Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Foreigner in Your Midst

As most of my readers probably know, I moved to a Chinese-speaking country about six months ago. Adjusting to the new culture has been much more of a challenge than I had originally expected.

 For the most part, adjusting to a new culture is the same no matter where you are. The social customs, the way stores are laid out, the technology used in everyday life and in many cases the language are different from country for country. But as a white person living in Asia, I have the added complication of sticking out like a sore thumb. When I enter a store, people either start speaking to me in English, without giving me a chance to even try speaking Chinese, or they run and hide behind an aisle, a counter or a coworker who speaks better English than they do. When I am with Taiwanese friends, people usually speak to my friend even if they are responding to something I said. Small children tend to stare at me on the subway (but I can’t get mad at them because they’re so darn cute). I’ve started to look around whenever I hear the word “waiguoren” (Chinese for “foreigner”) as if I’d heard someone say my name. For the most part, I don’t mind being noticed as a foreigner, but this situation makes it impossible for me to forget that this is not my country, which intensifies any homesickness I’ve been feeling.

I feel homesick on and off. I felt it a lot around Christmas time, and it’s always most common when I’m feeling physically sick. In fact, the reason I decided to write about this now is that I have a cold and am missing home quite a bit.

During one of the hardest periods for me, I was doing my daily Bible reading, and I came across a group with the word “foreigner” in it. Needless to say, that got my attention. I looked around a bit more and realized that the Bible has a lot to say about foreigners, especially in the Old Testament law.

About half the time, the law is saying that foreigners have to follow the same laws as the Israelites in things like the Sabbath. This makes sense because it’s hard to run a country where certain people are exempt from some of the rules.

The other half, though, were concerned with stopping the Israelites from oppressing the foreigners who lived among them. To pick one of the many examples: “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17) The thing that struck me most about these verses is that they often group foreigners together with orphans and widows.

I’d never noticed this before, and I don’t think I’d have understood it if I did. But now, it completely makes sense. Even in this age of Skype, Facebook and other easy ways to communicate, traveling to another country separates one from one’s loved ones in a way that can be quite painful. That would have been even more true in Biblical times when there wasn’t even a reliable postal system!

It’s been a great comfort to me to know that God understands how difficult it is to be away from one’s family and in an unfamiliar place. Finding evidence of culture shock in the Bible (though not expressed in those words) has helped to remind me that I’m not alone and my feelings are legitimate. It also provides yet more evidence of the Bible’s psychological insight that speaks to most issues that people face even today.

Jesus’s teaching, as is often the case, took the Old Testament law a step further. Instead of just not oppressing foreigners, he expected people to welcome them (see Matthew 25:35). Fortunately, I have been surrounded by a group of wonderful new friends who have done just that. In fact, I spent this past week having a great time traveling to their family homes for the Lunar New Year. Moments with these friends have convinced me that however challenging this time of transition may be, it will all be worthwhile in the end.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Literally the Best Blog Post Ever! (part 1)

Almost everyone I know either loves or hates grammar. Either you think it’s a bunch of boring, picky rules that teachers use to annoy their students, or you think it is an essential part of The Way Things Should Be Done. Linguists usually fall into the first category, since they use the way native speakers actually talk as guidelines for determining what is grammatical. So for instance, if native speakers end their sentences with prepositions, that’s OK, even though grammar rules say that prepositions are bad words to end sentences with. (Yes, I phrased it that way intentionally.) But in spite of all my linguistics classes, I have one grammar-related pet peeve that nothing has shaken.

That pet peeve is misuse of the word “literally.” “Literally” is the opposite of “figuratively,” so it means without exaggeration or figurative language. This means that if something is literally a hundred feet tall, you can measure it and it will be that height. If this is literally the best blog post ever, as the title says, then no blog post ever written is better than it. If someone literally turns the world upside down, that would mean they have changed the way the planet Earth rotates, and so on.

However, most people use the word “literally” to intensify some figurative language they’re using. Much to my dismay, I even found this second usage in some online dictionaries! However, I feel I must dispute with the dictionaries on this.

Why do I feel so strongly about this word? What could motivate me to argue about language with a dictionary? The reason is that if we use “literally” to describe things that are not literally true, then the word has no meaning. If “literally” can mean either without figurative language or with figurative language, then in a given sentence containing the word, one must figure out from context which type is being used. Most people are capable of doing that, but they could do just as well if the word “literally” were taken out of the sentence. Thus, the word itself has no meaning. Moreover, there is no other word that means “literally,” so if “literally” loses its meaning then English has no way of expressing that idea.

The other problem is that this makes it hard for me to know how to respond when someone asks me whether I take the Bible literally. The fact is, even the staunchest Fundamentalist does not take everything in the Bible literally. Throughout history, people have debated whether Jesus was God and even whether he was human. But no one has ever argued that he was a young sheep, a fruit-bearing plant or a piece of wood with hinges. If one takes the Bible literally, Jesus would have to be all those things, because the Bible calls him the Lamb of God, the vine and the door.

On the other hand, most people who ask whether I take the Bible literally don’t mean to ask whether I think Jesus was a plant. They mean to ask whether I think the events and ideas recorded in the Bible are true. The answer to that is a resounding “yes!”

You see, it’s possible to believe that everything the Bible affirms is true while acknowledging that it sometimes uses figurative language to make a point. And just because something is figurative or symbolic doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Broken Stories

I recently read the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. I really enjoyed reading it, but I was surprised at how dark it was. It left me with a vague feeling of sadness, one which I think speaks to a universal human desire.

The sadness I felt at the end of The Hunger Games reminded me of the way I felt when I finished reading The Lord of the Rings. The books are similar in that their respective main characters, Katniss and Frodo, endure great suffering, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Both books were well-written enough that I felt a strong emotional attachment to the characters, so I reacted when they were in danger or suffering. But when I was in the middle of the books, I didn’t feel sad for them as much as I felt afraid for them. The darkest and most dangerous parts were the ones I read the fastest, because I wanted to find out what happened and make sure the characters would be safe. In fact, I almost screamed when I got to the end of The Two Towers, (when Frodo is almost dead and captured by orcs) and then saw that The Return of the King began by talking about what was happening with a different set of characters.

I may have felt pity for the characters when they experienced particularly painful events, but that was nothing compared to the sadness I felt at the end. This may seem strange because (spoiler alert) both stories end pretty well, with the forces of evil defeated and most of the main characters still alive. But at the end of their adventures, both Katniss and Frodo are left with emotional and physical wounds that we know will not fully heal.

The scars that remain at the end of the stories made me sadder than the far more intense suffering the characters endure during their adventures. This is in part because it is more long-term, but I think there’s more to it than that. Before the end of the book, there is still hope of healing for the characters. Injuries, trauma and even death in some cases have the possibility of being resolved. But when you turn the last page of the last chapter and the pain remains, there is no more reason to believe that the characters will recover. We know that the characters will be haunted for the rest of their lives.

Leaving the characters with painful memories is a good choice on the authors’ part because it resembles real life. We should be used to this idea. But that fact that this makes us sad is a reminder of the universal human desire for wholeness and healing.

Ken Boa once said that we all have “broken stories.” The stories of our lives are filled with pain, sorrow and discouragement. But, “the way you fix a broken story is by … embedding it in a larger story that begins and ends well.”

If our stories consist only of our lives on Earth, we are left with wounds that never fully heal. Actually, it’s worse than that because all of our stories will end with our deaths. That’s why it’s so essential to look beyond ourselves, our pleasures, our goals and our desires. We need a greater story so that the worst things we experience will not be the last chapter.