This time last year I was preparing to move back to China to study Chinese. The autumn semester was full of learning to live in a new city with a new role. My classmates were from America, Korea, Russia, Morocco, Belgium, Egypt, and Thailand, but when we came into the classroom our common language was Chinese. We learned to communicate at first by repeating a simple scripted dialogue of introduction.
My name is ________. What’s yours?
My name is_________. I have ____ people in my family. How many do you have?
And eventually, by piecing together our own questions.
What is the weather like in your country?
What time do you want to go to the movies this weekend?
We brought cake for our teacher’s birthday, slid through the snow with our classmates to try a new noodle place, were finally able to ask the grocery store employees which chili sauce should go with dumplings, did a scavenger hunt at the train station with our tutors, and bought dinner supplies every evening from the same family selling vegetables in the neighborhood. On Christmas we participated in intercultural incarnation by taking our final exams—our teacher passed out our tests while bedecked in a bobbing antler headband.
Then winter break arrived. Chinese winter break is exceptionally long because schools don’t resume until after Chinese New Year. I went to Thailand for the holiday and a conference. There were whispers of a new virus infecting Wuhan, but because I don’t live anywhere near there, I wasn’t paying too much attention to it. Within a week of arriving in Thailand, the whispers had become a roar. I started to hear about flights into and out of China being cancelled. By the end of the week, my airline had cancelled my flights and I too was stranded. Soon almost all the other foreigners I knew in Thailand were also stranded as their flights were cancelled one by one.
With the conference drawing to a close, my friends and I faced the pressure of where to go when it ended. A few days before we had to choose what to do for the remaining month before school started, several people came down with severe food poisoning—including me. From a hospital bed over the next three days, attached to IVs, I monitored flights carefully, watching to see if they made all their layovers, were allowed to land, and if people were quarantined at any point along the way.
Because my mother has stage-four cancer, I decided to seize the gift of time and go back to the States. As soon as I was discharged, a tuk-tuk raced me back to the hotel to meet up with several friends to figure out flights. Within minutes I had flights back to the States in 48 hours with layovers we hoped would hold. I arrived back in the States on Valentine’s Day, walked through the inches of snow in my beach dress and sandals up to my parent’s porch, and rang the bell.
Surprise! I’m here!
It has been over 160 days since then. Like many expats, I’ve found myself displaced as COVID-19 wreaks havoc across the world. Like most students, our classes were suddenly online. But ours were on Beijing time. Depending on time zone and Daylight Savings, live classes started at all hours of the morning. For me, they were at 5am.
Our teachers were absolute heroes. They adapted to using apps that worked for all the countries in which we live. They conquered mic and internet problems. They figured out how to get us textbook PDFs. And they administered exams. They kept us learning as much as we could in the middle of strict quarantine for them and exile for us.
Our tutor friendships continued as they answered my texts about homework problems, did an interview with me about how their lives were changing due to COVID-19, and used their mask allowances from the government to send boxes full of masks when they heard that my mom and our local hospital were running low.
After a month of trying to keep up with pre-dawn classes, family, and health, I contacted the teachers to see if they could make the requirements more manageable. I’m practically incoherent at 5am in English, let alone Chinese. For the second half of the semester, I checked in for the morning attendance, watched the videos later, and did the homework due in the evening. It wasn’t the most immersive language study, but we all survived. And I definitely understand comparative conjunctions.
But in the midst of chaos—with no return date in sight, anti-Chinese attitudes all around us, friends who we love sick or dying on both continents—how do we live as story-formed exiles?
I was reading recently the writings of Peter, and his first book is written to people like us—exiles. He begins by explaining that exiles don’t have the same allegiances as citizens; we resist empire narratives of people, identity, and values because we see things being remade differently. Peter says instead that the displaced have confidence that we are hand-crafted and spoken into being at this time in this location as the image-bearers of our Creator, and our courage is that “exile” doesn’t mean “loner” because Jesus knows the life of the displaced.
This is a season in which pure gold is being formed in our lives because both our distress and our trials are redeemed—our distress invites us to reject a distant hope, while our suffering confronts true darkness with questions that drive us not to answers but to relationship with the all-powerful, loving Creator whose very presence is in the fire with us, neither consuming nor consumed, but present and redeeming the scars for changed hearts and lives in us and others.
So when we can finally go back, this is our hope born out of these exile truths that we will carry to friends for whom the very idea of hope itself has been upturned: Immanuel.
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