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Indignation or Creativity?

From the series Our China Stories

The last months have been very busy. Why might you ask? On January 22, my then boyfriend asked me to marry him! And I said yes. At that moment when I accepted the ring, I had no idea how busy we would be in the months after with all the wedding preparations. I also did not realize at the time how much I would be (and still am) learning about Dutch wedding practices and culture. It’s a steep learning curve when you (and your partner to be) lived much of your lives outside of the Netherlands.

We learned the importance of having a Master of Ceremony. We also discovered after asking a Canadian friend to be our Master of Ceremony that neither she nor Ruben nor I knew what exactly the role entailed in the first place. We figured it out as we went along.

We discovered how a wedding day is usually organized in the Netherlands. It can be composed of various activities. There is the “burgelijk huwelijk,” the ceremony by which the marriage is legally registered with the government. This is the one element that is required. The rest of the day is personal preference. Did we also want a church ceremony? Did we want a lunch, a dinner, a reception, an afterparty?

We learned that in the Netherlands it is customary not to invite everyone to everything. Some guests are invited to the church ceremony, some to the reception, some to the dinner, and some to the after-party. And then there is a smaller group of people who is invited to all the activities. This thanks to good ole Dutch frugality. After all, it would become way too expensive to feed everyone!

One matter we did already know was that in the Netherlands the “burgelijk huwelijk” and church ceremony are two separate items. This is because only a government official can legally marry you. The church service which may follow is simply a symbolic and faith expression but holds no legal weight. What I did not know was that by law, you must first be married by a government official. Only then are you allowed to marry in the church. This meant, for instance, that we were not allowed to have our church ceremony in the morning and then go to the town hall in the afternoon. First, we must have our marriage legalized by the government official; then we may proceed to church.

But what does all this have to do with China? Living in China, I have time and again heard foreigners respond with indignation to big and little things they weren’t allowed or were supposed to do, whether by culture or by law.

One fellow expatriate expressed offense that in China he was not allowed to walk on the grass (signs are posted). He neglected taking into consideration that in a country as populated as China, there would be no grass left to walk on if everyone could just walk across, lie on, or play on the grass in city parks. It may also be noted that China is not the only place where walking on the grass is prohibited; for instance, for those visiting Cambridge in the UK, there are likewise signs that say, “Do not walk on the grass.”

Another acquaintance back in the Netherlands simply could not understand why she was not allowed a visa to go back to China. People at church sympathized with her desire to go back and shared her frustration with the denied visa applications. Yet, in these frustrations, neither the church nor the ex-expatriate took into consideration her age (over 60). Chinese law views all individuals above 60 as retired and as such provides no legal grounds for returning to China to work. She had also already lived in China for over 10 years as a language student. Might the government’s unwillingness to authorize her return to study after 10 years of study also contain some logic from their perspective? Wouldn’t we also consider it time for someone to move on had they already completed 10 years of study on a given subject?

In terms of evangelism methods, I have often heard Westerners complain that certain evangelism methods, such as street preaching, are not allowed in China. Should there not be freedom of speech and expression? Yet, here in the Netherlands, I also have limitations on what I am allowed or not allowed to do in public. Here, as well, I cannot simply organize an evangelistic event or activity on public property without first gaining permission from the local authorities.

As we prepared for our wedding, I was challenged: when we run into laws or regulations, how should we respond? Do we take offense, or do we work with the opportunities that we do have available to us?

In the case of our wedding day, I could choose to take offense that Dutch law dares interfere with how we arrange the day’s activities. Or that we would have to have the civil ceremony before our church ceremony, the latter of which I deem more important. Yet, that is not going to change the fact that the law stands; fighting it would only unnecessarily drain energy.

Working creatively within the limitations, however, allowed us to look at the possibilities rather than the obstacles. And that we did. I now look forward to a beautiful day as we have organized it! I might also note: this law does not prevent me from expressing my faith; it only sets some expectations on the how—the order of the ceremonies.

In terms of working overseas, how do we respond to local expectations, whether by law or by culture? One old-timer (a Bible-smuggler in his case) told me once during an interview: “There is a lot possible when we function within the law. We can still head in all kinds of directions. There are always open doors in every country no matter how ‘closed’ they are. We just have to find them.”

This does require a change of mindset. Rather than becoming frustrated and pushing our way through boundaries, it requires viewing our situations with creativity. In the case of not being permitted to walk on the grass, it might simply be recognizing that this prohibition is not worth taking offense over. In the case of our acquaintance’s denied visa, it might mean coming to terms with the fact of China’s visa requirements and the reality of her not meeting them. Then moving forward and finding other venues to give expression to the heart she has for China, perhaps by encouraging the next generation going out. Or she might connect with Chinese living outside of China. In the case of evangelism methods, it might simply mean seeking out methods which are allowed rather than getting frustrated with what is not allowed.

So how do we respond to boundaries, here or overseas? Indignation or creativity?

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Image credit: Hans Wolff, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Laura de Ruiter

Laura de Ruiter

Laura de Ruiter grew up in China (1997–2010). She completed her BA in Biblical exposition at Moody Bible Institute in Spokane, US in 2016, then earned her master’s degree in strategic leadership and change management in 2017. From 2018 to 2019 she worked as a pastor in Frankfurt with a …View Full Bio

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