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.
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.
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.
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.