Monthly Archives: June 2012

Understanding China

A temple in Kunming, Yunnan.

It was nearly four years ago that I enrolled in my first Mandarin class at Princeton University, gradually began to transition my dissertation project from a study of women in the Pentecostal movement in Mexico (I still plan to get to that one day!) to one about the lives of foster mothers and orphans in Southwest China, and ultimately embarked on this great journey to understand the perplexing, elusive nation that is China.

I’m at the stage in my research where I’m starting to pack up and stare down the oodles of notebooks and scribblings that I’ve made over the past two years.  And because I didn’t know where to begin, I returned to a familiar sage, Fei Xiaotong, and his deceptively simple From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society.

Lahu minority villagers.

I’m continually amazed how this short book, a collection of lectures from the late 1940s is so eerily descriptive and prophetic of the present-day divides between urban and rural China and Eastern and Western cultures.  Fei puts a name to the social structure and phenomena I’ve been observing firsthand over the past few years, and his descriptions Chinese culture and personhood are provocative.

On a more popular note, this past week NPR‘s famous radio show, This American Life, ran an episode on Americans in China, that lends such insight into not only expatriate life here, but the great differences between Eastern and Western cultures.  I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a glimpse into life in China, and I’m impressed with NPR’s at once critical and nuanced take on the challenging topic of contemporary Chinese culture.

There are still days where I scratch my head and wonder what I’ve really learned over the past two years here, but both these sources have started to put together some of the puzzle pieces for me about this complex, beautiful country.

Yet another view of the dragon back rice terraces in Guangxi. Photos by Evan Schneider.

For more recommendations on readings about China, see my post or consult the menu from Seeing Red in China.

On Simplicity

Flashback photos from our January trip to Egypt. My husband photographing me by the Red Sea. Photo by Ben Robinson.

I’ve been savoring Richard Rohr‘s Simplicity, lingering over the pages for nearly two years (you’ll notice my nightstand rarely changes).

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my lack of speed when it comes to free reading, but Rohr’s is a book that has been so meaningful to me that I’ve read it repeatedly and with frequency, often returning to chapters after months away, yet feeling as though they’ve gained new meaning with the passing of time.

I had never even heard of Rohr before I came to China.  

I picked the book up at a closing sale in Colorado, a couple days before we left the country.  And in this new one, I rediscovered the contemplative life and the radicalness of Jesus’ life.

Greeting minority Christians in Yunnan, Nov. 2011. Photo by Leslie Santee.

Rohr writes passionately on the importance of women’s leadership in the Church today, on the great wisdom to be found in great humility, and on the simplicity of letting go.  A couple days ago I sat with an intelligent Chinese friend of mine, a woman with great gifts for ministry and leadership in the Church.  She mentioned a fascination with Catholic spiritual formation, and I immediately brought up Rohr’s name.

And then it occurred to me that after two years of reveling in this wisdom, it was nigh time to pass it on.  I’d leave this little paperback with my friend, hoping it would encourage her to share her gifts, hoping that as Rohr believes and has led me to do so as well, that out of contemplation comes action.

Inside a mosque in Cairo. Photo by Ben Robinson.

And so I’ve been tearing through these last few chapters with newfound vigor and appreciation for Rohr’s teachings.  Rohr writes,

I think this is the clear meaning of the story in chapter 25 of Matthew: the people were suddenly to discover Christ in the least of their brothers and sisters, and not just in other charismatics, not just with other evangelicals.  Otherwise, all you have is collective self-love.  Then the group is, so to speak, just an extension of my own ego.  This is evident in the need to use the same Christian jargon as I do, so that we can be together.  But this isn’t the freedom of the children of God.  Such people will never unite or reconcile anything, because their life at the bottom keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Real Christians are able to discover and love Christ in the not-me, the totally other–but this always means taking a step beyond previous boundaries…

I chose the story of the rich young man to demonstrate the change we seek has to be very concrete, very immediate, and very practical.  Otherwise it’s an intellectual thing.  Jesus asks the rich young man to move from here to there–and he meant economically.  For most of us this means turning to people who are different from us.  This the only thing that can liberate us from our egocentric attitude.  Maybe this means that as younger men and women we go to the elderly, or maybe as healthy persons we go to the physically and mentally handicapped, or if we’re homophobic we work in an AIDS hospital…

I believe that circumstances change us, not sermons.  We’ve changed when we’ve moved to a new place and when we expose ourselves to the truth of a different standpoint, one that’s not our own.  What else is metanoia, or conversion, supposed to mean in the New Testament?  It means to go to a different place; and this practical step will see to it that our growth as Christians is something real, something earthbound.  Otherwise there is always the danger that our so-called love of Christ will be just a disguised love of self.

–Richard Rohr, Simplicity, p. 154-155

With parents in Yunnan province. Photo by Leslie Santee.

Although I’ve been a Christian for decades, this transformation of living in a different place, seeing the world through different eyes, and being faced with a new reality, has taught me more about God than many of those years combined.  And as Rohr suggests, it’s the freedom of letting go of what I thought I knew, and seeing Christ in the least of these, and in those who were formerly strangers, that has made all the difference.

From Jesus’ perspective

Some reflections on Luke chapters 17-19:

I suppose it’s only natural that when reading the scriptures, we, in all our brokenness and humanity, rarely consider the perspective of Jesus.  We rarely put ourselves in his place to consider how he felt, how he lived, how he died.

And most of the time, I think that’s a good thing.  

I mean, we are none other than those to whom he is telling parable after parable, his doubting Thomases, his eager, but altogether feeble Peters.  We, like his faithful twelve, had we been there, would not have understood either when he proclaimed his impending death, the darkness that was to come, the terrible suffering of the Son of Man.

A view of the Li River in Guangxi, Guilin.

But today I’m still left wondering how it felt for Jesus, being fully human, to bear that cross, and here I’m speaking figuratively, rather than literally.  Is it not another condition of our humanity to feel so deeply the pain of rejection, the uneasiness of misunderstanding, and the frustration, the exasperation of trying to explain oneself to others who cannot possibly understand or in this case, even conceive of one’s circumstances?

It leaves me even more in awe of our Lord to consider that in his final days he never gave up on us, he never forsake those tired, faulty disciples, but rather continued to preach and teach, to comfort and to charge, in the face of death and uncertainty.  Sometimes I forget how deeply Jesus understands us, because he truly lived among us, felt our rejection, and yet never turned away from us.

So it is that considering the perspective of Jesus brings me to my knees this morning.

Because try as I might to know his experience of rejection and loneliness in this world, I ultimately find myself in the shoes of the aggressors, the doubters, the naysayers, and the weak.  And so I thank God again, with fresh insight, that God sent God’s only son, the one and only Christ who could possibly fill the void, so that we might be freed from loneliness, rejection, and misunderstanding in this lifetime.

Amen.

All photos by Evan Schneider.

America the beautiful

I’m realizing that this whole ambivalence that comes with leaving another country that’s been your home for the past two years isn’t necessarily the best fodder for the blogosphere (sorry).

I figured I could take advantage, however, of the mixed feelings, by listening to the leaps my little heart does when I think about some of the more frivolous (and not so) aspects of calling the U.S. of A. home.

So, with no further ado, here are some of the little things I miss and am looking forward to in our reunion with America in just a month:

Idyllic, isn’t it?
  • Grass, and walking in said grass, getting it between my toes and feeling the earth under my feet (cheesy, I know).
  • Pastries: scones, muffins, you name it, and the opportunity for some real baking in a real oven (which I hardly did before we left the country, but now it sounds great!).
How’s that for a chocolate cake?
  • Being in the same time zone as friends and family, i.e. being able to pick up the phone in mid-afternoon and give one of them a call!
  • Libraries full of books and movies in my native language.
  • And along those lines, quiet, solitude, and the great outdoors.
  • Worshiping at a Presbyterian Church.
  • Good draught beer, burgers, sandwiches, grilling out, and other all-American fare.
  • Going to the gym (and knowing it will have air-conditioning and be relatively BO-free!).
  • Gorgeous bathrooms and bathtubs where one can just linger…
  • Good coffee and wine!

What did I miss??

Guangxi Travelogue: Guilin and Ping’ an

My family walking alongside the Li River in Guilin.

Well, that China Bucket List of mine is getting shorter and shorter.

Not only did my Dad and my sisters make it to China, but we took a train ride back to the lovely city of Guilin…

My sisters and I on the train to Guilin.

where we climbed the sun and moon pagodas…

…and Diecai peak, from which we admired the karst formations cutting through the modern cityscape.

But then it was onto the rice terraces, where we stayed in the picturesque Zhuang town of Ping’ an…

The Dragon Back Rice Terraces.

…and hiked with our new friend, a Yao woman, named Xiao Pan…

Our guide, Xiao Pan.
You can see our destination at the top of this photo.

…to her village, Zhongliu.

The Yao village of (Guangxi) Zhongliu.

We lunched in Zhongliu on potatoes, green beans, and pork, and the walked back to Ping’ an, a journey that takes Xiao Pan one hour, but took us over two.  We certainly stopped to take in the beautiful views, though, along the way.

The rice terraces were a wonderful adventure, one I’m rather disappointed I waited so long to take on, but also one I’m also glad to have enjoyed with my family while they were in China.

My husband and I amidst the rice terraces.

Photos by Evan Schneider.

Happy Weekending.

The weekend is here, the adventures are over (photos from our family trip to Guilin and  the rice terraces in Longsheng to come!), and we’re down for the count over here: runny noses, sore throats, and coughs for the husband and I.

Of course, the next adventure– packing up and moving from China– is just around the corner.

But I’m not ready to think about that just yet.  

My latest obsession: yogurt, walnuts, bananas, a drizzle of honey, and a dollup of peanut butter in a bowl.  A dollup of peanut butter just makes everything better, doesn’t it?  

Walnuts suggested, cashews pictured, substitute your nut of choice!

This morning I read these two intense and sobering articles: one about the prevailing problem of migrant deaths in our deserts, and the other about women’s work-life (or lack thereof) balance.  Still reeling from both of those.

But I’m also looking for some light, fun reading, after being disappointed by The Girls from Ames and Confessions of a Counterfeit Farmgirl, and Leaving Church.  I like spiritual, international, and memoir, not necessarily in that order…any summer reading suggestions??

The hubby and I have been blowing through the complete series of Modern Family…gosh, I love that show!

Can’t imagine it will be the most exciting weekend over here being under the weather and all, but I’ll leave you with an image below of the Dragon Boat Festival here in China, and click here for a really neat shot of the Great Wall.

May your weekend be a happy and healthy one!

Full Circle

I realize I’ve never told the story of how we got to China.

There’s more to it than can fit in one post, of course, but last night a good part of the journey kind of came full circle.  You see, back in 2009 when I was searching for a city in China to meet foster mothers and study foster families and was shooting off emails to anyone I knew who had any connection to China (and fretting about taking a trip to an unknown place where I knew no one!), a friend of mine came through with a list of close to forty names of friends who might be helpful.

And I sent practically everyone on that list an email, but as it sometimes goes, I got only a few back.  One was from a family that had lived in Nanning a few years ago, and the woman said she knew foster families.  We started corresponding by email, and I’ll never forget how she called me up out of the blue in March of 2009 and said, why don’t I just go with you, why don’t I take you to meet my friends?

Visiting Angel House in Nanning in 2009 with friends.

We met up with she and her husband in Nanning for the first time in June of 2009, and true to form, she introduced me to everyone she knew, people who would become my research contacts, my tutors, my trusted friends.  And many thanks to she and her husband’s introductions, when it came time to choose a place to do my research, a place for my husband and I to make our home for the next two years, there was no question in our mind that Nanning would be the right fit.

Camping with our friends in 2009.

We camped with our new friends and their four kids in August of 2009 in the states and moved here the following one.  And last night, our friends who played hosts to us in Nanning that first summer had the chance to return to Asia for a brief trip, and share a meal at our apartment in China.

We filled them in on the adventures of our lives over the past two years here: our experiences traveling in Yunnan and meeting with minority Christians, the ways in which my research with foster families has unfolded and grown, and the countless learning experiences in faith and culture we’ve shared in this place.

Minority children in the mountains of Yunnan.

We teared up as I recalled the way this woman, who has become a lifelong friend, embraced my project as her own three summers ago, marching around the city and in her limited Chinese asking everyone and anyone whether they knew foster mothers. She inspired me so much, teaching me what it truly means to be bold and serve others and trust God.

Our friends prayed for us as we prepare to leave China, and we had a chance to thank them for their commitment and goodness to us.  I told them how my friend who’d emailed me all those names awhile back recently reflected that she’d almost failed to include their family’s information, fearing they’d be too busy or wouldn’t have any connections to China.

And when I think on God’s intricate plans, I know there are none more excellent.  It was so meaningful to hear their blessings prayed over us last night, people who in so many ways are responsible for the success of this journey.  And while it will be bittersweet to leave this place, the foresight of God to bring these people into our lives across the distance and over the years reminds me that God has been and will be faithful in this and every step of the journey.

Leaving the field

Is this how it feels to know you’re soon to be leaving a country you’ve learned to call home, soon to be leaving what was always to be a temporary moment of cultural immersion and learning, but also people who have become your friends, your kin, your world, all the same?

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I don’t think we anthropologists do a great job talking about the process of fieldwork with all its insecurities, guilt, anxiety, joy, pain, and meaning.  Sometimes we prefer to speak in theories and codes, leaving all that humanity–ironically the object of our study–in relative obscurity.

A temple in Kunming, China.

But I’ve discovered that I’m not very good at that.

And I’ve discovered that while I’ve enjoyed the feeling of being transported to somewhere else visiting friends and hosting family here in China, I’m feeling overwhelmed about the last month of research in China, about being sucked back into my life here, and wondering how and where the research ever ends.

You can leave, but you never stop feeling, you never stop caring.  

I’m a ball of mixed emotions these days, wondering whether the comfort I’ve felt at times that the sacrifice and devotion of these lowly foster mothers will be honored in another lifetime is merely an attempt to assuage my own guilt at leaving them and their children behind.

The faces of the gods at a temple in Kunming.

I’m feeling so racked with shame about the lovely invitations my family make to my friends here in China to come to the US, because I know they’ll never be able to afford the trip, let alone get the visa to do so.  Or I just worry about the myriad of children here who grow up without parents, for whom it may get worse before it gets better.

I know I’m not to worry.

I know it’s not in my power or my purpose to change things, and yet the very concept of fieldwork, becoming a confidant, a compatriot, a companion, just feels trite when one gets to the leaving part.  

And so I stumble on, forced to embrace the fact that life is unfair, imperfect, unjust, and I’m actually quite small in the grand scheme of things.

And then again, things wouldn’t hurt like this if I hadn’t been changed by the people around me, made to feel and understand things in a whole different light.  And that’s no small thing, I suppose.  And the journey wasn’t without its moments of doubt, fear, and pain, either.  When I think how far I’ve come, I can’t help but be thankful, but that doesn’t make leaving any less discombobulating.

All photos by Evan Schneider.

 

Weekender in Kunming

The title of the post is not completely accurate.

Strolling down pedestrian street in pleasant Kunming weather.

My husband has the lovely schedule of teaching just Monday through Wednesday this term, which means we were able to fly away for just a few days to Kunming this past week to see some dear friends before we leave China at the end of July.

Water lilies nearly in bloom on Kunming’s Green Lake.

The weather in Kunming makes us Nanning-dwellers decidedly jealous.

Temple en route to West Mountain.

Caitlin and I trying to translate the names of the deities.

We enjoyed the brief respite from our balmy climate, the hiking, the Western food, the city in bloom.

But it did rain, a frightful downpour, that actually made West Mountain, and its roaming temples wonderfully ominous.

We made the best of it, of course, despite the loud claps of thunder and blasts of lightning that came too close for comfort!

Down the mountain we came, to dry off, and enjoy the rest that Kunming had to offer.

But I daresay the blog may be a bit blank for awhile.

Tonight I pick up my family from the airport in Nanning…and China awaits them.

Photos by Evan Schneider.

Where did May go?

Yes, I know it’s already the fourth of June, but I’m stunned.

May seemed to just fly by…what do you think?

For me, May highlights included:

A view of the countryside in South China.
Evan and I on Halong Bay.
A photo of me and my grandparents from spring 2008.
  • A myriad of foster visits
  • Perhaps my last trip to the countryside to see the disabled kids who are thriving there in foster care
  • A visit from dear friends and a jaunt back to Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam
  • The passing of my lovely Grandfather
  • My twin sister’s seminary graduation (it really feels like just yesterday she started her classes at Denver Seminary.  Congratulations, Julie!  Now both twins graduated from seminary: praise God!)
  • Our fourth-wedding anniversary
  • Experiencing God’s blessings, grace, and joy!
Photo from my seminary graduation in 2008….
…and the twin’s this May. See the resemblance??

And looking forward to in June: