Sunday, April 25, 2010

The 70-yuan challenge
One of my biggest struggles with living in China is striving to gain solidarity with my students. "Meeting them where they're at" goes beyond just sitting and being with someone over a certain amount of time, but extends into a greater sphere of trying to understand where it is they're coming from. I've learned that this isn't something that just happens over night, especially not if there's separation from home on both ends of the equation: me being from the other side of the globe, my students coming from all four corners of China.

I've found ways to bridge this gap between us over the last two years, including visiting students' homes, learning their native language (Mandarin Chinese), studying the history and culture of China, and staying overnight in a students' dormitory, which typically houses up to six students each semester.

I'm trying an experiment this week that I hope will help me understand some of the socio-economic factors of being a college student here at my school. For this week, I've decided to live on the budget of a normal college student at Hebei College of Finance. For most of my students, who are coming from rural towns and families that are scrapping together just enough money for them to pay for tuition fees, the main expense in any given week comes from food. I often spend between 200-300 yuan per week on food, whereas my students are spending about 70 yuan each week. (To help you understand, the yuan/ dollar exchange rate is approximately 6.8 yuan/1 dollar right now, and remains constant because China fixes the yuan to the price of the US dollar.) I understand this disparity as a matter of both tastes-- I buy juices and sodas at meals whereas many students drink nothing-- and food costs, with noddles and soup priced at 3 yuan, which students often eat, while a chicken dish over rice is 7 yuan, which I eat often.

This is something that I felt led to commit my mind, body, and heart to this week, to really think through what making decisions about food means for my life, especially in terms of how I relate to others through food and meals. It is an important exercise because these people are important. It would be easy for me to say, "Well, I'll just pay for my students' meals all of the time when we're together because I have the job and they are the student," but things do not always work out that way; culture plays a huge part in this. It's often difficult for students to allow us to pay for them over and over again, as this might be seen as a form of "losing face" among a group of people, which is a huge issue in Chinese culture. I want to be able to act with authority in the lives of all persons I meet to express love, but if something I do that I see as loving does not speak to them in a way that they understand, then that expression, if I keep doing it blindly over and over, loses the heart entirely: am I just here to love as I see fit or am I here to love the people I'm with in ways that meet them entirely in the person they are today?

I see this as a great opportunity to meet my students newly each day and get to make decisions differently than I typically do. Hopefully this week-long challenge leads to some long-term changes in the way that I see economic factors, especially food, relating to my life as a whole, both in my relationships with people and my relationship with the Father.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Spring Cleaning

These are some pictures of some women who really get at the heart of service. Their job is to be the grounds keepers of Hebei College of Finance, the school at which I am currently employed as a teacher. Their jobs in the Winter are to scrape snow off of the streets (no plows in Baoding city) using wicker brooms or makeshift shovels (usually a board nailed to a stake/ stick of PVC pipe); they sweep the streets daily, a never-ending job in a dusty campus with little or no grass; they clean windows and pick up bicycles that have been knocked over by the wind. However, the job I'm most impressed by is their "Spring cleaning" gig: before the school authorizes the lake to be refilled with water (during the winter, it is emptied to ensure no one tries ice skating and falls in), they sit on tiny stools in a row of ten-twelve, picking up every rock and stone on the lake bed and clean it off, ensuring that the lake is clean for the Spring. Check it out:

Nine of the twelve women cleaning the stones

A wide-view of the lake before it is refilled

Piles of already-cleaned stones dot the path the women take to clean the lake bed.

I'll never complain about having to teach 16 hours of class ever again.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Combative Compassion, Tougher-Stressed Tenderness

It's difficult to have tenderness and compassion sometimes (Phil 2). These are not qualities that are assumed a world where "things" tend to happen. I've been faced with this several times during my work in China, as I walk down the road and face stares and shouts from passers-by saying, "Hello!" It's one thing to laugh off these jests form the townspeople once or twice each day. However, these occurrences seem to multiply on themselves as a jaunt through town elicits 10-15 shouts and hundreds of stares each day. In this position, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a tender-hearted attitude and a compassionate mindset towards the culture in which I am very much a foreigner.

The prevalence of this strange side effect of living as a foreigner in a homogeneous society does not, however, forgive me for accepting a hardened heart of ignorance toward people. My call here is not to assume that stares from dark, unknown eyes automatically means dark, hardened intentions or ideas toward me, and vice-versa. I need a way to see the Father in those eyes that look on me with surprise and wonder. Yesterday, I saw this happen twice. In the middle of the day, I went lifting weights with Jon at the local gym where we have become members. He began his usual work-out with a 30-minute run, while I took some time getting to the gym by riding my road bike the 8-kilometer trek. Upon arrival, Jon and I were ready to dive into our lifting routine, starting with bench presses. Our feeble attempt to prepare for reentry to Western life by adding bulk to our bi-ceps, though, was somewhat thwarted by the presence of the local gym professional. When we got to the bench press, he walked over and grabbed the weights that were on our bar, pulling off the 45-pound weights to put on lighter, 35-pounds ones. I wondered at this, as I was certain that I could handle 10 reps with the 45-pound weights on each side of the bar. As it is, I asked him to leave the weight alone. He did just that. As I lifted the bar off of the bench, though, he was right there hovering over me, trying very much to help me lift the weight. I was frustrated because I knew that I only required assistance for the last couple of reps and wanted to continue my lift unimpeded, so I stopped and asked him to do just that. He backed away and waited until my lift was over. However, as I sat up on the bench, he came up to me and told me to turn around on the bench to stretch. I was confused, but allowed him to do what he was doing. He had me put my hands on my hips and pulled my elbows behind me. I think he was trying to show me that I should stretch after lifting. Really, I don't know what he was doing.

I do know that he was trying very much to help Jon and I as we lifted.
"I just don't think I want to listen to him," I told Jon after the man had gone away. "I don't want to be assumed as needy because I'm foreign."
"Yeah. I think it's a very Chinese thing to give so much focus to people and just get right up in their space to help them," Jon offered, with which I perfectly agree. However, I didn't like it and didn't really want to learn from him, instead just wanting to focus on my lifting. It's just one of those strange cultural quirks that I just don't understand, to which I've become increasingly aware of as I get to know the culture of Baoding and of China overall.

Another example came last night. We were celebrating a birthday party for three American friends from Hebei University in an authentic American restaurant called "Pizza Hut"-- a very rare treat to the taste buds, devouring cheese in such large quantities in China. As we began the meal, a little boy of perhaps 12 years came up to our table and asked, "What nationality are you?"
"USA," I answered. "And you?"
"I am China, of course!" he bellowed.
This exchange lasted only about 30 seconds until he retreated to his table, but I still felt overwhelmed by the occurrence, as such a conversation happens at every turn, whether asking what country we are from, how long we've been in China, why are we in China, how much money do we make each month, and so forth.

Within the context of these encounters, I want very much to honor my call to love these people well. As I mentioned, it becomes easy to slip into a mindset that is not loving, one that assumes the worst of peoples' intentions rather than allows room for grace to flow both from me to the person I speak to, and from them to me. The only way I've found to achieve this tender heart is by asking repeatedly throughout the day for it: honor me with a heart that loves Chinese people, not one that bemoans my circumstances.

Monday, April 5, 2010

It's a Baoding, Tianjin Spring

I walked outside of my apartment today and put my nose to the wind: fresh air. I sensed that Bethany was baking granola in her apartment, as the scent betrayed her secrecy. I heard the laughs of the students as they walked through the corridor between their dormitories and the construction site, where students will dwell next fall in a brand new building. The students carried their large, multi-colored pastel bottle fit to lug "ri shi" (hot water) from the canteen and knocked badminton birdies with their rackets long-months since stored away in closets and under beds for the winter. The sky is blue today...oh GOD, the sky is blue today.

"It's all these little things that make the difference," my friend Stafford Craymer said as he and his girlfriend, Kerry walked through my campus after visiting my morning classes at 8 AM and visiting my apartment. I can't describe how freeing it is having him and Kerry here together, a sense of renewal being able to delve deeply into our common past (all three of us went to college together) and sharing in the experience of the week at hand. It's a beautiful thing to watch them walking together through their mutual stations in life.

Our time in Tianjin was equally brilliant, just another confirmation of the glory at hand. We (the entire IECS family presently in China, plus several visiting members of the Family) met together and shared several memorable experiences, including walking through the multi-cultural streets of Tianjin, enjoying the chaning seasons as we stripped off our coats and allowed our bare arms to dangle in the cool breezes of the Spring afternoon. the visit was short, but so packed with little nuggets of brilliance. Talking with my China family is always something that comes at such a premium, just being able to delve deeply into one anothers' lives and ask some prodding (if not down-right challenging) questions of one another as we walk through our final days of this semester in China. As I looked around the room during our group's meeting time the night before Easter, I saw a dozen faces of people who would not be here, in China, next year, likely to disperse to corners of the globe/ the United States to celebrate our freedom in different ways. I felt strange thinking that I am among those leaving to go to...somewhere else. I have been accepted to a school in Vancouver, British Columbia that looks amazing, perhaps even "perfect" for me (if such a thing can be so), so I'm excited to see where I'm discern the leading of the father. I can't help but feel adrift again... my friends and I called this "the transitional twenties" after I graduated from college, and yet here I am getting ready to perpetuate that very sense for another few years. Anchored in the abiding spirit of the Father, there I find my "roots".

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hello, Kitty!

I teach an English writing class on Thursday mornings at 8:00 AM. I'm often just a bit groggy coming in, so I don't always have the sharpest first 15 minutes of student interaction. Once things start to pick up, students begin interacting with the material, and I drink a liter or so of water, I'm usually right there with the fast-paced group.

I entered my first ten minutes taking attendance, still with a fog of-yet abiding from the night before. After attendance, I had the students copy down a quote from Dale Carnegie and analyze what they thought they would say to finish it:

"Many people think that if they were only in some other place, or had some other job, they would be happy. Well, that is doubtful. So get as much happiness out of..."

As I walked around the students' desks leering at answers and passing out the day's worksheets, I paused toward the back of the room. This class is small compared to some of my 50-student lectures, finding only about 15 non-English major students, so there were several empty desks with no students. I looked toward the middle of the last aisle and thought I saw something moving, maybe something blown by the wind. As I investigated closer, I realized the shear folly of my judgment: right there in the back of my classroom, over which I am expected to maintain complete control at all times, there was a brown, yellow, and white-striped cat balled up on one of the chairs snoring blissfully through the morning's exercises.
"There is a shao mao!" I said, noting the small cat's presence. The students seemed puzzled: was there really a cat here in class?

"Hello, kitty!" I said in a high, shrill voice, inching closer to the bobbing body of the cat. The students were still perplexed until then came closer to see that, indeed, there was a sixteenth student present in our activities. Several of them shouted in surprise, while others seemed less amazed: perhaps for them the biggest confusion would not be that there was a cat present, but understanding why they were not able to join him in his excursion through oblivion?

Perhaps the cat, too, deserved an opportunity to learn English?

"Ta ye yao shue shi!" I said, slipping one of the hand-outs under the cat's snoozing body, indicating his desire to study along with the class. The students laughed and continued buzzing at the new student's skills. I can only hope that my English students don't feel too intimidated by his rapid success, as he has already mastered the art of the "R"-trill: Prrrrrrrrrr!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Tianjin, China

We will be traveling to Tianjin, China, tomorrow to visit with our team-at-large for two days. I'm excited to see them and enjoy the company of these courageous men and women soiling their lives in the Cause of Peace.

There's talk of an eating contest and some tunes to celebrate The Emptied Tomb...a fitting tribute to the "Tomb Sweeping Festival," a traditional Chinese holiday, happening simultaneously to our own celebration of Easter.

Onward we go, unto the Deep!

Beijing University

didn’t sign up to move to China to do Women’s “Kingdom work.” Over
the past several months, however, I’ve been stretched in my conception
of what it means to love people by serving the English major students,
80% of whom are female. So, it was no surprise when Bethany and I
showed up at 6 AM to go on a field trip with our students that among
the 55 students on the bus to Beijing, three were boys and none of
them I knew well.
Our field trip this day took us to Peking University, which is touted
as the “Harvard of China” by most students. When we walked onto the
campus, it was like touring around in a park more than the a college
campus: Weiming Lake, a former royal palace, surrounds ancient
buildings which comprise central campus, including one building called
“Boya Pagoda,” a large stone tower that has been standing for well
over a century.
“Do you think we could meet some…real Beijing University students?”
one girl dreamed as we explored China’s highest academic echelon. We
stopped by a group of students practicing a drama and watched as they
interacted in their Sunday-morning activity. My students were in awe
of the opportunity to see the “greatest students in the land” studying
together. “There is a poem,” one of my female students recalled as she
rounded the lake of Beijing University. “This poem is a talk about a
student dreaming of waking early and sitting by this lake and reading
English as the sun rises.” She sighed as she stood by the lake,
realizing her vision.
Loretta is a fascinating young sophomore student who my teammates,
Bethany and Jon, and I have had the pleasure of knowing over the past
two years. She is a vibrant leader, which showed on this day as she
took our group through the nine-hour trip touring both Beijing
University and Tsinghua University, a sister school of Beijing U.
Bethany and I went with several students, including Loretta, riding
bicycles through the campus for around half of the day, basking in the
student life and enjoying the scenery around us.
On our bus ride home, Bethany and Loretta sat next to each other,
while I sat just behind them. I was awed by the closeness that one day
of riding bicycles and seeing famous buildings had done to bring these
students closer together. Loretta seemed so comfortable as she fell
asleep on Bethany’s shoulder. Later, Bethany would tell me that she
was Asking the Father to bless Loretta with himself, which I was also
doing as I watched the two of them laughing and sharing their mutual
“It’s really dark outside now,” Loretta commented. “I’m afraid of the dark.”
“Yeah, me too!” Bethany agreed. Bethany shared about how she is able
to overcome her fears by the Son’s presence in her life, something
that Loretta seemed awed by.
“Do you think that He is really dependable?” she asked, pondering the
character of her Maker in a truly personal way. Hearing the name of
the Son spoken of and mulled over so well by such a bright student as
Loretta speaks volumes to the weight that his Spirit’s movement has on
these students’ lives, not to mention how swiftly he honors those who
Ask. It was an exceptional opportunity to be a part of a real
community of young people learning together and allowing our presence
to relate a great desire to be faithful in their lives, something that
they might not see in other contexts where we are simply their
“foreign teachers.”