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.
I’m learning that writing a dissertation is all about excess.
You write and write and write (or at least this is the way it has gone for me), without any sense of the whole, blindly, and at best, faithfully, and when you generate enough material, things start taking shape. You’re no longer writing so much, but sifting through material, arguments and descriptions, and assembling something piecemeal, slowly and methodically.
It works best when there is excess, but that’s hard to accept when you’re first getting started. You want it all to fit. You want not a moment to be wasted. But not everything will make its way into the larger work. There will be pieces that stand alone, and pieces that are ultimately set aside.
Here’s a bit of excess for the moment. Something I wrote months and months ago and finally came back to, and liked, but who knows whether it will make it into the dissertation.
Consider it a sneak preview!
I remember sitting with my Chinese professor in his office in Princeton explaining my intent to go to Southwest China to study foster families. When he heard Guangxi, Nanning his ears perked up, and he bellowed a guttural laugh, “I don’t even understand a thing they say there, ha! Good luck!” I remember not only the cacophony of languages and accents upon touching down in Nanning, but the pervasive smell of mildew, the sea of e-bikes stretching across the broad avenues, and my first forays through neighborhood markets searching for foster mothers alongside a friend who swore they could be found.
I met not a single foster mother that first summer. Instead, I met many people, all Chinese, who told me emphatically that they did not exist. Most people who I met in Guangxi apologized obsessively for the “backwardness” of their region, and they urged me to go somewhere of more importance in China. Chinese professors of anthropology wondered how what I was studying could be called anthropology if it did not concern the Zhuang minority culture for which Guangxi was famous. They misunderstood the focus of my research to be international adoptions, because as they and many others stated, there was no Chinese culture of adoption.
But in March of 2011 all of my fledgling questions brought me to an unassuming concrete office in the middle of the city, where a small NGO staff assembled and told me they supported hundreds of families in Nanning and thousands outside of the province to who took orphaned and abandoned children into their homes. That April, in a nearby city orphanage, an elderly woman with a kind smile told me how she’d started foster care projects in Guangxi in the early 1990s out of necessity, poverty, and concern. Guangxi, it turned out, despite the naysayers, was at the center of a disperse, yet expansive foster care movement.
When you’re sitting in classrooms and carrels imagining anthropological fieldwork, you can only think in systems and power and theories. It was no different for me, and despite the draw of foster mothers’ joy and pain, I imagined a China in which movement of children from public orphanages to private homes represented an unprecedented receding of the state from private family life. I conjured a sophisticated state, modern cities, and rapid social change.
But instead what I found is time nearly standing still in the cinderblock homes of foster families, whether they lived in the capital city or off the rice paddies between mountains where people plowed with oxen, a rickety tool, and their own two hands. I learned that despite the narratives about the strength of the Chinese state in my textbooks, power was always locally negotiated. Despite the myriad of books on China’s urban centers, the people of Guangxi are, as Fei Xiaotong wrote decades ago, firmly “of the soil.”
And I discovered that despite the literature on families and family life in China, nothing prepared me for the sudden expressions of emotion I would encounter on the inside—the secrets people confided in me, illegitimate children, illegal adoptions, and how parents clung to me briefly and then physically pushed me away. So powerful and yet fleeting were these displays of emotion that I often wondered whether I imagined them, or if they did occur, what it was inside of me or between us that elicited such rawness, even as I relished the intimacy. Even if you know in your heart that you are dealing in the realm of truths and the kindred, there is, for the anthropologist, always the concern for what will someday make it onto the page and into the readers’ conscience. And the fact that your informant is never so concerned with representation in these real moments, but only concerned with living itself, that’s what always gives me a sinking, slithery uneasiness.
For every anthropologist of China there is this sense that you become irrelevant once you leave and China goes on changing at the speed of light. And for every human being who has ever done fieldwork or loved another they’ve left behind, there is also this hope that while others will go on living, that you’ll never, ever be the same.
If we were having coffee this morning, I would tell you that we’re entering the fourth week of my course at the seminary, and it’s already been such an incredibly rewarding, exciting experience. The most fulfilling part is that I don’t feel like I have to sell the students on the fact that culture, family, and ministry go together. They believe that twenty-first century ministry is all about embracing and negotiating difference, and they’ve been so affirming over email, coffee, and in person that this is a course that they need: praise God!
I would also admit that when it comes to my dissertation, I’ve been working hard, but it feels like the writing is being cobbled together, and all the cracks are showing. I’m trying to be brave and believe that even in academia, we can let some of these cracks show, learn from one another, and find grace in life’s seemingly most unyielding moments. I’ll let you know how that one works out…
It’s Chinese New Year in my other home these days, and despite the fireworks and the fanfares, for the foster families in Guangxi it’s often a difficult time of year as the weather turns wet, cold, and unrelenting. A wise NGO worker I knew once pointed out that for children in orphanages this is the loneliest time of year, when they’re reminded they have no family to celebrate, no grandparents to travel home to. I’m praying for protection and warmth and possibility for the foster families and healing, love, and peace for all the children. Happy Year of the Snake!
As for me and God, we’re just hanging out. No agendas, just me accepting and reveling in God’s unconditional love.
This week I realized that despite how wonderfully God is integrating my academic and my spiritual lives in this course at the seminary, in conversations with colleagues and professors, and even in my dissertation writing, I had become restless. In my prayers, I was setting an agenda for the time I was carving out. Instead of simply rejoicing with God, I’d moved on in my mind to what was next, to how this all could possibly be so neatly integrated in a future in which I’d be forced to choose between academia and ministry.
But it’s not my job, it’s never been my job, to hold all those pieces together…it’s God’s.
And I hear God saying firmly, let me do my job and just let me be with you. (It’s a thrilling revelation by the way, when you realize the almighty God just wants to be with you!) And when I let God pour God’s peace into me, filling me to the brim, I’m not only reminded that my plans and agendas are the stuff of this world, but also that God’s peace makes me a better pastor and professor. It’s funny how God volunteers to carry our burdens but we’re the ones who keep snatching them away.
Today I’m over at Grace and Hope for Children’s blog, writing about my experiences working alongside their organization in China and the hope that their staff and the foster parents they support bring to children, their communities, China, and abroad.
I’ve written a fair bit about my research with foster parents on this blog, but without the support from folks at Grace and Hope none of it would have been possible! They’re a great organization that are supporting the work of foster care in China, which is so important. You can learn more about their organization via their website, or you can read the post below and click over to the blog to finish. If you’re joining us from Grace and Hope today, thanks for your support of foster families, and I hope you’ll enjoy browsing the blog for other posts about China, foster families, and faith.
Nearly three and a half years ago I came to China hoping to do dissertation research with foster families. I remember vividly the first few moments in the Nanning airport, where my halting Mandarin got a pungent taste of Southwest Guangxi’s linguistic plurality and thick Southern accents (yep, there are Southern accents in China, too!). I remember not only this cacophony of languages upon touching down in Nanning, but also the pervasive smell of mildew, the sea of e-bikes stretching across the broad avenues, and my first forays through neighborhood markets searching for foster mothers alongside a friend who swore they could be found.
I met not a single foster mother that first summer. Instead, I met many people, all Chinese, who told me, emphatically, that they did not exist. Our research design is open-ended in anthropology, meaning that we spend a lot of time in the places where we study and live, and we often expect even the topic of our research to change along the way. People who I met in Guangxi apologized obsessively for the “backwardness” of their region, and urged me to go somewhere of real importance in China. Chinese professors of anthropology wondered why I wanted to study foster mothers, rather than the Zhuang minority culture, for which Guangxi is famous.
But oddly, for some reason, it never occurred to me to abandon the project. I had this strange, absurd, yet resilient hope that foster mothers were out there somewhere, and that they were worth studying and worth knowing. So my husband and I moved to Nanning the following summer, on a wing and a prayer. And then finally, in March of 2011 in an unassuming concrete office, buried in the middle of the city, and through a roundabout network of friends and acquaintances, I was introduced to a small NGO staff who told me they supported hundreds of families in Nanning and thousands outside of the province who took orphaned and abandoned children into their homes.
Their name was Grace and Hope. That April, in a nearby city orphanage, an elderly woman with a kind smile told me how she’d started foster care projects in Guangxi in the early 1990s out of necessity, poverty, and concern. Guangxi, it turned out, despite the naysayers, and in no small part due to Grace and Hope, was at the center of a disperse, yet expansive foster care movement.
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.
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.