A friend mentioned a few years back that it takes about six months to settle into a new place. And, I have to say, he was right. This past February I finally began to feel settled here in Hong Kong. I’ve grown accustomed to Hong Kong culture and I’ve finally made some really good friends here. These things make life much more grand…and now, in my eighth month abroad, the idea of leaving in two months is that much harder to realize.
However, in the midst of it all, a couple of exciting things have happened through my internship at MIC!
First, I joined together with one fellow intern and the superintendent minister of MIC to record a radio service for a local Christian radio show. The service was recorded the beginning of March, scheduled to air April 10th. The radio service is typically comprised of hymns, scripture, and a reflection on the text. Though my role in planning and participating was pretty minor, it was a strange thing to be 1) planning an Eastertide service while still in the posture of Lent and 2) the fact that about 10,000 people in Hong Kong would be listening to us between 11:05am-12pm on the morning of April 10th…no pressure…
Also on April 10th, I had the privilege of preaching for both services at MIC’s English speaking congregations! It’s not often that my sermons get recorded…but this one was!
The sermon, recorded at the 11am service, can be found at the link below. (*May these words of my mouth & meditations of my heart be acceptable and pleasing to God and that listeners will get more out of it than simply “I enjoyed it…” 😉 )
In other news, this is my final week of courses for this academic year in Hong Kong! I can’t believe I am almost to the end. I am currently in the midst of final presentations and papers and I hope that I will be able to post more thoughts in the coming weeks post-finals!
Today I spent the morning at Hong Kong Cemetery near Happy Valley, one of the oldest Christian cemeteries in Hong Kong (est. 1845). Below you will find a few pictures and two brief pieces of thought I felt compelled to share:
outside the chapel
inside the chapel, facing the front
Inside the chapel
Inside the chapel, where funeral services were held
PART I: Until it became a public cemetery, it was first only available to Western Protestants – mainly military, police, and missionaries – and “privileged” or “notable” Chinese citizens. Chinese Protestants had to be buried somewhere else. This means they were sent to a typical Chinese burial site, which followed a different set of burial rites than that of the Protestant Christian church. Knowing the history of colonial imperialism, I was not surprised to learn of such exclusion & elitism between the colonists & the locals. However, learning such kind of exclusion & elitism associated with the Protestant church was quite disappointing…I grieve over not the loss of people here but the loss of love & the ways missionaries often found themselves tangled up in colonial expansion. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Above everything – all nations, gender, language, sexual orientation, race, and social status – is our shared humanity. My continual prayer is that ALL be welcomed into community. Jesus didn’t participate in exclusion, y’all.
Across the street from the cemetery
one of the rare gravestones with Chinese inscription
PART II: How does one of the largest populated cities in the world confront death? This Hong Kong Cemetery is where 12,000 people are laid to rest. But like most burial sites in Hong Kong, it’s now full. To save space in a city that faces roughly 40,000 deaths a year, the government has issued that all people be cremated. How does government-mandated cremation affect a persons theology of death? If a family is wealthy enough, they can bury their loved one overseas/in Mainland or pay a large sum to have their dead buried for 10 years. If they choose the latter, their loved one must be cremated when their time is up anyway. Where can people be laid to rest in an increasingly crowded place if common Chinese belief states cemeteries will bring bad feng shui, meaning the living & the dead cannot be in close proximity of one another? How do people with a theology of death forbidding cremation grapple with the idea that they will eventually be cremated?
Part of this exchange agreement is an internship to accompany my studies. Here’s a glimpse into the life of Methodist International Church – Hong Kong!
THE CONGREGATION. MIC is a highly transient church. A majority of the church is non-locals and people who are temporarily living in Hong Kong. As a result, people are highly aware of what it feels like to be new and they make a strong effort to welcome and include new folks. An American family who had only attended MIC while on a three month job contract said it was the most welcoming church they had ever been to. Hospitality is certainly a gift and strength of this church!
The congregation itself is made up of people from all over the world: Filipinos, Malaysians, Brits, Swiss, Americans, Mainlanders, Sri Lankans, Australians…the list goes on and on. All hold various socioeconomic statuses in the city, which can make it challenging but holy and rewarding. Some were Methodists in their previous home, and some have recently called the Methodist church home. Because MIC is in Hong Kong, a place embedded with different cultures, languages, and religions represented, many attenders were not baptized as infants. Actually, many became Christians in their adult life. Each and every week we meet people who have – quite literally – never heard the name “Jesus” before they arrived to Hong Kong. Or if they have they only know the name but know nothing about Christianity or what Christians claim…truly a different world. Growing up a Christian in a Christian culture, I have to find reasons why I stayed a Christian, not why I became one. From a recent conversation: “Hong Kong has never known a dying church.” This past November, the HK Methodist Church celebrated its 40th anniversary of the UMC & UK-MC joining to form the MC-HK.
MC-HK. According to the MC-HK’s rule book (which is MUCH smaller than the UMC’s Book of Discipline), the international church is part of the “international circuit,” while all the rest are part of the “Chinese circuit.” The MIC building is actually home to the conference offices for the MC-HK and other NGOs that are connected to the Methodist Church. Until late, the MIC was pretty independent from the Chinese churches. But now they have built an increasingly close relationship of respect, love, and support.
SERVICES. Sunday is really THE day. Everything happens on Sundays. MIC has two English speaking services on Sunday morning along with a service in Tagalong (The Philippines) & Illocano (The Philippines). Sunday afternoons are filled with another Tagalong service and a Putonghua service. On Saturdays, there is another service in Tagalong. Sunday mornings are also time for youth & children’s Sunday school.
Throughout the week the church offers Bible study (typically an Alpha course) and a women’s prayer group. There is also a young adults group who meets once a month, a support group for family members of those struggling with mental illness, and the occasional fellowship event.
THE STAFF & THEIR FOCUS GROUPS: As you can read, there’s so much going on all the time. People in Hong Kong work incredibly long hours Monday-Friday and weekends are filled with church events. The great thing about the pastoral staff at MIC is that they’re all foreigners in ministry to foreigners. The common language and culture make it easier for foreigners to connect with as they navigate an unfamiliar place.
The Filipino Christian Community & the Putonghua Fellowship each have their own “pastoral worker” and team of lay leaders. The FCC is made up of mostly domestic workers/helpers from who have left their families back in The Philippines and come to Hong Kong for better working wages (FACT: one actually earns more as a domestic worker in HK than as a university professor in the Philippines). These women are amazing. The Putonghua fellowship is made up of people who have relocated from Mainland China. Often, mainlanders find themselves faced with culture shock, language barrier, and racism by local Hong Kongers. In recent months the Putonghua fellowship has been gathering with locals for Cantonese classes. The language classes have been a great way for the church to connect and care for the community, to help the mainlanders break down barriers with the locals, and to share the love of Jesus (as many have no prior connection to the church). The classes now have about 90 or so people attending EVERY WEEK.
The English speaking congregation serves a wide range of people- any foreigner or local who wants to participate in the English speaking church. Even though it is English-speaking, much of the English speaking congregation is full of Filipino women. These services are led by the Superintendent Minister and the Associate pastoral worker (and sometimes the FCC minister). The English speaking group is also usually served by a couple of other volunteer pastoral workers and the youth worker.
WHAT DO I DO?: Typically I share Sunday liturgy responsibilities with two other students from the Divinity school. Each of us has a different focus: one with young couples, one with music, and me with the youth. The church needed a female “youth worker” so that’s the position I’m filling for the school year. I co-lead youth every Sunday, lead a couple of small groups for the young ladies, and co-coordinate service opportunities & monthly fellowship events. Aside from Sunday, every Tuesday we have staff meeting which gives us the chance to get organized and offer support to one another’s life and ministries. Last semester I also had the chance to co-lead an adult Bible study for anyone interested in exploring Christianity.
WHAT DO I LOVE THE MOST? This is a tough one. It is an immense joy to be a foreigner in ministry to foreigners. I don’t feel called to be a pastor specifically to youth – I definitely am not gifted to focus on this group – but I do have fun learning with some of the busiest, most intelligent youth I’ve ever met. The Filipino women inspire me every day and remind me that God is good, all the time…even when life sucks. I love meeting people who are eager to learn more about this Christianity thing because I am challenged to articulate this faith and loving theology from the most basic level. I love meeting people from all over the world and learning about their culture and their passions or work that led us to meet. And I love getting to work with a staff. I love hearing the different ministries at work and getting to work as a team. This internship has helped me realize that I could never fully embrace or lead any kind of ministry alone or without the support of leaders in the community. Teamwork really does make the dream work.
So that’s life at MIC! I’ll be working at MIC until my courses officially end mid-May. I’ve learned so much through this diverse faith community and I’m looking forward to learning so much more in the months to come!
When I arrived back in Hong Kong, I was so homesick. Spending time with my mom & brother was the most I’ve spent with anyone since I was back in the USA and Japan/Japanese-America felt so much like home. Thankfully, I only had a 48 hour “layover” in Hong Kong which was spent sleeping, eating Dim Sum with people from MIC, counting down the days when I could go back to the USA, and repacking for my trip to Taiwan.
The whole first week of 2016 I spent around Tainan & Kaohsiung City on a study tour with classmates from the Divinity school. These two cities are located on the Southwestern part of Taiwan and are home to Tainan Theological Seminary & College, a Presbyterian school and the first Christian school in Taiwan. The seminary was founded in the late 1800s by Presby Scottish missionary Thomas Barclay. Coming from a Methodist background, it was a refreshing week learning about the Presby missionary movement in Taiwan and the influence Christianity has had on Taiwan. Throughout the week we attended lectures at both the seminary and Chang Jung Christian University. In contrast with Hong Kong, Taiwan’s official language is Mandarin, though there is a wide number of indigenous languages still spoken throughout the island.
The focus topic of the trip was studying theology in a local context. You may be wondering “How is this different than what you study in the USA?” In Taiwan we were studying how the Taiwan people are “contextualizing theology.” They’re taking what they’ve received from missionaries and are adapting it into their own language and into their own culture.
To understand the Taiwanese culture, we looked to politics as a major influence. If you don’t know much about Taiwan, this little island-country has a history of being occupied by “the other.” In the late 1800s and throughout the early 1900s, Taiwan was occupied by Japan during the Sino-Japanese war. Taiwan & Japan held the same government system but the ideologies and culture were so different (another danger of categorizing everyone into categories such as “Asian” or “Western”). The Taiwanese people were then, without choice, obligated to adapt and change themselves to Japanese culture. From 1945-present day, Taiwan has been ruled by the Republic of China. This has had an influence not only on political policies but also language. Due to occupation, increasing globalization, and constantly being forced to accommodate & adapt to a new system by non-native people, indigenous Taiwanese languages and cultures are dying out. There is a strong sense of colonization in Taiwan because of the oppressive and suppressive policies the people have faced throughout generations.
In addition to politics, the main religions of Taiwan are Buddhism and Taoism. About two-thirds of the Taiwanese people practice these religions in addition to more local ones. In the late 1800s, the first Presbyterian missionaries landed in Taiwan and set up their own societies in the North and the South. When the missionaries came, they had a hard time understanding Taiwanese culture as it relates to other Asian countries. But the missionaries moved forward in doing what they knew best: by teaching the gospel through the lens of their White European context. And remarkably, the missionaries were able to convert many native people to Christianity with their European culture using their European language (the Spirit of God knows no boundaries). However, looking back, Christian-Taiwanese now understand that in their teaching methods the European missionaries were asking the Taiwanese people to “despise their own culture.” Rather than adapting Christianity to the Taiwanese culture in their proclamation, missionaries –whether knowingly or not – asked them to reject their previous identity as a Taiwanese people and adapt to the Western Christian culture in a Taiwanese context.
This caused me to wonder: How can the Taiwanese people create their own form of Christianity without American or British influence? With a history of “Western” influence along with increasing connections and globalization is that even possible?
In Tainan, the Taiwanese theologians began with language. They realized that in order to relate to the native people they must transfer everything into the local dialect. They’ve always been worshipping a God under the Western gaze in a Western culture with Western holidays and Western ideals of how human beings relate to one another. But the Taiwanese have different festivals and traditions and their own ideals of how human beings relate to another….and this continues to change with the connection to Mainland China.
In the contexts of Taiwan, Mainland, and Hong Kong, people have said “When there is one more Christian, there is one less Chinese,” suggesting that when one becomes Christian, they are adapting to the Western religion, Western culture, and rejecting all things Chinese. In addition, since the missionaries didn’t often equip indigenous leaders, there used to be the common belief that only Western people could do theology. Some people even saw the arrival and leaving of missionaries (because foreigners were kicked out by the government at one point) as the arrival and leaving of the presence of God (…ouch). To the Taiwanese people, this realization brought to question how people began to see God. What community leaders realized is that the people needed encouragement, support, and these communities who have historically been recipients of missionaries needed to have indigenous leaders proclaiming from their own experience as the people of that context.
In one of our lectures, a professor stated “Asian theology is a branch of third world theology…the Asian continent has a history of poverty, pluralistic religion, absolute political regimes, and restrictive cultures. Only when one can connect with these features can one become global. Traditional theology is also global. It applies to everyone. Local theology begins when you engage with your own local context.” Then another professor offered a cooking analogy. He said “theology has to be applicable. What are you feeding people? Who are you doing theology for? What are the dietary needs of the community? Local theology has to be written in the local language because it is then then they are able to accuratelyname the things that people are facing and going through. When this happens, the passion and suffering in the Bible is linked with the local people.
As the Taiwanese people are developing their own theology as the Christian people of Taiwan, they’re rubbing up against the dominant theologies already articulated worldwide. This caused me to wonder: How do we correlate or define our identity with our nation and our identity as a Christian? This an important question to press into for Christians of nations governed by a people of another religion. It also caused me to wonder: How can you have a Taiwanese theology (implying that this theology represents all of Taiwan), when the mountain people are certainly different than the people of Taipei. Perhaps I should re-word this whole blog to say “Taiwanese theologies.” But I’ll just leave the thought here.
In the development of local theologies, there is one issue: do these non-English speaking, non-Western groups have the resources to do theology? How are we equipping and empowering one another? Right now, my brilliant colleagues at DSCCC are studying theology written by both English and Chinese theologians. There’s some theology written in Chinese but there’s still a majority of their books written by Western people who are speaking to a completely different context. It’s certainly a beautiful, reconciling thing to read and learn to adapt and understand another group of people as they relate to God, but it’s another thing to have ONLY that as a resource.
Who is speaking to my identity? Where is the person like me helping me understand God from my context? (This kind of thing is why I love feminist theology. It resonates with me. It’s liberating to study a theology speaking from my social location….though this connection I find a deeper love for God.)
If theology is faith seeking understanding, how can one understand or grow if they are not acknowledging or identifying with their identity? To think theologically, one must first ask the question “Who am I?”
From my social location I began to ask this question: What are “American theologies?” What are “Feminist theologies?” What are “White theologies?” What are “North Carolina theologies?” If all theologies are local theologies, can Duke Divinity professors be doing “American theologies?” If one is teaching in the USA but is a citizen of another country, how is their theology defined?
Another set of questions: If I am a part of the dominant voice of theology (thrown into the category of “White Westerner”), how am I learning about God through the lens of my whole body? “My body” being the body of Christ? Am I only focusing on the theology of my left hand? What about my right knee or my nose? What other theologies am I reading? Do I read what people are saying about God through the same kinds of people or through different kinds of people? Are theologies of different cultures represented on my bookshelf or am I only reading about God strictly by authors who come from my culture and my social location?
And in the midst of these questions, I’m reminded of Acts 2, where I am once again reminded that language and culture are bound up in one another. When everyone began to speak in different languages and tongues through the Spirit they also may have begun to speak fromdifferent cultures. When one speaks about God from a different culture or background one is speaking about God in a different theology. And yet somehow, in the midst of the language and communication barriers we are all part of one body, comprised of many different theologies. We don’t ask a part of the body to despise itself (unless it’s causing harm…that’s when you know it’s most likely not a theology grounded in the love of Jesus…maybe then you need to have surgery and/or tend to the wound…). Rather, we tend to that part of the body, empowering and encouraging that part with each breath that we have.
And so that is what I’m doing here. Rather than listening to my own culture and context, only focusing on my left hand, I am in Hong Kong listening to my other hand, and my nose and my right knee as I hear the different theologies of my body grow and learn. I’m so excited to see these theological developments unfold and come to fruition in the context of Southeast Asia as it relates to the people of Southeast Asia. I’m SO looking forward to the day when my colleagues from this part of the world publish liturgies and theologies in their own language, in their own culture, and from their own context. And I’m so looking forward to continue learning from them.
I apologize for the lack of blogging. The past six weeks have been full – I wrote three-6,000 word term papers, embraced the Christmas chaos at Methodist International Church, spent time with my family in Hong Kong & Japan, and then traveled to Taiwan on a study trip with classmates! I should also mention that I am OFFICIALLY over my halfway point in this exchange program. Huzzuh!
Now let me tell you a little about Japan:
My family and I flew out of Hong Kong the day after Christmas and into Tokyo. Stepping foot into Japan oddly felt like home. I fell in love with Japan immediately. First of all, I was with familiar faces. Second, Japan is actually cold in January, everything appeared new/well-kept, there was so much space to move around, and they’ve been completely Americanized. The familiarity was deep.
We spent the night in a hotel (can’t remember the last time I’ve done that…) and took the Shinkansen – Japan’s high speed bullet train running at a max speed of 320 km/hr – Sunday morning to Kyoto.
In retrospect, Japan and life in Hong Kong has made me realize I’ve been unconsciously interested in Asia my entire life. From Totoro to Mulan (she was my favorite “princess”) to Memoirs of a Geisha, this part of the world has always captivated my attention. Our first day in Kyoto, we spent the afternoon at Fushimi-Inari Taisha, the head Shinto shrine in the Inari district of Kyoto. It was only a few subways stops over from Kyoto station. This was the one place I wanted to go the most, mainly because the famous orange gates – torii – were featured in “Memoirs of a Geisha!” We were able to walk through the gates and up the mountain (along with other hordes of tourists). DAY MADE.
*FUN FACT: Whenever you see these traditional torii gates (they’re usually orange), it marks the entrance to a shrine. It symbolizes the division and transition between the physical (profane) and sacred (or spiritual) worlds.*
The second day we participated in an English-speaking day tour since we were only in Kyoto for a little over two days (props to mom’s brilliant idea) We visited countless shrines & temples throughout the day and learned more about the belief systems of many Japanese people. Our tour guide was able to explain proper etiquette when visiting these spiritual spaces and the ways Japanese embrace both Shinto & Buddhism.
For example, when you enter these sacred spaces, there’s usually a place with a pool of water and a bunch of metal ladles. This is the purification fountain where the person should wash their face and their hands to cleanse themselves before entering (but usually tourists ignore it). Then you make your way over to a structure that actually looks like the shrine part. At the place which looks like the actual shrine, you’re supposed to put in coins as an offering, bow, clap your hands twice, and then offer your prayer. If there’s a rope in front of the prayer station, you pull the rope before the prayer & after clapping to get the god’s attention. (And I apologize for my lack of technical terms…I’m still learning.)
To be honest, before living in Southeast Asia, I didn’t know much about other religions (I still don’t). Growing up in a dominant Christian culture in a family who regularly attended church, I rarely had interaction with someone who claimed something (or someone) else. As a result, I’m just now coming to gain a deeper understanding of Christianity as it relates to other religions. I’m also gaining a deeper understanding of what culture and life is like when your religion is not the dominant one in your country.
As I was listening to our tour guide explain the proper procedures of temple etiquette, I was struck when she said “then you pull the gong to get the god’s attention.”
My internal reaction: “You have to ring a gong to get god’s attention? You also have to give money to please your god in hopes that your prayer will be answered? What about unconditional love? Why do you pray to a god who you have to jump through all these hoops just to get the god to listen to you? It’s like a neglected child begging for attention of their distracted or preoccupied parents…”
Since Japan, I find myself giving a much delayed thanks to the Truth that has been proclaimed to me my whole life. I don’t need to pull a gong in hopes that my one God – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – will give me attention and listen to my prayer because I am beloved. Love isn’t being ignored. Love isn’t begging for the attention of one another. Love is selfless, endless, boundless, overflowing. This means that my God is always looking out for me, never distracted with other things, and wants me to flourish in my human life. And, thankfully, I don’t need to make sure I’m speaking to the right god, such as the god of money, wisdom, rice…etc. when in prayer. I don’t need to pay money to get on god’s good side either. My God is not a god of bribes but a God who IS this love that unconditional, surpasses all understanding, and who rings gongs to get my attention…
…Aside from theology and this revelation, I have to admit these shrines and temples were breathtakingly beautiful. I’m continually amazed at the incredible detail and color involved in the architecture of the buildings and the care for the land surrounding them. These spaces are clearly spiritual spaces as they are surrounded by nature. Though Japan has many bustling urban areas there are plenty of outdoor parks, shrines, and temples for people to reflect and pray. One of my favorite temples was Kinkaku-ji Temple (also known as the “Golden Pavillion”). This is a Zen Buddhist temple covered in a pure gold-leaf coating. It is actually a replica of the original which was burned down in 1950 by one of the monks (the present one was built in 1955). The pavilion & surrounding gardens are amazing:
In addition to the many temples and shrines we visited, one of my favorite places was Nara Park. Here there is a giant temple and a castle (which we didn’t see…I think it was closed). The most unique aspect about Nara is the number of wild deer that inhabit the grounds. These deer are not like the ones in NC – skinny & skiddish – but are well-fed by the tourists and don’t hesitate to walk up to you in hopes that you have something tasty to give them.
Following our day tour in Kyoto, we took the bullet train back to Tokyo where we did more secular sightseeing. We went up into the Tokyo Skytree which gave us a 360 degree view of the massive city (pro tip: wait to buy your tickets at the sky tree. They have a special line for non-Japanese residents and you get to bypass the long line!). We also visited the famous Shibuya Crossing, which is featured in many films and Akhiabara, a district of Tokyo famous for its number of anime, manga, and electronics stores. To further our Japanese-American immersion, we spent New Year’s Eve at Tokyo Disneyland! (I forgot to mention I did go to Hong Kong Disneyland in early December J ) Unlike Hong Kong Disney, Tokyo Disney is so large; we could have gone for more than one day! Tokyo Disney was different in that it was mostly Japanese and they have created their own twist on Disney music. This was much different than Hong Kong Disney because HK Disney was mostly in English (expect for the fact that Mickey did know Cantonese).
*Another FUN FACT: Though Disney was an excellent option for NYE, Japan is not the party place for New Years. As it turns out, Japanese people visit the shrines and temples beginning at midnight New Year’s Day to offer prayers for the upcoming year.
This means that instead of a big party in the city, my family and I welcomed the New Year in our sleep. And we were okay with that.
The last day we visited Tokyo Tower and the outside grounds of the Imperial Palace. Located in the heart of Tokyo, the Imperial Palace is only open two days a year: December 23 for the Emperor’s birthday and January 2nd for the New Year’s greeting. It would have been so cool to be in Japan one more day for the opening of the palace, but all our flights left around midnight January 2. However, one thing that did not disappoint was the Japanese deep love (read: obsession) with France. In addition to the countless number of restaurants serving French cuisine, Tokyo Tower was constructed in the image of the Eiffel Tower…
Now, if we had more time in Japan, I would have liked to visit Osaka, Hiroshima, and historic WWII sites. I’ve always been somewhat of a history nerd with a particular interest in WWII. Since I started Divinity school I’m constantly trying to understand my social location as a White American and the ways human beings interact with one another. This has been amplified since I arrived to Hong Kong, especially coming from a country as powerful and influential as the USA. On that note, I was actually shocked by the depth of influence the USA has on Japan. The USA helped rebuild Japan – after bombing them – in WWII. USA influence is reflected in its culture and the prevalence of corporations such as McDonalds, Starbucks, Subway, and KFC. I said I loved Japan because of its familiarity to me but I sincerely wish the presence of the USA in Japan wasn’t so strong.
Aside from this reflective piece, here are a few other quirks about Japan:
Vending machines are EVERYWHERE. You can get cold drinks & hot drinks (soda, coffee, tea, water…etc.)
Guards patrol the train tracks. This is because Japan has a high rate of people committing suicide by jumping in front of the train.
The water is safe. You can actually drink from the tap
Bathrooms are super fancy. That is, if they’re not a squatty potty.
If you’re staying in a flat (like we did) you’ll have to take off your shoes and put on slippers upon entrance (this is the case for any home)
Things in Japan are just as expensive as the USA (esp compared to Hong Kong)
Different flavored Kit-Kats abound! Like Red bean, Strawberry Cheesecake, Sweet potato, and Matcha
Kawaii culture & everything is so cute. Seriously. Everything.
Alright. That’s all I have for now! Until next time, Japan.
Mainland classmate: “Do you know that? You are very lucky to be born in that country”
Burmese Classmate: “You Westerners don’t know how good you have it. Why doesn’t America help our country? We need help.”
Me: “A lot of people grow up in oppressive Bible-belt culture.”
Mainland classmate: “What do you mean by “oppressed?”
These are a few snippets of conversations I’ve had with classmates since I’ve been here. Since arriving in Hong Kong (as you will/have seen in my earlier posts), I have begun to distinguish what makes my home country unique.
While here I’ve learned a lot from my colleagues from Mainland, a place where Christianity is thriving but also struggling. Some have asked me if I ever considered being a missionary in Mainland because the church needs help. They say the church needs more resources and educated Christians to teach their congregations. They themselves are studying to be pastors in Mainland, where they will have a low salary (if any) and where they are at risk of getting arrested if they say anything that might go against the Chinese government.
In addition, a colleague from Myanmar has wondered why America keeps taking Burmese people in but is wondering why America isn’t helping Myanmar now. She said they need funding and education, among other things, to help their country get back on their feet. The problem is that so many people from Myanmar are still in refugee camps and/or leaving to resettle elsewhere. She said the country needs the Burmese people to stay and work to make them better. If they do leave and are financially well off or get a better education in another country, she said Myanmar need it’s people to return and help their people. (And in case you haven’t heard, they just had their first democratic election in 25 years! A truly exciting time for the people of Myanmar.)
A colleague from Cambodia and I share a class on the sacraments. He said that for communion he’ll get bread from the bakery and use Coca-cola products for the elements of bread and wine. When my Chinese classmates all shared their churches’ long “to-do” lists and series of examinations a person needed to pass before they could get baptized, he said “If anyone wants to get baptized, I say ‘You want to get baptized?! Come! Come get baptized!’ And they go. Because in Cambodia, people die every day. In Hong Kong, we are so safe. In Cambodia, you don’t know which day will be your last.”
And right now, I’m living in a country with an encroaching communist government. Some Hong Kongers crack jokes (especially when HK & China played against eachother in futbol – the joke being “who are people cheering for?!”), but you can sense fear is deep within. Over the years, as more mainlanders have moved into Hong Kong, many Hong Kongers have migrated out, moving to places like Canada, Australia, England, or the USA….but most are staying. Many are wondering when it will be their time to leave and many are up for a fight, regardless of what this will mean for them in the future when the Chinese government really takes over.
As I reflect on these conversations with classmates and colleagues, I am reminded of the incredible privileges that come with being a United States citizen. In the United States, I’m aware of my White privilege. For example, I’m aware that it’s less likely for me to get pulled over by cops or hassled by anyone because of the color of my skin. Here in Southeast Asia, I have “White American privilege.” I’ve been told that Hong Kong is incredibly safe for me because people won’t try to rob me. (The reason being that the person wouldn’t be able to communicate with me if they tried.)
Here, most of the White-skinned foreigners are incredibly wealthy – and I’m lumped into that category. Often people will look at me, note I’m a “Westerner,” and assume I’m rolling in cash. “Always go shopping with a local so people won’t take advantage of you,” people say. Now, I may not be as wealthy as the business or finance people living in Stanley and I might not associate myself as “wealthy” because I have thousands of dollars in student debt to the American government, but I am wealthy through the country in which I was born and all that the title “US citizen” means. I had an idea of this reality before in my work with refugees, but my conversations about politics with people from all over SE Asia has thrown me and this reality into a dark room and directed a massive spotlight onto us.
And yes, it’s absolutely uncomfortable. It’s easier for me to have a conversation with a nationality who’s dollar is stronger than mine than the other way around.
As a US citizen, I’m privileged to live in a place where I can speak freely. I’m privileged to hold a passport to a country where I might feel like I can’t speak up, but I’m allowed to speak my mind. Because of the color of my skin and my nationality, I’m not going to get arrested for the words I say. The worst I might face is the reaction from people – they might get angry or sad – but it is less likely that I will get arrested or killed. I have the freedom to speak, the freedom to worship, and the freedom to [hopefully] find solidarity quickly through social media if a problem arises. Because of the color of my skin, I’m not going to be questioned by police. People less likely to look at me as a threat…and same goes for Hong Kong. I might be a foreigner, but being a White foreigner in Hong Kong has a whole different set of privileges than a non-white foreigner would have. For example, in Hong Kong I am received and welcomed (about 90% of the time) with more friendliness as a White foreigner, than I would if I were Filipino or of Middle-Eastern descent.
At least weekly, someone brings my nationality to my attention (I mean, it’s hard not to. Like I said in a previous post – I visually scream “foreigner” or “different.” …not to mention I’m the only exchange student at the Divinity school this semester). I would much rather not talk about my nationality because I’m afraid of coming off as proud or arrogant, but people remind me often. I don’t like to be reminded of it because it reminds me of the immense privileges we have (more so those of us who are White-Americans living in/out of America). However, I need to be reminded of it. As a White American, the color of my skin and the land where I’m from carries a lot of weight in the form of our history as a nation and the powers we have in terms of foreign relations. In US history we talk a lot about how we were formed and what Europe did, but we don’t talk a lot about wherewe have gone and what we have done.
Our history – especially political history – shapes the way in which we relate to one another. In Hong Kong, it has to do a lot with the history of foreign missionaries, traders, domestic helpers, and the relationship with Mainland. In the United States it has to do a lot with our nation’s history with slavery, immigration, war. Political systems and policies are just one example of the powers that affect the ways in which we relate to one another. These policies (whether foreign or domestic) has and continues to shape our perceptions and assumptions of one another. It shapes our stereotypes. And it shapes the way we posture ourselves, whether towards or away from one another.
Side note – Over the past few years, Duke Divinity’s Center for Reconciliation has been developing the Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia. The forum consists of Christian leaders from China, Hong Kong, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. The group gathers once a year in solidarity and support to theologically reflect how militarization and nationalism has led to deep-seeded wounds between nations in Northeast Asia. In the midst of their conversations they discuss ways in which Christian leaders can help their nations repent and forgive one another in the ministry of reconciliation. Even though it’s almost 2016, I know Americans tend to categorize all Asians into one category (Don’t beat yourself up about it too badly – Chinese have categorized “White Westerner” all into one category – just please be mindful to not do that…cause I don’t like to be categorized with British culture when it’s not my culture). But know there are huge differences between nations. It was a big deal for some of the Chinese leaders to step foot in Japan at last year’s conference. It was a literal step towards reconciliation after the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong & China.
When people say “Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics,” or that the USA should only welcome Christian refugees, I’m sure they must have just misinterpreted who Jesus was. Jesus was constantly challenging the public policies and stereotypes. He was constantly welcoming the stranger. He was going from country to country, baptizing and teaching. He didn’t let nationality or religion or language get in the way of loving others. In Cynthia Rigby’s Scandalous Presence, she writes “Trinitarian faith does not first posit God’s existence and then assert that this God loves. Rather, it recognizes that God loves and relates because God is loving and related. God’s loving and relating are not only something God does but also who God is.” Trinitarian faith encompasses our whole being. It’s who we are. To have Trinitarian faith is to embody who God is – as a loving and relating human being. To have Trinitarian faith is to love and relate to one another because above all nation is our shared humanity.
The unfamiliar & foreign is scary. Believe me, I get it. It comes with it’s own weight of biases & stereotypes. But we are all humans. We share in that. But you know what? Christ was human too
Though it is definitely “that time in the semester” & work is piling up, this past week or so has been filled with more fun activities! (I know, I know. I said I would talk about the MIC in my next post but I changed my mind…that is still forthcoming.)
THEOLOGY DAY. Last Saturday, the Divinity school had it’s “Theology Day.” All full-time students were required to sing in the choir (Song choice: “Awaken Me to Pray”) and all students were required to wear the school uniform (White top & black skirt for women). But even though the school picked the most generic color-scheme, I didn’t own either pieces of clothing (of course) and made my first HK clothes purchase. As for theology day, it was so much fun.
First, theology day began with a wonderful skype date with my dear friend Haley Eccles, which was perfect timing after a long week (#blessed). Second, when I first came onto the scene dressed in my uniform, my friend Phalla looked at me & exclaimed “Caitlin, you look like a girl!” So, naturally, I responded with “And you look like a boy!”
Oh, silly gender constructs…he didn’t know how to follow that. It was hilarious. (For those of you who don’t know me well, I’m not really a “girly-girl.”)
SO about theology day: It’s actually graduation day and one of the only days when the entire school (part-time & full-time students, faculty…etc.) are together during the school year. It was wonderful to meet so many new people and see so many reunions between graduates and current students (definitely a gift in having November graduations rather than May graduations!). Following the long graduation service, we had a “Thanksgiving Banquet” in Fo Tan. I joined the Methodist table with 12 other students. There, we had traditional banquet food, such as goose feet, bird saliva soup (yes, I did just say that), veggies, steamed rice, fried noodles, red bean soup and red wine.
THE BIG WHEEL. One of the new tourist things in HK is “The Hong Kong Observation Wheel.” It’s been open for about a year and is a little like the London Eye: too expensive for the time allotted. However, you do get a great view of the Harbour. Not to mention my friend Tiffany had free tickets she wasn’t going to use and gave them to my friend Noel and me to use! So, for fifteen minutes we were locked in a rotating box where we took hundreds of pictures of everything around us. Here’s a few in addition to one I took of the wheel a few weeks back.
STANLEY. A popular tourist destination. You can take a bus from Central HK out to Stanley, where shopping abounds. It’s right near Hong Kong’s famous Discovery Bay beach. Not only is the area aimed for tourists but it is also home to many wealthy foreigners & natives. There, Noel, who became my tour-guide for the day, and I had tea and walked around. The break from the bustling city life in addition to Stanley’s Western vibe made me feel like I was back at a beach in the US…it was quite a lovely day.
Here’s to hoping for more fun things in the midst of the craziness that is always the end of the semester! Even with only taking three classes I DO have a few presentations and three long term papers to write. I hope to post about the MIC soon. It’s a great place to be & I’m eager to tell you about it 🙂