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.