Sunday, March 24, 2013

Heart of a pilgrim

Last weekend, Nate and I took a brief trip to Hong Kong. We left our goose down jackets and face masks at home and boarded the plan for a three hour trip south. Upon landing, we practically skipped through the airport to beat the masses at customs. Thirty minutes later, I found myself in a taxi that drove on the opposite side of the road thanks to Hong Kong's 150 years of former rule as a British colony.

I traded in our Chinese money for the Hong Kong dollar and considered it a joy to work with multiples of seven instead of six in terms of converting against the US dollar.

Beautiful park 
For those of you who haven't been to Hong Kong, I regard it as a union of LA and NYC, condensed. Skyscrapers abound to such an extent, that if you are down below in the concrete jungle, it is hard to find that blue sky. Individuals in Beijing lack the practice of personal space, but in Hong Kong, it is not even an option. The island demands to be walked if you want to capture the alleyway boutiques, captivating art galleries and incredible food. The city is a winding maze of steep hills, street-side fruit markets, and inundated with a lively young professionals scene. Grab some fish balls on a stick, stinky tufu or pineapple buns and go explore. We opted for crepes, tacos and roasted chicken instead.

Street in the Soho district

Our final evening there, as weariness from the day's worth of stair climbing walking through the city beckoned me to sleep, tears began to quietly fall to my pillow. My silence clued my man that something was wrong.

I was smack in the middle of a mini-vacation, but for the first real time, I was homesick. And my heart ached.

Perhaps it was that I experienced yet another cultural shift. I'd just become used to the Chinese yuan and now I was handling another currency. Perhaps it was that I'd just wrapped my mind around some Mandarin sentences and now I was hearing Cantonese on top of Mandarin. Perhaps it was that I was becoming accustomed to being rejected by taxi drivers in Beijing while here in Hong Kong they drove on the 'wrong' side of the road.

It was a lot of change all at once. Again.

And it made me want the West. I wanted to be understood. I wanted to have knowledge that a restroom (with an actual toilet even) would be in proximity. I wanted to go to dinner with our friends back home. I wanted to sit across the table from one of those rare girlfriends where knowing the other is a mutually shared privilege. I wanted salsa, not diced tomatoes.

Love this door. And that man.
I wanted home.

On that day, the East reminded me with an intense emotional gravity that I was not at home. I was here, not there. 

When we landed back in Beijing, a heavy blanket of smog greeted us on the tarmac. As I took a deep breathe still inside the airplane, deciding recycled germ-filled cabin air would be better than what I was about to walk into outside, the truthfulness of it all soaked in my bones.

Ever so tenderly in my spirit, I was reminded that I am not at home. That the West nor the East will every truly satisfy my longing for dwelling.

Because I'm made for something more. And so are you.

That you too look forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God, whether you are cognizant of it or not. A residency of perfection, where you are fully known and community flourishes, held together by the Godhead. A place where the unknown becomes known and the shadows become breathtaking light. Pain is gone: decay, death, loss, and tears are no more.

I could not keep from staring at these roots

You've searched for home too. Amid the joyous moments and comforting belly laughs of friendship, you've wondered. Settled in to routine and content in your season, your spirit has whispered quietly to your soul. Right there in your apartment. Right there in your beloved house of 20 years. You've observed the surrounding hurt and pain against the backdrop of a ticking clock and somewhere, deep down, you ache for something more. Something greater.

As you should. Because you aren't meant to feel too comfortable here. This Earth and its beings aren't meant to go on and on, void of imperfection or difficulty. It's meant to remind you that you're a pilgrim here. It's meant to be so blatantly obvious that this is temporary. It's meant to admonish us for emotionally responding as if this is it.

We're pilgrims here, feet called to walk the soil of this Earth, but hearts bent towards something upward. That innate longing is a beautiful propensity to discover the God who does not change, the One whose kingdom is in heaven.

Our very existence here points to our having purpose on this Earth and plans for His glory. I sure don't want to miss that. Our time here is of paramount significance and weight.

But in the meantime, on those days where I'm tired of fumbling with my chopsticks or fail grotesquely in my Mandarin pronunciation, I'll recall, unspeakably grateful, that a better country awaits (Hebrews 11:16).

Thank you Hong Kong for the reminder that I am but a pilgrim...
PS - In case you were wondering, I am no longer aching for the West...

A few more pictures from the trip:

You have to get used to this sight. Or run from them like I do.

My man at Victoria Harbor.
Brief pause b/c of steep hill for photo opp
Arches. Can we please incorporate them more into American architecture?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Similar and Dissimilar: Life in Beijing

Six weeks. 

Through days of inadequate sleep and conversations based on my use of charades, I've blinked and six weeks have passed by. 

Six weeks. 

It's hard to believe. My mind feels like a library bursting at the shelves with unorganized facts, cultural tidbits and some basic Mandarin. I cannot presently synthesize all of it and I am reminded of my uniqueness here. My newness. My 'whiteness' in this city called Beijing.

The city is both similar and dissimilar to the ways of life back home. Altering my presuppositions, some of the things I imagined unattainable or hard to come by are within easy reach or the everyday norms of my days. 

For instance, we have met two American couples that live in our complex. We take our dogs on play dates at least once a week and bond over the ease of English conversation and understanding of the unspoken. There is also a grocery market that I walk to which carries Western products. I have nearly all the ingredients I need for a lasagna for instance, though I cannot seem to find ricotta cheese for the life of me. And to transform a common misconception, there are so many non-Asian restaurants here, I could eat at a different one every week for a year and still not come close to repeating one. Similar to life in the states, shopping options abound, coffee shops and Starbucks are nearby for comfort, and we seem to have found a beautiful church home. 

If I close my eyes for just a moment, I believe that life here isn't too different. Maybe just a little different. And then the naive equation of two entirely unique countries flees as quick as the crazy drivers here. 

Because there are moments and experiences that are entirely foreign to my Georgia, Massachusetts, and Tennessee ways of life. I've lived in small towns, on the beach and in two major cities. None of them parallel life here, where cultural differences strike upon me like a Chinese tanggu drum.

These paramount difference I love, abhor or have not reached a conclusion for yet. Some differences are of minute size while others impact every single one of my days. 

Who likes lists? In this season of my life where the learning curve remains steep, I cling to them like a bff. So here is a list of what is different for me with life in Beijing: 

  • I no longer drive a car. I miss the freedom that those times provided. Instead, we have a 'driver.' His name is Mr. Lian. I love his smile. I also love that I have no idea what he is saying to me and vice-versa, yet we have entire conversations as if the other fully comprehended. It is quite entertaining. He gives me a big nod and smile when I speak my newest Mandarin word of the day. I'm pretty sure I'm slaughtering its pronunciation, but he makes me feel good for trying. 
  • How do I say this one without grossing you out? I'm not really sure that it can be done. To be blunt, people spit all the time. Everywhere and anywhere. And they are very engaged and work hard at their spitting. And while I'm on it, don't be surprised to see parents holding their toddler up in their arms for a public restroom moment. 
  • I no longer work an 8 am to 6+ pm gig anymore in corporate America. I work from home on a project basis for several different people and companies. And I love it. The hours are flexible as long as deadlines are met. And let's be honest. I can work in my sweats with no makeup and do what I love. Win, win and win.
  • I am frequently stared at by locals. Nate too. There is certainly a prevalent expat community here, but I suppose the ratio isn't enough to spread us around. We're foreigners. We're different. And I can't go out without being unapologetically looked upon. I've heard you get used to it. But I still get the heebie jeebies. 
  • I take two gym classes that are led strictly in Mandarin. Y'all should see me trying to keep up with the Pilates class, straining my neck to look at the instructor in order to follow. 
  • Have I mentioned I witnessed an all-women's sword fighting class at the gym? I so desperately wanted to go join them. I held myself back because y'all know a Southern girl with a sword who doesn't understand Mandarin would surely end up going the wrong way at some point. And well...that would be bad. 
  • We get two English channels on our tv. T-w-o.
  • I blame their pictographic and ideographic-based language, but the Chinese here do not seem to bond with linear thinking or movement. They don't know what personal space is. They don't stand well in lines. They don't mind stopping smack dab in the middle of their walking, totally unaware that you may be behind them. You are pushed over with no apology. It is their norm. And it's okay to get used to that. 
  • Golf and karoake are big here. 
  • My number of spoken languages pales in comparison to those here. Most all of the educated Chinese I come across are fluent in a minimum of three languages. That's fine: I speak Southern, ten minutes of Spanish, read a couple of other languages and know about 15 words in Mandarin. I'm totally on par right? (Not)
  • Taxi drivers, which we depend upon two days a week, could care less about driving you anywhere. I've learned to go ahead and get in their car before they have a chance to tell me no. 
  • You can have restaurant food and your groceries delivered. It is the oddest thing.

So life is different half way across the world. Its moments of beauty are captivating, while its context for humility and feelings of insecurity demand to be embraced, accepted and appreciated.  They must be to survive abundantly and joyfully. So I am here, with my man, called by our God for this present season to life in Beijing. And despite the chopstick mishaps, peking duck overload and smog, I wouldn't trade it.