Monday, April 13, 2009

Happy Easter!

Fu Huo Jie Kuaile! Happy Easter! In Chinese Fu (re-again) Huo (Live/life) Jie (Day). Yesterday was the first time I have attended an Easter Sunday service at the local Three Self Chinese Church. This is the official government church where Chinese believers or curious others are allowed to freely come and practice their religion within the boundaries given by government. Where I live, a large Christian church and a Catholic church are available. Being Easter, the service was a special one with Easter music sung by three different children’s choirs.
I also hear other traditional hymns and the Halleluiah Chorus. It was beautiful. There was an Easter message of victory, new life and hope given by the pastor and finally a public baptism service. Since baptism is a once a year event, cameras and video cameras were allowed. We went to the 2nd service so we saw the “sprinkling” baptism of more than 70 people. Apparently, there was also a “dunking” service with more than 100 others! It was a touching sight to behold.
In my mind, I kept thinking about all the times that I had been told (and had told others) that Chinese citizens didn’t have the freedom to worship publicly and were forced to hide out to express their faith. Had that been untrue? Well, yes and no! It depends on which area of the country you live in, who the government officials are, and what’s being enforced. Sound complicated? It is! Most people in China have the option of going to the government church. It is a structure designed by the government, lead by trained pastors in the government seminary and has a specific set of rules and doctrine to be taught. It is the only option that is legal and acceptable. In some areas you need to register as a church member and that can cause social consequences for you or your family…like losing your government job, or being shunned, etc… But in other places, it is no big deal at all. Many people go weekly to the church without incident.

By Chinese law, it is not legal for foreigners and Chinese to go to International Fellowships together. International Fellowships require participants to show their passports before they are allowed to enter the service. This is to keep the foreign and Chinese believers separate. It is not illegal for me to be a believer, but foreigners and Chinese are not currently allowed to meet with, study the Bible with, distribute literature to or lead religious activities with Chinese people. That would be illegal.

Some people refuse to join the Three Self Church because they have doctrinal or policy issues with the Three Self Church and they do not want to be limited by the constraints of the church, so they form groups outside the registered church for meeting, studying and worship. These are unregistered churches and considered illegal. In some parts of the country there are no government churches at all and only these types of fellowships exist for believers. They are still illegal and members can be and sometimes are severely persecuted for breaking the law and illegally assembling.

So is one type of church better than another? Is the answer black and white? Is one right and the other wrong? Is one type good and the other evil? Again, it’s complicated! In America we tend to think in terms of black and white and have difficulty with gray areas. We don’t understand why the Chinese people don’t have the right to choose something outside the government church or why they can’t legally meet with foreigners for religious activities. The answer to that is simple: This isn’t America folks! The Chinese government has sovereignty in their own country to have their own way of doing things for their own people. Is it always right, agreeable or understandable to us? No! But is the American way of doing things always right? Not hardly! We have our issues, too!

We have so many choices on how we worship that shop for the most convenient or palatable form of religion we can find and if we don’t like it, we go somewhere else. There is no consequence, price or cost to wanting to worship. We can come or go as we please. We are as judgmental of others in our own country as we are of those in others. We look at the church across town and think, “How can they believe that? They’re can’t be “real Christians!” No one denomination or group has it 100% right…No one! There are areas in every church’s doctrine that can be questioned or debated. The Three Self Church in China certainly has its limitations and errors, but does that mean there are no “real Christians” in the Three Self Church? Certainly not! I have met some very faithful committed believers who attend the government church and they choose to work within the system for change. Does that mean that in the unregistered churches are only, “real Christians?” Certainly not! There are some that have a great fire and love of Jesus and others who just want to have the power to lead with their own ideas. The unregistered house churches are not exempt from problems. Although they are free of the government constraints to worship in a prescribed way, there is a lack of solid training and leadership which can lead to all kinds of heresies in the faith.

Maybe we ought to consider the idea that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It can be both/and. As foreigners we need to be less judgmental of things we don’t fully understand and need to be willing to look for places of common ground and cooperation between entities. Does that mean we accept ideas that are contrary to the Word? Of course not, but vilifying a whole institution such as the Three Self Church doesn’t do much good and painting everything with the same brush as “wrong” is also unproductive. We need to work toward the idea of the church being “one body of believers” both at home and abroad. That is so much more biblical!


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Matters of Life and Death

Although it’s not a pleasant subject to talk about, most Americans have had discussions with their families or friends about the subject of death. Death is really an uncomfortable topic for some, so we have developed ways of respectfully saying someone has died- like using the phrases “passed away, went onto glory, or went home.” Other times (usually when we’re talking about our own inevitable demise) we make light of it saying things like, “when I kicked the bucket, bite the dust, or go to meet my maker”….I want blah, blah, blah ” The Chinese however, rarely if ever talk about death. It’s one of those taboo subjects that some even considered bad luck to discuss. One thing about death is that everyone will experience it and nearly every culture has its own ideas about what happens to someone when they die.
Americans have their ideas about death and practices of honoring those who have passed away. People often go to gravesites several times a year to tend to the site, to bring flowers or sentimental items. This seems to help people feel close again to their loved one and also helps with grieving the loss of their presence with us. Although it may be somewhat common to go to a gravesite and “talk to” one’s departed relative, ultimately we believe that when someone’s physical body dies, there is no more that we can do to take care of them. It is out of our hands. Many Christians (myself included) believe that death is not an ending, but a beginning to an eternal life in a place called Heaven, where there will be no needs to satisfy, but only an eternity to spend with God and others who believe that Jesus is the way to Heaven.

The Chinese have their beliefs about life and death as well. There is a specific day which falls on either April 4th or 5th of the solar calendar and this is the one day a year that people formally honor their ancestors and celebrate the life they have been given. It is called Qingming Jie or Tomb-Sweeping Day. The festival is a combination of sadness and happiness. Qingming Festival is a time of many different activities, among which the main ones are tomb sweeping, taking a spring outing, and flying kites.

Tomb sweeping is regarded as the most important custom in the Qingming Festival from which the name of Tomb-sweeping day is derived. Cleaning the tomb and paying respect to the ancestors with offerings are the two most important parts of remembering the relatives who have passed. Weeds around the tomb are cleared away and fresh soil is added to show care of the dead. The dead person’s favorite food and wine are taken to sacrifice to them. “Sacrifices” include ghost money, ghost cars, and ghost food and clothing. Ghost money and other ghost extravagance best illustrate the popular folk belief among Chinese that there is a nether world for people under the earth where people live after death in the form of ghosts or spirits who can give blessings to the living. It is not uncommon for me to see several people every week, squatting around small fires on the sidewalk, burning their paper goods
for their deceased relatives. During Qingming Jie, tablets of stone are also set up for the dead and kowtow (bowing) is made as incense is burned. As many as possible living relatives will gather at the gravesites and remember their ancestor. They offer prayers to their deceased family member and parents of children will often pray and ask for success and achievement for their children. After they are finished the next part of the tradition begins.

Qingming Jie is not only a day for commemorating the dead, is it also a festival for people to enjoy themselves and appreciate their lives. During March, everything in nature takes on a new look, as trees turn green, flowers blossom, and the sun shines brightly. It is a fine time to go out and to appreciate the beautiful scenes of nature during the festival. Spring outings not only add joy to life but also promote
a healthy body and mind. Flying kites is an activity favored by many people during the Qingming Festival. Kites are not only flown during the day time but also in the evening. Little lanterns are tied to the kite or to the string that holds the kite. And when the kite is flying in the sky, the lanterns look like twinkling stars that add unique scenery to the sky during the night. What makes flying kites during this festival special is that people cut the string
while the kite is in the sky to let it fly free. It is said this brings good luck and that diseases can be eliminated by doing this. All in all, the Qingming Festival is an occasion of unique characteristics, integrating sorrowful tears for the dead with the continuous laughter from the spring

Although my personal beliefs about death and the thereafter are much different than that of those around me, I think it's really good to get an understanding of the culturally norms so that during holidays such as this, there can be honest dialogue and sharing ideas about issues of life and death.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

My Own Attempt at Ping Pong Diplomacy

While on another one of my afternoon walks, I came across a xiao-qu (small community-something like a block of apartments in the same neighborhood) which had several ping pong tables set up. People of all ages were either playing or standing around watching the vigorous exchanges. When I stopped to watch for awhile and then started to take pictures, the games got even more competitive. The older men in particular seemed intent on showing off their skills. Then I was invited to play. Part of me wanted to join in on the fun, but I also was thinking about my expensive camera and really didn’t want to leave it in the hands of some Chinese person I didn’t know. Despite my hesitation, the ping pongers were insistent on my participation, so I reluctantly put down my camera and took up a paddle.

I kept remembering all the times I had played ping pong in the basement of my parent’s house and up at the lake. My family is pretty competetive with any
sporting activity and ping pong is no exception! I was thinking to myself, “I sure hope I remember how to do this.” It’s one thing to lose in the privacy of your own home, but it’s another thing to be the foreigner getting their tail whipped in front of 40 or 50 people standing around watching! I tried to muster up the confidence of my nephew Troy, who is known to be not only a fierce ping pong player, but can talk smack while doing it and get away with it!

It didn't take me long to realized this was not the time or place to get cocky, especially since these were daily players who took the games seriously. Even if I had been an amazing player (which I'm not), I would never have dared to beat them in their own backyard and make them lose face in front of their community. I sure wouldn't have done the dance that the guy in video did! Not cool! (click the link to view-or go to and search for excessive ping pong celebration)

So, you might ask…how did that work for you? Well, I will say that I didn’t lose face by being completely inept...I did score a point or two, but in the overall picture-I think I’ll stick to something less competitive….like photography!


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Humiliation:The Price of Practice

Biking is the cheapest and most widely used mode of transportation here in Tianjin. At any given time of the day or night, hundreds of bicyclists can be seen weaving in and out of traffic, making their way toward the workplace or home. We are lucky to have bicycle lanes, although no one actually believe that these lanes are reserved solely for bicyclist. Cars, pedestrians, and even buses sometimes use these lanes to get ahead of traffic. During rush hour it can be a harrowing experience riding shoulder to shoulder with some who are within inches of you and others who insist on riding the wrong way against the bike traffic. At first I was quite nervous about how to negotiate the flow of traffic in general, because there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it- but the longer I ride the more I can see that it isn’t really random at all.

Bikes are considered the same as other vehicles and bikers are expected to follow the same rules as cars…although much of the time cars don’t even follow what we would consider typical “rules of the road” like staying in your lane, following traffic lights and giving the right of way to pedestrians. The biker can be in the road or in the bike lane- it doesn’t matter. The same goes for drivers of cars- use whichever lane is most convenient. Bikers riding against the traffic always hug the inside curb. People ahead of you always have the right of way and if you don’t make eye contact with a potential crash victim and just keep pedaling, they will generally give you latitude to go before them. It really helps that the traffic is usually slow moving and as long as bicyclists don’t make any sudden moves, it gives others a chance to make adjustments quite smoothly and easily.

I normally ride my bike everywhere, and not being much of a biker in the States, this has been a whole new experience for me. Unfortunately I have had a string of misfortunes lately. I have had 4 flat tire fixes, 2 basket repairs, a broken chain, brake handle and pedal replaced. Finally, I had to put an entirely new back tire on when it blew out on me during a ride home from a friend’s place late one night.

Fortunately, there are tons of bicycle repair people everywhere. With as many bikes as there are on the road, there have to be people to provide service for everything that can go wrong. Now while this all might seem like a constant headache and very annoying (which it is) I consider it fabulous language practice as well.

I never realized how much vocabulary I was going to have to learn when I came to China- especially words that I didn’t think were going to be important on a weekly basis such as “put air in my tires, bicycle chain, missing sprockets, broken, flat, loose, or damaged.” The other day before I had to replace my wheel, I could hear that the wheel was rubbing against the fender, but I couldn’t see where. Because I didn’t know the words to say, all I could do was take the bike to the repair guy on the corners, point to the wheel, spin my arm round and round in a circle and make a funny “whir whir-whirrr-ing” noise! Hahaha! It was hysterical! Well, he got the point and fixed it for nothing. I guess he felt sorry for me and besides he got a good laugh from the silly foreigner.

Now when I ride by the bike repair couple on the corner near me, they wave to me and know that I will be back to see them the next time my bike has an issue. This is all part of building relationships, being part of the community, and doing “as the Romans do.” True-it is now an official fact that I have spent more on bicycle repairs than I spent on the bike,
But considering that I only spent $6 for this used bike in the first place, $16 is still a pretty small price to pay for admission into a rich arena for language practice!