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Those Were the Good Old Days, Right?

No matter if it’s streaming sports, TV shows, or family updates—it’s hard to do ministry if you’re still tied to your old life.

Rachel Kleppen, “Netflix Is Making It Harder to Be a Missionary.”

As I read an article this past week, memories of our early years in Hong Kong flooded my mind. After surviving a startling descent, with the plane seeming to weave its way down between high-rise buildings, my wife, Narci, and I walked off the plane onto the sweltering tarmac of the old Kai Tak airport on a late July day. Nearly gasping, trying to catch our breath in the hot, humid air, we knew we were in for a new life made of a string of surprises.

It would be fun to reminisce about the many experiences we had in the Hong Kong of those early days in the 1980s. Everything was new—it was the first time either of us had stepped anywhere in Asia. But, what I especially realized as I read Rachel Kleppen’s article, Netflix Is Making It Harder to Be a Missionary,” was the extent to which we did not have to face the struggles she talks about. While she writes about Netflix putting a damper on doing the “work of incarnation,” we could barely find anything to watch on our 12” rabbit-eared, black and white TV, especially not in a language we could understand in those days.

It wasn’t that we were trying to be noble, nor were we deliberately seeking out hardcore ways of identifying with the people around us. The choices that Kleppen is dealing with simply didn’t exist. The internet was still 10 years out in the future. Apple II had only just been released a couple of years earlier.

And, it was often easier to adapt to the things people around us were doing, than it was to try to artificially create the home we came from. I remember after having been met by our co-workers at the airport, we were taken to a friend’s home, where we were to stay for a few days while they were away. After pointing out a few places where we might fend for ourselves buying food and anything else we might need, they unceremoniously left us on our own. The next day we found the shop that resembled a grocery store, which was in and of itself a bit of a novelty in those days. There we bought what every home-grown American would find to be breakfast-comfort fooda box of Cheerios! The next morning, all ready to dig into our familiar breakfast, we opened the box, only to find all the customary holes filled with cobwebs. Well, at least that’s what they looked like. So much for our breakfast!

Time after time, we ran into something like this when we tried to replicate familiar foods. Too expensive. Too much traveling to find a place to buy Western ingredients. The town we settled in did not have anything that resembled canned tomato products. Settling down to enjoy an evening of making and sharing a homemade pizza was out.

And, having children in Hong Kong was an experience all its own. The cost of plane tickets was prohibitive. No one from our families was with us when our children were born. Waiting for the birth of our first son, Narci lay on a gurney in the hospital hallway. I was told, “You can go home now. Come back tomorrow morning.” There was no being with my wife, either during the waiting or the delivery. Even making a phone call back to our parents to report the good news of the arrival of a grandson was a bit of an investment. I remember, after the birth and being back home, we recorded our thoughts and impressions on a cassette tape and mailed it back to our families.

We learned to interact with and depend on our neighbors. We had to make do with what was available. Food, for instance. We quickly learned to fix what our neighbors were eating—remember the cobweb-laced cereal, and the lack of tomato products?

We were introduced to Chan Taai (Mrs. Chan), a woman (sister of a church member) who was willing to take care of our son, Josh, while we were at language school. We mostly wanted her to play with and interact with our son, and to otherwise keep him safe and comfortable at home. Eventually, as he got older, after making sure we understood and were ok with it, babysitting our son often included taking him with her to the cooked food stall at the market—Josh really loved the Hong Kong version of French toast, with sweetened condensed milk—where she would meet her friends. They would gather for breakfast and a chat before buying their daily meats and vegetables.

Later Narci, with Josh in tow, joined Chan Taai and her friends. She would be escorted around the market to buy our daily food supplies. Often, Chan Taai would tell her to buy this or that vegetable—really good price. And, Chan Taai would not take ignorance of knowing how to fix an unfamiliar food as an excuse. She would come back to our house and show Narci how to the fix it in the local way.

We did not have to face what Kleppen is facing. And, I think we were better off for it. It gave us a chance to learn to enjoy the place to which the Lord had called us. We were in Hong Kong for four years before returning to the US for a visit. By that time, Hong Kong had become home for us. In these days packed full of Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and relatively cheaper plane tickets, what can be done to recapture some the “advantages” we had back in the good old days?

It’s probably not realistic or smart (pun intended) to smash your smartphones or to cut-off all ties with your families (they are going to be your biggest supporters, in every sense of the word). With respect to the newer technologies we have today—in many places the “locals” are going to outshine our abilities to use them; at least that would be the case in today’s Hong Kong. Indeed, these things can be a point of connection with the people into whose lives we are seeking to enter.

But, it would be of great value to prayerfully and seriously think through what it is that you are hoping to see the Lord accomplish through you. And, while you are at it, very critically seek to discern, even write down, what it is that you are doing simply as a way to avoid facing and dealing with people and things, where you know the cultural differences are going to hit you full force. What is it that is too alluring and is keeping you away from where you know you ought to be? (Kleppen has a lot of good suggestions in her article).

But, also, know what it is that you want to hang onto just to keep your sanity as you face all of these new things. And, that’s something that only you can answer. Let it be your choices. Or, more to the point, let it be the Lord’s choices for you.

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Glenn Herr

Glenn Herr

Glenn, and his wife Narci, came to ChinaSource after 30 years of experience living and serving in Hong Kong and China. They were first involved in working with the church in Hong Kong and for the last 20 years they served workers living in China. During that time Glenn traveled extensively throughout …View Full Bio

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