This will be the final post of my China memoir on the blog. I am going to use the month of November to finish the first draft, then move on to the re-write/editing process. Joy.
My brother Daniel and I started skipping Sunday school when I was 10 and he was 12. Our mom would drop us off in front of the church, our older brother Herb would dutifully go to his class while Daniel and I hid under the stairwell until the coast was clear. Once the hustle and bustle in the hallways settled, we’d run down the block to the Turkey Hill (our small town’s version of 7-11) and buy candy with money we’d found under the sofa cushions (or stolen from our Mom’s wallet).
I wasn’t playing hooky because I didn’t believe in God – that came three years later when I was sitting in church on Christmas Eve and the neighborhood witch sat in the pew behind me. Her hair teased and dyed ashe-blonde, her pursed bright pink lips looked like she’d just eaten a lemon and her nose stuck straight up in the air. This woman gave a whole new meaning to looking down on people. I thought it was a cop out that people could act like assholes, but go to church on Sundays and be forgiven.
I played hooky because I thought it was a waste of my time to sit inside on a perfectly good Sunday.
When we moved to Shanghai, there were several international schools for us to choose from. We selected the Christian-based American School. Though I don’t necessarily believe in God, and am definitely not a fan of organized religion, I do think the tenets of Christianity (and other religions) are solid rules to live by. I also think developing a healthy fear of an amorphous omnipotent power isn’t such a bad thing to help shape a child’s behavior.
To my surprise, I’d discovered that people actually took this whole God and religion thing seriously. I mean, I honestly thought that believing in God was something that you grew out of, likes shoes or believing in Santa Claus. But no.
There are grown people who not only believe in God, but they serve him.
This revelation scared me. It scared because I don’t. I wasn’t scared that people would try to recruit me – well, maybe a little; I was scared because I thought they’d judge me. I thought they’d label me a sinner and I’d be alienated from the community. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to be alienated, either. I was pretty good at alienating myself. But I like to have control of how much or how little I interact with a group. Not the other way around.
In the expat community, there is a standard conversation that takes place when meeting new people. It goes something like this: Where are you from? How long have you been here? How long will you be here? I imagined conversations in prison following a similar pattern. If you’re interested enough (or they’re interested enough), you might get on to where you’ll be heading for the upcoming holiday (or where you just returned from).
One day we were at a school BBQ. The kids went to the playground with their friends and Rob and I joined in with a group of people who were discussing the pros and cons of “unlimited human capital”. This is a term that is oft discussed in American expat circles. It made me uncomfortable. I understood that China has cheap labor because of the seemingly endless supply of available workers, but that term, “unlimited human capital”, made it sound like they were discussing cattle instead of people.
This one particular group of people we’d met were all long-time expats, but relatively new to China.
After the basics were covered, the conversation just got silly.
“Have you found a good masseuse yet?” a gangly American guy with a big Adam’s apple asked Rob. Thank God he was talking to Robby. Looking at big Adam’s apples are like finger nails on a chalkboard for me.
“Oh, no. I haven’t.” And he wouldn’t. Rob never has, and never will do massages, but he kept that to himself.
“Oh, you have to. If we have to live in China, we at least have to take advantage of some of the benefits, like cheap massages, while were here.”
“Yeah, I see what you’re sayin’.” Rob lied, still trying to be polite.
The gangly guy’s wife chimed in, “Exactly…we’ve had furniture made, cashmere coats custom tailored, you name it!” She was a rotund little thing. Her long, chestnut-brown hair was pinned in a neat bun at the nape of her neck; her floor-length prairie skirt dusted the floor as she moved.
Then the subject changed to something entirely different and unexpected. “Have you found a church yet?” the wife asked me.
I struggled to find the right words without letting this woman know that I don’t do, and never would do church.
“Oh? No. Not yet.” I smiled, but started to blush so I looked at my shoes and cracked my knuckles. If she’d been a police detective she would have seen right through me.
Then she laughed, “Well, you only have two choices here in Pudong: the Protestant church or the Catholic church.”
“Oh. I guess we would go to the Protestant church,” I said. That part wasn’t a lie. If we were to go to church, we would go to the Protestant church because Rob was baptized Episcopalian and I, though never baptized, was raised Presbyterian.
“That’s the church we go to…” She was interrupted by Grace and Willy. They’d cut her off by asking me for money to get some cotton candy. As I dug in my wallet for money, she said, “These are your kids?”
“Oh, yeah, Grace and Willy.”
“Oh, I know them. They ride my kids’ bus. I don’t have a driver three mornings a week so I ride the bus with them.”
Where is this going?
“They are so cute. One day they were arguing about the color of the devil. Grace insisted the Devil was red, because that is how he’s depicted in books. But Willy insisted he could be any color. He argued that, like God, the Devil is everywhere and can come in any shape or size…or color.”
Where do they get this shit? Maybe this is why she thinks I’d go to church?
Fortunately, the conversation was cut short because her youngest daughter needed help on the playground. As the little girl dragged her mother away by the hand, the woman turned and said, “It was nice meeting you. I hope to see you at church tomorrow.”
“Nice to meet you, too.”
How could I have anything in common with someone who asked about what church I go to within five minutes of meeting? I’d had friends in Denver who I’d known for five years before I knew they went to church on a regular basis. I didn’t care, either; I just didn’t want to talk about it. As the saying goes: To each her own. Worse, this lady seemed like the recruiting type. Though she and I never became friends, we developed a pleasant acquaintance from volunteering on different activity committees together…and she never tried to recruit me.
That meeting with her made me nervous to make anything more than an acquaintance at the school. I’d already entered a friendship with someone I couldn’t stand based on our differences. I didn’t want to go down that path again. It was not only exhausting, but I’d learned early on that this expat community was no different than a community in the states. It was small, and people talk.
Then I busted myself. I was so worried that they’d be judgmental of me, but I was the one who was being judgmental. I’d refused to befriend people based on a prejudice that I had of religious people. It was a prejudice that I’d carried with me from early adolescence and that had been confirmed time and again by the media. I’d assumed all Christians were hypocrites.
Hate it when that happens.
So, I shed my fears and became friends with some real-life Christians. I don’t mean the kind of Christians who go to church on Christmas an Easter. I mean real Christians who go to church every Sunday, to bible study groups once, sometimes twice a week. I became friends with people who, instead of trying out new places for lunch every day, spent their free time rocking crying babies at orphanages.
I learned that Christians are people, too. As an added bonus, some of them drank beer and even cussed a little.
I’d learned something else, too. This whole expat experience wasn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting some miraculous sense of freedom, like I felt when I was kid. Though that didn’t come close to happening, I was learning. I was learning about people and places and customs and cultures. But I was also learning about myself. Sometimes they were tough lessons, but they were making me a better person.
Though I wasn’t free the way I thought I wanted to be, I’d found a new sense of freedom. My mind was slowly but surely letting go of old habits, old feelings of resentment, childish notions I’d been carrying around with me for 30 years. I learned more about myself in the first six months of my expat experience than I did in my entire adult life.
There was a certain sense of freedom in that discovery.