Monthly Archives: July 2012

What Jesus can teach us about the busy trap

This Sunday my husband and I went to the Presbyterian Church for the first time in over a year and half.

Certain things were familiar–the liturgy, the scriptures, the Gloria Patri, the Doxology– but I have to tell you, all that English kind of threw me!

You see after two years in China, I’m used to stumbling over the words to the Apostle’s Creed in Mandarin, and watching ninety Chinese brothers and sisters file into the TSPM sanctuary to be baptized on any given Sunday, instead of the solitary blond little girl with her entire extended family flanking her this Sunday morning.

Chinese friends in front of Lashihai Lake, Yunnan province, China.

My husband mentioned today that there are times that falling back into life here in America feels so natural, like we didn’t even leave, and other times, everything is foreign, overwhelming, and well…decidedly unnatural.

But this Sunday morning as the pastor painted pictures with her words, preaching on John 6:1-21, the stories of Jesus feeding the five thousand and walking on water, and pondering whether it was the effervescence of fellowship that produced enough bread and fish, or whether Jesus found a sandbar that fateful evening, all I could hear was the calm of the sea, and the steadiness of Jesus’ faith and vision.

He didn’t panic when the disciples approached him with just five barley loaves and two fish, but told them to sit down, and broke bread, feeding the crowds until they were satisfied.  And then when the crowd wanted to crown him king, he silently slipped away to be still on a mountainside.  And later that night, the disciples find him walking on water.

Now I always wonder about the point of that whole walking on water bit.

But seeing Jesus’ penchant for solitude and stillness throughout the miracle of feeding, roaring crowds, and pesky disciples, I like to think of him as perhaps not being able to sleep that night and walking across the waters, embracing that brief moment of stillness and simplicity.

At one point in her sermon, the pastor shared the famous Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese,

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware.

I have to admit that I have some anxiety, not only about this whole cross-cultural readjustment thing, but also about the business of setting our life in order here in America, about budgets, and housing, and dissertation-writing, and job-hunting…and my stomach is turning just typing out that list, actually.

But Jesus reminds me that in the business of miracle-making, crowd-pleasing, and discipling, he took time to be still.  He didn’t succumb to the busy-ness, but saw that “every common bush was afire with God” ….and took off his shoes…and walked on water.

And… he is the one who calms the storm.

And the fact that all this doesn’t feel so natural all the time isn’t so bad either, right?  After all, I don’t want to sit around and pluck blackberries with such irreverance as to miss the earth crammed with heaven.

Rather, I want to be bold enough to take off my shoes and tiptoe onto that water, and trust in the madness of a promise and a blessing in which I can be so touched by my life in China and yet meant for this place and this moment and this future.  

May Jesus continue to teach us when to feed and when to retreat, and above all, how to find calm in the midst of stormy seas.

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Farewell, China. And hello, America.

My heart is heavy as I leave China this day.

And it’s not only because we’re attempting to pack two years of life here into two big duffle bags, or because of who we leave behind–people of love and faith who have reached out to us as strangers in a foreign land and welcomed us as their own.

My heart is also heavy because of the brokenness in this world.

A few days ago Evan and I had Hong Kong-style dimsum with some British friends who’ve spend almost ten years in China at a delicious restaurant in the heart of Nanning, China.  We chatted the way only expats can about the joys of being sheltered from the burdens of our respective nations’ budget woes and political spats, and also about the challenges of life in a foreign place.

Evan and I admitted that going back into the political fray, especially during an election year, feels overwhelming and a bit nonsensical.  When you’ve been living in a land where there is effectively no child welfare, people die of natural causes in their fifties, and birth defects and tainted milk are commonplace, it’s sometimes hard to take seriously what (especially from far away) sounds like senseless squabbling over the US Olympic team uniforms being made in none other than China, and the like.

Meanwhile, across China, people often have a healthy, if not exaggerated, admiration for America.  When the cashier in the grocery store finds out I’m an American, or the old man smoking his cigarette in the park, I’m greeted with a thumbs up and cheers for this country from which I come.  It’s just one reason, why, although being a foreigner in China can elicit all too many lengthy stares and smatterings of predictable, surface level questions (Do you like the NBA?  Kobe Bryant?  McDonald’s?  Chinese food?), ultimately being strange in this strange land actually feels strangely warm.

And so over the years, I’ve tried to help my Chinese friends see that I love and respect China for real, sincere reasons.  My Chinese friends are often surprised to hear that they have a more robust, reliable, affordable public transport system than America.  They’re often shocked to hear that we struggle with the question of affordable health care, and dismayed to see that we don’t treat elderly people all that well.  America may be great, but we’re not perfect, and so I’ve tried in my small ways to encourage a more nuanced dialogue between our two countries and cultures in my short time here.

But this week, as the brokenness of our nation reared its ugly head and the entire world remains stunned by the shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, I realize how much despite its faults and seams that show perhaps only to its citizens, America has been and will always be my home.  I’m not ready to talk about the shootings with my Chinese friends who adamantly argue that America has gun problems because we have so many guns (although I do see their point).  I don’t want to talk about how the shootings in Colorado could have been prevented or what we can do to move on, but suddenly I have an urgency to get back to this place and to these people who are hurting, despite the fact that I can effectively do very little to ease anyone’s pain or suffering.

My heart is heavy today to behold that we’re still living in Eden lost, as a fellow Chinese expat-blogger put it, and that no manner of cultural understanding or growth can transcend the grief and pain people feel this day.  I struggled with even writing this post, because I don’t want to appear as though I think my words (written from so far away) can either heal or provide real insight to such deep tragedy.

But I wanted to write to express that especially given the brokenness in my country at this moment, I am an American who is grateful for the things that do make America great.  And I hope these will prove to be our ability to embrace one another during difficult times, our ability to stand in solidarity with one another, and our belief in a power greater than ourselves who suffers alongside those who weep this day.  

It’s with a heavy heart that I bid you farewell China, and begin the journey home, America.

We are a forward people.

As I read scripture this morning, specifically passages from Exodus, Ruth, and Paul’s epistles, I’m struck by the forward momentum of it all.  While the Bible isn’t often known for being a coherent narrative, here are a people, who though they never fully understood God’s vision, God’s plans, were constantly being told of promise and redemption, Church growth and Holy community, that lay emphatically in the future.

Wa minority church building in the mountains of Yunnan.

And I think about the weight of those promises, the power of that vision, especially in a land like China, where one was traditionally born into a family, a profession, and a role that would not change and shift for much of anything.

But I’m haunted, as I’m sure the Israelites were (I mean, remember the Golden Calf and the whining in the desert?  I’m not the only unfaithful one out there, it seems!) by such commands to leave one place for another unknown, and the very thought that my near future is not here in China, where I’ve made my life over the past two years, but somewhere back in the United States.

Dragon’s neck rice terraces–Guangxi, Ping’an.

And though I’ve found God’s peace in the midst of this time, in the interest of presenting a more real self to my readers and to God, I also have to admit to pangs of guilt and dis-ease as I found myself on the floor of the orphanage in Guilin just a few short weeks ago.

You see, all I’d ever wanted, in many ways, was to find myself sleeping on that orphanage floor.  I’d wanted the orphanage directors and the NGO partners to trust me, accept my research project, and treat me as one of them.  And after nearly two years of hard work, they finally had.

But there was a part of me who felt totally deflated that despite two years of hard work and research, I’d only just reached the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding China and Chinese family life.

Mother and child in Yunnan.

And while I’m so thankful for those last foster visits over the course of that week, I also struggled with feelings of ambivalence–of wanting to be so far from that place, and yet, also wanting to know all the people and the places far more deeply than would ever be possible, and then finally feeling selfish and disgusted with myself even as I slept on the orphanage floor by night and held special needs children by day.

It felt cathartic that evening to cry hot tears over the phone to my husband who understands a bit of the jumbled emotions that mark these kinds of cross-cultural transitions, but also this kind of loss.  I’m so fearful of the coming move, of the unknown feelings to come, that I’ve sort of been transfixed here in China and not very attuned to the present loss of this place, this life, these people, and even this self.

As I struggled a few days ago to get one of my foster families to pronounce the two, short syllables of my English first name (they only know me by my Chinese name), the cavernous distance between the two cultures, the two places made itself known.  There’s been these long looks from friends, even Evan’s trusted sellers at the market–perplexed, even a bit suspicious at how we can leave them.  And my gut cringes, then, and I start hearing a little voice that says, If you really loved China, if you really cared, then you wouldn’t be leaving.

Monastery on West Mountain, Kunming, Yunnan.

But at my most faithful, I realize that God is, too, and that’s not God’s voice.

I keep turning to the scriptures, to Ruth, to Moses, even to Paul, and finding that we are a forward people, that we seem hard-wired for pilgrimages, cross-cultural lives, and for growth.  And there’s some solace in that identity, some solace in being one of those stiff-necked people (Exodus 32 & 33) for whom God will go before into a unknown place, despite my failings and my doubts.

Flowers in the mountains. All photos by Evan Schneider.

So that’s my challenge for the moment: embracing this move as both a loss and a promise, and trusting God more than ever.

What’s yours?

The intimacy of family life

Often people in China and people in America are equally perplexed by what it means to study anthropology and do participant observation research.  

I know I can’t possibly explain it all in one blog post, but looking back I’m less entranced by the bureaucratic aspects of doing research in China (and trust me there were many), or the language-learning process, but rather the intimacy of being part of family life here in China, which has made me blush and cry from time to time.

What I’ve been seeking to do as an anthropologist studying foster care is to use the relationships I’ve been privileged to experience between foster mothers, foster fathers, their foster children, as well as other siblings and family members, as a window into describing the intimacy of contemporary relationships within Chinese families.

The author with a foster mother in Guangxi.

But it’s funny how scientific and sterile that can sound compared to the actual reality of things–getting sneezed and drooled on by CP kids as we frolic on the makeshift mats in their foster mothers’ teeny apartments, getting the sweat under my arms sopped up by a foster mother and her tissue after I arrive on one blistering afternoon, and yet another foster mom bursting into the bathroom with some toilet paper just as I’ve squatted down, exclaiming, “I wasn’t sure if you had anything to wipe your butt with!”  

With a foster family in Guangxi, Guilin.

Needless to say, these are the memorable moments, the real stuff that fieldwork with families and children is made of, and the intimacy of family life that I’ve been invited to experience, and despite its awkward moments, is quite sacred and thrilling.  The secret of anthropology is that while you’re studying these people, you’re also falling in love with them, becoming moved by their lives and their struggles, and finding that your life won’t be the same without them.

Just a few things I’m pondering as I’m getting ready to leave this place…

Two years in China

Nanning at twilight!
Another image of city life in China.

It’s been two years of life for my husband and I here in China.  We’ve traveled to the mountains of Yunnan to visit minority churches, explored the ultra modern city of Hong Kong, explored, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Egypt, and the UAE and hosted our families and friends. He’s completed two years of teaching college-level English and I’ve finished two years of fieldwork with foster families.

On Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam.
In Tahrir Square, Cairo, on the one-year anniversary of their revolution with our friends Ben and Emily.
With a foster baby in Guangxi. Photos by Evan Schneider.

More than anything, as I look back through the past years, I’m astounded not only by the breadth of these experiences that I will carry with me, but also God’s provision and faithfulness.  

If you have time I invite you to check out the following posts which weave their way, highlighting some snapshots of our two years here, describing some of the highs and lows of research, faith, cross-cultural immersion, and our life.

From 2010

August 2010: Abide in me…  {thoughts on silent prayer in a city of 7 million, spiritual growth, and freeing oneself from distractions}

September 2010: Journeywoman  {on security, brokenness, and culture}

December 2010: Equipped by the Spirit (Yunnan Reflection #2)  {reflections on my first trip to Yunnan, and the tension between the need for theological training and the equipping work of the Holy Spirit in the Yunnan countryside}

From 2011

May 2011: Hunan Headlines: A Mix of Sorrow and Hope  {personal and professional reflections on the baby-selling scandal in a county in Hunan, which made international news}

July 2011: Church Renewal from Below  {thoughts on Richard Rohr, cross-cultural exchange, and Chinese solutions to Chinese problems}

August 2011: A Taste of Vietnam {evangelizing for one of my favorites, Vietnamese coffee!}

October 2011: Come on ride the train {snippets from a typical road trip to Guilin}

November 2011: Like a child  {reflections on fieldwork with children, disability, and faith}

December 2011: The Best Things about Winter in China {bundled up babies, chestnuts roasting, and hot pot, of course!}

From 2012

January 2012: Cairo notes: from the rooftops {a reflection on our first few days in another land}

February 2012: Thanking God for the woes  {on the beattitudes, justice, and God’s call}

March 2012: 72 Hours in Hong Kong {highlights from a weekend trip}

April 2012: Some Easter Thoughts from China {on Christianity, tomb sweeping, and culture}

May 2012: Consider the ravens, consider the blessings {on understanding, cross-cultural relationships, worries, and of course, blessings}

July 2012: Pinching myself {reflections on leaving China and savoring the little things}

 

 

 

 

 

On bones and forgiveness

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?  But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.  –Psalm 130:3-4

You can focus on what we call the necessity of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or the sinfulness that puts us all in need of saving, or any manner of sins.  Or you can focus on that which makes our God so fully God, and that is, forgiveness.

The bones that make us the stuff of this earth, fully human, are the same ones that ache with insecurity and fear and lead us to point bony fingers at one another.  There’s no grace in those bones.

But if you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?  And so our bones crumble, not only under the weight of such iniquities, of sin, but of their very lifetimes, which are finite and limited.

But may we be reminded before we return to dust, may we choose always to focus on the fact that with you, Lord, there is forgiveness, so that you may be revered.  

It’s when I happen upon a scripture such as this that I’m not so worried about the eventual eroding and decaying of those brittle bones one day, but with every day that might go by in this lifetime when I could have embraced and preached your forgiveness but did not.  Every day that those bony pointing fingers might have held a hand in theirs instead of doing their wagging, or those legs may have stood in solidarity with other sinners, rather than walking away.

With you, Lord, there is forgiveness.

And may there also be with me, may there be grace in these bones, as with my brothers and sisters on the earth.  Amen.

A village elder in Yunnan province.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

Peace for the moment

Warning: International move in progress…and shown, along with reverse cultural shock,  to also have side effects of extreme sappiness.  Please humor me these next couple of weeks, dear readers!

Feeding the fish in Guangxi, Guilin.

Maybe things aren’t working out perfectly, and maybe they’re even about to get really, really hard, but just as there’s been grace for moments like these, I’m reveling in the peace, God’s peace, that’s been washing over me these mesmerizing last days in China.

Walking with friends in downtown Yunnan, Kunming.

It’s such a peace that’s got the husband and I dreaming with a reckless abandon (rather than worrying with wracked paralysis!) about what’s in store for the future.  As we sort through two years of papers and research and clutter and life here, I find myself looking over at him and being ever so thankful for his goodness, his curiosity, his companionship.

Evan and I in Guangxi, Yangshuo on our third anniversary.

As I walked back to the orphanage the other evening with one of my Chinese friends I told her the gist of how my husband and I got to China, how it was he, who ten years ago came here for two summers and found himself drawn to the culture, the people, and the place.  But in varied twists of fate, he never made it back, and went sifting through a bundle of doubts and questions and frustrations and miraculously through all of it found his way to seminary.

And as we became friends, fell in love, and eventually married, he told me of that dream to return to China and his passion captivated me as well.  So without knowing that the seemingly rash actions I took at the time–enrolling for Chinese 101 with the undergrads and beginning this study of Chinese foster mothers despite the plans I had to write my dissertation on Mexican women in the Pentecostal movement (I’ll get to that project one day!)–were the stuff of faith, I began to feel my way toward this place, China, as well. 

Girls playing in the Li River, Guangxi, Yangshuo.

And as I told this story to my friend the other evening I said that I’m not too certain of many things in my young life, but despite the wildness and the difficulty of it all, I’ve always been fairly certain that Evan and I were meant to go to China together.

It’s funny because when we first got here, everyone we met in China wanted to know if it was Evan who followed me here or the other way around, and despite my incessant claims that we’d very much come here together, because we both wanted to be in China, I could tell that didn’t make sense to them, not grammatically, not culturally, not logically.

Hiking the rice terraces with my family in Guangxi, Zhongliu, June 2012.

So it is that peace comes to us, surpassing all understanding, and settling into the cracks of ill-conceived plans, pushing aside our greediness for things like power and security, and our obvious limitations.  And so people who need each other find each other and not logically or fantastically, but quietly and providentially.  And peace lives and breathes in a place where faith is rich and alive, and the rest is just details.  That place, for my husband and I, has been China.

My husband and I in Green Lake Park, Yunnan, Kunming, June 2012.

Where have you found peace?  And what has God made you certain of this day?

Guilin fare: camellia oil tea and potato noodles

A view from Diecai peak in Guangxi, Guilin. Photo by Evan Schneider.

After long days making foster visits this past week, and tramping all over the city of Guilin, I sat down with my Chinese friends to drink Guilin’s famous camellia oil tea and munch on potato noodles.

Guilin oil camellia tea to the left complete with rice puffs and peanuts, and piping hot plates of potato noodles to the right and the top of the frame.

Funny how I had been to Guilin I think five times over my past two years in China, but I’d never sat down for a bowl of the traditional green and ginger tea, with its crunchy rice puff and peanut accouterment, nor had I sampled the hearty, plump potato noodles.  We mingled with the locals after dark in the roadside stands, stooped on little stools at short tables- Chinese style.

But we made careful not to imbibe too much of the bitter brew…apparently the caffeine can easily keep one up all night!

Chinese ladies perform tai chi by the Li River in Guilin. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Well, that’s a double whammy for the China bucket list (see items 8 and 10).  And an overall 5/10, not too shabby, with a mere week left here in China– I’ll take it.

Saturday morning thoughts from China

Ah, Saturday morning…

…when my husband and I flop onto the couch in our South China highrise, gulping down as much coffee as possible, and feigning as though we have all the time and no cares in the world.

My husband having coffee and breakfast in Yangshuo, China, on our anniversary, 2011.

Sure I came in last night on the train late from Guilin, my body covered with bites from God knows what that lives somewhere there in the orphanage, my pack on my back and my heart heavy with signs of hope and despair among the children in foster care and within the orphanage walls.

And here now we sit in the mess of our half-packed apartment…

…but–deep breath–all that can wait for another moment.

For now it is Saturday morning in sunny South China, our second to last one, in fact, and I’m turning my thoughts to the ones that let giant hope leap into my heavy heart.

As in I’m thinking and praying about the children with Down Syndrome who I met, so happy in foster care with their foster mother, and being put on the list for international adoption.  Praise God!

Foster siblings playing.

And the little eight-year old autistic girl I met on the last visit of the week on Thursday, down a little country road, where in view of the setting sun she pronounced characters so clearly and deliberately, reading and knitting for us, with her foster mother looking on, proudly grinning from ear to ear, and going on and on about how gifted her child is.

A view of Myanmar from the remotest of country roads in rural Yunnan. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Gifted.  Not disabled, not strange, not marred.  Gifted, good, and beautifully and wonderfully made.

A foster mother and her foster daughter.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

And that’s when the tears came, plump stinging ones, the kind that are impossible to control because you’ve been reminded so deeply, so palpably in your gut what love is again, and it’s so beyond our human capability, and yet so plainly visible in our midst.   And you’ve been reminded of our limits as humans but of God’s ability to do great things with our smallness.

And so I might be sitting on my couch here, wondering how I scarcely lived without coffee this past week, how I went without a mirror, how I endured the bug bites and the dirt and the grime, not to mention the heartache of these children, but I also know in a matter of just a few weeks I’ll be somewhere else wondering how I will be able to live without China.

Holding a tiny baby just placed in a foster home.

God, make me to breathe deep this breath of God in all its goodness, because all things are for a season, and in this season I have been richly blessed by China, these families, and your goodness in a world of suffering.  Amen.

One last train trip

Gulping up coffee this morning, packing up, and getting ready for my final Chinese road trip–this time to Guilin, to visit foster families and say goodbye to the wonderful Chinese NGO staff who’ve been so generous with their time and energy as I complete my research here in Guangxi.

On the train in China. 

I know I must be about ready to head back to the US, because my heart is not leaping at the thought of train travel the way it was once upon a time.  I’m looking forward to that last week of sleeping in unfamiliar places, unbearable heat, and torrential downpours (one of which we got caught in yesterday afternoon!).  This will be my last hurrah as I call it, and I hope it brings joy and closure.

I’ll be out of internet range for the next week.  So See you in a week or so, and thanks for stopping by.

A view of the Li River in Guilin at sunset. Photos by Evan Schneider.