Carrie and Caroline; Ellie and CherylMeet Ellie and Caroline. They are two of the "foreigners" who work at our organization, and over the last 6 months, we've done life together. Ellie is the nurse at the foster home, and Caroline works for another branch of our organization, helping to coordinate the volunteers who come to serve.
One of the unexpected experiences we've had in China is learning how to live "in community" and learning how to be dependent on others. In the USA, Jacob and I were fairly independent -- we certainly didn't need help at the grocery store or paying our cell-phone bill. In China, all that changed. For the most part, the practical help we require has to be provided by our Chinese friends. They are the ones who help us get our bills paid, our water delivered, our shoes fixed, and our meals ordered. Learning to let go and let others help with these most basic necessities is challenging to say the least. It is also humbling, and if I'm being completely honest, enormously frustrating at times. As Americans we are geared to be independent. As Texans, it might even be in our blood. Culturally we tend not to value (and even look down upon) those people who can't seem to get their act together and do things on their own. Now we're "those people."
Thankfully we've moved to a country where the people value relationships more than anything. They value community to a degree that I've never seen. In our apartment complex, every evening many of the neighbors gather in the courtyard to dance, play games, and talk. They did this in the dead of winter! (It is increasingly popular as the temperature rises.) Our Chinese friends don't treat us as helpless or needy or as if we were a burden; they simply think it is the most natural thing in the world to help us. For the most part we are just recipients; its teaching me more about the concept of Grace. I don't really do anything to deserve their help or generosity, but they freely give it with no expectation of repayment.
In addition to learning to rely on others, we've had to learn how to live very closely with others. In the USA, would you ever think of going grocery shopping on a regular basis with your coworker? We do it every week. At our organization, the foreigners work together, live within 2 minute walking distance of each other, eat lunch together, sometimes eat dinner together, pray together, laugh together, cry together, grocery shop together, go to the doctor with each other, have a small-group fellowship together, go to church together, go to restaurants together, celebrate birthdays together... I could go on, but you get the idea. What makes this so interesting is that we were all perfect strangers 6 months ago. We didn't fill out applications to determine whether our personalities would mesh. We didn't get to interview one another. Instead, we each happened to come to the same place, and now we're a family of sorts.
While the Chinese help us enormously, I never would have predicted the value of the other foreigners to my experience living here. In fact, to be perfectly honest, prior to coming I didn't want to be around a bunch of Americans in China. I was afraid they would take away from my "authentic China experience" or something. Ahh... naivete. Learning to navigate in a new culture is the single most challenging thing I've ever done in my entire life. It has shown me things about myself that part of me wishes I would never have known. Thankfully, its not just me. It's done the same thing to the other foreigners living here, and the shared experience of being broken by a place and then slowly learning how to rebuild in a way that reflects His character more is something we are all walking through. That shared experience gives each of us a little more grace for the others; which makes it possible to do all the things that I mentioned above together without hating each other after a few weeks. And, thankfully, usually our low points alternate; so there's always someone around who can remind you that it will get better and that you do have a purpose for being here.
I guess I started this (really long) post with one intention. I've learned that the "American Way" on this point is wrong. We aren't meant to live in isolation; I even mean the relative isolation of the typical American life where you spend time with your family, but you only see your neighbors from behind car doors or over fenced yards. The kind of typical American Christian life where you go to church on Sunday and maybe eat lunch with someone after church; but God-forbid you really open up to them and they see how broken you really are. I think many (maybe most?) Americans must be incredibly lonely; keeping ourselves closed off from one another in a desperate attempt to look like we have it all together. I don't say this as judgement on others; I say it as a confession. It describes our life before we came here and had everything stripped away and were left with no choice but to surrender our illusion of control and let go of our desire to handle things on our own.
As I said earlier, it has been humbling and even excruciating at times. But, since vulnerability and shallowness can't be bedfellows; relationships like the ones we are forming here are deep. They are the kind of relationships that won't crumble if one of us gets our feelings hurt; we live so closely together that we have no choice but to repair the damage. They are the kind of relationships that don't end when you're exposed for who you really are -- self-indulgent, selfish, and prideful; after all, we all are learning through this experience that we're really all the same. As strangers in a foreign land, we've learned that to rely on each other is a necessity, and in the process, we've learned that these kind of relationships fill a longing in our hearts we didn't know how to fill. They've given us a chance to be open, vulnerable, and not scared of rejection.
They are the kind of relationships we were created to have. Relationships that reflect God's desire for a relationship with us. He sees us for who we are, but He doesn't give up on us; He looks at us not with disgust, but with love.