home, life goes on in China, filled with experiences of love and goodness and beauty and grace that continue to sustain me here.

I went to a restaurant with some of my twenty-something, non-student Chinese friends recently, where each table had a built-in miniature barbecue. Perhaps this exists in the States but I’ve never seen it…and I think it’s brilliant. They bring you the meat and sauces, you cook it yourself! I think I cherish this small community (five of us) so much because they feel a bit more like peers (though I do indeed consider many of my students to be good friends); they don't even speak that much English.

I’ve had some gloomy students lately, sad that I’m leaving them in two and a half months. It’s very sweet and touching, actually, to hear them express their sadness. And slightly amusing, as whenever the conversation turns a bit sad, they grow extremely uncomfortable and want to change the subject. The girls here seem to have a bit of a stereotypical American male mindset about showing emotion and feel they are losing face by being too vulnerable in front of me. I have to reassure them that I welcome their tears and honesty and that I am to be trusted and will not judge them but will rather be blessed by their sincerity.

I’m closing in on a six-minute mile. I really haven’t taken the time to discover if that is impressive or not. But I run it every couple weeks and have gone from 7:10 to 6:29 to 6:27 to 6:19 to 6:04. Perhaps my next attempt is the one…

A good discussion about love recently with some students. I asked them about the ways they express love in China—children’s love for parents, parents love for children, parents’ love for one another, love between friends, love between a boyfriend and girlfriend. One interesting takeaway from this intriguing discussion was that typically no one says “I love you” here, and the reasons for this were varied.

One reason seemed to be pointlessness. Love does not need to be verbally articulated but should be expressed through action. You don’t show your love for someone by talking about love as an idea or a feeling you have but by doing things for others—such as giving gifts or doing housework for your parents or spending time with family. While I’m part of a culture that values verbal affirmation as an expression of love, I see the value in the general Chinese approach. They challenge me to wonder if our American way reflects what might be a more Western tendency to separate idea and practice, seen in how we often hold beliefs that can be held simply as ideas but need not be expressed through action to be valid beliefs.

Maybe the Chinese get this better than we do—the inseparability of idea and action. Though I may be giving them too much credit. There are plenty of ideas articulated here that are held just because they are tradition, not because they are believed to be valid. But the Chinese expression of love does make me think. And to be fair, not all students avoid saying “I love you” just because of their preference for doing things to express love. Some admittedly are just too shy to say it, feel too exposed to articulate such vulnerable words. While I find the desire to show love through action noble and convicting, I see this shyness as more of a tragedy, an indicator of a lack of intimacy.

But then again—my preference for intimacy might just be cultural, a reflection of my particular demographic or a generational preference. You can see the value of discussing such topics with those who are "other"—they help us better understand ourselves and challenge us to be open-minded about what constitutes “the good life” or “the way things really are.”

On another topic…in Wuhan last weekend, I discovered a fun new restaurant/shopping area—Xin Tian Di—similar to a neighborhood I visited while in Shanghai. I’d describe it as a step up from your typical outdoor shopping area (a la Bridgeport Village in Tigard) but a downgrade from a romantic European touristy neighborhood. There was a live jazz performance by an American or Canadian (couldn’t tell) who played a beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” A sublime moment, and I think the first time I’ve heard live jazz since leaving home.

Had an energizing coffeehouse conversation while in Wuhan. Some of the other teachers and I visited a place called “Mr. Mai’s,” a coffee shop started by a Christian couple several years ago who wanted to express their faith not through preaching but through creating a space for community and conversation. I ended up joining a table of five Chinese students and quickly (by their leading) got into a discussion about God and faith and science and the environment and free-thinking vs. tradition.

One girl in particular stood out to me, a senior student at a university in Wuhan. She was a bit more introspective than others and, while not dismissive of her rich Chinese heritage, thoughtfully critical of how the “Chinese way,” in her opinion, has done harm through its failure to encourage independent thinking in young people and through China’s efforts to develop at the expense of serious consequences.

For those unfamiliar, Chairman Mao once expressed a bit of his political philosophy by famously saying: “there can be no reconstruction without destruction.” This is a very sensitive subject here, as this philosophy has on one hand rapidly advanced China in some ways, such as reducing illiteracy and poverty both, but at the cost of some grave consequences to human lives, which you can read about elsewhere.

This conversation sticks out to me and probably will for a long time, I think because I so rarely meet a student both so articulate and so self-critical of her own culture. To be clear, though, this was not culture-bashing on her part; she clearly treasures China’s traditions and recognizes the great opportunities she has had to be happy and healthy and get an education.

But she is also a humanitarian, an environmentalist, a thinker, and aware of the susceptibility of young people to fall into their country’s indoctrination (as are we in America, but perhaps in less overt ways). And because of this, she is unwilling to accept things without deep consideration. This has led her to not only to criticism of how China’s rapid development has both harmed the people and the land itself, but has prompted her to action.* She is currently a design major (her parent’s choice), but intends in a few years to make her living through environmental work.

Regarding her “deep consideration”…I asked her if she was a Christian because she was asking me questions about my faith; she said she has been considering it for some time but is still thinking through it. I have another student friend who is seriously considering becoming a follower of Christ whose spiritual quest has been largely influenced by her observations of how the four of us NWYM teachers live life (as she shared with us). But aligning oneself with another value system, especially one that won’t necessarily but could potentially put oneself at odds with one’s own culture and traditions, is not a decision to be made lightly.

Anyhow...it was an unexpected and thoughtful conversation with a special individual.

*An addendum: I think China’s culture of “face”—the way actions are often dictated by whether they will bring one honor or shame, gaining face or losing face—helps make sense out of China’s mindset. I could be reaching here, but it seems like much of China’s desire to modernize and “catch up” with the West may stem from its long, rich history of being a world power long before the West was “the West.” It is likely a difficult thing for China to NOT be the leading power in the world, thus fueling its desire to regain its honor. Just some speculation.

1 comment:

travelingmaggie said...

matt- congrats on your "unofficial" official thing. i totally feel you on both the long distance relationship dynamics (i have been at it with my bofriend for about the same amount of time as you), and also on the value of friendship before romance. its an amazingly sweet experience to fall in love with a dear friend. hope you continue to make the most of your time in china- its a truly entrancing place... i still have moments where i miss it deeply.