Culture and Wisdom

One misty French morning, I made my way to Monday morning worship on campus. It seemed like any other Monday: the reluctant feet of early risers, the coffee, the cheerful “Bonjour!” between coworkers as they gathered in the sanctuary.

Worship commenced and I was in “the zone”. That’s when God dropped The Big One. In a move as soft as a whisper, as sharp as a knife, and as swift as lightning, God said “I want you to think about China”. As a missionary, I of course took this as “I want you to go to China NOW”. In this shocking moment, I also was overwhelmed with a tidal wave of compassion for a place I hadn’t considered going in a long time. “God? What are you saying? Is this you?” Again, the thump-thump heartbeat for this ancient empire.

The following day, some tremendous things happened: I believed God was speaking about a very specific region of China, to which I later identified as Shanxi province. During lunch time I went to my room, and found in the middle of my floor, a giant autobiography on a Chinese missionary woman. No one had placed it there: I furiously searched for whomever could have left it in my room, but the perpetrator wasn’t to be found. I stayed up all night reading it. The following day I went up to the library, and the first book was another Chinese missions book. The following day a lady handed me a box of books and the first one in the stack was again a biography of Chinese missionaries.

I did not understand what this meant, only that it must mean I needed to go to China. and soon. The thought was terrifying. I hadn’t had a great experience with French culture, and was afraid of alienating myself by being “Too American” in Eastern cultures. I feared the isolation, being in the countryside of a large place, and as a foreigner. I felt exhausted at the thought of learning the languages after I had just managed to get a grasp on French. Despite my fears, I said “Okay God, to China I will go”.

What followed was a few years stateside, trying to gather my feet from underneath me, to propell me to that foreign land. I tried several organisations, several churches…I even was hired to be a café manager in Laos. That job fell through, and with it, the fight for Asia. I didn’t understand how this pull for Asia and China would flesh out, only that reality wasn’t matching my dreams. I surrendered that bit of my heart to God, knowing if the Chinese people had a place in my life, God would make it happen.

Boy is it happening, 4 years later. In the subtle and surprising way of God, I live my life in the middle of cultures that are not my own…while living in the USA. With these cultures, comes heaps and heaps of lessons that only cultural diversity could bring.

My job is a good one: perhaps one of the best nannying gigs I’ve ever had. However, the snags along the way have been cultural, through and through. I work for a Chinese-Indonesian family; they are generous and kind, funny and welcoming….and very much Asian. The first few months on the job, I would cry in the bathroom out of frustration. The grandma lives with them and helps me during the day, and the outright battle-of-wills began on Day 1. You see, in their culture, I would be the bottom rung of household hierarchy. Not blood, hired help. No education higher than a bachelors, and younger than all of the adults. Who was I, to waltz in and demand things to be done this way and that? To take the reigns from the Grandmother and say “Sit back lady, Nanny is in charge now”, is NOT how to win friends and influence Asian people.

In the same way I believed it was my right as professional nanny, to take charge as I saw fit (while ignoring and trampling all familial and cultural hierarchy) , I entered into the relationship with my Chinese boyfriend much the same way.

Just because he’s ethnically Chinese, doesn’t mean he is culturally Chinese, right?! I mean, he grew up in America! He can’t actually adhere to the traditional values and family structure of the East, can he? I dated my Chinese boyfriend as if he was the same shade of alabaster, grew up in the same country-side Texan way-as if he obviously knew that Western parents leave their kids alone after they left for college (usually), and that letting your parents dictate your future was so 200 years ago.

Yet….he IS Chinese. His core beliefs of family, duty, honor, filial piety and work are so Eastern , they can’t ever be mistaken for Western.

His Eastern mother’s hatred of the very Western part of me, made my blood boil. It made me clench my fists, jut my chin out in defiance and stamp my feet. The grandmother boss at my job who tore my day apart piece by piece to show me all my flaws made me raise iron walls in defense, raise the canons, look down my nose. Who do they think they are? When in reality, the question had to be turned and aimed at my heart: who do I think I am?

The reality of differences led my boyfriend and I to break it off indefinitely: we couldn’t understand how to bridge the differences and win the heart of his Chinese mother with my American ways. It was a painful month, full of regret and confusion, loneliness and a deep sense of loss. I told myself that no man is worth the headache of lifelong cultural battles. It should be easy, loving someone. I shouldn’t have to give up parts of myself, to be accepted into a family.

Then one night, in an instant, the fatal flaw was revealed. The chink in my armor, the error of my ways, was laid bare before me in a way so masterfully it also presented the answers to solve the riddles.

How could I possibly expect to have a successful interracial relationship if I was refusing to acknowledge the culture of the man I loved? Wasn’t that mindset so grossly American, so little minded and absolutely everything I detested? Yes.

How could I be successful in my job and loving this family when I refused to respect their cultural values? The answer was simple: I could not, without humbling myself and learning from them.

Humility: what an absolutely un-human concept. It is stripping ourselves of the pride we cling to, presenting ourselves vulnerable and naked, and asking to be taught.

How did I ever think I could reach out to those Eastern countries, take in those pretty Chinese people, without stripping my own cultural lense of right and wrong? I was extremely naiive.

A deep, humbling work began to rearrange my heart. I had not prayed “God, bring Steven and I back together”. I had prayed “God, do what You desire in our lives. Fix our hearts to be more like yours.”. I was expecting a healing, a justification to shut the door and walk away. Instead, I saw the key for restoration and reconciliation that went far beyond saying “let’s try this again”. He opened my eyes to the value of Eastern living, the reality that my children would be raised in a Chinese household, my role would Chinese daughter-in-law. I saw the choice I could make, and the tools in my hand to make it work: Humility and Joy, Understanding and Maturity.

I saw the dark side of my heart no one wants to see: the prejudice, the ethnocentric view of “our ways” vs. “Your ways”, and I shuddered. I want to grow and learn, to embrace the heart of a culture and meld it with my own to make a beautiful blending of Grace.

Since these discoveries, my life has become more rich than I imagined in such a short amount of time. The grandmother I resisted is now enjoyable to work with, and I have quieted my heart to learn the intricasies of Easteen living.

I apologized to Steven for my presumptions and assumptions, and my unwillingness to be humble for the sake of his familial peace (his greatest treasure). He was overjoyed: no one had been willing to take up the challenge. With a smile, he has agreed to teach me how to date the Chinese way, (while I might teach him a tiny bit of Texan spirit). I have a newfound respect for a man I dearly love, and a joy and peace that a good and right decision was made.

There are many more lessons to learn, about culture and identity, humility and love. A few years ago, I had given up the dream of a job and family and life in Asia because life just wasn’t cooperating. I was fearful of my own pride and independence, and the fight of laying down my identity to love a culture so different from my own.

I never would have imagined that this battle would be fought in the places of my heart so vulnerable. I couldn’t have planned that the Chinese culture would be so intimately my future, my family and my job.

Life isn’t perfect, and there are still many obstacles in front of me. The battle belongs to The Lord: all that I am required to do is stay humble and teachable, trusting that a wise and loving God leads with a heart full of Joy.

God loves that I am learning, and is joyous of these victories: in Him my future lies. A half-way love isn’t love at all, and I’m learning from a God who shed his Diety to become like me, for me.

I am priveleged to adopt a culture not my own. I know this is the surface of a much deeper work, that will flesh in bursts. Like waves on the rocks: Grace upon Grace, heart changing revelations, the constant letting go of my identity for Christ’s identity. To be all things for all men. Perhaps the question has never been “What can I teach the Chinese people”, but “What can the Chinese teach me.”










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