Crumbs, interference, and sincerity

One of the things that comes to mind in reverse cultural shock, or in this life of faith, especially for me, is a struggle for sincerity.

I’ve mentioned that cultural shock for me, thus far, has been marked by a listlessness, a restlessness, a disturbing but incoherent ‘feeling out of sorts.’  And that makes sense when you consider that the gifts and the fruits of living life in another country, in another culture, and learning to love those who are different from you are not necessarily all that useful or relevant to what’s familiar.

Stunning rice terrace landscape in Guangxi.

But I also know that coming to terms with that restlessness, that incoherence, involves acceptance that things won’t be perfect and an openness to experiences and moments that may seem totally unfamiliar on the outside but smack of transcendence and truth when I simply let them be.

For instance, in my advisor’s office this past week when I began to tear up over the people and the places and the life I miss in China, she echoed my emotions and her own eyes welled as she recalled her time in India and her research.  “Those were some of the happiest, best moments of my life, even as it was so hard,” she said, “or just holding someone’s hand, seeing them smile back at me so purely brought so much joy.”

I’m thankful for this woman in my life who hasn’t been afraid to treat me like a real, whole person, and interfere in my life a little bit.  Perhaps we Americans, in our busyness and our importance and our struggles, often do this work of insulating ourselves, when all we really want is for people to interfere.  

The foster mothers I studied in China interfered in my life in ways I could have hardly imagined: they thrust their snotty-nosed children into my arms because they didn’t have enough hands to boil rice, shoo away the chickens, and shuck corn at once.  They called me with requests I couldn’t fulfill, they asked me to adopt their kids, they held my hands and cried on my shoulders, and they pleaded with me to teach their children English.

And somewhere in the midst of that life I made in China, it started to feel right and good to be needed, to be imposed upon, to be a part of someone else’s life.

This morning, in downtown Princeton, I heard a sermon on the Syro-phonecian woman (Mark 7:24-30) and the varied scholarly efforts to justify Jesus’s brusqueness toward her.  And then the pastor suggested that as Mark seems to intend, we make the focal point of the story not Jesus, but this woman, to whom the crumbs for the dogs would suffice.  And the pastor asked us whether we can live that promise, that just a morsel of the gospel will produce life-changing power.

A foster mom and her daughter in Guangxi.

And I couldn’t help but think of these women in China, who truly live their lives beneath the table, scrounging for crumbs, and yet to them, these children, abandoned, disabled, and broken as they are, are not just enough, or will suffice, but to them, these children are priceless.  And I think it is because of them, I can live with bold conviction that there is redemption for us all, and that God’s goodness is not just for a few.

This learning to live sincerely though, in a new place, will take time.  Because these women have humbled me, interfered in my life, and I am changed because of them.  They have made me believe that in such crumbs, lies abundant life, and God’s claim on that life, when it comes to mine, couldn’t be stronger than in this moment.  

And yet, I’m learning, the hardest part, ironically, is that living a life that honors what those foster mothers have taught me, that rings sincere, seems to involve letting others interfere in my life in this new place.

Families in a church in Yunnan province. Photos by Evan Schneider.

And so I take a deep breath, let my eyes water, and gasping through prayers in my heart, I extend my hand to a few people on the way out of church, all the while thinking of those foster moms, those kids, and somehow feeling strangely whole like I did in my professor’s office that afternoon, and I expectantly pray for God to make me whole over (and over) again.

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6 thoughts on “Crumbs, interference, and sincerity

    1. Aw, thanks Sharon. You have no idea how energizing and reassuring it has been getting to know you. I don’t find you insular at all, but perhaps God’s working through both of us in ways we’re not aware of, hehe. Thanks for your encouragement!

    2. Erin – I’m just now getting around to reading this post and it’s resonating deeply. I hate to interfere in other people’s lives and in fact work hard (oh, so very hard) at being low-maintenance and accommodating. But I think of my midwestern mother and how much she imposes on people to help her now that’s she’s living alone and I think of how I want to be like her, what a gift it is to the people around here, and why it is I shy away from such brave vulnerability.

      1. Erin, thanks for your comments and your honesty. It’s oh so good to be obligated to people- my Chinese friends have taught me that, and that this sense of independence and control is merely an illusion, and nothing I really want anyway, given that I wish I lived my life with a reliance on God. We’ll get there… My spiritual director reminds me that we also didn’t get to where we are- successful women- without being driven and having ambitions, so there’s also beauty and grace there.

  1. We recently returned from China after three years there. We were foster parents to a little boy with Down Syndrome and leaving him behind is the greatest grief of my life. He is with his beloved ayi as his adoptive family does their paperwork and is doing well but our sadness is overwhelming.
    It’s hard to process the joy and the grief of having lived overseas. I resonate in so many ways with your emotions and process.

    1. Sandy, it’s so good to find someone (ahh the wonders of technology) with whom I have so much in common. Sometimes I worry how much this blog is becoming about my own reverse culture shock, so I really appreciate your understanding of how hard it is to readjust and leave the ones we love behind. What wonderful work you did fostering! I’d love to hear more, and how amazing that this boy is going to be adopted. I totally get how hard it is to leave children behind- I’m in that myself. Send me an email (eraffety@princeton.edu) at some point- I’d love to hear more about your experience, where you were in China, and how you ended up fostering. How did you find my blog? Glad you did!

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