The Old Must Go for the New to Come

In January 2010, I crammed 25 years of my life into two little 50 lbs bags and headed out on a China-bound plane to educate the young and inquisitive minds of Dalian on all things American. But why? Why leave a coveted associate producer position at CBS (and six years of journalism training to boot) and head off to a lowly English teaching position in China? Why? Because, frankly, I've learned getting what you think you want out of life isn't always what it's cracked up to be. What follows are the tales of my trials and triumphs (like overcoming my fear of the dreaded squatty potty) and the lessons I've learned along the way...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

And So That Was Christmas...

In the 26 Christmases that I’ve spent here on Earth, I’ve been extremely blessed to celebrate all but one of them with my family. This year was that one exception…

This year, I didn’t spend Christmas Eve sitting around the fireplace with my mother, step-father, brother and sister, drinking eggnog and reading Scripture verses (Luke 2:1-20 to be exact) or placing emblematic ornaments on the tree. I didn’t lounge around in my pajamas Christmas morning munching on my mom’s famous cholestorol-laden French toast while my siblings opened presents around a purple and gold-clad pine tree and “David Foster’s Christmas” CD played in the background (the same CD that we’ve played every Christmas morning since like 1993.) No…this year, I spent Christmas in the classroom, wearing a 99-cent Santa hat and pretending to be happy about working on the most sacred day in the Christian world. Ni-ho ho ho, children! Teach on earth and good English to all men!

But then again, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that all throughout the year, people are required to work on days which hold incredible amounts of spiritual significance and sentimental value if they happen to fall outside the faith or customs of the mainstream culture. But on Christmas, my own self-absorbed, Ameri-centric ego took little comfort in this fact. However, during the periods when I was not wallowing in my own self-pity, I did enjoy some high points this Christmas.

I spent an unforgettable Christmas Eve, throwing an East-meets-West-style Christmas party with my wonderful coworkers full of Chinese dumplings  (a traditional dish of Chinese New Year) with American-brand fillings (like chocolate and graham crackers; and sweet potato, condensed milk, nuts and chicken…you know, the kind of stuff that keeps us at No. 1 for obesity), the tackiest gifts known to man and ridiculous door prizes.

And like I said before, I spent most of Christmas Day in class merrily conjugating verbs, but the high point of the day, was in the evening when I went with a fellow teacher to a Chinese Christian Christmas concert. One of my adult students, who happened to be a Christian invited me to her church to attend the concert. I was really excited to go. I’d been looking forward to being able to go to an actual church service on Christmas all week (especially, since as a teacher at an English training school open on Saturday and Sunday, I rarely get to go to church at all.) In my mind, I’d pictured a scaled down version of every church Christmas production I’d ever attended, complete with the flashy stage lights, the dramatic renditions of Christmas carols (in Chinese, of course), and the soul-stirring altar call at the end…

So…I’ll be honest, it wasn’t what I expected. There were no dramatic openings, no stirring solos, the service ran incredibly long and the only “Christmas” song they actually sang was “Jingle Bells” (a Chinese favorite which can be heard at random throughout the entire year). And of course, being in a Chinese church service, I didn’t actually understand most of what was being said. Yet even in the midst of this very different world of worship where I could barely understand most of the words (and quite honestly, found some of the songs altogether cheesy), I also felt like I was in the midst of something more familiar to me than almost anything else in China to date. I couldn’t understand any of the songs or messages word-for-word, but I knew the overall meaning of everything.

What was most interesting about the night was the fact that one of my Chinese coworkers and another former student of mine had agreed to go to the concert, too. Neither of them were Christians and they had never been to church before, but they ultimately ended up doing most of the translating for me during the service. Ironically, after translating a few sentences, they would stop and ask me what it meant, and so I would try to explain as best as I could. Eventually, I just started to share with them my own personal experience with God and it got to the point where I felt like I was giving a sermon.

 It was strange…In America, I think we are so regularly exposed to Christianity (with all its churchly strengths and flaws) that we take its very basic tenets as common knowledge. Pieces of the Gospel were etched into our very Constitution. So to be frank, I think a lot of Americans have a rather jaded view of Christianity in general (including the Christians, themselves.) Most of us can quote John 3:16 in our sleep. It’s not exactly a radical, new concept for a country that claims to be indivisible under God (however, disingenuous that claim might be). Yet, on Saturday, it really hit me for the first time, that for my two friends here in China this is a radical new concept…that this Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe, would love them so much that he would send His only Son to Earth to die for them.

At one point, my coworker turned to me and said “This God is so big and mighty…and I am so little and insignificant. I don’t think I am worthy of Him.” And I said, “That’s the whole point. That’s what Christmas is about…This great God saw you and he loved you so much that He sent His Son to be born on this day.” My friend looking a little flustered, smiled and chuckled nervously, then quickly turned the other way.

I’m sorry to say that, I didn’t end up staying through the entire service. On the English program I was given there were about 20 songs listed…and by about hour two of the concert they had only gotten through Song 7 and I was getting hungry (I know, I know…it’s a lame excuse for leaving church early, but you try sitting through a four hour Chinese concert and then, judge me.) Anywho, the night was capped off by joining some of my coworkers and friends for some hotpot (this dish where they give you all these vegetables and meats and you place them in this spicy pot of boiling soup) at this fancy restaurant, a vain search for a place to sing bad karaoke (easier said than done on a Saturday night when the waiting time for renting a karaoke room exceeds an hour), and a lovely Christmas cake that somehow ended up all over everyone’s face (don’t ask.)  

And so that was Christmas…a far cry from the intimate, familial gatherings of Christmases past but nonetheless memorable…and nonetheless a reminder of the holiday’s true significance…Love (I know, it’s cliché but no less true)—the love we show to our families, whether they’re in the next room or the next hemisphere; the love we show to the new people that are placed in our lives with each new season; the love we show to those who feel insignificant; and most importantly, the love He showed to All. It’s a love that surpasses gifts, Christmas cards, telephone calls, e-mails, and words in any language. So with that, there isn’t much else to say but: Sheng Dan Kuai Le! Ye Shu Ai Ni!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Holiday Season and The C-Word

Slowly but surely signs of Christmas are emerging from the storefronts and shopping centers of Dalian…and I suppose, the rest of Westernized China. However, Christmastime here lacks the in-your-face excess of a good ole-fashioned commercialized Christmas from back in the states. Sure there are some gaudy Christmas trees with blinking lights, tacky pictures of smiling Santas and medleys of lackluster carols playing in the background. But there are no lights strewn along city streets and no garland hanging from lampposts. Christmas songs and ads don’t flood the airwaves the day after Thanksgiving (but then, again there is no Thanksgiving in China.) There is no steady jingle of Salvation Army bells outside every building. Every store doesn’t have pictures of happy people holding gifts of red, white and green. No seat for Santa Clause in the middle of any given shopping mall. And most coffee shops here don’t offer any special holiday-themed drinks (except Starbucks, but sadly, even they don’t serve Gingerbread Lattes on this side of the Pacific. Sigh.)

It seems that in China, Christmas is simply given a passing nod rather than months of preparation, weeks of television specials and thousands—or collectively billions—of dollars in spending. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing…except that now I find myself desperately straining to find those pieces of Christmas that I left back home. And I suppose having spent my past three Decembers in New York City, the Christmas capital of the World, my standards might be a little too high at this point. But beyond the superficial spectacle of giant Christmas trees, wonderland storefronts, and larger-than-life holiday productions…what I find myself longing for most from home is the very focal point of this whole holiday—Christ.

Yes, as I said before, there are decorations and music. You can find jingle bells and Christmas trees and tinsel and Santa hats and pictures of reindeers…but what you can’t find is a single Nativity scene. I’ve found bells and bows to top my tree, but I’ve yet to find an angel or a star from the East (but I guess if I did find a star, it would quite literally be from the East—ba-da-ching.) There are plenty of pictures of Old Saint Nick, but not one of a babe in a manger…Cards and signs that say “Merry Christmas,” but no acknowledgement of its context within Christ.

Say what you will about Christmas deriving from some Roman pagan holiday. I won’t deny that just like most Western holidays, ancient paganism has had some influence on when and how we celebrate it. But that pales in comparison to the influence that the birth God's one and only Son has had on this entire Earth. And it is the commemoration of that holy birth—not Winter Solstice, Yule, or Sol Invictus—that has generated the observance of billions across the globe and essentially the entire holiday season. More importantly, it is the acknowledgment of that birth and God’s unconditional love for mankind that gives the holiday season any semblence of meaning for me. I’ve heard people often say they’re not into the whole religious aspect of Christmas, but at the risk of sounding narrow-minded and politically incorrect, I honestly can’t quite wrap my mind around that concept. The pure semantics of the word indicates that it is a celebration of Christ—a mass of Christ

Beyond the lights and the cantatas and the food and even the family, it really does come back down to Jesus for me…which is why I guess, right now, I’m at a loss for holiday spirit even amidst the trees and wreaths. But then again—at the risk of sounding corny—maybe this year, my focus needs to be less on Jesus’ place in ceramic Nativity scenes and more on His place in my own heart…Well, it’s only the beginning of December. There’s still time to get into the Spirit :o)

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