Monday, February 24, 2014

To live in love or to live in doubt... Which would you choose?

"Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

I recently met a man who has been looking for a job. He found a great opportunity selling new trucks and vehicles for a large, reputable dealership. The boss loved him, and he was excited about the opportunity. When it came time for the insurance company to bond him, he was rejected. The boss, disappointed, had no choice but to reject him.

What was the problem? Nearly a decade a ago, in his relative youth, he spent a year in prison: a felony. Though it has been nearly a decade and he's been a model employee since then, the insurance company simply would not accept a convicted felon. It seems even when "correctional facilities" work and the people start making better choices, some people won't ever let them forget where they came from.

Fast forward to today.

I man, perhaps a bit older than me, came to the door selling magazines. He had a badge with his picture and the logo for magazine sales company (which I will not name). He had a story about recently being out of prison and trying to get his life going again in a good direction. Did I really believe his story. No. Did I believe the company? No.

But what should I do? Should I ask him to wait while I scour the internet to check up on his credentials? Do I just say I'm not interested and close the door? Can I love my life doubting every person that comes up to me with a life story of struggle? What's the difference between a person with a heartbreaking story and my family but that I've had very generous people help me? Do I act like that insurance company?

So, what did I do? I decided to trust. I wrote a check to order Zoo Book for my son. Will it ever arrive? Maybe. Maybe not. Was the man legit? Maybe. Maybe not. Was I a fool to give him money that truly has never been mine to begin with, but that it was given to me? Maybe. Maybe not. Will he think I'm a naive fool? Maybe. Maybe not. Do I care? No.

I'm not here to hoard for myself. I'm not here to live life assuming the worst in people. I'm here to facilitate shalom. I'm here to love. If I can't spare $24 for the potential of helping someone work their way back into society, what good am I? I will bear; I will believe; I will hope.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Blowing in the wind

Why am I in the US?

Of course, I know the answer. If not for family medical needs, I'd still be in Changsha. Yet at the same time, it's a uniquely human quality to search for meaning in life's circumstances. We seek the greater "why" that goes beyond the surface cause.

Why a picture of two towels? The answers are blowing in the wind.
Approximately two years ago, Liao Sha and I were both under the distinct impression that we should have a "sabbatical" of sorts. We didn't know what form that should take. In China, the US or elsewhere? For study, training, or work? We pursued the idea for a while and had a few good leads. In the end, we did nothing, reasoning that we didn't really have a desire to go or do anything in particular.

Could this be a providence forcing its hand?

Liao Sha and I have both discussed adoption. I have long wanted to adopt. In the end, research into the process of adoption being in China and having two nationalities became too difficult, so we gave up the idea. We also never knew if we'd be able to afford it.

Could this be a providential blessing, one that will one day enable us to adopt?

The struggles and trials we go through in life ultimately can be and are used to aid others who go through similar struggles and trials. This is the most difficult time either of us has experienced, but in the experiences we're learning. We're learning about new aspects of life. Trials many never see or understand (or intentionally ignore).

Who will we meet in the future that will need to learn from our lessons? How should our experiences lead us to work for positive change for those in the future who may face the same difficulties?

Questions abound. Answers will become clear. time. Now we wait and wonder.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Being and becoming, US style

Baijiu in the US: Is it out of place? Is it just who I am now?

Sociologically, social identity is always in the process of being and becoming. Of course there are times of greater change than others. Early childhood and the teenage years come to mind. Right now, I feel that process has ratcheted up in myself.

My social identity had been fairly fixed and settled for years. I was a foreigner in a foreign land. I taught English and was recognized within my Changsha sphere as a good, knowledgeable, hardworking teacher. I did my extracurricular activity. Yes, things changed. i became a husband. That was a big life adjustment, but the change in social identity was fairly straight forward. The same can be said for becoming a father.

But now that social identity is in flux.

I am not a foreigner, but neither am I a local or even a native. Not really, anyway. I go through my days in a bit of a dreamlike state, in half expectation that I'll wake up or turn around and be back in Changsha.

Right now I'm the guy who just came back from China. But how long can I be that? Six months? Nine months? A year? Eventually, I have to be the guy who used to live in China. Even when I transition into that socially, internally I'll still be the guy who wants to get back to Changsha.

How long can my stories start, "When I was in China..." or "In China..." without annoying people? People cognitively understand that I was gone for a decade, but they don't truly understand waht it means socially. They don't really understand that more than a decade of US stories were lost while I gained those China stories. Aside from my high school and college years, I have no US stories to tell, not yet anyway.

Am I that knowledgeable, hardworking teacher I once was? I'm unemployed. I hope that status changes soon, but it is my present reality. I often feel lacking. My active English vocabulary is ridiculously poor. I blame it on a decade of a simplified English environment. I don't know the terms and protocols used in schools today. Without recent US work experience, I find people sometimes don't want to trouble themselves to find out what I can do; they just see that I don't fit the boxes they want to check off.

What am I here? I'm still a husband, though the needs of that role are in flux. I'm still a father, though I oddly end up spending less quality time with my sons now than I did in China. Odd, given that I was working full-time there and I'm not employed here. I was an independent man (as much as one really is "independent", which Americans tend to overestimate), now living off of the generosity of others, living with my parents, and getting Medicaid for my kids.

From stability to instability. From relative consistency to flux. What is my social self now? I don't really know. What will my social self be? That's even less clear? Will I ever be settled again? That's a good question.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Food, guns, and the individual

Human behavior is a continual source of intrigue for me. Perhaps that's why I gravitate toward the social sciences: sociology, anthropology, linguistics, etc. Human behavior rarely ceases to amaze and confuse, stimulate and perplex, amuse and frustrate. I'm rarely shocked, however. I end up asking a lot of questions, only occasionally out loud.

I find that the questions I regularly ask in the US are different form those I asked in China. Obviously, this is due to cultural differences in habits and common discourse. Below are a few questions I find myself asking a lot here.


The US diet, at least the diet I see exemplified by most of the people I'm surrounded by in the US, is confusing to me. Just two days ago I came across these two sentences in an article from the Harvard School of Public Health: "the average American gets a total of just three servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The latest dietary guidelines call for five to thirteen servings of fruits and vegetables a day (2½ to 6½ cups per day), depending on one’s caloric intake."

This pretty much matches a comment I made on Facebook Nov 11: "It may just be that I'm in Texas, but after three days I'm already asking what Americans have against fruits and vegetables." Three months later, I'm still asking the same question. I have legitimately seen people go entire days without eating a single fruit or veggie. I usually get three by the end of breakfast.

I understand that health information is confusing and conflicting, but the vast majority of the world's cultures understand the value of vegetable matter, and those that don't typically live in extreme conditions with limited access to vegetables. After decades of public health education in the US, you'd think the average would be higher than three. Why isn't it? Why do Americans seem to fear vegetables?

Trigger fingers

People really are crazy about guns. Granted, I'm in Texas, which is crazier than normal with regards to guns. Even my mother has a gun now. Nevertheless, having lived in China where gun possession is outlawed, suddenly coming back to Gun Land is disorienting.

I suppose my questions are these:

Do people really think we're safer without guns?
I've known two people who've been shot in the US, and I've seen a man crumple to the ground after being shot. In my years in China, I've only known of (through a third party) one person who's been stabbed. I'm not saying China's more safe because it has fewer guns, but it certainly doesn't seem more dangerous.

Is society going to collapse if certain types of guns or ammunition are banned?
I understand hunting. I understand wanting to protect one's family. I understand that there are places in the US without a police force (e.g. parts of Montana). I understand that US history was gun-fueled. Does that mean every kind of gun is needed or should be available? Will the fabric of society be irreparably damaged if assault rifles or large magazines are off the market? I just don't understand.

The cult of the individual

When did people start becoming so focused on the self interests and preferences over good manners and goodwill?

Maybe the US has always been this way. Maybe I just didn't notice. Still, I would like to think that the influence of the Bible and/or China's face-saving culture has given me a new perspective.

Even when I was a vegetarian during university, when people made a meal containing meat, I ate it. It seemed the polite, kind thing to do. When in China, when people offered food or drink, I ate it (or at least tried to), no matter how nauseating the idea, taste, or texture of the food seemed. It seemed polite: a good way to love people. I'm confused by those who say, "I don't eat that," or "I don't like _____,"after someone has worked hard to cook a meal for them.

Last week I was on the phone with a dentist while waiting in line at Walmart's self-check area. Suddenly a man next to me leaned over and aggressively stated that I needed to wait in line. Granted, I was pacing, and Chinese culture is still a bit queue-challenged, so I can see how he might have though I was trying to cut in line. Still the whole situation was confounding. What has happened in that man's life to think (a) that I was going to breach social etiquette so blatantly, (b) that he had to be so protective of his "rights", (c) and that he had to assume I was up to no good rather than viewing me through a lens of goodwill?

These are just two recent examples, but they exemplify the question well. At what point has our focus in individual rights trumped that of respect for others? When did our own individualist worldview cause us to dishonor even friends simply because we have preferences?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

American isolationism

How do you throw a birthday party in China? Take food out to the playground. The guests will already be there.

The US has anything but an isolationist foreign policy. This seems to be in stark contrast to the way modern life and society seem to work in the US. At least that's my take on it.

I am an extrovert (though not as out-going as I'd like), and I have been almost continually lonely since I've been back to the US. Yes, my wife and children are around me. Yes, I see family everyday, as we still live together. My reprieves are two morning men's groups (Thursday at 6:30 a.m. and Friday at 6:00 a.m.), a Tuesday night gathering of mostly young families, and Sunday late morning and early afternoon at a Chinese church in Fort Worth. This may seem like a lot to some, but it's a struggle for me.

Part of the blame is my own. Despite trying to live as normally as possible in this small town, I admit that I've neglected to pursue a few community involvement ideas simply because I know I could be gone at basically any time. Also, not yet having a job, living off the charity of others, it doesn't seem wise to go out to social events that require spending. And with the cold winter we're having in the US, people aren't outside hanging out much. Options are limited.

Where do people congregate here? Perhaps a better question is whether people do congregate. To hear people talk, once out of college, you've basically got bars and churches. I find the habits I'd built in China are all but useless right now. There aren't dozens of people and children just walking around outside in a central location, playing, talking, laughing. There aren't events like English corners or  discussion just popping up for no reason other than to have one. There aren't hundreds of people who are all next-door neighbors.

Of course there are other factors. Living with my family, for example, means it's not my home. I can't just invite people over, especially not families with young children. Nevertheless, even if we were in our own place, I suspect it would be difficult. Makes me yearn for the days of apartment living.

What non-work, non-church, non-bar things do you do you to meet people and socialize in the US?

Friday, February 7, 2014

What are parents for?

What would you ask your parents to do for you? What wouldn't you ask them to do? Do you worry about burdening them? About asking too much?

The last whole family picture (minus sister-in-law and nephew) taken in China

Being in the US living with my family has shed light on a major area of cultural difference between how my wife and I view our relationships to our parents, and if I be so bold, between Americans and Chinese in general. It is a clear division between collectivist and individualist thinking. It causes me not a little tension.

Since we've been in the US, we've had to ask Liao Sha's mother and father to help us do numerous things back in Changsha. Some of these things have required them to spend money. All of them have required expenditures of time. One day I expressed that I feel bad that we're here but still bothering them so much, that we're still interfering in their lives. Liao Sha looked at me and said, "We don't think like that. Parents are the only people we never have to worry about bothering."

I don't think like that here with my family. I am constantly doing chores so as to "do my fair share." We make sure to buy enough vegetables and whatnot so that everyone can eat, figuring (a) it's the least we can do given that we're not paying rent and are interfering with their daily lives, and (b) it's a way of "pulling our own weight". Whereas if in Changsha, we'd be training Amos to comfort himself to sleep, we don't dare do so here for fear of bothering everyone.

Do you see the contrast? Raised in an individualist, highly independence-minded culture, living with my parents is embarrassing enough without causing extra strain on them. Thus, I worry about being a burden. Raised in a collectivist, community-minded culture, living with parents would be completely normal, and asking parents for help is 理所当然, a matter of course. Thus, Liao Sha lives at complete ease, never worrying about being a burden to her family.

What do I want my sons to know? How do I want my sons to think about Liao Sha and me when they grow up? I imagine the healthiest of views is somewhere in the middle, but how do we get there?

Monday, February 3, 2014

马年快乐!Happy Year of the Horse!

(A version of this post was originally posted here on my more professional blog.)

Being back in the US for Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) has been odd for both my wife and I. For her, it's the first time she's ever been away from her family over Spring Festival. For me, I simply miss a festival that had become such an important part of my life. Last Thursday night I even ended up watching performances from the CCTV Spring Festival Gala (春晚) on Youtube with my eldest son. The family eating together at the end of this performance made me cry.

Making jiaozi during a Spring Festival of yesteryear.

I thought for this post I'd simply share a few things that I love, or at least miss, about Chinese New Year in China. These are in no particular order.

1. Baijiu (白酒) with the menfolk

Foreigners tend to unfairly bash baijiu (Chinese "white" liquor) to no end, and I admit that it took effort for me to acquire a taste for the stuff. Nevertheless, drinking with my father-in-law and other male relatives had become a highlight of every holiday and birthday celebration. It bonded us together. It's when I really felt one with them, and I may be so bold as to say it's when they felt most at home with me. Effect of mild intoxication? Hardly. I'll give the simple explanation people gave me: This is Chinese culture. If you really dive into Chinese culture, you'll find that is really the perfect explanation.

2. Fireworks

OK, I don't really miss the fireworks. I mean, between the air pollution, the 5:00 a.m. (if you're lucky) wakeup call, and the constant use that makes one crazy on about day four, it's not really something I could miss. Still, not a single firework? Not even one?! It's a bit disappointing. 真扫兴!

3. Preserved meats (腊肉)

Not only did I miss meat-hanging season, but now I don't get to eat any myself! 非常扫兴!

4. Big family dinners

Not all Chinese families are large, but my wife's is. Aside from New Years Eve, when it was just us, her parents, her brother, and her brother's wife, Spring Festival dinners usually hosted no less than 20 people. Day after day, home after home, dinner after dinner. Eventually I grew sick of all the food and renao, but I miss being a part of it. In the words of Joni Mitchell (or glam metal band Cinderella), "You don't know what you've got, till [sic] it's gone."

5. Seeing the joy on my wife's face and on the faces of the children (mine and others')

Last Friday morning I asked my wife if she wanted to stay here on Saturday and make jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) with my family or go to the Chinese church to celebrate with them. Eventually she decided to stay home and teach my family how to make jiaozi. We made filling, made the wraps, and made the jiaozi all while listening to the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. Eventually she remarked that she finally felt a little of the Chinese New Year spirit. Before that moment, I had mourned that the Spring Festival delight that had always been present in previous years was not in her eyes this year. Not seeing her delight gave me a sense of loss, as well. At least I saw a glimmer Saturday evening.

Making jiaozi this year.

So, readers: If you've experienced Chinese New Year but are spending Spring Festival 2014 abroad, what do you miss?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Interstitial space

I'm not here, not really, not fully anyway.

Family reunited in Texas: early December 2013
This is a thought that has occupied my mind since last week. I can't recall which day. The full force of it hit me Thursday night while watching this performance from the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. At end of bit: a family dinner. I saw it, and tears welled up at once.

I wake up every morning knowing that I'm in Texas, knowing that I'm at my father's home, knowing that ahead of me is a day of activities mostly revolved around getting a job and getting my family into its own quarters. At the same time, I wake up every day as if in a dream, as if I could wake up and still be in Changsha, in my apartment, in my bed, breathing emphysema-inducing pollution, ready to face a new day.

I'm not really here.

I know I won't see the food venders lining the road, but I know they should be there (unless, of course, the chengguan makes their rounds).

I know I won't see the high school kids from my building waiting at  the bus stop, but I know they should be there.

I know I won't hear the abrasive yet warm (with a hint of aggressiveness) tone of the Changsha dialect, but I know I should hear it.

I'm now almost three months into this transition, one that I didn't want to make but knew I had to make. I know I've pushed myself too hard over the past few months, not using the time I was gifted to actually let myself face the transition head-on. Perhaps now I'm letting myself do so.

I didn't want to make a personal blog. I wanted to just stick to my "professional blog". Probably that was the smart thing to do, as the first few months were more about being disappointed and angry and a slew of other emotions. However, I think this may be a good way to process and invite others into the process. I may discuss my own state. I may discuss cultural observations based on the contrast with China. I may pose questions I have about the US. I may even quit blogging when I feel the moment has passed.

Want to join me on this journey?

My last few minutes wife family in Changsha: November 6, 2013