There are many reasons for choosing to work outside of your home country. In a recent ChinaSource Quarterly, several contributors to “Views from the Classroom” revealed their hopes and challenges as teachers in China. Behind the similarities of their lives in the classroom there were unique prods and pushes that got them to where they were serving. And that got me thinking . . .
Why did I go? A heart for all to hear the gospel, a desire to use my teaching skill where needed, a willingness to leave my comfort zone, or maybe an adventurous spirit? For me the reasons were many but foremost was a longing to see how the God I had chosen to follow worked outside of my world.
The city I come from in the US is home to countless cultures and languages. I often hear that “the world has come to us.” I had no doubts about God’s love for his world. I did not need a plane ticket to fulfill my desire. But when I heard of a need for English teachers in China the call had my name on it.
Have I seen how God works? Were my eyes opened? Was I challenged? Do I still have questions? Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! I haven’t enrolled in a course in comparative religions or intercultural ministries. Rather, I have simply lived in another corner of his world and kept my eyes and ears open.
Foreign sounds surrounded me my first Sunday in a worship service. But I had learned a few of the names for God and heard them spoken over and over. As people stood up to pray they all seemed to use a different one to address him. Why did I just use one?
It wasn’t my first time hearing worship in a foreign language, but it was no less moving. Every word was understood by him! Some songs were translations of familiar hymns; others were new to me—different styles and tunes. In time they would become my favorites.
As time went on I met with a student to look at a psalm. The psalmist spoke of a tower that the righteous run to and are safe. “Like a wall around a city. The tower is at the corner—it keeps the people safe!” Not strange to her at all. “There are many sheep in my village,” says another student. “They need a shepherd.” Moving on to the seed and the sower he tells me his father is a farmer. He knows all about the seeds that don’t make it.
I was honored to sit next to new believers as they discovered prayer. “Hello there, Father,” said one student, "it’s me Xiao Ma, your child. Well, here I am.” A young teacher said, “It’s a whole new language;” I can’t do it. There are too many new words. Do I have to learn them to talk to him? Why do people change their voice when they pray?”
A praise team meets for dinner at a restaurant before practice each week. Naturally they spoke of much more than music—the events of their day, challenges at their jobs and classes. Scripture is shared. Students—seeking and full of questions—enjoy cups coffee at a nearby table. They soon make it a weekly habit to drink coffee, eavesdrop, and take notes.
Meeting with three new believers—grad students—they tell me of a train ride where they shared their sleeper car with a young Buddhist monk. “I told him what I believe and who I believe in. I thought he would disagree with me. I wondered if I could answer his questions but he was quiet. Maybe he was a new monk. But I was ready.”
At Qingming, tomb-sweeping day, a Chinese language tutor asks me why her western students are so critical of this holiday. “I see English movies where people bring flowers and notes to cemeteries. They talk to grave stones and make promises to the dead person. They cry and say sorry. Do they think the dead can hear them? ”
When my mother died I had vivid dreams where she spoke to me in comforting and even humorous ways. I rarely remember what I dream but those stayed in my mind for days. My neighbor had recently lost her mother and started telling me about her dreams—very similar to mine. Without a second thought I shared my experience and her face lit up. “See! Both our mothers are looking down on us and comforting us from the heaven.” Yes . . . maybe . . . I’m not sure.
“My grandma is just like you. She believes in god.” Sounds good, but what god? If she can tell me can I express how mine is different?
“Why are you in such a rush to have students read the New Testament?” my retired neighbor, an older believer, asks me. “Jesus is in the whole Bible. When you understand the Old Testament it is thrilling when you get to Matthew.” I have never looked at the historical books the same again.
“At birthdays Westerners close their eyes and make a wish. Who are you hoping will hear you? Is this like praying?”
I hear of a young girl from the countryside working as a helper in a daycare. My teacher friends have their children there and hear other parents criticize her. Why? She will not accept bribes to give their children special treatment. They are puzzled. Doesn’t she need the money? She tells them she is a believer and treats all children the same. Money does not change how she looks at each child. I hope someday she realizes the impact she had.
“I still have so many questions,” says a student week after week. I so desire to have answers to give him. But as I read now I see him in the Bible. How many others wanted a sign? Then he looks into my Bible. “I see question marks in your Bible. You’re not sure!? You don’t believe it? There are things you don’t understand?” We discuss having questions versus wanting a sign.
At a holiday gathering of returning scholars I am asked if all my colleagues in my country believe this story. Excellent question. I shake my head. Some moved on to other topics and some stayed and wondered why I think it’s true. Others are surprised at the long historical background of Jesus’ birth. One man nods his head vigorously. “This is just what I heard in Japan! My boss had a dinner for the holiday and then read this account to us.”
A student introduces me to a middle aged woman she has tutored in English. The stylishly dressed, attractive woman is a believer who came to faith through one of her German business partners. Now she has questions and wants to meet someone older than her tutor. That would be me. We meet for dinner but she eats little. She shares a Psalm, one she feels was written for her. And then the questions: Can believers smoke? Does she have to remarry her ex-husband—the father of her daughter? Do people at the church know she has all these questions when she attends? The next week I see her in church—taking notes in her leather journal and offering a tissue to a weeping grandma sitting next to her.
To a Japanese professor with Chinese scholars, a Chinese businesswoman with a German officemate, a teacher’s aide, a group of musicians, a retired neighbor and so many others, “Thank you, for helping me have a faith without borders.”
Image credit: Xi'an - 西安City wall - 明城牆 by Juan Llanos via Flickr.
Barbara Kindschi has had the privilege and challenge of teaching English in six cities in China and now Myanmar and Laos. Undergrads, professors, hotel employees, monks, and beauty pageant contestants have sat in her classroom. All have been both her students and teachers. View Full Bio
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