For those of you missing the China posts, I miss China, too! I wrote a poem about it:
It is a spring morning in central Jersey.
And yet, when I emerge from my car in the parking garage, construction whirling in the distance, I am distinctly reminded whereby the crispness of this air, the particular squeakiness of these birds, and the unmistakable mix of blacktop and freshness of the same season in a city in South China.
Said city holds no particular place in the Chinese imaginary when it comes to urban notables; in fact, it conjures adjectives like “backwards” and “primitive” from the mouths of cabbies across China. But five years removed from my life there and cobbled sidewalks encased from endless traffic by massive palm fronds, I wonder if quaint is an adjective that one can put toward a city of seven million for which I am undeniably, yet foolishly homesick.
I recall how dodging the passersby dotting the sidewalk, I would sprint on a morning such as this, down to South Lake, and feel it my quiet oasis. In China, I learned the comfort of never being alone.
Despite the traffic that roared across the highway carving the lake in two and the never desolate state of the footbridge, pretending to climb but nay drudge up it in the dank humidity was my respite, my triumph.
Alongside the elderly people swatting their arms and strolling the banks or the young men in track suits with more ambition than athleticism, I felt deliciously inconspicuous, enfolded in the lush, yet urban landscape.
When I long for China, I like to think it’s not merely as a vagrant or a tourist but as an adherent and an old friend.
You see in China, I learned the distinct pleasure of anonymity alongside the crowded comfort of never being alone. There’s something pleasurable in recollecting that those runs along South Lake were never quite my own but belong dutifully and contentedly to the city they call Nanning.
We’ve spent the weekend moving into our new (but I really should say old) house!
Here it is and it’s older than the constitution!
The house was built circa 1785 and is part of this teeny crossroads historic town in the NJ countryside. It’s been a huge ordeal just getting here as the move-in date was pushed back months and months due to repairs and negotiations. Despite it being built so long ago, from all accounts it’s actually in great shape. I can’t decide if it’s the best decision we’ve ever made or if we’re bats**t crazy, but a friend who knows us well and is pretty truthful grinned when I said that and replied, probably a little bit of both!
The best news is that Lucia really seems to love her big, light-filled room, there’s views of a gorgeous, historic church across the street, and I’ve already seen tons of butterflies, birds, and bunnies out here. We’ve been really thankful not to be in a flood zone this weekend and for all the help from friends with meals and unpacking. Can’t wait to get out and explore the area when things dry and would love to hear all your favorite links for home knick knacks and furniture!
But we’re settling in on this torrential downpour of a weekend, and with internet and a morning off from church, I thought I’d post some links, too. Hope you’re staying dry and hanging in!
It’s been nearly two years since my husband and I moved back from living in South China (how time flies!), but there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think about the people, the place, or our life there. Moving to a foreign country as a young couple had its growing pains, but ultimately it brought us closer together and is an experience that we treasure and hope to repeat someday with our children.
I have some friends and acquaintances who are getting ready to make the move across the ocean or halfway around the world and it got me thinking about what lessons I can draw from our own experience. So, here are a few suggestions for how to make the most of that international living experience, which is definitely more of an art than a science.
Find Some Structure
It’s essential when you arrive to start building a community, through which you can learn about the culture, and among which you can begin to build relationships and feel at home. When I was doing my fieldwork in China, my network of informants was free-floating and dispersed, so it really helped that my husband was affiliated with a local university for his work, through which we met a mix of Chinese professors, students, and even expats. Finding a community–a housing complex, a company, a school, or a place of worship–that has some structure and rituals to it helps a lot when you’re struggling to learn the ins and outs of daily life in a brand new place and ensures that you won’t feel isolated despite the isolating experiences you’re often up against. Even setting up a weekly meeting with a language partner or a friend to explore the city can give you the motivation to get out there and get to know your new surroundings and help you feel more at home.
Speaking of isolation, a great piece of advice I received from a couple before moving abroad and back was to be mindful that despite your commonalities you won’t be experiencing a new culture in exactly the same way. It’s imperative that instead of assuming cross-cultural experiences resonate or rub against us in exactly the same way as family or friends that we allow for multiple feelings and interpretations of the same events and experiences. When I was living in China, I often assumed my husband to be my cultural confidant who shared my frustrations, joys, and complaints, but that wasn’t always the case. It really helped to talk through those disconnects and resist making assumptions so that we could be sources of support to one another in a challenging experience.
Become an Anthropologist
Now I’m completely biased, but I think it’s also important to suspend judgment and try to look past first impressions when you’re getting to know your new country and culture. Spend your time observing people, listening, and participating in life the way they live it. If you consider yourself a student of culture, it’s also a lot easier to tolerate and maybe even embrace differences that might be initially repulsive or confusing. As a student, you’re only responsible for asking good questions, applying yourself and learning to the best of your ability, and respecting your teachers, which is a wonderfully fresh and un-stressful way to relate to your new, and sometimes jarring, world!
There will be times where you need a psychological or even a physical break from the fatigue of speaking another language, being a foreigner in a strange land, or adhering to customs and pleasantries that aren’t your own. It’s important to take these much needed breaks so that when you are with your new neighbors in your new country you can be the best version of yourself. For my husband and I that meant brief sojourns to Hong Kong every once in awhile, evenings every few weeks with expats, or simply alone time on our balcony where we allowed one another the freedom to speak candidly about some of our frustrations and fears.
Don’t pass up the opportunity to explore your new country and culture while you have it. My fondest memories of China are the weekends and weeks where I made spontaneous research trips to the countryside with new friends, and the trips to Southeast Asia with friends and to the wildest parts of Guangxi with family. And I regret never making it to all the other places on our list–Harbin, Sanya, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar just to name a few! Exploring the country with new friends deepens your understanding of the idiosyncrasies of what it really means to live in that place, because there’s nothing like long hours spent on buses and trains to bring people together. After all, the art of living abroad is about taking care of yourself but also taking chances!
It’s been a fabulous weekend celebrating my husband’s 35th birthday and enjoying the company of lots of friends and the lovely spring weather in NJ. In addition to a photo from one of those lovely walks with the babe, here are some great stories and posts around the internet for your enjoyment this weekend:
“The Five Lessons of Good Friday,” a great article to ponder during Eastertide: I love the nuanced points about suffering and the proclamation that suffering does not have the last word! For my own reflections on how to live in light of Easter, see last year’s post, “Holy everything.”
On the subject of men, women, and the workplace, “The Confidence Gap,” was a lengthy, but good read about what may be holding women back.
It’s inspiring to read all the posts out there on Lent this time of year, so I thought I’d link up to some of my favorites today, and I hope you’ll do the same in the comments section. Additionally, I’d like to pass on this reflection on fasting and feasting which my mom passed on to me, and which I think sort of bridges the gap between those who abstain, add, or simply try to be more intentional during Lent.
DC Teacher and Davidson Alum, Clint Smith‘s moving spoken word on zip codes, food desserts, and injustice entitled, “Place Matters,” is lighting up my facebook account and provoking some important conversation about the battles young children are fighting everyday against drugs, poverty, and obesity. Click here to hear what he has to say!
Over ten years ago now, I spent a formative summer in Anacostia working with a youth missions organization, and it breaks my heart to hear how much the children there are still struggling to survive. In a spiritual autobiography class at Princeton Theological Seminary, after we read Frederick Douglass’ biography, I wrote a piece about my time in Anacostia and Douglass’ house, which stood high on a hill just down the street from the church we lived in, and from which you can get a glimpse of the capitol. I want to add my voice to Clint Smith’s this morning in an effort to raise awareness about the state of education, poverty, and injustice just a few miles from our nation’s capitol.
I held Terrance and Talib’s small brown hands in my white ones as they dragged me toward the convenience store, expectantly bouncing up and down toward sodas and candy. But in a matter of seconds the rusty van with its side door missing came careening around the corner, flying past us and I had just enough time to shove their little heads to the ground—trembling, we were, amidst the sound of screeching tires, hugging the hot pavement. Two weeks prior a local gang from our neighborhood had accidentally killed a kid from Congress Heights in the crossfire, and here the gang from Congress Heights was now, circling the neighborhood for easy targets. Terrance and Talib all too casually rose from their prostrate positions and turned their backs to the street, peering through the great iron bars that lined the sidewalk right where we had fallen. They raised their eyes to look at his house, broad and grand, the only three story house that hadn’t slumped to two under the weight of poverty and decline, the only porch that held pristine rocking chairs, the only grassy hill for miles of pavement.
“Whose house it that?” Terrance asked.
There is no Frederick Douglass in Anacostia today, I thought, instead of mouthing the words.
His house was right there over the bars and I longed to tell that to Talib and to Terrance, but without “the sliver trump of freedom” it would mean nothing. No soul can rouse itself to eternal wakefulness without a light to summon its attention. Much as the bondage Douglass experienced gave the white man’s salvation a distinctly bitter, putrid taste, a message of spiritual liberation so trite meant little to this neglected community and to these boys who were starving for the sustenance of life itself—their own humanity.
But this is where Douglass’ struggle ends, not where it began. He begins his story with all that he does not know, all that he has lost because he was born a slave, far beyond Tuckahoe, Easton, and Talbot County. And it is in this way that the children who came to Renaissance Baptist Church simply because we were there to listen, told their stories. Absent of any detail, a parent completely unknown to them, a knowledge of nothing beyond the W, the street on which they lived.
It is called W Street—like many city streets in southeastern D.C., in what is known as Anacostia, it seems downright generous to give alleys littered with burnt out cars, bottles, and buckling houses even a letter to their name. On one end of this winding road is the metro station which connects this landmass on the other side of the Anacostia River to the rest of the capitol and congress buildings, and at the other end lies his house, statuesquely seated upon the only hill for miles, looking across the water to the capitol, yet directly down upon a city of shambles.
These are the tangled roots of America and American Christianity, that though “all men are created equal,” the marble of the congress buildings was laid to bear by the hands of slaves, that though the Christian scripture might have harbored a message of liberation, the harshest slave owners were the ones whose whippings were steeped in scriptural righteousness. This Christian and public alliance with slavery is what pushed Douglass not only to flee the plantations of his youth northward, but to flee (temporarily) the faith as well. His anger, though, represented his hope, the fire of freedom that refused to accept a religion promising only spiritual, not physical liberation to its people.
But the anger in Anacostia today fractures the community as brothers and sisters thrive off the exploitation of one another. Even Renaissance Baptist Church was just another haven for drug trafficking—our pastor drove an olive green jaguar and came once a week to look out at the streets with a smug, careless glance. It was Frederick Douglass who attacked this kind of religion, the kind of Sunday holy-rolling that slinked away to prostitute itself during the work week, from the very offering plate that the faithful had filled. “What! preach, and kidnap men?/ Give thanks, and rob the own afflicted poor?/ Talk of they glorious liberty, and then/ Bolt hard the captive’s door?” While Douglass spoke of a new paradigm for salvation from his house on the hill, those in Anacostia found the captive door bolted, and traded the hope of glorious liberty for a hellish day-to-day hardened existence. The black church in this place had lost Douglass’ fiery ambition, becoming a cult of complacency in a community of need.
Perhaps all that is why the Nation of Islam temple two blocks up the street was so popular, boasting the likes of Louis Farrakhan, who preached twice within its tattered walls that summer. The police barricaded off blocks up and down the street and black men with bright bow ties marched past the Frederick Douglass house, the Renaissance Baptist Church, and into the temple. It was one of these nights in July that a young Anacostia man held his pregnant girlfriend hostage in a car across the street from our church; it was a scene unlike anything I’d ever experienced, police lights flashing, sirens and blow horns thundering, bow ties aflight from the area, fleeing across and out of Anacostia.
And this was what I observed: nobody, nobody wanted to be in Anacostia. The church was two blocks from murder row; the Salvation Army and the Red Cross had moved out. The Venus and Serena Williams Tennis Center was a gleaming, marble monument in the neighborhood over, but it was a testament to the Williams sisters’ ability to get themselves out of Anacostia, rise above these God-forsaken streets.
The nights were bleak despite the joyful cries from the children frolicking on the steps of the church. They were there because no one cared where they were, least of all their parents. For the first few nights, I tried to walk these children back to their homes, meet their parents, and let them know that we couldn’t care for them at these hours of the night. But from within young Terrance’s house came the notable shrieks of his mother prostituting herself in the upper room, and suddenly babysitting on the steps seemed the only thing to do.
But it is his house, the Frederick Douglass house, which stands so solemnly and out of place amidst this sobering circus. And there are tourists who come to D.C. and come all the way out to Anacostia to see the yellow house with green shutters and experience the world of Frederick Douglass. Perhaps what they do not expect is to have to use their imagination to see past the reality of Anacostia. They have to wonder, I think, how St. Michael’s, where Douglass worked the plantation, is one of the loveliest portions of the Eastern Shore, whereas his own home attests to the height of urban poverty, institutionalized racism, and neglect to the ideals of freedom and equality he sought so desperately to instill in all people.
All people have souls, Douglass’ biography teaches, even the slave. But does Anacostia itself have a soul? Or has it sold its soul, sold these children, Terrance and Talib, into a new irreversible, urban bondage of poverty? Who will tell Douglass’ story, not just with words, but with his life? Where is hope when there is none to be seen, when the house on the hill can stand so tall but its presence is not enough to triumph over today’s complicated systematic evils?
Sometimes in my dreams, I imagine those children from the church steps playing on the Douglass lawn, on the porch, living in that big unlived-in museum of a house. I imagine it all with anger, helpless anger, until I remember the real lives lived on the streets. You see, it’s easy to equate the decay of buildings and structures with the decay of souls.
The story I have not told is the one in which the community on W Street took us in and protected us from all the danger they lived with everyday of their lives. Gert and Bill, the couple who lived across the street from the church, came over the very night we moved in, promising to be there, whatever we needed. That eventually came to spiritual conversations, much needed showers in their cramped bathroom, and ever-important information about the needs of the community. By their generosity of spirit, their hospitality, and their care, we touched one another in a community that frequently felt bullets graze by, felt the emptiness of hunger, but rarely felt the “silver trump of freedom…rousing one’s soul to eternal wakefulness.” Douglass recalls this moment for him, when “freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, seen in every thing…I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”
Douglass looked out from the plantation’s slave barracks on a bleak future yet all he could hear and taste was the cry and the thirst for freedom. Perhaps looking for hope against the dingy backdrop of Anacostia is to place too much faith in appearances, to place too much acceptance upon the reality that seems irreparable. If Douglass’ deepest longing to learn, to know freedom, and to live, reverberated from deep injustice, perhaps Anacostia does have a soul after all. Anacostia could not be so desperately in need of salvation without a soul to yearn for grace. A great injustice remains in the blocks surrounding the Frederick Douglass house, but the justice to redeem it will come from within. The Frederick Douglass house stands as a reminder that freedom calls us all to wakefulness, but not a freedom from oppression or poverty arranged at the hands of white men in congress, but a freedom for humanity rumbling in the depths of the depravity in which Anacostia toils on day after day.
Perhaps because it’s a particularly gloomy morning here in Princeton in the dead of winter, or perhaps because the NYT’s thrilling 52 Places to Go in 2014 just came out this week, I’m finally wanting to return to those Paris files that never made the blog, and some of the best eating, sleeping, and reading that we did on site.
I mentioned in another post that just after touching down in the city of light my husband caught a nasty cold, and so we decided to forgo our travel plans to the countryside and spend the full two weeks in Paris.
And we never felt like we were missing out.
When we had to scramble to find another hotel for the time we’d planned to be outside the city, we stumbled upon this gem, the Hotel Sainte Beuve, nestled right off the Luxembourg gardens in the 6th arrondissement. Walking off the chilled streets into the warm living room with its burgundy and pink color scheme and crackling fire place afforded all the warmth of a cozy cottage, and the rooms were a soft mix of comfort and sophistication, much bigger than the closets you get in many areas of the city, featuring floor to ceiling windows, airy balconies, and spacious bathrooms with eclectic black and white tile. The staff spoke a myriad of languages, booked us at many of the local eateries, and the hotel even had its own fragrance, that we bought and often spray around our bedroom to recall our memorable time there.
Of course this experience totally converted us into Paris snobs, who were quite unwilling to venture too far outside the city center, much less stay on the outskirts. Why would we, when some of our best meals consisted of picnics cobbled together from local cheese, cured meat, and wine vendors, and then enjoyed on the lawn of the nearby Luxembourg?
The neighborhood had plenty other charming spots, including Cafe Vavin, where we’d enjoy heaping plates of charcuterie, foie gras, cheese, and wine around 5 or 6 pm before we’d enjoy a late dinner at the teeny, white-tabled clothed Le Timbre, or the bustling Julien Pattiserie around the corner where we’d grab an exquisite espresso and croissant before heading out to the day.
These were some of the cheap thrills of discovering the neighborhood around the hotel, but for some other memorable meals, I scoured the Paris By Mouth blog, which helpfully lists restaurants by arrondissement, and provides detailed, accurate reviews. This is where we discovered the delightful Semilla, in the much-adored Saint Germain de Pres neighborhood. The menu changes daily so each experience was different, but the food was rich, delicate, and refined.
Another great meal, or should I say the best buttery, melt-in-your-mouth plate of scallops I ever had, took place on a friend’s recommendation at Pramil, the tiny, yet cozy wood-beamed restaurant off the quiet rue Vertbois in the third arrondissement. If you go, be sure to make a reservation (we didn’t, and we almost missed out as it quickly filled up!).
Of course, the sights and sounds of the city nearly rivaled the food and the flavors–that first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower coming up from the subway that I didn’t expect to care anything for, the quaint courtyard and the sounds of the organ in Saint Suplice, the eerie beauty of the cemetery at Montmarte, dotted with the tombs of artists and saints, or even Monet’s sprawling gardens, packed with tourists, were as beautiful as everyone says they are. We can’t wait to go back and lap up escargot and enjoy wine by the carafe, but for the moment, especially on a day like today, Paris remains but a wonderful, distant warm memory in the dead of winter.
“Paris is… the best city to wander around alone because it’s so beautiful you feel like it’s hugging you.” —Lessons in French, by Hillary Reyl
This is just a quick update to say that the blog’s been ho-hum as of late because we’re in Paris on a fifth year anniversary/conference/stuff your face food tour, and while we’ve been seeing lots of lovely things like cathedrals and art and cobbled streets, the photos are firmly in the digital camera (and subject to my husband’s critical editing eye) until we return, and I’ve been doing that thing lately where you soak it all in before you muse onto the page.
Still, just a few updates: we’re spending the full two weeks in Paris, because Evan caught a nasty cold on the plane, so we’ll save the trip to Burgundy, the Loire, and Normandy for another time! That means we’ve been scrambling to book hotels last minute, but that we’ve also experienced the personalities of several different arrondissements intimately. And I finally get the flaneur thing: it is so wildly freeing and delicious to just stroll about leisurely in this beautiful city, though it has also been predictably disorienting not to be able to speak the language, my heart still leaps a bit every time I hear Chinese, and Paris feels so decisively more foreign to me than Asia!
I’m convinced that I’m not sophisticated enough for all this, and yet I’ll–we’ll–continue to fake it, muddling through in our best attempts at French and French accents, which has gotten us some memorable and satisfying coffee, food, and views. And faking it isn’t so bad really– I’ll take satisfaction over sophistication pretty much any day.
It’s just a few days prior to his death, and he knows it’s coming along with betrayal by those closest to him, mockery, and agony. And yet he ties a towel around his waist, fills a basin with water, and stoops close to the ground and the filth and the earth to wash the disciples’ feet.
If that doesn’t fill you with awe, I don’t know what will.
In her latest book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott writes, “Even though I remember my pastor saying that God always makes a way out of no way, periodically something awful happens, and I think that God has met Her match–a child dies or a young father is paralyzed. Nothing can possibly make things okay again. People and grace surround the critically injured person or the family. Time passes. It’s beyond bad. It’s actually a nightmare. But people don’t bolt, and at some point the first shoot of grass breaks through the sidewalk.”
Lamott could easily have been writing a prayer of the help or thanks genre, but she’s actually describing the wow. The wow is not that bad things don’t happen, because they do. The wow is that “people don’t bolt” during the “beyond bad.”
Last night my husband and I went to hear blind human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, speak on the Princeton University campus. He told his story of working for justice in China, his famous escape to the U.S. embassy, the lesser told tale of his family’s continued persecution, and the gory details of his nephew’s beating and imprisonment following his asylum in the United States. While the reality of human rights abuses in China is rife with suffering, fear, and pain, Mr. Chen’s family, other activists in China, and many around the world haven’t given up.
Over the last few days the internet has been flooded by photos of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of inmates at a juvenile detention facility. The new pope’s far from perfect, and his actions might not change the world, but the images move us because they speak of what it means to regard the humanity of one another in situations that are “beyond bad.”
When you really think about it Holy Week, so artfully named, was “beyond bad.” There was really nothing good about good Friday, and there is nothing more nightmarish than the death of God.
But even in death God hasn’t met Her match. Sometimes we forget, though, that it came to that–that death was gory for Jesus, that it was pain, and the earth plunged into darkness–that simply put, we can’t have the resurrection, the wow, the shoots of grass, without the “beyond bad,” the nightmare of the crucifixion that delivers us from sin and death.
And with all that was yet to come, he went willingly to his death. Yet, before doing so he took their feet in his holy hands and scrubbed them like a servant. That’s what our savior did with some of his last moments on this earth.
Well, I’ve been stricken with the sniffles here in NJ.
I’m pretty certain it’s just allergies, but those of you who have allergies know that there’s no such thing as just allergies. I keep wondering where this special kind of torture came from (ragweed? pollen?) and thinking rather indignantly, China never did this to me!
Of course, it’s funny the ways in which China has rubbed off on me. For instance, I’m fairly convinced these sniffles are caused by the weather, and a dramatic change in pressure, and I stood around for at least a half an hour last night in order to avoid going out in the rain, in which I was convinced I’d catch a cold!
Yes, China has either made me into your grandmother, your mother, or…Chinese!
But as I dragged by tired self home last night (in a cab with a new Chinese friend I’d met on the side of the road, no less!), and I thought of what to cook up that would make right these snuffles and sniffles, I realized that my comfort foods are still decidedly American.
Last night I sauteed up some onions, garlic, spinach, mushrooms, and zucchini with olive oil and soy sauce, which I added to a steaming bowl of chicken ramen soup. I also like the accoutrement with a bowl of rice, but last night I needed the chicken soup!
And if you read this blog with any regularity, you won’t be surprised that I made peanut butter and banana oatmeal for breakfast this morning. We’ve been trying almond milk in our coffee, so I boiled the oatmeal with the almond milk this time and it worked nicely.
That’s something China doesn’t have–almond milk…or allergies.