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.