catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 6 :: 2014.03.21 — 2014.04.03


The language of belonging

Onboard the giant airbus from Los Angeles to Guangzhou, China, I could not believe the opportunity I had to finally travel to the country I had dreamed of for so long. After reading the biography of famed China Inland Mission founder Hudson Taylor as a young woman, I had understood God calling me to give my heart, if not my life, to the people there. I supported mission work in China; I regularly met with others to pray for the minority people groups of the country; I took a special interest in Chinese students who were studying in the United States, learning about their culture and investing in our friendships.

When a friend offered to bring me along on a trip to a small city in southern China (small only by Chinese standards), I jumped at the chance. Our purpose was a creative one: we were delivering murals painted on canvas to mountain-ridge schools that our church had paid to build. But two of us also were going to paint murals in real-time on the walls of a group home for disabled orphans. Traveling to the country I dreamed of, using the gifts God had given me, to reach the people I already loved: what could be better?

On the flight there, I picked up a respiratory infection that left me feverish and coughing the rest of the trip. On our second day, when I should have been in bed recovering, the local police took our passports and interrogated us about the purpose for our visit. Ultimately, they decided we were legitimate, but not without rattling my nerves. Then, on the fourth day, when I was finally feeling a little better, we decided to go sightseeing.

Walking through the crowded streets, shopping at the Bird and Antique Market, smelling “stinky tofu” cooking in the street-side food stands, and observing traditional dancing in the People’s Square gave me a glimpse of the China I expected. But watching people point at me and laugh, having school children touch me then run off, and experiencing storekeepers talking negatively about us while overcharging us for their goods left me feeling unwelcome. And no amount of poorly pronounced “Ni Haos” (hellos), uneasily executed “xièxiès” (thank yous), or toothy, sheepish grins on my part seemed to help.

In this rural Chinese city of nearly 3 million people, I clearly didn’t belong.

Returning home a few days later, I battled the usual jet lag that accompanies international travel. And when I still hadn’t recovered a week after that, I called my doctor. He told me I should have taken the broad-spectrum antibiotic he had given me before I left. “That’s why I gave it to you, he said. I thought it was just for diarrhea.

By the time I was feeling better, I was fully immersed back in my old life, without much thought of my time in China. When people asked me how the trip was, I usually said, “Harder than I imagined. Amazing, but difficult.” When they asked me if I would go back, I usually said, “Probably not.” I was disappointed in myself that I wasn’t the cosmopolitan I had always imagined myself to be. But as unfair as it was, I was disappointed in China, too — the whole country. I had loved her for years, and she hadn’t welcomed me as I had wanted.

In the years since, I’ve often wondered why I felt so out of place during that trip. I knew enough about Chinese food and local customs that those things hadn’t surprised me. Seeing the effects of Communism and institutionalized atheism was maddening, and witnessing the pollution and poverty of the world’s fastest growing economy was confusing and heartbreaking, but I expected that, too. It’s not like I hadn’t traveled before. I had been all over the United States and had spent two weeks outside of Lisbon, Portugal years earlier.

And maybe if I had just taken the antibiotics when I first became ill and had recovered while I was still in country, I would have experienced the whole trip differently.

What I eventually came to realize, though, after months of thinking about it, is that the reason I didn’t feel I belonged, the reason I never could have belonged, boiled down to a lack of communication. I’ve been the only white person before; I’ve traveled in unfamiliar places; I’ve eaten food I later learned was the lining of a cow’s intestines without being too grossed out. But even when I was in Portugal where few people spoke English, I could pull out my Portuguese guidebook and find my way home on the bus. But not in China. On top of the differences in worldview and skin color and economic status, the language barrier was too high to climb over in a one-week trip (not to mention my over-inflated expectations, but that’s a story for another day).

Over the years, people have continued to ask me if I would ever like to go back to China. A few months after the trip, I finally began to say “yes” with qualifiers: next time, I’d probably go to Beijing, or a larger city where people speak English. That actually still sounds like a good idea.

But I have also learned that, wherever I find myself, whenever I feel out of place, I need to take the time to communicate with people — even if that means embarrassing myself with my mispronunciations or misunderstandings. Because connecting with other people through whatever shared language we can find is truly the only way to belong.

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