Sunday, April 29, 2012

A self-indulgent, reflective post

If there's one thing I don't like, it's being self-indulgent.  And when I say that, I really mean, I don't like being perceived as a self-indulgent guy who makes most circumstances and events about me.  In reality, I do things for my own gain all the time, but I also think I am most satisfied when the bigger picture is before me and visible. When I am a small part of something awesome going on. I had a going away party this week with around 25 good friends from the city I live in and made, what felt like, an uninspiring minute and a half speech thanking everyone for coming and investing in me.  I'm glad it was really low key and that no one presented me with anything over the top and that no one was expecting me to shed any tears.

This post will probably end up going against all of these things.

For 4 of the last 5 years, I've lived across the ocean working with a mission I heartily agree with and am motivated by.  The 1 year I wasn't here in Asia, I worked with the Asian students at UNC doing many of the same things I do here, building movements of students who sacrificially love Jesus and want to see their peers know God.

Pretty heavy stuff, huh?  That's really what I signed up for when I came over here.  When I prayed about my decision to do this for the long haul.  These were the things I prayed for.  When I write my memoirs as an old man, I want to have stories of transformation on college campus, and more importantly, in the hearts of formerly lost students.

I'm ecstatic to get married soon and transition into life with a nicer-smelling and prettier roommate (sorry Harrison...), but part of me will certainly mourn the things I'm leaving here.  What I thought I'd mourn the most would be the memories of students fellowship meetings or Bible studies I'd led, or freshmen guys breaking down in repentance, or preaching to groups of people who have scarcely heard of Jesus.  But the things I'll really miss the most for now are found in the picture below.
That's right, eating exotic (often mediocre) Asian food in dirty restaurants with my peers.  Waxing philosophical about communism in education and venting about frustrations communicating in a foreign language where so many things are lost in translation. Complaining to waitresses that the rice STILL hasn't come out and to each other that "this is good, but it's not as good as ______ (some other exotic, slightly less mediocre place they know of)." People-watching as partially senile vegetable vendors clang on bells soliciting to wealthy cadres, still buzzed from their 3-hour long lunches.  And above all, just being normal American dudes living as pilgrims in a strange land, enjoying the company of people who "get you" in ways your friends on campus just can't.

"You come for the mission, but stay for the people," my friend said recently.  I think he was very right. The kingdom of God is like many things in the Gospels, but one of which is a mustard seed.  A small, unsightly and unimposing sprouting seed that can produce the greatest harvests.  That is to say, sometimes the things you don't expect to make the biggest differences in a Christian's life are the ones that end up making you the most committed to Jesus.  I thought it would be ministry success at first that kept me coming back for more, but in the end it was guys like on my crew and the ones who eat at dirty restaurants with me.  They've done more to encourage me in the Great Commission than any number of ministry successes I could point to as my own.  

Monday, April 2, 2012

What a difference a year makes

I don't have amnesia from head trauma and I haven't had an onset case of early age dementia. I realize the last time I blogged was almost 11 months ago. Not real sure why it's taken me this long to get back to it, but it might have something to do with a whirlwind summer last year and then being busy on skype a lot calling back to the US several times a week. But I'll give a quick update for all my faithful readers (Mom and...well really just mom) who thought this was a lost cause.

Since the last time I posted:
-Moved into a new apartment. This one is more secluded, with more construction around it, closer to campus and with about 1/10 of the water supply of my last place. They shut it off now for all but about 2 or 3 hours a day. Welcome to the developing (...kinda) third world!
-Ran through about 4 Chinese teachers. Some realized they were severely underpaid by our school. Others had other programs to enter themselves. The one I'm stuck with now has drunk dialed me twice in the last week.
-I came back to the US twice for brief stints (once to take classes and once to recruit people to our short-term program here with the company I'm with.

And really everything else revolves around meeting Karen Sharp on the first of those stints, then proposing to her 6 months later in North Carolina after my recruiting time. So now I'm back in China for just over another month. Trying to help my lovely fiancee figure out how to plan for the future from several thousand miles away and set a new course for both of our lives. I honestly don't have much work in this process compared to her so I've tried to do the easy stuff like getting a couple guest lists together, planning the honeymoon, unleashing the great power of my mom to help plan the events in NC.

Karen is, among many other things, a literary genius so I'll have to decide soon if we should make a blog together or if I should keep this my thing and let her write our prayer letters, which she apparently loves doing. I really hit the jackpot.

Hope to post more soon, especially now with things winding down and eras shifting in the next two months.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The last few weeks.

A few highlights and lowlights.

-Highlight: Securing a new apartment right across the street from campus. It's massive and cheap and keeps us from riding 20 minutes to class every day back and forth, but it's essentially a concrete shell right now with nothing finished or hooked up.

-Lowlight: Realizing that this sparsely populated, newly built apartment complex won't set up gas lines or telephone/internet service until 70 PERCENT of people have moved in. Why? Probably to save a few bucks, but I think it's just an attempt to anger the other tenets who already signed contracts like we

-Highlight: Got to take a class in the city for a week and stayed with my good friends David and Marianne Dean and their 2 year old, Sarah, who I have been trying to win her approval since I
was in China over 2 years ago. I think I made some headway when I got a text the week af
ter telling the story of how she would point at the chair I sat in for breakfast every morning and say how it was my chair.
-Lowlight: She would say "That's Danielle's chair!" Real mature, David. Though as we discussed earlier, it is much funnier if you think of it as something she's saying on purpose to get under my skin. Kinda like this. In a related lowlight, David and Marianne are leaving soon (and Sarah
too I guess) after almost 7 years (I think...) here in China. David and Marianne have been here the entire time time I have and have been great friends who have helped make life in China much more livable for me. They will certainly be missed!

-Highlight: My birthday this past week. I spent the actual day in another city nearby for a men's weekend where we played baseball in this country where few people actually know what that word means. But we got to take batting practice, field grounders and have an overall time of
crowing and showing off from our glory days in high school where we all threw 95mph and hit tape measure homers.

-Lowlight: Not getting a chance to brushback Gunter and Gregory from the mound. It was all weak sauce pitching from behind an L-screen.
-Highlight: Celebrating with (most of) my American friends here. The Shelleys were gone to
Beijing already to have their baby, but the rest of us did my favorite thing in the world for me:
cancelling meetings to do something fun. Instead, we went to this Thai restaurant in the middle
of nowhere that also had a driving range. Team Jung made a cake with the 4 kids from The
Wire on it (they recently had their Wire addiction cut short by the series
ending and this was the best way to get their fix I think) and the fam
ous line from Marlo Stanfield, "MY NAME IS MY NAME!" It was
awesome. We spent most of the night trying to hit the ball-
recovery cars on the range instead of being
serious, but it was a great night overall and I was glad to spend it with friends here so far away from my family and friends.

-Lowlight: Had to say good bye to Chad and Kristy McGhee as they go back to the US to have their baby as well. Chad has been a good friend since I was a freshman and has always been a guy with great advice. You might be noticing a trend here, how one of the hardest things about living here long term and being in that mindset constantly is that people often come and go. It can be hard saying goodbye so often. Obviously I haven't experienced that a whole lot, but I'm starting to realize how hard it can be.

-Highlight: Getting to see my brother! He got here on Wednesday with some friends to study for the summer at my school and though we havent had much time to hang out yet, I can't wait to make him eat weird foods and show him what life is like out here. He brought a big suitcase of stuff for me, so I've had a few meals consisting of beef jerky and gummy bears already.

-Lowlight: Some of you know that on that same day, I got a message that my mom had been rushed to the hospital because she was pretty seriously anemic. No one really knows exactly whats going on, but she's had at least one transfusion so far and is awaiting some test results. I've normally seen my mom as someone who's pretty invincible, who can handle anything no matter what and it was pretty sobering to realize that even though I have no control over anyone's health, even my own, that being far away from home is really tough in times like this. I can't just hop in a car to go see her and the best I can do is just call a bunch.

We've been praying for her a lot this week and ask that we continue doing so as she's still recovering from a pretty serious hit and isn't yet back to normal. But she IS recovering and the Lord is helping both Matt and I lean more on him and has protected us from a lot of destructive thoughts and worry that really amount to nothing except bitterness and anxiety. Mom just got home recently, and will be recovering (hopefully without trying to push it...) for the next few days and weeks. Thanks to those of you who support me and my family by praying for us in times like this!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

McTucky Fried Chicken and our new places.

If you know anything about me, it's that I love getting up after staying up late. Last night was no exception. I stayed awake for the ACC Tournament which started at 1am our time and ended around 3:15 in the am. It was totally worth it, watching Carolina pull off the greatest postseason comeback in our storied history. With Harrison gone to the north this weekend, my even more unbridled yelling during games was heightened that much more. So for the first 30 minutes of the game there was a lot of new vocabulary I'm sure my neighbors two floors above me learned in English. The last ten minutes were, if you watched it, incredible, as we turned it on and left all the Miami players we didn't recruit from North Carolina laying on the floor in the fetal position.

So after the game, a couple phone calls to my brother Matt and another couple failed explanatory YouTube videos sent between us later, its 4am and I send a text to Jarred telling him I'm not gonna be able to meet up with him to go look for new apartments the next morning.

But somehow, I can't sleep past 8:30 am (like every day now...) and end up meeting he, Shelley and Lindsey over at the massive (and empty) apartment complexes that are near the schools we all frequent on a daily basis.

Where we live now is about 5-7km away from where we do work, take class, and meet Chinese students. It's a pain to have to ride our scooters 20 minutes each way every day, not to mention the danger involved with poorly made Chinese trucks, our low powered scooters, u
nfinished roads and of course, the water trucks that spray the roads daily to the tune of "It's a Small World." We plan to move next to campus sometime in the summer, which means we have to start now so that we can have landlords BEGIN work on the insides.

I wish I had some pictures, but there are about 30-50 buildings (my guessing skills arent good so that's why I gave a large range...) in the middle of nowhere, each about 25 stories tall. Each school in the University City is no more than a 5 minute scooter ride away, with some in walking distance. No one really lives there yet, but there is lots of construction and people finishing the insides of places. Most rooms are still just concrete shells, often with standing water in the bathrooms. All of them have non-sensical designs for power outlets and plumbing stuff. And normally are accompanied by a nervous landlord, eager to make us foreigners think that they know what they're doing.

My three friends showed me 3 different places and told me all the advantages of each place. I had no idea and would've maybe thought about 10% of the stuff they mentioned on m
y own. I think I'm gonna get a place next to Jarred and Shelley's so that we can make a zipline that attaches to each of our balconies. They are really long balconies, so I think my top priority is being able to glide over, Flight of the Gibbon style to the Jungs to play cornhole 15 stories up in the air.
After about 3 hours of looking, considering new things, looking some more, texting to pass the time, looking at more concrete shells, and thinking about how to actually construct a zipline, hunger overtook us and we went down to the only restaurant that looked like it was really open for service, DangMaiJi.

DangMaiJi is a bootleg restaurant. Like most things in China, there aren't many copyright laws. So what they did was fuse McDonald's (called MaiDangLao) and KFC (called KenDeJi) in an unholy marriage of illegal fast food. Sometimes (like in GuiYang) there are bootlegs of places that aren't even popular among foreigners. Dico's, a KFC knockoff, was copied and became VBico's, possibly because the marketing expert couldn't type in English or had Tourrette's.

But by 3:30pm, lunch at DangMaiJi sounded pretty good, so we got some "Mexican" wraps, made with sweet and sour sauce, chicken wings, fries and Pepsi and ended our day of apartment hunting. We raved on and on about how glad we were that it was there near our soon-to-be new places, often mentioning the low prices (13RMB or about 2 dollars for a combo meal). The menu was 4 times larger than a normal Mickey D's in the states, including things like Shrimp Burgers, chicken on a stick, soft serve ice cream, egg custard, Cornish Game Hens (next Thanksgiving? Only 18RMB a piece...), and of course, jelly drinks.

Overall, it was a pretty good Saturday. And a nice look into the future here at the University City.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two things that make me grieve

1. The latest Rick Reilly column on Ryan and I were talking at dinner recently about this story about the female wrestler named Cassy in Iowa and how her 16 year old male opponent, Joel, forfeited the match in the state tournament (in Iowa, where wrestling state championships make you a demi-god) because of his faith and a strong conviction not to engage in combat with women. It started out as a "You're either a Reilly or a Simmons fan, but not both," but ended up as a lament against journalistic ridiculousness and Reilly himself. The next morning, I was a few minutes late to leave for the International Fellowship because I read the article and was moved to respond to Reilly in a strongly worded email reply to him that I'm sure he'll never read.

I'll summarize his position (though I'm sure you can find the full article on Reilly claims that his religious conviction not to engage a girl in this sport is stupid on that this is a tom-boy who wants and should be treated like an equal on the mat. Fair enough. But what he refuses to indulge is the perspective of religious conviction, mainly because, well he doesn't "get it." So what is his response? A sophomoric retort in which he employs middle school debate team tactics seen below:

"Does any wrong-headed decision suddenly become right when defended with religious conviction? In this age, don't we know better? If my God told me to poke the elderly with sharp sticks, would that make it morally acceptable to others?"

The boy who forfeited is both home-schooled and the son of a Pentacostal minister. Mr. Reilly, who has had a column for many years both with Sports Illustrated and, clearly doesn't have the taste for doing good research down with the grunt-level reporters anymore. He couldn't care less about what it means to have a real belief that forces you to action in the "secular" world and not just on Sundays and in the confessional booth. He just thinks it's stupid that a boy doesn't want to fight and used his faith as a reason.

What makes this story worse is the end, where he belittles Joel for his foolishness of forefeiting and his weeping after being outed in the consolation round two matches later.

"I don't feel as bad for Cassy as I do for Joel. He was the fifth-ranked wrestler in the state at 112 pounds. He was 35-4. He had a chance to win the whole thing. In Iowa, that means a lifetime of people buying you lunch. It's corn-state royalty. To give all that up to protect a girl who loathes being protected? What a waste of a dream.

The last I saw Northrup, he was crying. After the default, he entered the consolation round, where he won his first match, then lost a heartbreaker in overtime, 3-2. He jogged past the scrum of reporters waiting to talk to Cassy, tears streaming down his face, unnoticed. He was done, with no chance to medal.

Neither he, nor his coaches, nor his dad, had any comment. He was reportedly on his way back home to Marion, Iowa, where his mom was about to deliver her eighth child.

For the kid's sake, I hope it's a boy."

To mock a 16 year old from the press box and ivory tower? What a show of cowardice and ignorance. He has no idea what it means to live by conviction, much less a code of any kind. He can't even give credence to Joel's father's statement of having an elevated and respected view of women. Instead, he writes a column that takes a strong position against tolerance to get more web page hits.

Griever #2: The end of Season 4 in the Wire. I'll try not to give much away, but I watched last night with the Jungs, who started watching it last semester sometime. This season chronicles four 8th graders in West Baltimore who are teetering on the edge. On one side is the drug trade where they can choose to be "corner boys," selling heroin to junkies for the promise of getting rich and moving up the ladder. On the other is choosing to live the life of school and constructive energy and making a life for themselves in the "legitimate" world.

Naman is the outspoken, brash, and cocky one who's father, "Wee Bey," is in jail on two life sentences for his role in a drug trade murder a few years ago. He lives in opulance because of his father's unwillingness to snitch on the big bosses. The bosses have put Naman and his mother up in a lavish apartment and he plays the role of the spoiled rich kid, yet while living in the inner city.

Michael is the quiet, but strong enforcer of the group. He has a natural talent for boxing and is being taught at a local community center by an ex-con who turned his life around and left "The Game." He lives alone with his kid brother, Bug, and is a responsible parent figure at the tender age of 13. He is the all around good guy and protects the weaker friends at school from bullies.

Randy is the businessman of the group, the trickster. He buys candy and chips in bulk and resells them in the lunch room to the younger kids. He is always thinking up get-rich-quick schemes that don't involve drugs and is a leader when the kids are out playing. His parents are both dead or have left and has grown up in the dreaded group homes in foster care, often where abuse is rampant for him as a smaller, younger kid living with rougher orphans.

Then there is Duquan, or "Dookie." His mother is a dope fiend and they have been evicted from even the housing projects multiple times. He is known at school for being especially poor, rarely showering and being the runt who is easily picked on. However, Dookie has a penchant for school, where he excels in math. He is constantly teased though for his nappy hair and tattered clothes and is often tempted to find ways to get money in any way possible.

Through a series of murders and drug deals gone bad, the four boys are each tempted by the drug game while mentors, teachers, and parent figures pull the other side of the tug of war, fighting for their innocence and the redemption of their toilsome, young lives. Some have to decide between "snitchin'" and letting murders go unpunished. Ultimately some will find redemption and others will be pulled down into the system.

The fact that these are children makes it especially hard to watch sometimes. The Wire is my favorite drama of all time, but this can be a gut wrenching and gritty part. It will make you wonder, "How long, O Lord?" and consider the reality of many inner-city injustices, corruption, politics, and the condition of the human heart.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rivendell to Mordor

Every year my friends and I here get the wonderful chance to visit and be refreshed by the kingdom of Thailand for about a month. Our Chinese friends at school all go home for Spring Festival and Chinese New Year which lasts from mid January through to the beginning of March usually. Every year we love the break from Chinese winter into the eternal summer of Thailand.

Really, the only appropriate metaphor for Thailand is the Elven city of Rivendell from Lord of the Rings. Most of us come there, limping in from the last semester, missing our families in America, ready to do anything except what we've been doing continuously for the last month of December, having lots of Christmas parties, studying for exams, etc. We find western food, are given lots of encouragement, people remind us how great the vision we have here is and we see a new culture. A new culture that we see as liberating and free.

Instead of having to bust your way through a busy restaurant to order, mercilessly cutting some and boxing out other patrons, they have lines that are commonly accepted and used. Instead of cafeteria noodles, we're eating the likes of pad thai, Mexican food, and Krispy Kreme (though I only had 2 KK donuts, the fact its there is comforting enough). No longer do we have to ride battery powered scooters, but we rent motorbikes with real gas engines and real power for really cheap. Everyone understands a good amount of English there too so we don't have to rack our brains every time we need to ask for daily necessities or buy food.

So of course, it's hard going from this culture we only see good things in, back to wintry China. Why would we want to carry the ring to Mordor, to certain doom, to trials when we've grown accustomed to living with the immortal elves, recovering from injuries, and eating their magical elf donuts?? It's a tough thing remembering the 85 degree weather every day when its cold and rainy and your hot water heater still hasnt arrived yet. It's tougher still when you have less time to read, fewer friends to talk with, less time for the timeless tales passed down from generation to generation here in our Chinese ex-pat sub-culture.

Nevermind all the annoyances of Thailand. The constant nagging of massage parlors and ladyboy prostitutes. The living out of a suitcase for a month. The countless scarrings from European vacationers wearing speedos too tight or, even worse, speedos too loose. These things seem minor to us while we're there because it's nice to idealize a place as perfect for a while.

But God didn't give us Thailand so he could bring Heaven on earth and have everyone move there. Just like Rivendell wasn't created solely as an end in itself. They are what they are. Just an oasis of refreshment so that we can remember and refocus on what we're doing here in the distance between the Shire and our destiny. To remind us that God is good to those who love him and are called according to his purposes and that he blesses men abundantly. And to remind us that brokenness and unbelief are a temporary thing in this world that is passing away. Soon, in the coming age, we will have all the Krispy Kreme we can handle.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Willage People

There are a number of blogs I subscribe to right now. Many of whom mirror the lives of us who are living in the aftermath of the Christmas Season. Maybe it was all the Chinese cake and cookies that made me sluggish, but I think I'll forego the commonalities of a Christmas post with descriptions of what we ate, the standard tree photo, and the tacky sweaters everyone wore.

-Here's the gist of it: we had Christmas dinner and it tasted good. Then we opened presents and they were nice.

Then we had a week where none of our students called us back because
they are in "2012 Mode." In this instance, I mean exams are approaching, but it can refer to just a panic mode since every student I've talked to thinks the world is ending in 2012 thanks to the movie that just came out a year or two ago. Rational students who can't accept that God could exist believe in this superstition. Even many Christians think that we'll go down in a blaze of prophetic world catastrophes next year...because the Mayans said so...

-Last week, we had a class with a traveling professor from the States. Most of what we talked about was Philosophy. It was great, but it made me want to watch The Matrix more than
anything. I'm more and more convinced that lots of media and popular culture we as Christians grasp onto as Biblical analogy is not really that at all. The Matrix is so Platonic its crazy. And also very Gnostic with a little bit of whatever the Wachowski brothers ascribe to. But still a great movie and I want another opportunity soon to count how many times I think Keanu is thinking about String Theory while delivering his lines.

Right after this exhausting class in which my brain fried the first day, I rode my moped an hour back to the Gong, then got up the next morning to go to the village. "Village" is a common term used here. It can be a place where farming is done without 1st world ammenities. It can be used as an adjective, as in "that guy who just hocked a loogey on the street is so village" to mean someone not accustomed to civilized society. Additionally, normally when spoken in English by Chinese people, it comes out as "willage" which always elicits a chuckle from us still. As do when they talk about cooking "wegetables," "D-Wee-D's," and "Wee-C-D's." Real mature, I know.

Our helper invited us out about every week so we decided to go there. Our van broke down on the way (pretty standard) on the 4 hour trek there. The "roads" were nothing more than dirt mostly and roads that looked like they had survived a nuclear holocaust. It was a like scene from The Book of Eli except that the surrounding mountains were lush with vegetation still.

So upon arrival, we were surprisingly ignored. It was a mostly Cool village so I think they had either seen white people before or had been heavily coached (...threatened) not to smother us laowai by our helper. We looked around at the farm animals everywhere and the vast vineyards and gardens. We saw our helpers parents house which had just been furnished with som
e new furniture just for us. It was...colorful...

Then we jumped all over the chance to help with dinner. When asked to help kill the chickens we went to the back of the village to prepare "The Kill Room." Much different than Dexter Morgan, though we did use a cleaver (as seen). Josh and I were the only ones willing (or twisted enough) to confront our Dark Passenger and test our fortitude.

The trick was to first pin back the wings and pluck the neck feathers out pull the neck skin tight and... well I'll spare the rest of the details. All I know that it was simultaneously terrifying, exhilarating, and a little embarrassing since one of the chickens Josh and I "killed" started flopping around in the de-feathering pot after the initial shock wore off. I think this is the first thing I have killed other than bugs and having to hold it over the lake while its life left it was strange. I kept whispering to myself "circle of life, circle of life, circle of life" and remembering other lessons from The Lion King while I did it. It helped remembering this was the village where they laugh at you for not knowing how to gut animals.

Overall the people there were very nice. Many of the men were skeptical
of us and didn't show a lot of smiles, but they were glad we came I think. They treated us to the best parts of the pig that had been slaughtered earlier and described every dish to us even though we eat many of them every day here.

I've left out a lot of details that made it a hard day in an attempt to remember the village fondly. And also so I don't village up a lot of the rest of my time in China until I leave for Thailand soon.

(photos courtesy of Harrison)