Church, class, Chance the Rapper.

Church, a class on Race and Theology in America, a Chance the Rapper concert. This was my day yesterday. Why do these experiences matter, how are they similar and why should you or anyone care? It hit me about halfway through the concert last night, the remarkable parallels between these three very different places and spaces and the ways in which each one can dialogue with and learn from the other. Let me attempt to share my thoughts with you.

Firstly, church. Recently, my church has started studying the book of Ecclesiastes together during our weekly Wednesday community group; a book that we as a corporate church do not often talk about, a book that almost didn’t make it into the Bible, a book that calls life meaningless and questions at its core the existence, purpose and will of God. But we are discovering together that there is joy in the midst of it too. I think Ecclesiastes is probably one of the most honest, reverberating and truthful expressions of the human condition. It is always timely; in the words of my pastor, it is like a “well-aged wine.” In the midst of all that is unexplainable, absurd, a chasing after of the wind, what is the point of living? We live in the faint hope that there is a purpose, but how and where do we seek it?

With those cliffhangers, let’s turn to my Race and Theology class. This class is blowing my mind and it’s only the end of the second week. I won’t go into all the details, but in essence, we are learning, reading and talking about the stunningly widespread, pervasive and insidious ways in which the church’s whiteness has created, magnified and perpetuated structural and institutional racism. It is halting how implicit we are as Christians and Americans (however you may ascribe to those identifiers) in the perpetuation of prejudiced, unjust social systems. How do we firstly recognize and understand the origins of these hierarchies and divisions? Where do we place responsibility? What does responsibility even mean or imply? How do we dialogue about it in a larger cultural and church context? Is a post-racial society possible? What are we working toward? Where is God in the midst of it? These are just a few of the countless questions we are examining and that are emerging from this class.

A couple hours later, I found myself with two dear friends at a Chance the Rapper concert at the Hollywood Bowl with a thousand of maybe the most diverse group of Angelenos that you’ll find together at once. I strongly believe that certain rappers, especially ones as remarkable as Chance, are instigators of incredible social dialogue and change, prophetic truth-tellers and cultural icons. With varying degrees of transparency and directness, they speak to the issues at the heart of a marginalized, oppressed, dissatisfied, unjust American experience that questions the existence of God and the goodness and purpose of humanity (ahem … Ecclesiastes). The realities of mass incarceration, structural racism, gentrification, racialized police brutality, gang violence, drug wars, inner-city poverty, etc. that those of us who live a privileged, white American existence simply hear about on the news, are embodied and lived experiences shared in such music. Music that we (white Americans) appreciate and enjoy. Music that allows us to connect with a story that is not our own. Now, does our vicarious enjoyment, if not inciting within us lifestyle change or any sort of action or further dialogue or thought, have any significance? Is it simply reasserting our privilege if we listen to these songs and go to these concerts, but don’t engage in the struggles and fights of the black or Latino community? Maybe. That’s a discussion for another time.

The point I want to make here is that no church service I’ve ever been to has attracted such a racially, ethnically, socioeconomically diverse group of people as a Chance the Rapper concert. Granted, some hip hop artists only propagate harmful messages that are unrelated to social commentary and justice in their songs and they are not the artists I am referring to. But Chance truly uses his position and pedestal to authentically, insightfully and creatively comment on realities of his experience and invite his listeners and fans into a dialogue and a vision of something different. A “vision of something different” that may not truly be all that different than what we want as a church or as a group of grad students learning and talking about racialized America.

As we, in our many different positions as churchgoers, Christians, students, businesspeople, hip hop fans, millennials, consumers, capitalists, blacks, whites, Asians, etc. struggle to understand the layers of race in our society and world and try to identify points at which to enter the conversation, it’s really important that we engage with cultural mediums such as film, music, literature, social media, etc. In a thoughtful and selective way, yes, but engagement is necessary, especially for the church, because we are trying to address questions of God and faith in a current cultural context. What would it look like for us as Christians to try and better understand the ways that God is at work in our wider culture, through art, film, literature, hip hop? What would it look like for us to affirm the narratives of communities by listening to their music and engaging with their stories in these ways? I know that I am always appreciative of the ways in which others’ stories also help me engage with my own.

Across time, geographic location, race, socioeconomics, cultures and mediums, we ask the same perennial questions. The writer of Ecclesiastes, my professor and classmates at Fuller, Chance the Rapper, pastors and Christians across the country, filmmakers and artists. Who is God? Where is God? Who are we? What is the point of humanity? Why is there evil and injustice? Will there be an end to the pain and suffering? Where are the answers? Where is the meaning?

Can we find unity and common ground through our questions? Can we ask the questions together? Where may it take us if we start trying?

“I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom. Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom. Chisel me into stone, prayer whistle me into song air. Dying laughing with Krillin saying something ’bout blonde hair. Jesus black life ain’t matter, I know I talked to his daddy. Said you the man of the house now, look out for your family. He has ordered my steps, gave me a sword with a crest. And gave Donnie a trumpet in case I get shortness of breath”     — Chance the Rapper, Blessings

 

 

 

How “Christian movies” frame my vocational dilemma.

As some of you know, I am taking a course this quarter at Fuller on Theology and Film. It is illuminating my life and confronting me with so many questions, and so I want to share some of these thoughts with you all. The whole purpose of this course, its discussions, lectures, books, films, etc. is to spark innovative, creative, intersectional ways to generate dialogue between films and churches, moviegoers and Christians, pop culture and the church, the messy, racy, unmentionable realities of life with the Gospel and biblical truth.

The big question that this class has helped me reach is: How did these spheres become so separate and what can we do to bring them back into dialogue? 

Ralph Winter, the producer of dozens of world-renowned films, including Star Trek, X-Men, The Promise, etc. is co-teaching our class — AMAZING. As a Christian, he has an interesting and insightful perspective on how to live out your faith as a successful Hollywood insider. My last post was about identity, and I concluded that my identity in Christ has to take precedence over my ethnic and cultural identity in order to find ultimate peace or wholeness. But what do you do when your faith-based identity is not the best way for you to connect with others, do your job or bring about change in the world? How do you allow it to still dictate who you are when you don’t always feel free to display it to others? Ralph said something along these lines in last week’s class, “I don’t hire a Christian plumber, or someone who can share the Gospel or recite Bible verses to me when fixing my toilet. I hire someone who can do the job well, and if he happens to be a Christian, that’s great! If he doesn’t and he does his job, that’s great too.” Obviously, right?

I think about how many “Christian films” have been made that just did not resonate with me, my friends, or anyone except a select few churchgoers. To quote Ralph again, “Why didn’t nearly as many moviegoers cry when Aslan died in The Chronicles of Narnia as when Mufasa died in The Lion King?” What happened? Now this post is not intended to bash “Christian movies”; they do a brave thing, and I have a huge amount of respect for anyone and everyone involved in creating films. The power of storytelling and the skill it takes to create a credible, emotionally engaging on-screen story is tremendous.

The question that certain overtly “Christian films” raise, however, is: When and how do we display the different “labels” of our identity?

We all are defined by multiple spheres of identity, whether they are cultural, ethnic, political, religious, our career, passions, etc., some of which we visibly carry with us wherever we go, some of which are invisible until we choose to reveal them. We are not always free to display the invisible, but still fundamentally defining spheres of identity such as our political or religious identities, especially when they may come into conflict with the context that we find ourselves in. This sounds very obscure, but the reality is that we all encounter this conundrum daily. It is why “sacred” and “secular” are so separate; we have relegated our identities to “appropriate” spheres of life because it is just a little too overwhelming to try and navigate them all at once. The fear of rejection, embarrassment or awkwardness when we display our authentic selves is all too real. But is there potential for art, film, music, literature, etc., to tap into multiple spheres of identity and bring the “sacred” and “secular” into dialogue with one another? Could that even be one of the primary purposes of these art forms — to provide us a medium to engage with the often so incredibly polarized sacred and secular worlds? In the words of Dutch historian and theologian, Gerard van der Leeuw, in his book, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, “Art can be religious, or it can appear religious; but it can neither be Mohammedan nor Buddhist nor Christian. There is no Christian art, any more than there is a Christian science. There is only art which has stood before the Holy.”

When we want to create something beautiful as an expression of ourselves, our values, our identity; the entire process as well as the method or the medium we choose can achieve this. I often find myself getting anxious, frustrated or stressed with the stage that I’m currently at in life, because there is so much I want to do and so many dreams I have that seem so currently unattainable. I have not yet discovered my “vocation” or discovered the means in which to achieve my dreams. Just like a “Christian film” with great intentions, pure motives and a heartfelt expression, my life currently feels like a series of unreachable goals, bright ideas, and idealistic dreams that just aren’t manifesting themselves in the way I would intend. How do I do something that matters and that makes a difference in peoples’ lives? How do I love, serve, and learn from other people in a meaningful way? How do I do something creative and generative with my time, money and effort? How do I purely, effectively and sensitively express my faith through what I do? These are big vocational questions that I am finding myself asking, with the purest of intentions and the deepest desires for good, but uncertainty of the best medium, method or approach to use to answer them.

Maybe Christians and Christian movies are asking the right questions, maybe we’re not. We definitely need to think about it. We need to be open to being wrong or having missed the mark. We need to be okay with new, different and creative expressions of faith, both in ourselves and others. As the church, we need to recognize that there is deeply spiritual and beautiful art, film, music, and literature that sears the soul in a way that overtly “Christian” art, film, music or literature does not, and that our faith-based identities and convictions can be expressed in different, equally valid ways.

If we are asking authentic questions of each other, of our church, of our political affiliates, of our friends, of our culture and society, are we willing to go through the maybe painful, sometimes messy, always uncomfortable process to really seek to understand the answers we might be hearing?

When we confront these questions and realities, are we willing to allow ourselves to be open to new mediums of expression that we might encounter?

How can we grow through this process?

Thanks for reading, friends! xoxo

*image: Mako Fujimura, Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ)

How Lion helped me think about my true identity.

About a month ago, I saw the movie, Lion, which I would highly recommend because it probes at questions of identity, family, belonging, culture and love in a way that will likely deeply move you, as it did me. I have been inspired to write a response to it for some time. Let me give you a brief summary of the story, connect it to my own, and then use those connections to draw a larger conclusion about identity formation.

A young Indian boy named Sheru is separated from his brother at a train station and ends up taking the train hundreds of miles away from his family. After disorienting weeks of (mis)adventures, he finds himself in an orphanage where he is soon after adopted by an Australian couple. The story then jumps ahead to Sheru in his mid-twenties, about to go off to a hospitality university program away from his parents and brother (also adopted from India). As Sheru eats Indian food with friends at school, he is confronted with questions of his ethnic heritage and vivid memories of his mother, his brother and his childhood. He begins a (long-awaited) search using the (at this time) newly invented Google Earth, to find the train station where he long ago fell asleep and was separated from his brother. I won’t give away the ending, but it is gut-wrenching to watch Sheru struggle with memories of his family back in India and the knowledge that his mother and brother do not know what happened to him. Because he knew his mom and siblings for years before he was lost, these memories are cripplingly powerful.

Sheru’s experience searching for that train station and his family resonated deeply with my own feelings of loss and disconnect from my birth culture. His personal journey to find his family of origin centers much more around his feelings of love, loss and guilt toward the train station separation and less around the sense of lost cultural and ethnic identity that I have encountered. However, despite our age differences when we were adopted or where we were adopted from, I believe that every adoptee faces questions of identity and feelings of loss, disconnect and longing. These feelings can be because of a remembered separation from parents or a culture, like Sheru’s story, or they can be imagined based on cultural or ethnic disconnects that occur later in life, if the adopted child was too young to remember his or her birthparents or siblings.

Even though my personal story of adoption and search for Chinese cultural and racial belonging is very different from Sheru’s search to find his family in India, the feelings of love and loss have a similar origin. At one time, we were both separated against our wills, from a family and culture that we either loved very deeply or never had the chance to love. For years leading up to my return to China, I wrestled with a deep longing in my heart to discover what place China held in what I felt was an incomplete cultural and racial identity. I harbored a fantasy that there was a part of me left behind in China that I could somehow return to and reclaim – it wasn’t like I wanted to find my birthmom or family necessarily, but that I wanted to somehow reclaim some pieces of my identity that I believed had been taken from me against my will.

Lion barely touched upon any cultural disconnects that Sheru experienced (either as an Indian adoptee in Australia or as an Australian returning to India), however, the couple brief moments that were illustrated resonated with me deeply. There were moments in class and at his Indian friends’ home when he has to explain that he’s culturally Australian, not Indian, and so supports the Australian cricket team and doesn’t know how to eat naan with his food properly. Watching those on-screen moments, I felt exactly the unspoken, jumbled feelings of embarrassment, shame and discomfort that Sheru experienced, because this discord between how I look and who I actually am in determining how I am perceived by others and who I consider myself to be has been something I have carried with me for years.

I have been beyond blessed to find myself among family and friends who have never questioned my ethnic or cultural identity in a way that has made me feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, but instead given me the space and support to discover what pieces of my Chinese heritage I want to claim and which pieces I don’t. The moments of discord are random and nothing I can complain about, because they always challenge me to think, reflect and grow in both my self-awareness and understanding as well as my humility, compassion and forgiveness toward others. Blaming others for their ignorance has never helped anyone or solved anything. Laughing off insensitivities hasn’t either, however, and so I am learning the fine art of challenging peoples’ misperceptions and reverting stereotypes gently and humbly. If I hold my identity in Christ above my cultural or racial identity, than maybe over time the ignorant questions about my race won’t cut quite as deeply because they simply are not that significant to who I truly am. Over time, I am learning to respond in a way that reflects this true identity rather than responding in a way that reflects an immediate emotional reaction. This means asking questions and responding with affirming, truthful statements when people misunderstand, instead of acting offended or upset and saying nothing.

Where our devotion truly lies is ultimately revealed when aspects of our identity are mistaken or rejected, because it then becomes apparent what we hold at our core — is it devotion to a racial identity, an ideology, a socioeconomic status, a people group, a nationality, a set of religious standards or values, a level of education, or a vocation? For those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, whether we are adoptees, Asians, Caucasians, Latinos, African Americans, professors, pastors, businesswomen, the list is unending — in moments when these different identifiers of who we are are rejected or misunderstood, like my “American-ness” was by Chinese culture, than how does the way in which we choose to respond reflect the God that we serve and that which is most important to us?

Our self-image, our different identities, our passions and gifts, the way we move and connect in the world, are definitive to who we are, but we can never lose sight of what these identifiers should point toward. They were never meant to be disparate, singular, stand-alone identities, but instead reflections of the fearfully, wonderfully created images of our Creator that we are. We must remember that our various racial, ethnic, cultural and vocational identities are supplements to the identity that we have in Christ, as beloved sons and daughters of the King, saved by grace, on this earth not for ourselves, but to reflect his love.

Sunburns and silence.

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a blog post, partly because I’ve been busy and preoccupied, partly because I’ve just been lazy, but also partly because I’ve been waiting for something to happen that was amusing and thought-provoking enough for which I could construct something mildly entertaining. Anyway, this may or may not be it, but I just spent six hours in silence and want to share some thoughts from this time with you all. No, it wasn’t on a Lord of the Rings movie marathon or sitting through three classes in a row, but instead a very wonderfully refreshing silent retreat at a local retreat center in Sierra Madre for my practices of worship class. I went into this time with a nice little plan for myself of what I was going to read, write and think about, which was all great, except that it was in the 70s, sunny, the retreat center had really comfortable chairs and beautiful views, and I’d only had one cup of coffee when I arrived. So, naturally, I found myself asleep in the sun for part of it (I’m now scouring the house for aloe to soothe my sunburned face). BUT, in all seriousness, I spent the majority of these six hours consciously reflecting. Let me share a little of it with you.

I feel like God has been asking me the questions, “Joy, what do you want? What are you going to choose?” for awhile now. These questions may seem a little obscure, but let me try and explain. If you’ve read any of my past blogs or know me at all, you probably know that in most contexts, I am a very indecisive person. I enjoy so many things; I like pretty much all food; I can make an adventure out of nearly anything; but fundamentally, I am a people-pleaser who avoids confrontation at almost all costs. When I do make decisions, it is often arbitrarily or randomly, without knowing if I am making the “right” choice or not. I act as if I am always easygoing and don’t have expectations, but often find myself disappointed or unhappy in various new situations I have chosen for myself, maybe because I don’t want to confront what I truly want for fear of alienating myself from other people or facing rejection.

But anyway, in light of these six hours of silence, the beginning of the season of Lent, a sermon I heard at church this past Sunday, and all of these past experiences of adventure and seeming randomness, I have been thinking a lot about freedom, choice and what is revealed to us in silence. When Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, Satan offered him “choices” between worldly temptations and the will of his Father. As humans, we have always had choices – between good and evil, right and wrong, wise and foolish, chocolate or vanilla, salty or sweet. Part of the beauty of the Gospel is that we are truly free to choose whatever we want. We have this amazingly, incomprehensibly beautiful reality that God is offering us, but we also have very tempting, fleetingly pleasurable, deceivingly satisfying joys of this world – fame, power, wealth, comfort, success, recognition, value, beauty – the list is unending. Our defining moments come down to these sometimes instantaneous, sometimes gradual, but always pivotal choices. Where, in who, in what will we choose to invest our time and energy? Our devotion? Our love? These decisions are always reflections of our allegiance or small moments of resistance. Will we choose to follow Jesus and the way of peace, hope, humility and love, or will we choose relevance, power and success? Can we ever choose both?

So where does silence and stillness play a role here? I can’t remember a time when I heard God in chaos, noise, or a crowd. In these moments of activity and busyness – in the movie theater, a concert, eating or drinking with friends, on a crowded metro – we can certainly experience God or have spiritual moments. God is in everything and speaks to each of us in many different ways. But, for me at least, it is most often in moments of silence when actual realizations penetrate and I come to more deeply understand something. It is in moments of silence, when it is just me and God, that I can no longer hide behind a mask of put-togetherness or happiness, but am forced to make decisions that reflect who I truly am, not who I want the world to see me as. It is in this place, in places like this silent retreat today, that God asks me, “Joy, what do you want?”

Not, “what do you want?” like you ask your friend as you’re choosing between sushi or pizza, but “what do you want?” as in what way of life will you choose? It is all before me/us as it was before Jesus – the “kingdoms of this world” – i.e. the potential to be wealthy and influential, the opportunity to be beautiful and appreciated, the choice to have a comfortable and happy life – or the way of the cross – dangerous, sometimes lonely, often painful, not cool or respected in the eyes of the world. What will I choose? What do I truly want? I think back to Scorsese’s film, Silence, that I saw a few weeks ago, which on one level recounts the horrible trauma faced by Jesuit missionaries to Japan in the 17th century, but on another level unpacks the tension at the core of Christian faith. In the silence, when it is just you and God, in the most extreme (but also less extreme) of circumstances, what will you choose? And if you make a mistake, will God show mercy? I don’t think anyone knows the answers to these questions, and maybe we won’t know until we meet Him face to face.

But, despite all the unknowns, what I do know is that God speaks to us in silence. And the choices that we make (in public or private) reflect the devotion of our hearts. We can (and will) make mistakes; there is mercy. But on the other hand, our decisions hold weight because just like Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, we are caught up in a never-ending tension between what we know is true but cannot always see and that which has the potential to bring us (more) instantaneous joy and fulfillment, but which will shortchange and deprive us in the end. These decisions reflect larger powers of good and evil at play. And it’s even harder than this, because many times it is not what is right or wrong (hard enough to figure out), but how we proceed with what we know is right.

For example, racism, exploitation and slavery are WRONG, but how do we detach ourselves from the ways in which these cycles are deeply embedded in our society? Will we stop buying bananas and cane sugar because they are likely harvested through slave labor? Will we stop shopping at certain stores because they exploit workers? Will we speak up when we see discrimination in the media? When we know these things are wrong and we want to “speak up,” how will we do it in a way that encourages reconciliation instead of inciting hostility?

More specifically to my current place in life (which I hope speaks to you in your own context as well), among many things, God is asking me:

Will the focus of your career be to honor me or to boost your status in the eyes of the world?

Are you putting other people before yourself?

In other words, are you making choices because they bring you comfort and satisfaction (where you live, what you spend your time doing, who you spend your time with, etc.) or are you putting yourself outside of your comfort zone to explore new places and things that I may be calling you to?

Are you willing to be vulnerable, real, transparent and ridiculous with people in order to build more genuine relationships?

These are tough questions. Again, I know what most of the answers should be, but am I willing to do what it takes to get there? Thanks to all who read this far! I hope some of the ways in which God is speaking to me in my silence will speak to you in yours as well.

Now, back to the search for aloe! xoxo

 

As we wait … let’s tell stories.

What a beautiful time we are in.

It’s advent; we walk about our days anticipating, expecting, hopefully waiting for the coming of our Savior, our King and all that he will bring. We sit with those who faithfully anticipated the first coming of Christ, knowing from our place in history that when he came as that little baby in Mary’s womb, the world has never been and will never be the same. And we sit with those who waited for centuries as we wait today for Christ’s second coming.

One of my recent sketches

It is so easy to become disheartened with the brokenness of our world – the war, trauma, violence, racism, injustice, sickness and pain – and become angry or even numb with hopelessness. Many of my posts prior to this have been heavy as I brush up against these deeply broken cycles and reflect on the ways that they have shaped my own story. Advent is a time when the painful events of peoples’ lives throughout history – brutal empires and kingdoms of greed and violence, people who died while poor, sick, and without care or food, people who lived as forgotten victims, people who died in war or as a result of war, people who were enslaved, manipulated, taken advantage of, those who were martyred for their faith, those people who these arbitrary descriptions have not covered – cry out as we recognize the way that their stories are interwoven with a greater story that we find ourselves in the continuing midst of today. The world that baby Jesus entered, as the one we live in today, was embedded with greed, violence, anger, and injustice. The surreally beautiful and hopeful truth is that God chose to dwell with his people in the midst of that chaos and pain and he has never left us. His promises continue to indwell, redeem and transform his people and his world today. The stories of pain, trauma and suffering before, during and after the time of Jesus, join current stories around the globe of patient, steadfast hope and endurance in time of trial. They are by no means just or the way the world should be. Most exist because of immense, powerful systems of evil and darkness. Again, they cry out as a testimony that we live in a broken world that yearns for Jesus to come again; and while we wait, we have committed ourselves to actively combatting the principalities and powers that enslave. The stories that we know and share, live out and tell, are nodes of active resistance and faithfulness. They point to the hope, peace and joy that we have that God came once and has been with us since. 

As this entire season is framed around a story of God’s faithfulness in sending Jesus to walk the earth as a man, redeem us from our sin and depravity, dwell amongst us through the Holy Spirit, and regenerate creation, this time should be more than anything one of gratitude, thankfulness, reverence and awe. This is both a corporate and an individual time of gratitude in the midst of lament and hopeful endurance. Personally, I have been overwhelmed this past year (as I have for the past 22 years), with abundant blessings. I spent a final year at Colby challenged by my classes and professors, joyful amongst my friends and fellowship. I graduated college! I spent a tough but enlightening and worthwhile summer in Bangkok. I was accepted into Fuller Seminary to pursue a Master’s degree that I hope will better equip me to understand the interaction of theology, culture, our world and everyday life so that I can better live in the midst of the things I love to think and write about. I have been reminded every day out here in sunny SoCal of the blessing of family. I have been able to daily enjoy nature and the beauty of God’s creation. I have been welcomed with open arms and hearts into two beautiful church communities. I have a new part-time job! I have found people and communities who empower, encourage and faithfully walk alongside each other. My story and your story are part of a greater global story that spans the past, present and future. Let’s share them with each other!

I hope that you can find time this season to also reflect both individually and corporately with gratitude on God’s blessings in your life and the lives of those in your community. May this season bring you a new or renewed way of understanding and experiencing Christ’s story and the peace, joy and hope that accompanies it.

Globalization has colonized my mind.

I spent the past four years studying “globalization.” My major was literally “Global Studies.” What a vague, complex, loaded term. I spent so much time analyzing forces of the past and present, unpacking history, anthropology, political and economic theory, the rise and fall of empires, etc. from various critical perspectives. I was so enthralled and consumed in a world of thought that was encompassed within classroom discussions, lecture halls and spaces of the Colby campus. In these discussions and lectures, I was given all the tools I needed to sit mired in thought for the rest of my life on these complex issues. The problem is that throughout the process, I rarely glimpsed effective models of the capacity, creativity, innovation, ingenuity and whatever else was needed to actually move forward on these issues. I emerged from my undergrad education slightly disillusioned, discouraged, trapped and confused about my power(lessness) to be, much less create in this postmodern, neoliberal world that we inhabit.

I think daily about these very complex, multifaceted issues. On one hand, they are these floating forces – neoliberalism, globalization, the marketplace of ideas, consumerism, etc – ideas, concepts, theories and case studies “out there.” On the other hand, they are not abstract forces but personal realities because they manifest themselves in our daily lives – in our wandering searches for identity and validation, our insecurities, our individual and corporate materialism and consumerism, our sense of failure and powerlessness, and our difficulty in grounding ourselves because of disintegrating moral, ethical and value systems. I know this all sounds vague and strange, but I want to talk a little about how I think these immensely abstract concepts are so much more than what is happening “over there” or to “those people” or sort of floating out in the distance, but instead, concrete things taking place in our minds and hearts.

These concepts materialize themselves in tangible and potentially destructive and invasive ways in our everyday lives. As an emerging college graduate anxious to join the workforce, they tell me that I am only as good as how much money I make; that my job and productivity defines my personal self-worth and my place as a global citizen; that life is a competition that I will always lose (and must fight for) because there are too many people and not enough roles for all of them; that my external appearance or my stuff determines how I am received by people; and that I need to spend money to be “modern” and in-step with the new global fads in order to be relevant.

Why doesn’t our society value qualities like introspection, compassion, humility, empathy and love? Or why doesn’t it recognize the various ways in which these qualities are expressed among different people? Or if a small corner of society does recognize these things, where do I find these people? Presence and voice is so much more than words and power. When will people begin to unpack these abstract forces like neoliberalism and globalization and come to realize that they have colonized the way that we think and act toward other people? They have changed the way companies look at employees and the qualities that are valued in the workplace. Let me be clear – I am certainly not saying that globalization as a whole is evil and that we need to fight it or anything. I am delighted that health, living standards, the status of women, the spread of information, the exposure of unethical business practices, etc., are increasing and becoming more and more visible. I feel I could not survive without the technological progress that has been made in my lifetime. Interconnectedness and speed is all I have ever known. I would say, however, that overall, globalization is negatively impacting value systems in the sense that in many instances, it has reduced the value of human life to productivity and efficiency. Ideals of beauty, rest, emotional intelligence, humility, and quality conversation do not seem valuable in so many social circles.

Let me propose a way to counteract the dehumanizing aspects of our global marketplace of stuff and ideas. The problem is that we can only learn so much and reach so many conclusions from reflecting on and critically analyzing the past and present. We can’t stop at the reflection; we need to innovate, create and discover different ways and solutions. And that’s where my college education ended, I guess, and threw me out into the real world to figure out. I’m not sure how it is going to look, but I am sure that there are people out there actively rediscovering and asserting their agency and creativity. I know many and am eager to know more.

As Christians, we will always struggle to understand and interpret realities of this world in light of our Christian faith. I think that one of the best ways we can combat the dehumanizing forces of racism, neoliberalism, social injustice, violence, war, etc., is to firstly, discover a vision for ourselves in our world that aligns with God’s, and secondly, take daily, measureable steps to live out that vision in the circles we inhabit. Of course, fully understanding God’s vision for the world is impossible for our human minds; people spend their entire lives dedicated to imagining, studying and writing about what this looks like. However, if you do declare yourself a Christian, than know the fundamentals of who Jesus was and what he proclaimed. There are some things that are inarguable, like God’s heart for the poor and marginalized, the sick, children, women, the lost, and the oppressed. Or God’s use of sinful, physically, emotionally and spiritually broken people to share his good news of freedom and salvation. Or the reality that the Christian life will not be easy, that it is a daily walk, that it is a process of growth and renewal, that it transforms our daily thoughts, decisions and actions. Or that God has a beautiful plan for the renewal of his creation. Now, what exactly these truths look like in your life will be different than how they look in the lives of other members of your church. But knowing and understanding some of these things should both convict us as Christians, and inspire us to innovation and action. Our confidence and hope can combat the depressing, downward spiraling image of society that is often communicated through the work and discussions of secular scholars and academics.

To liberal arts educators and students: As we think, dialogue and collaborate, let’s also create and innovate and support others who are. To the American church: Let’s seek to understand so that we can move toward God’s wholeness and not get stuck in earthly depravity (like my college degree). Let’s remember that God is the beginning and the end, not us and not our worldly systems. Let’s remember that we are God’s ambassadors to the world and there is no time to waste. Let’s also remember to do everything humbly, lovingly, compassionately and gently.

Lord, have mercy on us.

Final BKK broodings

I have two weeks left in Thailand and finished working at my last market with Mina yesterday, so this is a blog post of reflection on both my short time with CLF and my somewhat longer time with Asia. While I certainly have a lot to reflect on in my work with CLF, any experiences, concerns, or critiques pale somewhat in light of my very distinct “Asian experience” here in Thailand, as I’m going to call it, and as I want to focus on in this post. Thank you to the friends who have listened, comforted, questioned, and helped me wrestle with these issues, both in Bangkok and around the world.

I constantly wrestle with my place in the world, as I think all people should. For some of us it was never an option; our identity in different spaces and places is constantly questioned and we are forced to examine, grapple with and fight for who we are vs. what the world may say we are. For some of us this struggle started the day we were born, for others, it didn’t start until we left home and started traveling the world, for others of us, it won’t start until we confront it ourselves. In terms of my story, I have now spent a total of about 13 months between China and Thailand, which granted, is not very long, although it feels like an eternity. Throughout this time, I have wrestled with how to walk humbly and gently but also hold my own, stand by my values and stay true to who I am. I know that sounds cliché, but in Asia, I feel like I disappear, like my personality, culture, thoughts, vivacity, passions and excitements melt away and congeal with the millions of other Asian faces around me under the invisible yet suffocating cloud of thoughts, expectations, worldviews, thousands of years of rich history and deeply embedded cultural practices and norms that are either native or western-imposed and have been internalized. I lose who I am and struggle to remember what validates me, that it is not how I look, what I wear, eat, do or say. I lose myself trying to act like all these people around me who look like me and expect me to be one of them.

The way that I feel suppressed by Asian cultural norms and standards deeply affects how I perceive Asian people. I touched on this in my last blog post, but it is very difficult for me to build empathy for people (even those who are kind, in great need, lost or hurting) when they are ignorant, close-minded or racist toward me. Like there is a man selling fruit who stands on the street running perpendicular to mine who says “ni hao” and “xie xie” to me every time I pass by. Not because he asked me where I was from and I told him I was born in China, but because of how my eyes look and because he thought he knew best. Or the taxi driver who took me to immigration when I needed a visa extension was first like “oh, I know where Chinatown is,” to which I responded with “oh cool, I don’t!” Lol. Foreigners at the bi-weekly upscale farmer’s market that I help Mina with normally address me with a classic Thai greeting and then when I respond with perfect English, often ask me where I am from (this is good!) or remark “wow, your English is so good!” or “wow, you sound like you have an American accent!” (this is not good) to which of course I politely respond with “oh, I am American and English is my first language too, thanks!” because they are Mina’s customers and again, they don’t know better. Who would say that if they knew better?

This is not a healthy place for me to be, to be harboring deep resentment and bitterness toward people who see and think that they know, to people who make assumptions and don’t question them, to people who hold their world views, norms and standards, and stomp all over the world with them, to people who look at a face and think that they know where that person is from and that that somehow reflects the story that they tell, the opinions and ideas that they hold, the soul that they are. I’m talking about Americans, Europeans, Thais, Africans, Haitians, myself, my friends, anyone and everyone. I often leave interactions shouldering a deep burden of anger and resentment toward stereotype, racism and ignorance from both Thais and foreigners. It’s unhealthy because these are such broad, complex, suppressive themes manifested in ways I didn’t even know they could be realized, from specific people, but from so many different encounters, that it has morphed from bitterness toward racist fruit vendors or taxi drivers into a deep disappointment and sadness with the human race, and I often feel paralyzed in these feelings and unable to move forward or change anything.

At the fancy grocery store that I sometimes go to for its salad bar, the cashiers always pull up this chart on the screen with a list of “nationalities” before they check you out. Likely it’s to cater their products toward who is buying what, a simple (but racist) marketing strategy. The thing is that they always ask me about it in Thai, which I don’t understand, so they respond by checking the generic “Asia” box for me and moving on. For a white person, I don’t know how they would decide if your nationality was “Europe” or “Americas” (they’re all grouped into one, which is messed up). It’s simultaneously fascinating and infuriating. So the other day I was like “oh, I’m actually American, why do you ask this?” to which I received a shy but firm smile and a gesture of the hand for the next customer, that communicated basically exactly what I’ve been trying to get at in this lengthy monologue. There is no conversation, no curiosity, no interest, no tug on a conscience, no stirrings toward anything different.

Here is one of the rare times in my life when I am not given what I think I deserve or expect to receive. Experiencing the racism that I have experienced, which is mild compared to what many others before me and around me have experienced and will experience, is jolting and numbing because it tells you that no, you are not who you hold yourself to be; you are who others tell you to be, and you can’t do anything about it. I struggle to move forward in an optimistic and healthy way, but I know that I have power to do so. The thing with racism and ignorance is that often the most intelligent, kind, loving, godly people are blind to it, which is why its cycle can be so deeply vicious and pervasive. When you recognize it, whether it is from others or yourself, start conversations. Question it internally and externally, ask others about their stories, experiences, opinions, thoughts and journeys.

While I am not a classically beautiful woman by Asian standards, I am deeply angered by the older white men who look me up and down or who strut around with young Thai girls on their arms, likely thinking that they own these women and the world. Deeply destructive and embedded cycles of colonialism, objectification and exotification of Asian women, etc. are quite real yet unrealized today. Why are you considered an expat and not an immigrant? Or an immigrant and not an expat? If you’ve never thought about that before, start thinking! Recognize your own place on the terrible but very real hierarchy of humanity that peoples, nations, empires have created over the years, and question the structure. If you are white and you have never had to discover or question your Caucasian identity or the way you interact with people of color and other whites, DO IT NOW. Walking the world as a white man gives you benefits, but none of us deserve to be entitled to anything. That is privilege, and most people don’t have it. If you find yourself privileged enough to travel and be shown respect, then in return, show kindness, generosity and curiosity toward others and their cultures, all the time reexamining your privilege.

I hope I’ve enlightened, encouraged, and/or challenged you with this reflection: to read more, ask more questions, build more awareness, and then do something with it. Thanks for reading! And thank you most of all to the people I’ve had in every walk of life who question the status quo and challenge me to do the same.

*image: artist Ch’ng Kiah Kiean, “Xuantianshangdi Temple, Bangkok” 

It’s not all about me.

I’m scared at how selfish and angry I’ve become about things that involve me and how apathetic and ambivalent I’ve become toward things that affect others. I am so often angry about the wrong things, about selfish, self-fulfilling, perceived injustices against me – someone addresses me with confusion or impatience – and because my confidence in various aspects of my identity is fragile right now, suddenly I’m slighted, hurt and frustrated – in what I’ve come to realize is a self-gratifying and distracting way. My identity crisis is a source of deep pain that wells up and consumes me at various times in ways that yes, can sometimes be productive to my growth and self-discovery. However, in my current situation where I want MORE THAN EVER to develop relationships with people, to be culturally open-minded, respectful, kind, appropriate and sensitive, the Asian identity crisis issue that overwhelms me completely blinds my heart, mind and attention from the lives and needs of the Thai people around me and turns me inward, into a self-consumed, fragile, upset and angry person. It’s unnatural and it’s deeply destructive, not only internally, but in the way that I perceive and interact with my world. I lose respect, fascination, desire to learn about, tolerance, acceptance, whatever … for not only that person who was disrespectful to me … but for all people who I perceive may treat me the same way. As I talk about slights toward my identity here, I can barely say that throughout my lifetime I’ve experienced racism or discrimination, especially as an Asian American growing up in a wealthy, privileged home, whose life is woven into the narrative of injustice and oppression against Blacks, Latinos, other Asians, etc. in my country; however, I have experienced interesting tensions and threads of racism in my Asia experiences that I can say are different from what white people experience in Asia. My story is different, and I want to reflect on it, not in a way that should be judged as “right” or “wrong” but more like something that should be read as an outpouring of my experiences, feelings and reflections with the intent to leave you thinking about the issues more deeply.

From the place of whatever racism or discrimination I’ve experienced that I’m speaking from, I want to describe what comes out on the other side. This may get confusing, so bear with me. As the person being discriminated against or looked at strangely or differently, the way you perceive your world is affected, and it can even deepen the cycle of racism (both against you and imposed by you upon others), because you can both be racist and experience racism. You can both face and deliver injustice. Your worldview as an oppressed person who has been discriminated against can also be narrow (this can be related or unrelated to the racism that you’ve experienced) and cause you to discriminate against others. Accountability for ignorance and racism gets really tough here because is it more excusable when you have suffered yourself and you are close-minded toward others? Should that be “tolerated” or “allowed”? For example, when I was in Haiti, a nation that has suffered years of abuse, exploitation, and racism at the hands of America and other “western” nations, kids pulled at their eyes, made karate moves and unintelligible noises when they saw me, an Asian girl, because their worldview is small and difference is strange to them. I’m not black or white, so I’m weird. Do I let that go because these are people who have been deeply oppressed, hurt and discriminated against themselves? In that situation, it hurt me, but yeah, I let it go. Another very different yet timely thread of this same point is seen in Dallas and Baton Rouge as a couple black people have retaliated in anger and hurt against white police officers. It’s a different analogy for the same issue – injustice is EXTREMELY COMPLEX and double-edged.

When a Thai person mockingly yells “ni hao” at me from the back of a motorcycle, someone addresses me impatiently in Chinese after I don’t understand their rapidfire Thai, a taxi driver doesn’t believe me when I tell him I’m American, do I smile graciously and accept it because these are probably tired, hardworking people who may have experienced a life of poverty or exploitation themselves? What do I do when I am confronted with open racism in a setting where I am supposed to be cultivating a love and cultural appreciation for the people? It messes with me. On a good day, if I’ve had a relaxing morning, am sipping an iced coffee, just talked to my parents or something, I smile and brush it off like the well-intentioned, generally happy, forgiving, patient person that I normally am. On an average day, I am slighted and my worldview is contaminated. My perception of Thai people is bruised and clouded and I’m hurt. On bad, bad days I get angry and start cursing on my bike or cutting people off as I navigate through the market. I turn inward to face the ugly identity struggle that still plagues me so much (this gets real here, so prepare yourself) – “I am not Asian, I am American, but no one will ever understand me; everyone in Asia will forever see me as a chubby, weird Chinese girl who doesn’t get social cues, the language or anything. Why does everyone ask me where I am from when they don’t really care and won’t believe my answer anyway? I don’t want to be identified as Chinese, but I’m not proud of being American right now. So who am I? What am I doing here? Am I just overreacting? Will anyone ever understand me?” – this is very bluntly the way that I assume I am perceived by other Asians and my subsequent flood of thoughts. Because the way I carry myself is American but I look Asian, I am SO WEIRD. I feel like I stand out for a mile; when I open my mouth, everyone in a ten foot radius turns to look at me, so I mumble something barely intelligible (even if it was in the right language) and continue on with what has become a shitty day.

So I ask myself daily, hourly, how my journey to Thailand – where I wanted to engage with Thai culture, refugees, women and children and families whose lives have been much more difficult and painful than mine – strong, brave people who are recreating their futures – has become an angry, frustrated identity crisis. Why does everything become about myself and a perceived stab at my identity? Can it be any better or different? Can I ever live in Asia and feel okay? Can I ever identify as Chinese and take pride in that part of who I am (whatever small part it is) because that is the way the world sees and will continue to see me?

As I look at our world and specifically the current unfolding American narrative, I wonder if oppressed people who have been discriminated against can ever forgive and unpack their resentment, defensiveness and anger toward their oppressors in a way that doesn’t freeze their lives or either create overpowering fear or violent retaliation. I have very mildly experienced the other side of some version of racism and some days it freezes me, some days it makes me wildly angry, some days I just want to sit on the sidewalk and cry out of bitterness and confusion. The overwhelming question in my life right now is how do we move forward? From perceived (or real) slights, stereotypes and oppressors, to respect, understanding (or at least curiosity and willingness to TRY and understand), patience, tolerance, etc. toward people groups who may contain a certain person here or there who may misunderstand or discriminate against us. I am speaking about my experience in Thailand right now, not the experience of Blacks in America, where many more than “a certain person here or there” will misunderstand and discriminate. Is it possible for the rest of my time here? Would it ever be possible? What do I grab on to moving forward to get me to this place that right now seems morally unattainable? I just don’t think I’m at this level of tolerance and kindness yet. I’m not THAT NICE, people. If I feel mistreated or hurt by another person, just like a three year old, my instinct (that I still can’t break away from) is to (maybe not openly but in my mind) hate this person, be overwhelmed by bitterness and resentment, struggle to see their good qualities or any excuses, etc. It is blinding and I am suddenly less appreciative of kindness, patience, and grace that I receive from others. It is actually debilitating and endlessly frustrating that I am STILL SO BOTHERED by the same identity crisis that has been plaguing me for years now. I love traveling and seeing the world, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized more and more how I often I feel weird and misunderstood in my identity when I leave America. I have experienced confusion about my Chinese identity in America as well, but when I travel, it is a given. I brace myself at ANY interaction to be asked where I am from, or if I’m in Asia, why I don’t speak the language and how can I be from America.

As my Thailand experience has already been clouded and there is no looking back, only moving forward, I MUST get to a better place. I probably am not going to experience Thailand as the “land of smiles” that it’s fondly known as in the western world, because frankly, about an even amount of people are rude to me as are kind to me, but can I still come to a place where I can appreciate the beautiful aspects of the culture and people? The friends of CLF? I think so, but my goal in writing this is to be real and honest, not falsely optimistic.

Proud to be an American?

Happy Fourth of July to all you Americans out there!

Over the past month in Bangkok, I have thought more about my “American identity” (I put that in quotes because let’s think about what our national identities even mean) than I have in over a year. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about American identity from different slants and very complicated angles, in light of my personal identity crisis, in light of what I am going to call a current (US) national identity crisis, and in light of various global crises that should prompt us all to think about privilege, power and identity.

Personally, I have wrestled with my American identity for years, as a Chinese-born American who really has no cultural identification with China at all, especially when I go abroad and am hurled into the midst of various ethnic and national stereotypes, judgments, misconceptions, etc. that are different from those that I do not often experience in America. Nationally, I think about what makes us “proud to be American” and what does that mean? Historically, America is plagued by a dark and violent history of hate, segregation and prejudice. Today, racism in its various ugly forms is more real than ever and our nation continues to experience manifestations of socioeconomic inequality, prejudice, intolerance, ignorance, selfishness and just plain evil. Is it American food that sets us apart? Because most of our food is from other places. Our accents, pop culture, sense of fashion … what exactly? Are you proud to be an American? Have you ever had to “prove” or defend your American identity to anyone? If someone questioned it, would you care and why? What part of being mistakenly identified bothers you?

These are questions I’ve lately been wrestling with a lot, as Thai people often doubt that I’m American or may address me in broken Chinese after their Thai is met by my confused grimace. If or when they do address me in Chinese, they often receive an even more severe grimace lol. When I find myself getting frustrated (which is more often than I’d like), I think about an aspect of my invisible “western” privilege – how my worldview and attitudes toward both other Americans and people of other nationalities has been shaped by where I was raised.

Part of being privileged (American, European or “Western” in general) is that many of us have been accepted, tolerated and understood by our society for so much of our lives. As a result, we expect people (both other Americans and the world) to treat us with respect, politeness and even reverence at times. Privilege is so multifaceted and I am becoming more aware of its different features than ever. It is not just wealth and status; it also includes racial and ethnic understanding, tolerance and “admission” or acceptance into the dominant ethnic community as a result. As an Asian girl growing up in a privileged Caucausian family in the US (shoutout to my family; love you guys and am so grateful), I have never not been accepted or welcomed into a community in the States or been denied anything because of my race or ethnicity. It has rarely ever been questioned. That is INCREDIBLE privilege.

Note: This is a complete mind-dump of many of my thoughts from the past month, so feel free to disagree or converse with me about this, I would love your opinions!

When I get offended by various interactions of mistaken identity, I have come to the conclusion that it is partly because of my own pride, selfishness and privilege, because I too am (believe it or not!) American and have this engrained sense of entitlement and privilege that I’ll be respected and understood by others wherever I go. I have to fight an internal struggle to not get offended and defensive when people question my national, cultural and ethnic identity.

Today, our world faces many crises, one of which is a global refugee crisis, where millions of people are finding themselves displaced, stateless and seeking asylum (any national identity issues I possibly have pale in comparison), another of which is severe ethnic and religious violence, and others which underlie them all are racism, prejudice and intolerance. Who or what are we going to identify with? As Americans, how do we define ourselves? Are we going to meet hatred with more hatred and intolerance? Or are we going to work for peace, reconciliation, empathy and love? I know I am pushing back a lot here against this “American identity” and white privilege, but at the same time, I believe part of the “Americanness” that we take pride in is individuality and the freedom to craft our own identity – this has collectively come to define the “American identity.” That freedom, privilege, whatever you want to call it, is truly a gift, and if you have been graciously granted it, you can actually use your privilege for good! Firstly build gratitude and empathy for those whose identities have been snatched and trampled over (look around your neighborhood, city, etc.) and secondly use it creatively and graciously to give to others who are not as privileged.

As we Americans and global citizens celebrate another fourth, I challenge us all to reflect on the identities that we have crafted and to brainstorm how individually, if we each put values of love and empathy before arrogant nationalism or entitlement, our identities can shake and shape the collective American identity.

*image: Manzanar Relocation Center (in distance), Ansel Adams, taken from: When America Interned People Because of Their Race

Reflections on Jan in 上海

I just got back on Monday from a month in Shanghai and wanted to share some thoughts from my time there. Unfortunately, it was really difficult this time to access my VPN on my computer, so I wasn’t able to post blogs or even get on the Internet on my laptop during the month. But I kept a journal, so I want to share some of my thoughts in the moment and then reflect on what I am thinking about in retrospect.

On January 18th, I wrote this:

It’s a little embarrassing, so bear with me 😉

Today is January 18th, I’ve been back in Shanghai almost two weeks. I’m currently coughing and sneezing like crazy, drowning in a pile of tissues, wondering if it’s worth it to buy a mask for the last couple weeks I’ll be here.

Let me give you a really candid look at my time here as I am feeling about it at this point. My friend Erika, who I was so blessed and lucky to meet and live with last fall when I was here for four months, came back to spend two weeks exploring, catching up, revisiting old favorite places, reminiscing on old memories and making new ones. As always, hanging out with her has been beyond fun and I am so grateful for her humor, silliness, honesty, and loyal friendship. I am here this month on two grants from Colby, one from the Global Studies department and one from the Religious Studies department, doing fieldwork research for my senior honors thesis on identity and community formation within the multicultural international church here. It is an amazing and generous opportunity and I feel honored to have been given the money and trust to come back and research this topic.

However, I have never been more ambivalent and unmotivated in my life, and it’s making everything really difficult. If I can’t even be passionate about my own research, how is anyone else going to be interested or see its value? I’ve been wrestling over the past two weeks with the point of all of this, as my laptop’s VPN completely failed (so no basic Internet or email), I started getting sick, my skin started breaking out, and all I’ve been wanting to do is explore with Erika and have fun trying out new restaurants and bars, seeing new parts of the city.

A week before I left for China, I was at Urbana, the InterVarsity missions conference, which among other things, was a powerful reminder of the truth of the gospel; how can I serve the least of these, how can I be more like Jesus, see people as he sees them, grow closer in my relationship with God, truly commit my past, present & future, finances, education, career, family, everything to God?

Those are huge questions, and then I came to Shanghai to learn about a community of people who are doing those things, expecting to feel energized, excited, impassioned, part of the plan. But I feel the opposite, and if I had to take a guess at why, it would be because it has hit me really hard lately that I cannot expect to live through others living out God’s mission and feel fulfillment for myself. I need to seek that out in my own life and say yes, be obedient and immediate and a servant in my own situations as I discern what He has for me next.

This research is interesting and insightful; I can learn a lot about other peoples’ lives and share it with academia at Colby who don’t understand the value and significance of such a unique Christian community. That’s such a blessing and valuable position to have. But the past couple weeks (and the rest of the month I am sure) have been and will continue to be a reminder that I need to devote myself to what matters in the kingdom of heaven, to what God cares about – and it is not anthropological research like this, or whatever I am doing. That doesn’t mean that you can’t glorify God in whatever capacity your work or school puts you in, but it does mean that when you have the choice, don’t choose something like this and expect that by being around people who are glorifying God, you are doing the same.

___________________

Back to the present. I thought that by coming back to China, by seeking out the opportunity to return in a productive way, that God may spark something else in my heart or open a door for me to return to China after graduation, or that somehow it would be easier, that I would enjoy myself and feel more of a connection to people or a pull to come back. But I didn’t experience any of that. I felt like more of an outsider and more conscious of my outsider-ness than ever (among native Chinese, not the expat church community of course) as well as more cynical, less patient and less tolerant than I was last year. I became incredibly aware of my position as a relentless consumer, as I spent so much time consuming – purchasing physical things like food and clothes, drinks, coffee, metro rides, but also intangibly always taking, taking, taking – peoples’ attention and time – and not feeling satisfied, like having so many of the problems I mentioned above and just not feeling like what I was doing was part of anything significant. Everything was so self-centered. Even my prayers and thoughts were so centered around myself, praying for patience and tolerance toward people, for peace about my Chinese identity, peace about the future.

I realized last month that I do not need to search for any part of my significance, identity or community in China, which is what I’ve been doing for a long time. There is very little part of me that ever belonged here – a month of my infancy, nine months in my birthmom, and last year abroad plus this past January. This doesn’t mean that I’ll never come back to China; I do now have a ten year multiple entry tourist visa and friends and family here, so I’m sure I’ll visit again. But it is always going to be super difficult for me and as I look toward the future and pray and think about how I can be a part of kingdom work, I want it to be fun and enjoyable too. Committing my future work and life to Christ will certainly involve personal sacrifice, as he tells us all to take up our crosses, deny ourselves, flee youthful passions & desires and follow him. But life with God should also be beautifully adventurous, joyful, fun, and in a place where we feel loved and valued.

I have so many amazing role models, friends and mentors in my life who are living examples of what it is to commit your life to seeking Christ and his kingdom and I want to thank them, tell them how much I appreciate them, and let them know I’m looking for the same things. Much of this was a personal reflection for me to think through thoughts that came up last month, but if you’re a gracious reader who has made it this far, I want to encourage you as well to think about how what you are doing (your work) and how you identify yourself (culturally, communally, spiritually, etc). is grounded. So that if you are wandering and searching and wavering a little like me, that you can really focus yourself on the most important questions that I was reminded of at Urbana: how can I serve the least of these, how can I be more like Jesus, see people as he sees them, grow closer in my relationship with God, truly commit my past, present & future, finances, education, career, family, everything to God?

Happy Saturday! Thank you for reading & love you all!