Monthly Archives: August 2012

China…in pictures.

I’ve been cleaning off my hard drive, and these images of people and places in China just ring truer than any words at the moment.

So, without further ado, allow me a brief look down memory lane…

Meeting Christians in Lijiang, Yunnan, that first November 2010 with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship.
Children playing in Guangxi, Yulin.
Constructing homes in Lincang prefecture, Yunnan province.
On the road in Yunnan.
House boats on the Yong River in Guangxi, Nanning. Photo by Evan Schneider.
Young girls play in the Li River in Guangxi, Yangshuo.
With friends in Nanning. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Women of humility, women of valor

Rachel Held Evans is featuring an essay contest and a series on her blog, encouraging people everywhere to bless women in their lives who are women of valor (Proverbs 31) by sharing their stories.  She’ll be posting some of the winners this week, and you should definitely check out these inspiring biographies (there’s even one about an American foster mom!).

Not surprisingly the women that came to my mind are the foster mothers I’ve gotten to know over the last two years in Southwest China.  My essay doesn’t necessarily fit the mold, because I couldn’t choose just one, but maybe you’ll see why…

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

I’ve only been home for a month, so I’ve just begun to pour over the field notes about foster families from which I will craft my dissertation.  I’ve been sitting in storied libraries and campus clubs on the grounds of a prestigious American university and finding myself instead along dirt roads that lead into China’s countryside, reminded of hope and transformation in unlikely places.

The picturesque terraces of China’s Guangxi province.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

These women, who foster China’s abandoned and disabled children, are by and large elderly, poor, and humble.  They grew up in a period of fundamental instability, their childhoods, youth, and education interrupted by one of the most dramatic revolutions the world has ever known.  Many hardly completed middle school, barely speak Mandarin, the official language of modern China, and their plain clothes, heavy accents, and the dirt under their fingernails betray them wherever they go as poor, ‘backward’ farmers.

But while it is perhaps their humble circumstances that first led them to foster these children with all of their so-called disabilities and deficiencies (they earn a small stipend from the state for doing so), it is that same humility, that equips them, as well.  These parents may not understand complex diagnoses of autism or cerebral palsy.  They don’t trust modern medicine, and they don’t believe there’s much more to raising a child besides food, clothing, shelter, and love.  But it is because they don’t understand the upper limits of these children’s abilities that they hardly see limits at all.

A foster mother and her foster daughter in Guangxi, Guilin.

I have seen overwhelmed experts, officials, and parents in China point out difference and disability among children who are abandoned in an increasingly competitive society that demands perfection from its singletons.  “Look, he walks with a limp,” a social worker might exclaim, of a boy who is doing his best to fit in in an urban slum, or “there’s something wrong with her ear,” of a perfectly lovely child. 

Hot peppers. Photo by Evan Schneider.

But when I turn the corner, off a dusty street and look out on the limestone peaks and the rice paddies, I’m not only greeted by the sweet, spicy fragrance of drying peppers from which these people make their living, but also the laughter and the sight of disabled children playing in the streets, and the chorus of older parents who can only see the possibilities for these children versus the limitations.

“This child doesn’t have autism” one mother says defiantly of the little girl who has been in her household for just six short months.  “She can listen, she understands me, see, look how well-behaved she is.”  “These children couldn’t walk when they arrived from the orphanage,” another beams proudly as two girls with cerebral palsy totter around the dirt floor.  And this July, in a little country house flanking green fields, under a pile of ashes on a simple altar in a dark room, I met a ten year-old girl whose mother could not cease in singing her praises.  “She’s gifted and she’s smart,” the mother bragged as the little autistic girl knitted, read for us, and even spoke some English.

The author with a foster family in Nanning. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I tried so hard to hide the fat, sloppy tears that streamed down my face in this place where such displays of emotion are discouraged.  Indeed, when I praise these women of valor, for loving these children as their own, for seeing what they can do when others can only see what they can’t, they shrug off my accolades, dismissing as matter-of-fact this life-changing work that they do everyday.

But when the children are eventually adopted half a world away or by rich, urban Chinese families, publicly, these mothers embrace the bright future they feel they can never give these children, and then weep hot tears in the quiet of their homes.  “When the first child left, I didn’t eat or sleep for a month,” one mother comments.  “I couldn’t look at the photos.  The only cure for the heartache, is to take in another,” she says, smiling, and gazing at the children playing happily at her feet.

I cannot possibly choose a single woman of valor, because over the last two years in China I’ve met so many.  And while the world hears frequently of women in China who so painfully and tragically abandon their newborns, I marvel at such love as this, that flows forth from the humblest of homes, and such valor among these women that leads them to foster two, four, or fifteen children over the years.  They patiently raise others’ children, and in so doing, these children know life outside the orphanage walls, and their communities begin to see their value rather than their disability.  

A foster mother holds a baby with heart disease.

Perhaps valor begins with humility, quietly imparting dignity to others, and teaching us what it means to love unconditionally in a world where it is tempting to put limits where God just doesn’t see any.

P.s.  J.R. Goudeau, whose blog I totally admire, featured this post over at Love is what you do: I’m so honored, and I hope you’ll check out J.R.’s blog and the great work she does on behalf of refugee women in the states.

On nourishing the Spirit

I think I was in sixth grade when I received my first copy of Oswald Chambers’ devotional, My Utmost for His Highest.

I’ve reread the book countless times over the last couple decades (yikes?!), and it always amazes me how relevant Chambers’ messages seem for our time despite the fact that he lived and wrote at the turn of the twentieth century.

Reading through today’s devotional in My Utmost, I was reflecting on how Chambers’ says so directly that “when a person is born again from above, the life of the Son of God is born in him, and he can either starve or nourish that life” and the contrast between an ever-loving God and a God whom we cannot truly receive or know without will, effort, and commitment.

Incense prayer labyrinth at a temple in Yunnan, Kunming, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Chambers goes onto say that only at our wits’ end does it seem necessary or no longer cowardly to pray, “but as long as you think you are self-sufficient, you do not need to ask God for anything.”  And, prayer is “not a matter of changing things externally, but one of working miracles in a person’s inner nature.”

I’ve been reminded lately in conversations with friends of this illusion of control and how often we prefer to live that lie rather than the truth.

What I’m also reminded of this morning is that God is not ‘out there; but desires to live through you and me, and this work of seeing and knowing God is about constant growth, about choosing everyday to get beyond ourselves so that God can nourish us and those around us.

That’s what God’s been speaking to me lately…what about you?

In secret

I remember very vividly being a young girl and sitting in the pews at church and listening to the high school students talk about their experiences traveling to far off, exotic places, like North Carolina, for conferences or service trips.  Mostly, I remember a phrase they oft-repeated that made me bristle and recoil, which was, “you just wouldn’t understand if you weren’t there.”  

Inside a church in Yunnan province, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

You see, I looked forward to youth Sunday, to hearing from the big kids about what it means to go out and serve God, and I always wondered why they took their place at the pulpit if they knew it was humanly impossible to explain to us homebodies what it meant to go where they went and do what they did.

Many years later I’ve had many the humbling privilege to travel across the world to serve God, and it is certainly is hard to find the words.  And my first impulse (extrovert that I am) is to assume that I’m feeling out of sorts because I’m not talking about my experiences enough.

Some of those conversations have been heartening, others frustrating.  I don’t want to sum up my experience in silly stories and soundbytes, and sometimes I’m left with the empty feeling that I’ve misrepresented China, the people, and the depth of my experience there.  Perhaps this is how zealous evangelists feel when they’ve only managed to choke out the bare bones outline of sin and salvation, rather than the whole of Jesus’ ministry, its impact on them, and the weight of the cross.

But I’ve always wondered, like the kids on youth Sunday in front of the church, on whose behalf those evangelists were really speaking.  And a couple days ago, as I began to pour over my fieldnotes in a quiet corner of a brightly lit room alongside other graduate students, I was transported back to the dirt roads of China’s countrysides and the moms and the dads and the children who have touched me there.  I fought back tears, but inside something felt full and honest and right with my heart the way it hasn’t been since I returned (despite the fact that I was crying in a room full of people).

A foster father in Guilin with just a few of many, many children he has taken in over the years.

And I realized that Jesus also calls us into a secret place, a place where the Father sees and knows our hearts and will “reward us openly” (Matthew 6:6).  What I have been missing in my own efforts to readjust to this place and this culture is the prayer and the communion that God provides, a holy moment where I can be witness to this life and those of my friends back in China at the same time.

And where I don’t have to sum things up for others or do the readjusting on my own, because God knows me deeply and wants to do that with me.

Gathered around in the countryside with foster children and parents in Guangxi.

Of course, it’s not so secret to write about these things on this blog, and I hope you won’t receive these words as another, “you just had to be there, you don’t understand.”  Truthfully, my experiences in China have changed me from the inside out in a way that I don’t yet fully understand, and I desire to find a way to share that joy, that power, those blessings.

But God is reminding me this morning that we’ve got to commit all those things to prayer and petition, and to God, first and foremost.  And then the hard part is trusting that the rest really will fall into place.

P.s.  There’s some really amazing stuff out on the internet right now that I feel compelled to share.  Check out Glennon at Momastery‘s post to her children on back-to-school.  My first reaction: Why does this choke me up so? My second: Radical love among kids, the kingdom of God doesn’t get any better than that!

P.p.s.  Rachel Held Evans reposted something entitled “How to follow Jesus…without being Shane Claiborne.”  This couldn’t have come at a better time as I’ve been struggling with the abundance in my new home and really needed some direct, prescriptive words.  Amen.

The culture of things

One of the qualms that comes with an international move (apparently) is that cultural values in regards to things, abundance, and excess inevitably don’t quite match up.  

I mentioned that in China, many of my friends only owned one or two pairs of clothes, many families had just a few possessions, the insides of their homes, some with dirt floors and concrete walls, appeared barren to my Western eye.

Before we moved to China, my husband and I sold many of our possessions.  But another young couple used most of our furniture for the two years we were in China, and we had other treasured things–wedding photos, souvenirs from travel, and books–stacked in footlockers waiting for our return.

We’ve all but completed our move and our set-up here in our new apartment in New Jersey, and the business of making a home is fun, and one that was made quite a bit easier and more affordable given the items we kept those few years.

But everything I’m reading lately (see here, here, and here) reminds me that we live in a climate of excess here in America.  Every time I go out to eat and a huge portion greets me, or even when warm water runs over my hands in the kitchen sink, or when I’m sorting through boxes of items that we’ve amassed over the years I’m embarrassed, stunned, and overwhelmed by things and their hold over me.

Views of the countryside in Yunnan province. Photo by Evan Schneider.

A fellow blogger recently discussed the growing materialism in China today, while also remarking on the lively debates we Americans get into over PC vs. Mac, or the way we caress our computers and phones.  She argues that Americans are simply unaware of their materialism, to the extent that they are unable “to separate material (especially techno-consumerism) from their identities.  America is so accustomed to its wealth that we are loathe to part with the products that make us who we are.”

We speak of things we need that we don’t really need.  We choose to feel inadequate when we don’t have enough “furniture to fill the space” and we buy more things as we can afford bigger spaces.  This morning I heard on NPR that the average cost of raising a child from age 0 to 18 in America is $250,000, but that’s relative to your income–as in the more money you have, the more money you will spend on a child.  

How does God desire that we live, and is that living relative to the country or the continent on which we find ourselves?  

I’m asking you this morning because I’m still parceling these things out as I go.  I’m still reeling from this new context in which I’m making my home and trying not to live in a nostalgia for China that romanticizes poverty, but rather a life that realizes authenticity and simplicity.  And God knows I’m finding it difficult…what about you?




Cooking cultures

Many anthropologists are writing about the culture of feeding, defining kin and households based on who eats where and who feeds whom, and arguing that sitting down at table is a sacred practice that connotes far more than just physiological processes (see Janet Carsten and Mary Weismantel).

A meal in the mountains of Yunnan province. Photo by Evan Schneider.
My husband, hard at work, in the kitchen.

And last night as my husband whipped up some tomato sauce from a bushel of farm fresh tomatoes down the road, we began talking with a friend of ours about what we ate growing up and noting that it mostly came from cans, freezers, and boxes.  It was not only a function of the type of leisurely evenings and worryfree youth that we (in many thanks to our parents) are enjoying (and that our parents lacked), but also a culture of poverty that struck America among our depression-era grandparents and extended into the cooking habits of their baby boomer grandchildren.

“What a fascinating generational study,” I mused, perking up, ever the anthropologist, and my mind racing about the lively interviews to be conducted among grandparents, parents, and children in kitchens all over America.  I began to expound that my friends who have definitive cooking backgrounds mostly took these from their immigrant grandparents, while their baby boomer parents were too worried these ethnic roots would hold them back and didn’t pass on language, culinary expertise, or other cultural artifacts to their children.

The rolling hills of Yunnan province and mostly subsistence farms. Photo by Evan Schneider.
Traditional Chinese stoves in the countryside.
Another look inside a Chinese kitchen.

These are sweeping generalizations, of course, but immigrants cook less out of boxes and are often much closer to where their food comes from: I remember the Hmong families my mother tutored in inner city Milwaukee that kept pigs and chickens (and likely butchered them in the backyard), and fresh off the plane from China, my husband recently lamented that he may not be able to find anywhere in America to buy pork fat to render his own lard for making tortillas.

A mound of bok choy, our favorite Chinese vegetable.
My husband and a foreign friend haggling over a piece of pork along the road just outside of Beijing.

I’m not arguing for a hierarchy here when it comes to health, knowledge, or even taste (God knows lard, while it tastes great, has expanded many an American waistline), nor am I wanting to romanticize poverty.  Rather I’m going for something like substance, connection, depth.

As I thought more about these cultures of feeding or lack thereof (and enter here the catalyst for the slow food movement), I began to acknowledge the reason my heart leapt yesterday morning when my professor suggested my husband cook some Chinese food for us this evening, or why my husband and I felt oddly satisfied by the Chinese meal we had in Oklahoma in ways we didn’t by American cuisine.

It’s not just my body, but my heart that craves these foods lately, the feeling of being satisfied part and parcel of a struggle to adopt and adapt a whole nother world.  And that is often now followed by a profound emptiness, or hunger, that creeps up from the depths, hardly recognizable until it finds what it craves.  My heart, my mind, my soul found themselves profoundly satisfied by China’s odd cuisine, and I’m left wondering how long it will be before America can do the same.

**On a related note, I just stumbled upon this TIME photo essay on how families around the world eat.  Fascinating!**

How to not speak of God

Allen Ginsberg – view from my kitchen window, 1984

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks, from the great plains of Oklahoma, buying a car, insurance, and learning (or should I say not really learning) how to use our smart phones.  And then packing up that car and driving it some 1500 miles cross-country, in the good-old great American road trip fashion.

I’m very much a creature of habit.  

I love routine, because it keeps me balanced and aware.  Writing this blog has added to that discipline of seeking to be aware of God in every moment, so I’d like to attribute my lack of connection with God as of late toour transience and our busy-ness.

But I can’t.

To do so would be not only dishonest, but also misleading.  The fact is, God is everywhere and in everything (after all I managed to adjust to my unpredictable fieldwork and life in China), and even if there truly are more distractions here in America, it is I who choose to be distracted by them.

In the moments where I’ve been present with God, God’s presence has also been palpable.

Like at my dear friends’ wedding this past weekend, where I had the honor of praying for the the bride before she walked down the aisle and praying the blessing at the reception.  And so many friends and strangers, from so many walks of spirituality, came up to me confirming God’s presence in those moments.

Or the funny little discipline my husband and I found in reading Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother aloud to one another on our road trip, and pausing to discuss Chinese culture, life, and relationships.  Or regarding God’s breadth and goodness as I hear my professor’s husband confirm that God must have heard our prayers for his cancer from China, because his progress has been steady, his condition remarkably stable.

But there have also been too many moments where I’ve referred aloud to God’s provision as luck, when I’ve tucked my faith and my vulnerability out of earshot, not wanting to burden anyone with the fact that I’m not sure how well I’m doing with being back in the US, or admit that I’ve spent less time talking to God as of late, and I’m wondering what to say or how to pray.

So I’m confessing here that I’m all too often an expert at how not to speak of God rather than how to, and that doing so, even for a budding minister, is difficult, risky, important, and takes practice.  

And while I’m feeling disappointingly aware of the moments where I should have spoken up, and the moments where I’ve failed, I’m also feeling confident in God’s presence, despite my absence.  And this evening I’m trusting in God’s ability to keep growing me toward God and others this day, tomorrow, and in the future…wherever that may be.

On contrasts and convictions

Often the contrast between Oklahoma, where we’ve found ourselves these last few weeks, and China, where we made our life for the past two years couldn’t be starker.

In China, the world seemed all too rich, too raw, charged with spirits and tragedies too great for me to bear.  I lived in a place and a time where children were the ones who had to shake the dust from their shoes and trudge on, or lived in cribs in stark rooms instead of the arms of revelatory love and goodness, or worse, might be left to waste away, so invisible and insignificant to a society and a people who worship modernity and progress–two gods that march relentlessly forward, crushing the least of these.

In Oklahoma, we’re surrounded by our three beautiful nieces, who lack for nothing, and in the summer, they spend their days swimming, playing games, and running in the grass.  A different kind of modernity or progress–the expanse of homes and fields and food and plenty–renders me speechless and a stranger in my own land.

Of course, it’s not all children in Oklahoma or in China who live in these contrasts.

And in fact, there are moments when both cultures seem more similar in their strangeness to me, than expected!

Oklahoma truly has a culture all its own.

That’s what came to mind the other evening as I sat on my uncle’s porch, surrounded by my husband’s extended family, and still trying to sink into an unfamiliar place and make sense of this life interrupted that we seem to be living as of late.

Looking around that certain uncle’s living room, covered in taxidermy, or the sprawling fields brown and parched from a lack of rain, or listening to the chatter on the porch about the second amendment, oil, politics, and brush fires, all made me aware of a shared history, and a connection to one another and the land, that make me feel as though I’ll forever be a stranger in this place.

But something I read this evening convicted me of those meandering thoughts, and it was this line, from a fellow blogger, about how all of us, “chicken man, terrified gay teen, self-righteous pastor, Lesbian Activist, and me, we are all [God’s] kids.”

You see, I not only find my thoughts at times to be critical of my family and friends here, and I also didn’t like the way the words that came out of my mouth sounded in a conversation where people from different worlds attempted to build a common story.

I was reminded that something I deign to call knowledge or wisdom smacks of righteousness when it presumes to know better than the simple people in this place.   And that my own life experiences in China these past few years, when it comes to understanding mission and the Church, are not to be wielded as a yardstick with which to measure others’ breadth of international knowledge, but rather a helpful reminder of how much larger God’s work is than my ideologies or my words can ever presume to teach.

Truth be told, it is so difficult for me to capture those years in China in casual conversations with friends, family, and strangers.  If these days are teaching me anything, it’s that there are no casual conversations.  And that, as Oswald Chambers puts it, “As long as you think that you are of value to [God,] He cannot choose you, because you have purposes of your own to serve.  But if you will allow Him to take you to the end of your own self-sufficiency, then He can choose you to go with Him ‘to Jerusalem.’ (Luke 18:31)”

Those urges to be self-sufficient, to regard myself above others, or dismiss the meaningfulness of these Oklahoma moments for the China ones, claw at me.

But so does the Lord, urging me to be better, to be humbler, to be like a child, ever reliant on God’s purpose, God’s wisdom, and the conviction that we are all children of God, in China, in Oklahoma, and everywhere on this earth.