My Christmas presents all arrived a day late this year.
I mean, it’s understandable – Santa probably got confused with the time difference and all.
I was woken up by a phone call in Chinese, which is usually not a good way to start the day. But! It was Fr. Cai (#1) on the other end – he remembered that when we were in Shanghai I had mentioned wanting a seal with my name on it. He had said he knew a place and would help me get it. Anyway, he was calling to ask what my name was! (Only in China would this happen, I feel. They all know my name is mǎlìyà but that doesn’t help them figure out the accompanying characters. My name (马利亚) is close to the Blessed Mother’s (玛利亚) so I get that a lot. I have also, at various times, gotten 玛丽亚, 玛丽亚, 玛莉亚, 马力亚, etc. It would be a bummer to get my name wrong on my seal, so I’m glad he asked.) He also remembered that I had asked for a Chinese Bible and said I would get it next time I saw Ms. Yan. Yay! Just what I wanted for Christmas.
So then I got on my computer, logged on to facebook to hear more about the crazy weather, and saw the news – one of my very good friends is engaged to his girlfriend! (Even better, I heard they’re waiting ‘til next winter, when I should be back in the States.) I knew he was going to ask her and I’m certainly not surprised to hear she accepted, but it was no less special to hear the news.
Another pleasant surprise was that the Onion was randomly unblocked (although it’s probably temporary). I’ve heard that the U.S. Embassy in Beijing uses Twitter to share news about the current air quality in the city, and I would like to see a similar project for the internet. It could be like a weather forecast: “Tomorrow should be a pretty good day, with both the Onion and WordPress unblocked, but the weekend’s going to get a little nasty as the government cracks down on Flickr and Twitter. Bring your proxy if you’re planning on social networking over the holidays!”
I spent a lot of the day cleaning my room still, catching up on news, and things like that. Before I knew it, it was time for Mass. As I scouted out a spot in the church, an old woman beckoned me over, pointing to a vacancy next to her. Even better, she had a stack of books there – the missal, song book, and hymnal – waiting for me. Even several months in, I usually have a hard time tracking down the whole trifecta, so I really appreciated the effort and thoughtfulness. I didn’t recognize the woman, which made it even more surprisingly pleasant. (I think I gave them cookies though; they must have been standing next to someone I knew. Forget ping-pong diplomacy – the way to make friends is obviously with cookies!)
Like most Saturdays, I went dancing after Mass. One of the women brought me some Xiamen snacks in return for the cookies I brought last time, which was a nice gesture. But more than the physical gift, I really appreciated the gift of friendship that these people have given me. We don’t really talk much; they don’t know much about me and I know even less about them (sometimes not even their names), so it’s easy to underestimate our relationship. But really, it’s kind of incredible that they’ve put up with me this long, with my mediocre language skills and extremely limited dancing skills. Anyway, today a crazy guy came in and started talking to me. Within a minute, one of the men asked me to dance and, as we twirled around the floor, he took me the man was 不清楚 (unclear, which, based on body language as well, I guess meant crazy). Since he tried to talk to me each time I sat down, a stream of men asked me to dance successively, keeping me away from him. I felt so protected – and it didn’t stop there; when the music stopped at 10, one of the men walked me home.
Today is my 4-month anniversary here in Xiamen (if you believe the calendar). New Year’s is coming up, which is a big time of retrospection for me, so I would like to just write a little about my some feelings and thoughts I’ve been having over these last few months – since usually I write more about events and occurrences.
I’m having a great time here – that should be obvious from reading this journal. I love the sense of adventure that saturates everything when living in China – from traveling to going to the bathroom, everything is ‘an experience’. I love my new friends and the camaraderie born from ‘being in the same boat’. I love the simple pleasures of my life here, especially since they’re also cheap. I love the excitement of learning a language, where every word and grammar structure is a tool that can immediately be put to use.
But obviously there are downsides. I miss my friends and family back home. Actually, to be honest, the family part isn’t so bad. I’ve been talking to my parents and some relatives a lot more than I do when I’m in Tulsa, and those who are reading this journal know far more about my life than they usually do. But the friends are rough. I miss the effortlessness of seeing them everyday, everywhere when we were living so close to each other. I miss knowing the details of their lives, even being there for a lot of them. I miss the memories, inside jokes, traditions, and habits.
Also, because my life here so closely resembles a vacation at times, sometimes I feel like I’m wasting time. I’m a Goldwater and Udall Scholar, which means that some people think I’m among the nation’s most promising young research scientists and environmental leaders . . . and here I am, doing neither of those things. I feel a lot of pressure to do something worthy of all the gifts I’ve been given and, while I think Chinese might play into that somehow, I’m not sure how, say, ballroom dancing will. I have pretty varied interests and this sometimes feels like another case of me going for breadth instead of depth. I find it interesting, and some of my side interests may figure into my broader life plans, but I don’t want to be a jack of many trades and master of none for the rest of my life. It’s just a question of which one to master, and if I have it in me to do so.
I am really happy to have found a church, the Church, in China. I’ve had some pretty amazing experiences so far and I’m sure that more are to come. I’m so fascinated by the presence of the Church that I’ve found where I despaired of finding it. On my first three trips, I never even looked, but here it is! I know all that I’ve heard about the Church in China and I recognize there are problems but at the same time, Mass here is the most familiar thing I’ve seen since I arrived. It’s closer to what I’m used to in America than McDonald’s is! I’m torn between the knowledge I have of the problems at the top and the Love I’ve experienced at the ground level. I want even fuller unity, but I can feel myself lulled into complacency because what we have right now is ‘not bad’, as the Chinese would probably say. (If that is the purpose of the CCPA, as I think it is, they’re doing a good job with it.) I want to know more, but right now the only thing I’m sure of is that it’s here and I want people to know that. I wonder how many other foreigners visit China without ever looking for a church (like I did), because they don’t expect to find the Church here. That saddens me, and I would like to change it – there’s no reason to forego the sacrament when you’re in the PRC.
I hang out with a lot of foreigners here, which is weird because one of the main tendencies I notice among foreigners in China is self-hatred. I hate it, but I know it affects me sometimes – I feel guilty when I speak English and look for Chinese friends harder than I look for foreign friends. It’s born out of the desire to get the “true China” experience and to learn “real Chinese”. According to the commonly-held view, these two things only exist in a vacuum of foreigners. What a Catch-22, though – any place that is perceived as offering these things is immediately coveted by every foreigner, but once they enter they ruin the pristine Chinese environment and it’s no longer what they wanted. It’s a vicious circle – I hate myself, and then I hate myself for hating myself.
Anyway, it’s hard to experience “the real China”. China’s big, in case you didn’t know, and ‘your China’ may be very different from ‘my China’. ‘My China’ is in fact not the same as it was last year. I’m trying to find balance in my life here between knowing ‘China’ (which might be a mythical construct), and knowing ‘my China’. There’s certainly a pressure, from Chinese as well as foreigners, to get to every part of China – to climb every mountain, tour every museum, eat the food of every province, etc. I have to constantly remind myself that I am living in China, not visiting. After all, I consider myself a well-traveled American without having ever been to New York City, L.A., or Florida (which, to some people, constitute all of America), so why should the validity of my year in China be dependent on getting to Beijing or Suzhou or Xinjiang?
Reading over what I just wrote, it seems like all these things are just issues about finding balance, which is something that I’m always looking for in my life. I realize this post went from really joyful to a little bit discontent, but none of these things are huge deals, certainly not joy-breaking. I guess I’m just trying to think through some of the things that have been on my mind.
Finally, a few people have asked for my address here and, even though Christmas is passed, I thought I might as well just post it. They write things from largest to smallest unit here so the address is a bit odd, but just be grateful you don’t have to write in 汉字 (Chinese characters)! The Latin alphabet will work just fine, and throw line breaks in as needed:
China, Fujian Province, Xiamen City 361005
XiaDa, NanGuangWu, 406