If I had to name the god of my time in China, I would name it上帝.
You can’t fit two years living in China into a blog post or a book. It barely fits into my heart. For this blog post, I had a hard time finding the story. After holding all the beauty in my hands and being overwhelmed by it, I came back to you, the reader. When I asked people on Facebook what I should write about, they (you) overwhelmingly wanted to hear about my confusion with my gender identity as well as my journey of faith. So, that’s the lens I’m telling this part of my life through.
Carrie and I closed the door to our flat on the fifth floor and exhaled. We were home. But we weren’t. Or were we? We were. This small, two bedroom apartment would be home for however long we were staying in China. We didn’t have an elevator so we would be developing Calves of Steel.
My first solo walk to the market was overwhelming and all I did was buy six kabobs. Armed with “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, “I no understand”, “that”, and the numbers up to ten, I walked down to the market and asked the Uighur man for six kabobs. When he said “six” I nodded my head and said “six” back to him.
I wanted six kabobs. I had no idea how much they cost. We kept saying “six” to each other. Maybe I had entered hell through some secret gate located in China and the first level of hell was receiving the word “six” as the answer to every question. Maybe I was stuck in some Groundhog Day loop. Maybe the smoke wasn’t rising from the grill and instead was coming out of every orifice in my head as my brain burned away. I grew more confused and frustrated after each repetition.
I eventually decided on body language instead of pǔtōnghuà. I pointed at my money and shrugged. The man finally understood. He pointed at the kabobs on his grill and said “six.” No shit, dude. He then held up his hand and said “six.”Ahhhhh. Carrie and I feasted on six kabobs for six kuai… about 75 cents.
All I did was buy six kabobs and I was mentally exhausted.
Welcome to China.
For the first few months I was in China, the organization I was a part of had me sitting at a desk doing, basically, nothing. One of the families in which the man was the supported spouse had ended up having an affair with the Japanese Ambassador’s wife. The organization made a new rule: All male supported spouses had to do some kind of work. (The female supported spouses could just run around and have affairs, I guess.) My “job” was sitting in meetings that were on topics that were way over my head as well as being the yáng guǐzi in sales meetings. I was a glorified Vanna White except I couldn’t even wear outfits as pretty as hers. I had to settle for a collared shirt and a tie.
I would sit in sales calls that happened in Mandarin and space out since I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said:
Potential Customer leans back in chair and appears skeptical “You are asking for too much money and I am not sure your seminars and methodology will grow my business or increase my team’s effectiveness.
My coworker, gesturing subtly towards me “Behold, our Foreigner. Look upon his hairy forearms. See his enlarged nose. Observe his giant, newborn-like eyes and his strange skin color. He comes from a faraway land called ‘America’ and holds secret wisdom.”
Potential Customer, laughing “You’ve convinced me. When can we start the training program?”
My coworker, laughing along with the Potential Customer “Why finish so soon? Shouldn’t we sit here and continue this conversation for at least another hour, until the White Devil wishes he were dead?”
Everyone continues conversing in Chinese and the White Devil mimics their facial expressions, not wanted to draw more attention or kill the energy in the room.
I lived in the city that was the training ground for the Public Security Bureau, the Chinese equivalent of the KGB. Prior to my arrival, a lot of the missionaries in my city had been rounded up, detained, and interrogated. At least one family was deported and lost the right to return to China for a decade. Kill the Chicken to scare the Monkey is a Chinese Proverb. In this situation it meant deporting a foreign chicken who was obviously a missionary -an illegal activity in China- so that the other missionary monkies in that city would be scared of the PSB and stop evangelizing.
As James-Bond-for-Jesus, I lived in fear of the PSB for the next two years while I conducted my covert activities. In one English class that I was starting, I went with an open-to-the-public sales pitch. I had about 30 people in a room and one of them was a PSB agent in uniform. I went about my usual introduction and English lesson, correcting people’s consonant sounds and showing them the correct way to shape a mouth in order to say “th.”
The PSB agent grilled me towards the end of the hour. I had been in China for 1 1/2 years at that point so I knew that questioning the teacher was waaaaay out of line in their culture. At the end of the session I invited people to sign up with the receptionist and thanked them for coming. I went into the office and sat behind a wall in the reception area. The PSB Agent, not knowing I was there nor that my Chinese was good enough to understand him, told the secretary “you will call me if he teaches a class and I will have a policeman in it.” No one signed up. I didn’t do an open sales pitch again.
That English class sums up my evangelization pretty well. I gave out a couple of bibles and talked about my faith with a handfuls of Chinese friends. They were enamored with the parables of Jesus that made little sense to me. One friend said, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” with an amused and surprised look on his face. I always just blew past that blurb from Jesus and didn’t contemplate it. They were also blown away by “tithing,” the practice of giving 10% of your income to the church. They looked at me like I was a freak and couldn’t believe I did that with my money.
Mostly, I just did my best to love people around me. I feel like my Chinese friends did a better job at that than I did but I tried my best to convey my love to them in ways that Jesus would if he were in my place.
On a trip with some Junior High kids, I went to a Buddhist temple near Hangzhou. It was so old that, in the oldest parts of the temple, the writing on the walls of the caves was in Indian script not Chinese characters (Buddhism originated in India). As I looked around I noticed a seamless interweaving of nature and man-made structures. The two worked together in the design of the space. So much of what I saw was completely foreign to me. The incense smell was beautiful. The bowing to the Buddha was odd. The sitting in meditation seemed kinda pointless. The silence and stillness, though. Those hooked me. This was a space in which my soul could exhale. This was a place in which my endless, American sense of hurry finally stopped hurrying so much.
One of my missionary friends said that he thought it had been a mistake to build European-style churches in China. He wondered aloud what a Chinese-inspired church might look like. As I joined him in imagining this different space, I imagined buildings around a courtyard. One building could house prayer and meditation. Another could be a communal space for eating and preparing meals for the poor. Another could be for teaching and selling literature on Christian Spirituality. In the middle of all of it would be a courtyard for rest and relaxation.
I realized as we both imagined how a “Culturally Chinese” church campus might look that I would rather go to this place on an average Sunday than our European interpretation of a church campus with its gigantic lecture halls.
I still hid from Carrie the fact that I was wearing her clothing and that there was something inside of me bent and broken. I only got the chance to do “dress up” when I was alone, which was not very often. Carrie and I had similar work schedules and we had a maid, so I only got to express my gender in feminine ways a few times a year. It felt so right and so wrong at the same time. I returned to my pre-college confession of “it” to God. I begged forgiveness, pleaded with God to take this away from me, and feared losing his “anointing.”
Anointing is a tricky thing. The short explanation for those of you not familiar with biblical imagery is that, throughout the scriptures, you see special people receiving special power from God. You also see God taking it away from them when they fuck up. Sampson lost his anointing. So did King Saul. I feared I was going to be on that list if I kept wearing women’s clothing and wishing I was something other than how I was born.
So, every time I wore Carrie’s clothing, I feared God’s wrath. He was up there with his massive thunderbolt, just waiting to hit me with it. I begged God to change me. I pleaded with him to keep using me as a tool in his work in the world. I put the lid back on that forbidden piece of my heart and pushed down on it as hard as I could to show God that I really was sorry.
I was always amazed and grateful that he kept using a sinner like me.
Carrie woke me up, telling me that her dad had called. Something weird had happened in America while we were asleep and her dad wasn’t making sense on the phone. She told me she was going to go to work and get on the internet to see what was happening. When I got to work I hit all the news websites and couldn’t believe the images I was seeing. The World Trade Center towers had collapsed? The Pentagon had been hit with a plane? Later that day a man from Finland told me he was so sorry for what had happened in my country.
I experienced 9/11 in a different way than you did. It happened to my country but it didn’t happen to me. I was safe in China. Carrie and I chuckled when our families told us they were worried about us. Living in a country with a Totalitarian Regime was oddly comforting in the months after the attacks.
Those of us in China that were American were outside observers to what was happening. When people would go “home” for a visit, we would all gather around and ask questions upon their return. Everyone had the same reports. The amount of flags was unnerving… it felt way too nationalistic. Everyone in America was living in a constant state of fear, waiting for the next attack to happen. It seemed certain that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11 and most Americans wanted to go to war.
My country had changed profoundly and it felt like I had missed it.
I discovered the Christian tradition of meditation in China. Someone gave me a book on “Centering Prayer” and I jumped in with both feet. I remember lighting incense and reclining in a comfortable position on my back patio, watching the incense smoke rise and mingle with my drying clothing. The smoke went up and disappeared, just like my prayers. The smell of incense was all that lingered after the cone burnt itself out, just like all that remained after a time of meditation was the calming of my heart. There was a depth here that I had no idea was part of my Christian heritage.
I also sat in on a Church History class while I lived overseas. In the preface of the textbook, the writer said that the average person’s view of Christianity has a 2,000 year gap between the end of the book of Acts and today. I was guilty of that. I knew about the horrors of the Inquisition, the ugly divorce of the Reformation, and Azusa Street… but that was about it.
In that classroom I discovered the deep, rich tradition of my Grandfather’s Methodist heritage. I saw Anabaptist-like “revivals” peppered throughout those 2,000 years of previously blank space. I saw the demise of the Early Church as it bowed to the Roman Empire and gained access to wealth and political influence. I discovered that the rigid interpretations of the end of the world that I had been taught were only 150 years old… a mere blip on the 2,000 year radar of church history.
In that classroom, as well as in China, I also saw people from every century, denomination, order, and sect speaking of something deeper. They spoke of God’s love being profoundly large and almost impossible to describe. They told of being overwhelmed by God’s embrace. I realized that my Baptist/Bible Church theology was too narrow. I watched God use Lutheran missionaries just as much as he used me. God spoke through my Evangelical Free friends and my Methodist coworkers. There was room for all of us underneath the canopy of God’s love yet we often bickered over our differences instead of celebrating the fact that God’s love went beyond those differences.
When the bible was translated into Mandarin, the word for “God” that they used was 上帝 (Shang Di in the romanized letter system of Mandarin). There is a long history of 上帝 being worshiped in China. It goes back 4,000 years. I find it both poetic and beautiful that the translators didn’t make a new name for the God of the bible. They chose instead to use an ancient Chinese concept as the name of the Hebrew God. That name choice aptly sums up how I left China.
I still believed in the same God when I boarded a flight leaving Beijing. I still revered the same sacred text. However, 上帝 had taken away a lot of the very dark tint that the American flag had colored God with. I understood Jack Johnson’s frustration in his lyric when he sarcastically sang “God bless these ones, not those ones, but these ones.” I understood it because יהוה, God, 上帝, loved all of his children. He wanted to bless all of them.
Even a sinner as evil as me.
Read the next part: A god named Holistic