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.

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