Sometimes, I like to sit in the chapel of the monastery down the road. I find it calming-the incense stinging my nostrils, the steady creaking of the wooden pews, the heavy hush. The sunlight comes in from the high windows and fills the space with buttery warmth; I almost fall asleep, every time. I like the fact that God is everywhere, no matter where I go. It doesn’t matter that I am Protestant: God resides with me, inside of me. So we sit, God and I, in the small creaky chapel, and it is nice. Sometimes the nuns are chanting their prayers together in the back room and a chill sweeps across my spine-I’m never sure if it’s a good chill or bad. I think of these women and their rituals, so disciplined in their faith, and then the lack of my own. Yet, spiritual discipline or not, God still moves within my life.
Lately He’s been digging a pretty large space, removing a lifetime of learned behaviors and perspectives. It’s mostly about culture again, and the lens from which I view the world. What’s fascinating is that all cultural worldviews are both right and wrong about a lot of things, which is why we must always ask to see what God sees.
Working every day with a culture so opposite of my own, causes a few things to happen. If I let myself be soft enough, I can feel my very bones stretching. Steam the potatoes like this for baby’s meal, soft and sweet, do not cook like white people. Our ancestors used hands to shape rice cakes, yours used hands to shape wheat. We hold the children to our breasts like this, you like that. It’s an unlearning of life itself, and it is hard.
God, in the little chapel with white walls and wooden floors, says This may be the culture to share your womb. Little hands eating rice cakes and wheat cakes. I must share kitchens with women who say Not like that, but like this for the rest of my life, until I learn not like that, like this. When you peel away the layers of learned behaviors, it reveals Beliefs. When you peel back the beliefs, like the steaming banana leaf from a rice cake, there are Prejudices. When after the prejudices have melted away like durian juice sliding down fingers, there is Pride. Pride is hard and solid, must be pounded away like white peppercorns in the pestle, until underneath the pile of ashy specks, Fear hides away. Fear: fear of not understanding, fear of not belonging, fear of no identity, of making mistakes and messes, of being human…of being nothing at all. Fear…is best confronted with the light of Truth.
I will begin to understand culture, only when I admit I do not. I will see I belong to Christ, not my heritage or color of skin. I am human, but that is something, and something wonderful enough for God to make many cultures of.
When the unlearning is easier, I repeat Mandarin vocabulary with the toddler, my fingers find new ways of making soup, my mind is full of the soft lilting language and cheerful laughter of the family. I dream of my own future: will I make this very soup for my baby, as their Grandma sings songs from across the sea? Will my tongue roll properly over the words by then, will I sink into this life of half cultures a little more?
Sometimes, I sit in on the creaky wooden floors at work, in the warm sunlight. It is quiet, and still. The chili spices stinging my nostrils, the steady creaking of the dining room chairs, the heavy hush. The sunlight comes in from the high windows and fills the space with buttery warmth; I almost fall asleep, every time. I like the fact that God is everywhere, no matter where I go. It doesn’t matter that I am white American, struggling to unlearn whiteness; God resides with me, inside of me. So we sit, God and I, on the small creaky floors, and it is nice. Sometimes the kids are singing in Mandarin in the back room and a chill sweeps across my spine. I think of these families and their cultures, so comfortable in their identity, and then the slipping away of my old one. Yet, God still moves within my life.
Maybe one day I can bring rice cakes my hands have made to this family, to my children, my mother-in-law, to a church with high windows and say Wǒ xué dàole hěnduō dōngxī, xièxiè nǐ jiào wǒ….(I have learned much, thank you for teaching me).