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

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sports Competition!

This past weekend was the school's annual sports competition, consisting primarily of track and field events. Each department competes against one another, and the whole thing is taken very seriously. So much so that departments will call former students to come back to help increase their chances of winning, as a lot of pride and honor is at stake. It is mainly for students, though teachers compete as well (against one another, not against students). I, of course, represented the Foreign Language Department, who I believe was either last place or pretty close to last place overall, as is usual...we are a small department, and relatively unathletic.

I took on the role of encourager, trying to show people that you can have fun without winning, as well as the role of buffoon, making people laugh as often as possible with my theatrics. The event lasted two days--Friday and Saturday--which were some of the most gorgeous days we've had in some time. It was fun, but also a really special time with many of my students--being silly, discussing both serious and light topics, and enjoying a much-needed break from studies for students who seem to be worked very hard.

From the opening ceremonies.

I am no longer Matt. I am simply a number.

From the 100 meter dash. This is admittedly posed (if it wasn't obvious), due to photographer error during the actual race. I got fourth out of eight (20-35 age bracket). I kind of expected to be last, so I was thrilled.

The 4x100 relay, final leg. I may see if I can get my hair to do that all the time, not just when I'm sprinting.

Our 4x100 relay team. I think we were third place (out of four)...not great, though this was my favorite event (to participate in and to watch).

Long jump. Actually, this was just for fun, as I did not compete in the event.

Shot put. I got third place out of eight! Happy with that.

The sack race. Despite an early lead, this one did not go so well for me, as the picture indicates. Got a bit scratched up from that fall.

Some of my students competing in various events.

From a post-competition, mini-photo shoot with some of my friends/students.

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.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Celebrating Easter in China

“He is risen. Risen. RIS-en, R-I-S-E-N…but with a “Z” sound. Risen, meaning, got up…dead, then alive. Risen. Yes, good, you got it!” So went a conversation with a Christian student on the way to a local church service yesterday morning, as I explained that on Easter, the more traditional greeting of “how are you” is often replaced by Christians with “he is risen—he is risen indeed.”

So I guess it turns out I’m kind of a holiday Christian (attending church only on Easter and Christmas). This is actually the first time I’ve been to the local church worship service since I arrived in China. A very small group of students at the school attend, along with another foreign teacher. I decided this was as good as any week to join in, knowing I wouldn’t necessarily be fully in-the-know as to what they were singing, praying, talking about.

But it was special, as I guessed it would be. Like several churches I attended in South America a couple years ago, there’s something profound about gathering with brothers and sisters in another culture, regardless of the language differences. Add to this that it was communion Sunday—a part of the Christian worship experience I cherish—and it felt like a beautiful expression of the diversity yet connectedness of God's Kingdom.

And not simply diversity of country, but of history and circumstances. It was thought-provoking to look around the sanctuary at the spread of ages and ponder the path these individuals have taken toward Christ and toward freely expressing their devotion to Christ. Many were older, probably coming to the Christian faith in a time where rules were strict about free expression of religion here. And many were younger, probably knowing only the religious freedom that is allowed under China’s “three-self church” that enables Christians to worship but with a little bit of the government keeping a watchful eye (mostly, I think, to limit foreign influence on the church and to ensure that Christians don’t disrupt the peace).

It was a packed room, a congregation singing “He Lives” (the only song I recognized), listening attentively to the young pastor’s message, and watching 50-60 people (!) get baptized (two baptism services a year). And of course, communion—a simple act but rich with meaning and unifying in its practice. I’m not really sure why I’ve waited so long to check out the local church, and will certainly return several times before leaving China.

Actually, it felt like a celebration of Easter all week. I had multiple opportunities to tell the story of Easter, maybe a bit more freely than I might have done so in the past. This is partially because it’s good cultural education for the students, and partly because, as I mentioned recently, I’ve gained the trust of many here and begun to earn the right to share with others those things and values I hold dear.

One odd link between Easter and China is that this weekend is a Chinese holiday as well—“Tomb Sweeping Day.” Many students returned home for the three-day weekend to accompany their families in visiting the graves of relatives and ancestors to light firecrackers and incense and offer prayers to the deceased. So a lot of conversations have emerged as my students and I explain the meaning of our respective “tomb-centered” holidays.

It’s both fun and strange sharing the Easter story. I have to simplify and repeat at times for my students to ensure they understand my English, but I frequently get “oohs” and “ahhs” or sometimes puzzled looks when I get to the part of the story where God resurrects this Jewish man from the dead and that, beyond simply being miraculous and novel, this event also carries with it a lot of meaning having to do with love and hope. I can often gather from my students’ expression that they are processing this, perhaps something like, “I respect Matt’s intelligence and opinions and the way he seems to approach life and treat others…Matt believes this and talks about it like it’s important…what do I do with this?”

I could be misguidedly assuming this process is happening in more people than it is. But I’m confident my words provoke some kind of reflection, especially among those students who are beginning to more deeply ask those existential questions as they seek direction in what to do with their lives, what to think, what to value, what to believe. It’s wonderful to have earned the right to share these things, and to feel I’ve had integrity in the way I’ve sought to honor and respect my students and their culture rather than be manipulative or pushy in expressing my opinions.

We teachers bought supplies for egg coloring at English Corner. I thought it would be a bit childish for them, but the students enjoyed it, and it provoked some fun conversations and a few silly moments. (English Corner attendees, by the way, are typically students who want to put extra time into practicing their English and visit with foreign teachers in a more informal way.)

It was fun to walk around and explain the significance of the egg at Easter—both the elusive rabbit who hides eggs and the original Christian significance of the egg. Which, to be honest, I had never really wondered about until this past week. It seems the egg was adopted by early Christians from pagan religion as a symbol of new life, a way of reminding one another of the living Christ by giving eggs to one another on Easter. I guess this is one of many wonderful traditions I’ve missed out on living my whole Christian life as an Evangelical; I think maybe we E’s have a tendency to be a bit oblivious to our rich Christian tradition at times, missing out on some real treasures as a result.

It really did end up being a celebration of Easter, but in a new and unique way. I’ve never had the opportunity to explain to so many people the meaning of Easter, people who are learning about this for the first time. The church I attended in Xiaogan is the exception, but they are a minority compared to my students who have a range of awareness about Easter, though relatively little awareness.

I think explaining the death and resurrection to a non-Christian is profound in that in doing so I’m really forced to consider the significance and scandal and absurdity of what it is I’m saying, as opposed to the affirming “amens” that come with sharing my beliefs with like-minded people.

There’s something powerful in sharing with others what I believe to be the best news in the world. I do it knowing that my ability to believe is not dependant on others’ agreement with that belief, but is my “two cents” on Truth, on the human story, shared with a sort of confident yet humble attitude that seeks the other’s two cents as well. So much good, so much learning, and so much love can emerge when beliefs are exchanged in the context of such respectful and inquisitive dialogue.

And it’s possible the most positive outcome of my “proclaiming” of this so-called good news was not any kind of good it did in the lives of others but that I feel my students understand me a bit more now. There are few things so scary yet so wonderful as being known.