Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on February 9 and 10, 2019, gave the audience something to think about concerning the passage of time and how it changes—or doesn’t change—the world we live in.  Between the two shows the company performed works by Rennie Harris, Wayne McGregor, Ronald K. Brown, artistic director Robert Battle, and of course Alvin Ailey himself.

The most obvious comment on the passage of time is the mere fact of performing Ailey’s Revelations, as the company does at every performance.  The piece has evolved since its conception in 1960, yet the message remains the same: the people cry out for deliverance from oppression both exterior and interior.  The struggle to escape from oppression or sin is expressed throughout the piece by the challenge of resisting gravity.  The tension is particularly striking in “I Wanna Be Ready,” where the soloist’s every effort is directed heavenward, yet his body always returns to the ground.  Despite the gravity of much of Revelations, the piece ends on a joyous note as the company assembles clothed in shades of sunlight, to contrast the flesh-toned costumes worn in the opening section, for a buoyant finale of “Rocka My Soul” that makes use of movement through the horizontal plane of the stage with dancers weaving through each other.  The tale of deliverance begins in “I Been ‘Buked” with a shared conviction of the need for transformation, expressed in the solidarity of the group of dancers which begins and ends in tight formation, and it concludes with the emergence, through individual struggles in relationships with God, of a community of hope.

Harris’s piece, Lazarus, though choreographed 58 years after Ailey’s, deals similarly with the notion of fighting an oppressive system while existing within it.  One motif that occurs in Harris’s choreography is slow-motion running that makes it seem as though the dancers find it impossible to move in their environment in the way that their inner self directs them to.  A section of the piece is danced to the lyrics, “black man in a white world,” with the soloist dancing inside an enclosure of other dancers, and it conveys frustration with being put in a box, something Ailey experienced as he insisted on producing dance that incorporated black bodies but couldn’t be characterized as “black dance.”  Both Ailey’s and Harris’s characters find freedom in developing unique modes of expression, yet the fact remains that the issues facing Ailey and the company during his lifetime and career continue to pose challenges to black dancers in particular and people of color more broadly in the US.  Time has passed, but whatever progress has been made in terms of the societal racism which Ailey addressed both onstage and off, it has not been enough to obviate the need for further criticism by the current generation of artists.

Kairos, choreographed by Wayne McGregor, is the component of this season’s repertory which most explicitly deals with time, taking its name from the Greek word for non-linear time and its soundscape from Max Richter’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  The music on its own incorporates ideas about the non-linear nature of time in both the concept of recurring seasons and the contemporary arrangement of a great classical work.  The stage composition immediately challenges the audience’s perception of time with the use of scrim and strobe lighting in the opening of the piece, which make it appear as though the dancers are moving in stop-motion.  The effect is that it’s difficult to decide whether the dancers are moving extremely quickly or extremely slowly; they change shape with every flash of light, but since their acceleration is unobservable the movement feels glacial.  Another section of the piece evokes the image of an antique clock as the dancers swing their legs like pendulums, suggesting a cyclical, rather than linear, conception of time, and a later section danced with legato quality in amber lighting gives the impression of being removed altogether from the passage of time.

Taking these three works together, McGregor’s choreography provides an abstract backdrop to the continuity in both intent and execution between Ailey and Harris’s work.  Ailey’s choreography is grounded in Horton and classical ballet techniques while Harris is clearly a hip-hop artist, but both make use of fast-paced footwork, shoulder-initiated movement that engages the whole body, and polyrhythms—Harris in the juxtaposition of recorded heartbeat and breath with the movement on stage and Ailey in the use of body percussion and clearly accented movement.  Verbal, auditory, and embodied entextualization of classic and contemporary ideas into each of the pieces performed asks the audience to consider the implications of time: how much has truly changed?  What truths never change?

Costa Rica: Week 2

After a weekend enjoying Costa Rica’s natural beauty and a day of rest back in San José, the team got back to work partnering with Christ for the City to run two days of Vacation Bible School activities for children in impoverished neighborhoods.  Last Tuesday we visited a rehab shelter for homeless men who have committed to reordering their lives, staying away from drugs and violence, living in community with one another, working in a shared auto business, and in many cases following Jesus.  The shelter also serves single mothers and children in the area, and these were invited to “a party” with the Americans.  Stephanie from our team took the lead in planning the VBS activities, and she chose the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15 as the theme.  Our two hours with the moms and kids really did feel like a party where we celebrated and welcomed them the way the father celebrates at the end of the parable when his son returns.  I saw this play out with particular clarity in the way some of the youngest members of our team helped out.  Lucy, age 5, was very excited to distribute shiny bead necklaces to each of our guests, and as I watched her run up to a mom and child walking through the door and immediately put necklaces over their heads, I thought of the father in the parable calling for a ring and a robe for his son, whom he would not treat as a servant.  After the party Raquel told me about how Phoebe, age 4, helped with serving cake and ice cream.  After all the kids from the neighborhood had been served, an adult helper handed Phoebe a plate of cake and ice cream.  Phoebe looked ready to dig in, but the helper asked her to give it to one of the moms.  Raquel said she could see the struggle in Phoebe’s face, but ultimately she passed the plate along and made sure all the moms were served before enjoying her own dessert.

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Alise and Phoebe help set up for the VBS party

On Wednesday we brought the party to another neighborhood called Las Gradas, “The Steps,” because of the long staircase you have to descend to get from the main road into the neighborhood.  In Las Gradas we partnered with a ministry that provides a safe space for kids whose parents are often absent.  These kids loved making the gospel story bracelets and coloring pages we brought, and they listened attentively as Stephanie told the story of the lost son and Porter, age 10, provided a mimetic interpretation.  The not-so-fun part of the day was climbing back up the stairs in the torrential rain and making the hourlong drive home with our clothes soaked through, but it was a bonding experience for the team 🙂

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Stephanie engages kids with story of the prodigal son

Thursday morning we travelled to Liberia in the northwest to join students at UCR (Universidad de Costa Rica) for more campus outreach.  At noon we joined UCR ECU students for their biweekly Bible study, which was led by Brandon, an enthusiastic, dedicated, and caring student leader.  In the afternoon the US team and ECU students set up another proxy (interactive art exhibit to prompt spiritual conversation), and Levi and I took Porter and his younger sister Alise on a prayer walk around campus.  It was a special experience to pray with these young followers of Jesus and listen to them express a hope for Costa Rican university students to find community and encounter God.  On Friday we returned to UCR to host an ice cream social for the students and faculty we had met during outreach.

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Raquel invites students to participate in the proxy at UCR

On Saturday we had a little time to spend at the beach or rest in preparation for that night’s prayer vigil.  Many IFES movements in Latin America, including ECU in Costa Rica, have a tradition of holding a prayer vigil at the end of each semester, and this time they invited our team to join them for food, fellowship, games, worship, and prayer from 8 pm to 5 am.  It was a long night, but I could see the joy the ECU students found in being together in God’s presence through the night.  They even spent time praying for IFES movements in every region of the world.  Their awareness of themselves as members of simultaneously local and global communities of faith is something that I would like to see cultivated in the fellowship I’m part of at Grinnell.

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Sharing a fabulous meal with ECU students who’ve travelled to Liberia for the national prayer vigil
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Ednar introducing Kathy before she shares a message about the kingdom of God at the prayer vigil

Our final few days in Costa Rica were dedicated to rest and reflection on what we’d experienced in the past two weeks and how the emerging partnerships we’d seen with university students and faculty as well as local service organizations could be shaped into a longer time of ministry in Costa Rica for future teams of students from InterVarsity chapters in our region.  I hope that future students serving with IFES in Costa Rica will have opportunities to build closer personal relationships with the Costa Rican university students and ECU volunteers and staff, and it would be amazing to see ECU students travel to the US to support campus ministry here.  Another part of our debriefing process was sharing affirmations of each member of our team.  It was sweet to witness how new friendships have taken root and how old ones have grown, and especially to hear the kids on the team affirm their siblings with heartfelt words of praise for helpful hands and positive attitudes.

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Monkeying around with Stephanie and Levi as we pack up to leave the beach

Thank you to those of you who have been praying over this trip!  There is much to praise God for, from vans that made it safely up and down mountains to new friendships and clarity of purpose for Joel and Rachel as they move forward with ministry in Costa Rica.  Please continue to pray that the team rests well as we return to the US, and pray that ECU continue to create spaces where university students in Costa Rica can find supportive community and know God.

Costa Rica: Week 1

Last Monday afternoon I landed in San José, Costa Rica.  Joel, whose family works with college ministry in Costa Rica, and Mandy, who does the same in Nicaragua but is visiting Costa Rica during a time of political unrest in Nicaragua, picked me up at the airport, and the rest of our team joined us later in the evening.  Lucy, age 5, inexplicably declared me her best friend upon our meeting, and I’ve since entertained her deep curiosities about why I stretch after a run or what a Clif Bar tastes like.

On Tuesday, the team set out to get to know the city of San José through a scavenger hunt–without a map, which meant we had to ask directions from people on the street, a task made more difficult by the fact that we’d been divided into teams of Spanish-speakers and non-Spanish-speakers, of which I am the latter.  Despite the added challenge, we made it to the National Theater, the National Stadium, the university campus, and back to the Watters’ home on schedule.  The people we asked for directions were more than willing to help us out and dealt patiently with our limited language skills.

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Amanda and Levi imitating a statue of Beethoven at the National Theater
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Amanda practicing her Spanish with the taxi driver
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Prayer walking on campus in San José

On Wednesday we travelled from San José to Perez Zeledon, a city to the southwest.  We met students from ECU (Estudiantes Christianos Unidos) and got to see their eagerness to plant ministry on campuses in the southern region.  Ednar, the leader of ECU for Costa Rica, gave a lesson on the national cuisine over dinner.  Rice and beans are the staples of Caribbean-influenced dishes, which tend to incorporate seafood or coconut flavors.  Indigenous foods from the mountain regions are based on corn and tortillas, and other dishes are a fusion of the two influences.  My favorite component of many Costa Rican meals so far has been the platanos–roasted or fried plantains.

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Casado: A typical Costa Rican lunch consisting of rice, beans, plantains, vegetables or salad, and meat

Thursday and Friday were devoted to outreach on the campus of UNA (Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica) in Perez Zeledon.  Joel and Rachel had brought a “proxy,” a tool many InterVarsity chapters in the US use to pique students’ curiosity as they walk by engage them in conversation.  The “proxy” consists of an interactive art exhibit with questions ranging from basic (What’s your major?) to personal or spiritual (What is your spiritual belief?).  At the end of the day, Rachel praised God for the surprising number of students who expressed interest in ECU; she had to print extra contact cards for the students to fill out, and many were already asking, “What days will we meet?” and “Where will we have Bible study?”  Many of these students returned later Thursday afternoon for games and ice cream, and others came on Friday afternoon for Bible study led by Jeison, a volunteer staff for ECU.

Part of my role during our time on campus was to join a student organization in picking up trash along the street around the university.  Costa Ricans value cleanliness and environmental conservation, so this was a way to experience the culture but also to foster a relationship with the university.  Joel explained that the biology professor who directs the organization has lots of connections on campus and is excited to partner with ECU, so by joining in their work of cleaning up trash we helped build trust and contribute to the growth of that partnership.

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UNA students participating in “proxy”
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Bible study at UNA
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Celebrating answered prayers!

This weekend was a time to rest from our work and prepare to continue in service next week.  We spent part of Saturday at a national park called Whale Tail Beach, so named because the shape of the shoreline at low tide looks like the tail of a whale.  Here we had a chance to relax and have fun with our ECU friends before they returned to San José.  On Sunday we visited another beach in Quepos, and I spent some time in prayerful contemplation by dancing on the beach.  I also got to have a conversation with Kathy, who has been a spiritual mentor for me through my time in college, and reflect on the trip so far and where I am spiritually.  I reflected that I’ve loved serving the team here by taking charge of dinner preparations or washing dishes, or affirming the kids on the team by watching solo renditions of their ballet recital dances 🙂  Having time to stop and appreciate the beauty of the palm trees and warm Pacific waves served as a reminder not to scorn the gifts of God in vain search for something that fits my definition of “worthwhile” but to rest in the love he shows me through friends and the purpose he reveals in the things that bring me joy.

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Costa Rica: One month out

As some of my readers know, I’m preparing to join a team of students and campus ministers from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on a two-week missions trip in Costa Rica, and today marks one month until departure!  We will be working alongside local campus ministry leaders, including Costa Rican students as well as a few staff, Rachel and Joel Watters, who are serving as long-term missionaries in Costa Rica with IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students).  The purpose of our trip is twofold: in the first week of our trip we will head to the southern region of Costa Rica to meet students on a campus where there a chapter of ECU (the Costa Rican IFES movement) does not yet exist.  We are praying to meet 5 students who are interested in helping the Watters plant ministry on their campus.  In the second week, we will spend some time with students doing ministry in San José and think together about what an ongoing partnership between ECU in Costa Rica and InterVarsity in the Central Region (Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas) could look like.

In our fundraising efforts, the team is already over halfway funded, so praise God for generous hearts, and thank you to those of you who have contributed!  If you’ve committed to praying for this missions trip, please pray for the continued generosity of our ministry partners, and please also pray that God will prepare our team and the people we will meet in Costa Rica spiritually for those encounters.

Stay tuned for more updates once we depart on June 11th!

The joy of the Lord

Home at last!  There are some things I didn’t realize I missed until I got back: sleeping on a soft mattress, logging into Google Drive without using a VPN, streaming NPR while I make breakfast…but there are other things I was already looking forward to returning to, and one of those is quiet.  I’m not sure whether it was the urban setting or the foreign culture or a combination of the two, but in Kunming it seemed impossible to find a space with no noises or distractions.  In empty classrooms I could hear the noise from the street, the park was always crowded, and in my dorm was my roommate–one of the loveliest people I know, but an extrovert if there ever was one.  In an effort to block out the noise all around me, I ended up simply adding to the noise by listening podcasts or music for my moments of alone-time.  The problem with this strategy is that, while it gave me a break from the usual noises, it didn’t actually clear out any brain space for thinking.

Last Monday when I went for a walk around Cui Hu (the lake/public park a few blocks from my dorm) I discovered a deserted alcove and took my headphones off.  After taking in the rare silence for several minutes, it began to dawn on me that I’d started feeling emotionally distant.  I’d stopped feeling homesick, but not because I suddenly felt totally in love with China; I’d sort of just disconnected–not from where I was and what I was doing, but from the feelings associated with those things.  Because I’d been filling all my brain space with noises to distract me from the other noises, I’d also fallen back on the same tactic to avoid dealing with difficult emotions, particularly my frustration at feeling useless.

In Grinnell I typically keep fairly busy between schoolwork and student groups, and whether I’m writing papers, leading prayer meetings, hosting pancake breakfasts or organizing dance performances, I feel like all of these activities are investments in my personal formation or in the people around me.  In Kunming, though, this was often not the case.  Certainly I did a few things that felt obviously worthwhile: I worked all semester writing a research paper, led a weekly Bible discussion for classmates curious about Christianity, and volunteered at a local non-profit translating health project reports.  But all of this only accounted for a few hours of each week, leaving many an afternoon stretching long and empty before me and the question echoing in my mind, What on earth am I doing here?  

What I’d forgotten was this: the joy of the Lord is my strength.  When the Israelites return to Jerusalem after a period of exile in Babylon, the priests read and explain God’s Law to them and they weep, finally understanding what they hear and realizing how they and their ancestors have fallen short of the standards for right living.  A time of confession comes a few weeks later, but before that the Israelites’ leaders tell them, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).  The Israelites are instructed to celebrate God’s deliverance before they’ve pulled themselves out of the darkness.

I can’t justify my existence on earth or my presence in a given place by making myself productive.  The truth about the things that did give me a sense of purpose in Kunming is that they happened because God orchestrated them.  I didn’t set out to start a Bible study or even to have conversations about faith with people, but the conversations happened, and the rest followed naturally.  Whether I’m leading a group in philosophical discussion or sitting alone in my room, I can celebrate because the Lord is God.  God is satisfied in himself regardless of anything I do or don’t do, and he’s inviting me to share in his joy to find strength for any moment.

Photo credit: Chloe Chang

Simple things

This morning I woke up way too early, so by the time I left my dorm to get breakfast the sun hadn’t even come up yet.  But as I exited the dining hall, fresh 花卷包(huājuǎnbāo, twisted steamed bun) in hand, I noticed a flush of pink and peach sky behind the rooftops to the east.  Watching the warm colors of the sunrise, I forgot my irritation at my internal alarm clock and the cold air freezing my flip-flop-clad feet.

Some of my favorite moments in the last few weeks have been moments like this: a peaceful plateau amid the ups and downs of living in a foreign culture and the forward trajectory of studying and researching.  After our week of fall break, all the students in my program spent a week in the wetlands and mountains of northwestern Yunnan to learn about sustainability and environmental protection in the region.  While it was undoubtedly fun to meet local middle school students and fascinating to hear my classmates’ thoughts on conservation and tourism, it was a few of the simpler things that I really savored:

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A warm patch of sunlight on the mountainside while observing endangered 滇金丝猴 (diānjīnsīhǒu, Yunnan Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys)…

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…a view of blue sky and white clouds over green mountains, discovered by following a hidden trail…

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…ah, yes, and a PB&J sandwich 🙂

I enjoyed another such moment this weekend when my roommate invited me to spend some time at her house.  We chatted through a Chinese cooking show, enjoyed a delicious home-cooked lunch with her mom, discussed every book on her bookshelf, and spent a few hours strolling leisurely through bookshops and porcelain shops at the shopping center.  The afternoon felt like a waltz, a dance where you relax into the rhythm, can’t help but smiling, and never want it to end.

Perhaps the best thing about these moments is they always take me by surprise.  I never plan to be delighted by the sunshine or spend an afternoon feeling content to be accomplishing nothing, so in a way experiencing these feelings brings me outside of myself and makes me happy simply to be in the world.

Tying a knot

Something unique about the perspective of a foreigner who engages with locals is getting to see the dynamic connection between the two—how Kunming residents interact with Americans and Europeans who come in to do non-profit work, or how they put their own overseas experience into play once they’ve returned home.  It’s like a dance, with individuals weaving in and out of each other, their paths intersecting briefly at particular points before they part ways to continue on to their next place in the grand formation that fills the entire stage.  The interactions between people may be transient, but because a dance—or a history—isn’t static, a point in the past hasn’t vanished simply because that part of the dance or the story has been completed; it remains forever a part of the whole.

This can be true of any kind of relationship, but it’s easy to see in local-foreigner interactions because of people’s mobility in these situations.  The first example I encountered was in a conversation with an anti-sex-trafficking organization called Eden Ministries.  Although the work was initiated by foreigners, today most of the staff and volunteers doing work on the ground, building relationships with traffickers and trafficking victims to change the system from the inside, are Kunming locals.  The organization also includes a business aspect—an online shop where they sell jewelry made by women who’ve left the sex industry—and that part is and probably always will be run by non-Chinese as their target customer base is mostly overseas.  However, on the ministry side, where staff interact closely with the people working in Kunming’s red light districts, locals are taking on more and more leadership and responsibility.  Like a knot that gets tighter as two ends of a string are pulled apart, Eden is becoming more stable and more profoundly impactful as foreigners and locals settle into their respective, interdependent roles.  They don’t have to be right on top of each other to work together; the knot where they’ve been tied together in the past creates a firm center from which to continue forward in different—but not conflicting—paths into the future.

A similar dynamic exists at CWEF (Concordia Welfare and Education Foundation).  Broadly speaking, organization and communications are handled by a team of mixed nationalities, but all the staff in the Kunming office where I volunteer are locals, and these are the people conceiving and implementing projects for bringing reliable drinking water to villages in the region and improving educational opportunities for the city’s migrant population.  Even from reading a very technical project proposal or follow-up report, it’s easy to see how deeply these women care for the people they’re serving.  They’ve seen these environmental and social issues their entire lives; they know the needs and the resources available to meet them.  It makes perfect sense to see them making it their job to address problems in the place they call home among the people they call friends.

Observing this dynamic has led me to think more about where, geographically, I might end up in the future.  When I started college, it only took a few weeks to start feeling like I had some understanding of the structure of community at Grinnell, and my heart is undeniably with the staff and students there.  In Kunming, I’m still a stranger.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have to part to play here; the more profound relationships I’m building are surely knots in my web of experience that will tighten and hold their place in the pattern even after I return to the US.  It also doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily stay in Grinnell forever, but it’s giving me cause to consider the possibilities.  Choosing a place to be is about more than the population density or the air quality.  It’s also about your capacity to engage with the people you meet given your experience and understanding—and of course, your willingness to gain new experience and understanding by observing and interacting with the people around you, wherever you end up.

In that vein here are some photos from my week of fall break spent getting to know a few spots on Kunming’s periphery and having good conversations with my fellow sojourners:

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Most people wouldn’t pick the coldest day of the week to go to a water park…unless the water comes from natural hot springs!
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Intricate doors at 筇竹寺 (Qióng Zhú Sī, Bamboo Temple)
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Spelunking at 九乡 (Jiǔ Xiāng)
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I definitely had the Lord of the Rings soundtrack playing in my head for the whole afternoon.
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Inside the city it’s easy to forget that Kunming is surrounded by towering, green-covered mountains. My lamentable photography skills can’t do them justice.

Doing and being

Each week flies by faster than the last as there are more and more things to do, places to go, and people to see here in Kunming and in other places.  Two weeks ago I had tea with a woman from New Zealand who told me about her community development work in Kunming’s red-light district.  Last week I flew to Chengdu to meet my friend’s grandparents, eat spicy Sichuan food, ogle over giant panda cubs, and climb mountains in the rain.  This week, in addition to starting a volunteer position at a local non-profit organization, it was back to the usual schoolwork and prepping for midterms next week.  The excitement never ends, and I feel…tired.  And a little lost.

Yesterday my research mentor asked me if I liked China, and I wasn’t sure how to answer.  Some days I feel like I’ve gotten accustomed to life here, and other days I feel like I never will.  I certainly wouldn’t say I dislike it here, but I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around the concept of “Kaya in China.”  What does that look like in simple, concrete terms?  One month in, I still don’t feel like I know my rhythm or my trajectory.  I think one of the things I miss most about being home is that life has a reliable framework: “Kaya in Grinnell” cooks her own meals, goes to noon prayer, and spends her free time dancing.  “Kaya in Henrico” does yoga, checks out piles of library books to read, and plays games with her family after dinner.  “Kaya in China” doesn’t know what to do with herself when her homework is done and she realizes none of her usual options are available.

Or maybe what I miss is having a sense of purpose: “Kaya in Grinnell” spends time cultivating relationships with people she feels called to invest in.  “Kaya in Henrico” does reading and research and brainstorming to figure out better ways to invest in her communities back in Grinnell.  “Kaya in China” is still trying to learn who’s here and what their take on life is.  I don’t yet know the people in Kunming well enough to see how I can be a friend or a helper to them.

Last week I mentioned to a friend that I keep asking God what my purpose is in being here this semester.  She asked, “What kind of answer has he given you?”  At that moment I realized that even though I’ve been continually asking God the question, I haven’t really listened for an answer.  I can come up with lots of excuses: it’s hard to find time for silence and solitude to listen for God, I’m not sure I expect God to give me a straight answer, etc.  But maybe it’s because I don’t like the answer.  Maybe I really am just here to listen and watch and wait.  Maybe I don’t need to do something spectacular before I leave.  Maybe I don’t need to be looking for clues to a particular project back home.  Maybe this is less about what I do and more about who I am.  Can I still be “Kaya” in a land with no ballet or ovens or people who rely on me?  Can I be satisfied to work diligently at the tasks before me even when I can’t see how they fit into the bigger picture?  Can I treasure each moment, each experience, each conversation for what it is and trust that God is using all of this to shape me for something even if that something isn’t today or tomorrow?

Perhaps the way to find my rhythm is to allow myself rest in the moments of nothing.  That way I’ll have the energy to engage with all the somethings even though they don’t come at predictable intervals.  That way I won’t pressure myself to make something out of the time that I’m here, but I can simply take it as it is and learn to see the value it already bears.

Already whole

Since the start of the summer I’ve been asking God what he wants to do with my relationships while I’m in Kunming.  Distance alters the dynamics of relationships with friends and family.  Even if we do stay in touch, we’re not experiencing the same things at the same time the way we would if we were together; on opposite sides of the planet, we don’t even see the sun rise at the same time, let alone meet the same people or hear the same news.  Taking the relationship question from a different angle, what about all the people who are in this place with me?  There’s my roommate, my classmates, my teachers, other 老外 (lǎowài, foreigners),other 昆明人 (kūnmíngrén, Kunming locals)…and that’s just the “out;” I can’t forget about the “in” (self-care) and the “up” (my relationship with God).  So how am I supposed to spend my time?  Whom do I invest in?  And to what lengths do I go to make the more challenging relationships “work?”  To what extent is it my responsibility to adjust my habits and sacrifice my personal preferences for the comfort of others?  How much can I change without compromising the authenticity of the person I put forward to engage with the people around me—without limiting them to only seeing the prettier, praiseworthy parts of myself?

I’m fortunate to have a few very good friends who are willing to remind me of my imperfection.  But even more importantly, they’re willing to remind me that they don’t expect me to fix it.  You see, for my friends to expect that I fix all my shortcomings would imply I had the power to make myself perfect, and that is far from true.  As Nathan helped me understand, the same pride that flares up at the shame of seeing my faults is the first to volunteer for the job of self-improvement.  In my pride I want to be a good person, but if I can’t have that than making myself a better person is the next-best thing.  But the humbling truth is that I can’t make myself perfect; in my brokenness, I am powerless to fill in the holes in my broken self.

What, then, can I do but lay my broken self at the feet of Jesus and beg for him to heal me?  I’ve learned—and am still learning—that even as the Spirit of Christ living in me shapes me day by day into his likeness—always going that way but never quite getting there—I am seen as a child of God, already made righteous by the righteousness of Christ.  Brenda reminded me of this truth today when she said,

“We need to be in relationships where our wholeness in Christ is exemplified above any shortcoming.  There’s nothing to fix if we hold onto the fact that Christ has already made us whole.”

Her advice also made me think of the way God deals with Paul’s weakness, not removing it but instead saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).   God’s perfecting grace doesn’t make me a perfect person in my own right; it embraces and envelops me and makes me perfect in Christ, freeing me from both my imperfections and my perfectionism.

This isn’t a way to justify my pet personal failings.  Rather, it’s an invitation to lean wholly on God for a strength I can never supply myself.  In the last several days, I’ve felt God calling me into this kind of trust as he renews opportunities I think I’ve wasted.  I kick myself every time I miss a chance to talk with a local because I’m too nervous about my language skills or my social skills to initiate a conversation, and this happened last night when I left the worship service at a nearby Three-Self church (China’s official Protestant denomination) without having a single substantive conversation with anyone there.  But I had an unexpected opportunity this morning to meet several locals who welcomed me warmly into conversation with them.  I was still nervous; I can’t make myself not be, and God might not choose to facilitate those conversations by miraculously removing my anxiety.  But I know that God will pull me into the situations where he wants me to be and that in those moments of resting in his will, I don’t have to be strong because he is my strength.

Xi Shan and the meaning of life

The drive from Kunming’s Changshui airport to my dorm at Yunnan Daxue, gazing at misty mountains on the horizon and fumbling to make conversation in my nonnative language with the stranger sitting next to me, is already a surreal and distant memory.  A week and a half later, I’m fairly well grounded into life in Kunming: I’m learning where the good 米线 (mǐxiàn–I’ll explain later) and bubble tea joints are, what the weather pattern is (there isn’t one: the sky alternately offers sun or rain, both in abundance, at inscrutable intervals), and how to interact with my roommate and classmates.  I have yet to settle into stable day-to-day rhythms or into my own niche within this program and this city; I’m still not exactly sure what I’m doing, but at least I sort of know where I am.

Moving halfway across the world for four months is a difficult thing to do with confidence.  Before leaving home, I didn’t know much about what to expect beyond the date of my arrival, and even the last eleven days of orientation, class meetings, and exploration have left much of the immediate future shrouded in mystery.  That said, the moments where I’ve felt most certain that my time here will be valuable have been times of listening to other people talk about the ideas that most engage them.  For instance, my roommate, Yaolin, is well-versed in Chinese history and loves to tell stories.  The day I arrived in Kunming, she took me to eat 过桥米线(guòqiáo mǐxiàn) for dinner and told me the story of how this dish, a favorite all over Yunnan, was invented.  As the tale goes, there was once a man studying to take the Civil Service Exam whose wife would bring him soup for his midday meal from their home across the bridge.  However, she found that by the time she arrived, the soup was cold and the noodles were soggy, so one day she invented a solution.  She carried boiling water with a thin layer of oil for insulation in one container and the noodles, meat, and seasonings in a separate container.  When she arrived across the bridge and combined the ingredients to make soup, the broth was still hot enough to cook the meat, and the noodles weren’t soggy.  Et puis voilà!  过桥米线(guòqiáo mǐxiàn): “crossing-the-bridge noodles.”  This is just one of many stories that Yaolin has volunteered with excitement in her voice and a light in her eyes, which is particularly fun because it would never occur to me to ask about the story behind the names of the dishes we eat or the streets we cross.

Another favorite moment was a conversation over a meal I shared with a few of my classmates.  I had decided I was tired of asking everyone about how their classes were going or what the best thing they’d eaten in Kunming was, so I opened the conversation by asking if anyone had a favorite topic of discussion.  Lucy responded that she enjoys talking about educational systems, and before long all four of us were engaged in a lively and multifaceted conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of American and Chinese education systems and our ideas about educational reform.  The conversation was more interesting and less exhausting than the small talk we’d been making all week.

At other times I’ve elicited similarly interesting conversations in a less direct manner.  Yesterday a large group of us hiked nearby 西山 (Xī Shān, West Mountain).  During the long, uphill trek I had a chance to talk with Delphine and Danny.  I hadn’t previously interacted much with these two classmates, but as soon as Delphine and I got on the topic of books I knew I’d found a kindred spirit.  We both have similar memories of childhood summers spent devouring piles of library books, and Delphine shares my belief that it is often necessary to read a book more than once to savor it and discover everything it has to offer.  The conversation moved seamlessly from dystopian novels to moral philosophies and the meaning of life, and I was reluctant to let it end as we gathered to the rest of the group for lunch.  Later in the afternoon, Danny struck up a conversation by asking about my research topic for the semester, and we discovered a common interest in China’s religious climate.  The discussion soon turned to personal faith histories, and I found myself yet again in a conversation to-be-continued.

Ever since I learned it at summer camp, I’ve had a favorite saying of Confucius that goes like this: “三人行,必有我师焉。”  It means, “Wherever three people walk, my teacher must be among them.”  When I find myself in the middle of an effortless conversation where the other person is as engaged as I am, I know this is a person who will teach me something that I yearn to understand.  I hardly ever get there by merely talking about the things I like to talk about.  Rather, I have to ask questions and listen to the answers.  By watching and waiting, I discern what and when to ask, and by listening and pondering, I discover openings for response, for more questions, for action, and ultimately for relationship.  Like I said before, I’m still not sure exactly what I’m doing here or what niche I’m here to fill, but with each step and with each word, I’m uncovering the place that’s shaped for me, nestled among the others who are on this journey with me.