GMF End Terms and End of School Terms

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With the GMF program winding down, the diverse cohort met again earlier this month in Cambodia’s capital city. Through fellowship and worship, we processed our unique and shared experiences and looked ahead to the next steps God is calling us to take in faith and in mission.

I am so thankful for this program that allowed me to use my spiritual gifts as an educator in several capacities in China.

The community classroom setting in nearby Kunshan taught me so much about working with international NGO staff and engaging with neighborhood life of migrant workers in China. This program has run its course and had to end earlier this month because students are preparing for state-mandated standardized testing so, just like their same-age counterparts in the USA, these elementary and middle school students have to buckle down and spend their extra time on test prep.

For the last lesson of these 10-week courses, I always do a review of the things we have learned before. I was fortunate to have the same students for 2 courses in a row so I was really able to see their progress as English speakers. During the activities and games, the students were using English words and phrases to interact with each other. Even saying simple things like, “It’s your turn!” or “Me next!” or “Stop!” or “What?” means that these kids have absorbed something from our time together and most importantly were comfortable using the language in informal settings and not just the stiff, formulaic academic English that will be assessed on the standardized tests.

One of the pedagogical points that has stayed with me the most through my time in China is authenticity when it comes to language learning. If students aren’t using the language in contexts that are genuine or that reflect real-world moments, they will never achieve fluency. Also, when students use the language in informal settings, they are less likely to filter themselves and just try using the language to the best of their ability. Even if they make mistakes, they are still overcoming the sometimes crippling obstacle that fear of making a mistake creates in language learners. So, hearing my students interact with each other and with me in conversational English means they are one big step closer to proficiency.

As for my students at Soochow University, we are soon entering exam season. Both my speaking and writing courses have just completed their group projects in anticipation for the end of the school term.

For students in my writing classes, this meant a group project on an art movement of their choosing that they would later use to inspire an original poem in their final poetry portfolio.

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Group project about Impressionism

These students’ project about Impressionism included a skit in which the students attended the first exhibition of early Impressionist works and used this to introduce the key features of the art movement as well as key artists.

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Group project about Romanticism

In the presentation about the Romantics, these students dressed up and acted as though they were the famous poets of this literary movement meeting salon-style to critique each other’s works. They even brought their own props – including an old fashioned phonograph!

My speaking classes made short films that included the elements of narrative storytelling as well as demonstration of their spoken English skills. The films were so creative! Some included family drama, romance, coming-of-age, and even mystery. My favorite film was called “The Flute.” In this short film, an ancient spirit helps a young girl achieve her dream of becoming a musician.

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Moment from “The Flute”

I was so impressed by my students’ creativity and their efforts to edit and produce the films with transitions, sound effects, creative settings, etc. Because the students acted and filmed around campus, I have priceless footage of the special spots and people who have given me so much in this season of service in China. These young people never cease to amaze me. I look forward to continuing to be their cheerleader and champion as their journeys unfold but I know that the young women and handful of young men I co-learned with and from through the university will go on to achieve great things. Though my students always say that they learn so much from our time together, I was touched to hear them say that some of the most meaningful lessons they learned in our classroom were not related to the academic subject of English but rather were from the fabric of the course itself.

For example, I asked my students to complete an informal survey in which I asked them the following series of questions:

  1. Did I consider myself a poet/storyteller at the beginning of the course? Why or why not?
  2. Did that change? Why or why not?
  3. Which project did I enjoy the most?
  4. How did my relationship with written/spoken English change during the course?
  5. What is one thing I will take with me from this course?
  6. Did I make one million mistakes this semester? Why or why not?

And requested that any student who is willing would share their answers with me. I was touched by their responses.

Many students had not though that what they had to say or how they think about the world was important enough to make into a poem or a short film. So much of Chinese education is similar to the USA because students are required to memorize a series of “correct” answers and regurgitate them for an exam. This is not education – it’s indoctrination at best and brainwashing at worst. My students were able to explore their own ideas, inspirations, voices and produce finished works to show to each other. For some students, a relationship with the language did not exist before my course because they had never considered the personal relevance or utility of English in their own lives.

The final question produced the most moving answers. To encourage students to ask questions and make mistakes, I told all of my classes at the beginning of the semester that our goal was to make 1,000,000 mistakes. This was to promote authentic connection with material and allowed me to engage the students in dialogic practices, but I was stunned to find students also applied this to their personal lives.

A handful articulated so precisely that this paradigm of taking risks and making mistakes was brand-new to them and, for them, this was also related to gender stereotypes and traditional cultural values in China. Women are expected to be polite, soft-spoken, and to play it safe and this is compounded by the core concept of “saving face” (appearing to have everything under control and done correctly even if the given task was impossible due to unclear instructions or unrealistic expectations).

The work that God has done through me in the lives of these students is humbling. I know I will never forget their faces or the impact they have had on me during my mission service.

Thank you for keeping up with my blog posts and email blasts, which I will be sending out monthly. If my story connects with you, I encourage you to join me on my journey as a missionary! Please visit my Support page for more information on how to be part of my call to engage with local communities, connect the church in mission, and grow in personal and social holiness.

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Looking Homeward

 

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Enjoying university views while I can!

The ticket has been purchased. It’s official. I am leaving China the evening of July 30th.

My last night’s sleep in China will be on the night of July 29th, and today is April 28th, which means I have approximately three months left living on this continent in this country.

I have three more blog posts, five more English corner meetings in Kunshan, about nine more lessons at Soochow University, the End Term event in Cambodia next month, thirteen weeks and three days until this whole incredible chapter comes to a close; this step out into a life I always felt called to seek. A life where what’s important and what’s familiar get rip apart.

These months, over a year here, have absolutely flown by. Several of my friends from church and the broader expat community are also leaving this summer or soon after.

We’re all reacting in different ways, but in this brief moment I have left here I want to try new things and keep meeting new people for as long as I can.

An amazing group of diverse women who are starting the first female soccer team in Suzhou have recently come into my life, and we keep saying that we met each other with only a few more months left because we didn’t need more time than that to become close friends.

I tear up thinking about the scattering of these empowering communities I’ve found in China. People who believe in Education and Feminism and Multiculturalism. It’s like a whole not-so-secret society of people who either look nothing like me, talk nothing like me, have never been outside of China, have never lived anywhere besides their home country and China, are staying in China indefinitely, or leave China before I do. (One common thread could be that many of these people are educators, but even then some are only educators for the moment while others are taking strides in their careers.)

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Students sharing their original spoken stories.

In the same way that, even if I did stay, I would not be able to teach the same students for another semester, I keep telling myself that staying in China or even coming back at some point will not give me more of this same experience I’ve had here and so enjoyed. Other people are moving on from and in to this place, even if I were staying it would not be the same. And if I did come back, there’s no telling how changed I would find it all.

My weekly small group has also begun to change. Maybe this is a good thing, so leaving it will not hit me as hard. An influx of foreign exchange students have tipped the balance from what used to be a “young professionals” group to a more “college kids” vibe and, because he is also leaving China this summer, the pastor of the church who used to lead the group has been rotating among the different meetings cultivating small group leaders with his last few months, so the depth of conversation and shared knowledge of theology I’d so reveled in is no longer at the forefront.

Is this what growing up is like? Is this what being grown up is? Making a home somewhere the best you can and then keep moving on as God beckons to deeper depths and higher heights of kingdom-building service? I know that, for other people, the physical location may not change as dramatically as it has for me, but the longer I spend out here in this territory of travellers and multi-lingual professionals, the more normal this all seems.

Maybe it doesn’t click for everyone the same way, but serving here in China showed me so much more than I’d ever dreamed about “the world” – this not-remote-but real, international, diverse body that I can only engage with through English fluently and Spanish conversationally. But there is so much more/else out there/here.

My literal worldview, the daily reality I watch unfolding around me in Suzhou, has been skewed from absorbing so many multicultural and cross-cultural interactions. I hear myself recounting work sites where I’ve helped, churches where I’ve worshipped, cities I’ve travelled to alone. And this is exactly what I hoped I would be doing at 25.

This is the realization of the dream God put in my heart and nurtured through so many short-term mission trips, Sunday schools and classrooms I taught in, foreigners with thick accents who were always welcomed into my parent’s churches and into our home growing up. I am only the product of these blessings I did not even ask for and did nothing to deserve.

God is faithful to bring these impossible, miraculous, extraordinary opportunities to serve, to challenge myself and the corrupt systems that shape the world and have a hand in shaping all of our lives and all of our worldviews; keeping them narrow and only in English and where power is not pushed towards justice.

I’ve decided to share some pictures from this past week. Spring is in full swing here, just that perfect pause before the mosquitoes and humidity come out, when it is still perfect to sit outside in the shade all day.

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Midterm Review on the lawn

On the main campus of Soochow University, we had our classes outside to soak in the good weather.

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Wenzheng Campus students discussing poetry

This picture is from the other campus of Soochow University, which does not have as much green space and has almost double the number of students in class. Though I could not take them outside, I took this picture after asking them to swap a poem from the three they’ve chosen to review for their first major grade of the semester. The question they were to discuss was, “How does the poem make you feel?” I wanted to capture this moment that they were all loudly and passionately discussing their feelings about the living poets’ works they’d selected. The rest of these are just from my walk home from class. It has been an honor to serve here.

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Thank you for keeping up with my blog posts and email blasts, which I will be sending out monthly. If my story connects with you, I encourage you to join me on my journey as a missionary! Please visit my Support page for more information on how to be part of my call to engage with local communities, connect the church in mission, and grow in personal and social holiness.

A Change of Heart

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My bright students engaged in discourse!

A month into my last semester of teaching at Soochow University and the community center in Kunshan, I am amazed at the transformation God has made in my heart. At the beginning of this program, I was so sure that I would not be a classroom teacher. Ever. It was not even a remote option. With all my passion towards fighting the systemic injustices inhibiting educative opportunities worldwide, specifically for young women and girls without White skin privilege, the classroom seemed like a small battlefront compared to the greater war.

But I have finally realized the everyday conversations that I facilitate in the classroom culture that I intentionally foster really do make a difference.

This semester in my writing class, my students have a 3-5 minute group presentation in which they share a song and poem that they think go together. The link between the two works can be anything, a shared theme or a common style, as long as students can explain why the two are connected.

Last week three of my students read a poem by Shu Ting, an important and influential poet especially in the years immediately after the Cultural Revolution. In this poem, Shu Ting writes about romantic love.

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Shu Ting

In their presentation, the students revealed that this poem is a response to another, ancient poem in which the speaker complains that he cannot find a suitable mate. If a woman is beautiful, she is not talented. If she is talented, she is not beautiful. If she is beautiful and talented, she is aggressive.

I almost fell out of my chair when one of the students said that this is an example of male chauvinism.

I had not taught them this word.

Another student went on to say that the symbols (another word I had not taught them) in Shu Ting’s poem reveal the beauty of equality between romantic partners and has a strong Feminist message.

At the close of their presentation, I had tears in my eyes. Watching these young women interpret poetry with a social justice lens was something I’ll never forget.

This is not something I had explicitly taught them. This was not the point of the assignment. I had not told them to find Feminist works to talk about in class.

It was all their own work; putting pieces together from what I had showed them in class and beyond. From what I have learned about education in China, I am confident that, for the first time, these young women were expressing their personal opinions about social and political issues in front of the whole class without being asked to do so.

In my speaking class, I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon. These students have to present a favorite film and share some dialogue from the film in a 3-5 minute presentation. I have been so impressed with the Feminist lens these students have adopted when talking about their favorite films. For the past two weeks, my students have presented international films that focus on women overcoming familial and societal pressures to achieve their goals and my students have recognized and celebrated this as steps towards Gender Justice.

Of course, I mean, this kind of to be expected.

I talk about gender inequality in class often. I show TED Talks by women of color on topics of representation and sexism. I use words like “shero” to describe women who inspire me and encourage my students to question authority figures – starting with me!

This semester, I have told all of my classes that our goal is to make one million mistakes and they are racking them up by taking chances, making guesses, or admitting “I don’t know” when they don’t know the answer instead of frantically whispering in Chinese to the student sitting next to them whose name I did not call.

They’ve become comfortable with these things in the classroom and I hope that it will translate to other areas of their lives as well, or at least that they will remember and hold on to how it feels to make mistakes, take risks, be brave, and to be praised for it.

The vast majority of my students are female and all of my students are Chinese. Most come from well-developed cities in Jiangsu province and most did not choose English as their major – it was chosen for them based on the results of standardized tests they took in high school.

They are taught that it is polite to not speak until spoken to. To not raise their hands when the teacher asks a question, but rather to wait to be called on to speak. They have been made fun of by teachers in the past for saying the wrong answer. They have been taught to have the correct answer OR ELSE which results in a fearful environment in schools and an “us versus them” mentality between teachers and students.

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A 1950s ad for USA-based company, taken from this article.

They have been ingrained with common sayings and cultural messages which denote the importance of men over women and the importance of finding someone who’s willing to marry you over finding your dream career. And they are not alone.

These same obstacles are presented to women around the world and education can break these barriers, freeing young scholars to take the risks, ask the questions, raise their voices, and defend their opinions. These are the traits that are necessary to achieve great things and they are not lacking in my 130 female students or my 20 male students. They have, however, been stifled or labeled as inappropriate, undesirable, unseemly, for the vast majority of them based on their gender.

I do not know what my students will become. I haven’t told them yet that I’m returning to the USA, but I am comforted by the fact that Soochow University keeps foreign teachers with the underclassmen and since my students are going to be Juniors next year, I would not be teaching them even if I did stay longer. But I feel so incredibly blessed to be able to see the fruits of these seeds that I DID NOT PLANT. I know my students have unlimited potential and world-shaking ideas that they carried with them when they first walked through the class door. I did not put these ideas into them and will not dare to take any credit for that.

I hope and pray that whatever I did through these weeks and weeks together nurtured their seeds and enriched their soil.

The fruits that they are beginning to show in my classroom feel like the best parting gift they don’t even know they are bestowing on me.

I am part of a team leading a webinar about Feminist Liberation Theology for the GMF class in a couple of weeks. I would like to share a TED Talk that has recently spoken to me by renowned Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. My fellow GMFs will watch this TED Talk as part of their preparation for our web-based discussion. I hope you find as much inspiration and insight from her words as I have!

Thank you for keeping up with my blog posts and email blasts, which I will be sending out monthly. If my story connects with you, I encourage you to join me on my journey as a missionary! Please visit my Support page for more information on how to be part of my call to engage with local communities, connect the church in mission, and grow in personal and social holiness.

Lent: A Season of Seeking

February, the coldest month in Suzhou, began with leftover snow still clinging to rooftops and shady alleys. It had been years since I’d last seen snow, and many years since it had snowed in Suzhou according to my local friends. With only five months left in the GMF program, these special views made a strong impression. I am currently finalizing the curriculum and syllabus for both of the courses I will teach during my last semester at Soochow University.

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Because it is my last chance to teach and learn from my students, I have decided to follow two passions: poetry and film. My writing class will use poetry as a lens for independent research, critical thinking, writing reviews, and of course, creative composition. Though my speaking classes last semester excelled in debate, I want to give them space to produce their own spoken English through the creation of films. Students will study oration skills and basic oral storytelling traditions of narrative ark to support the conception and production of short films that will be their final group project.

I recently read in an online article that said that during Chinese New Year, 1/5th of the world’s population is off work. I’m not sure about the accuracy of this figure, but it is true that during the holiday season many businesses, as well as schools and government offices, are closed. Still, even today, several stores on my street remain closed despite the fact that the official work holiday ended last Friday. I ordered a small heater off the famous Chinese internet shop Taobao at the beginning of the month and did not receive it until a few days ago because there were no delivery or postal services operational for the week of Spring Festival! During Chinese New Year everything is closed, so a couple of friends and I took a quick trip to Beijing for part of the holiday.

I was able to spend a day on a mostly empty Great Wall.

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Though I’ve seen pictures of the Forbidden City stuffed full of tourists from end to end, I even got a couple of pictures without any people in them at all! (Though these were mostly of interesting roofs.)

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The Summer Palace was stunning in the clear, cold air, with its great, central lake frozen solid.

The hostel we stayed in was run by a Chinese family who really treated us like family on New Years Eve. All of the guests helped make dumplings from scratch, rolling out the little circles of dough and spooning just the right amount of pork and vegetable filling to still allow for the careful pinching that sealed the dumpling’s edges. We watched “The Gala” – a TV special that includes skits, songs, and, this year (the year of the dog) we saw humans in canine costumes dancing with four-legged counterparts dressed in skirts. According to my Chinese friends, this program is broadcasted into every Chinese home with a television set and has become as central to the tradition as the eating of sunflower seeds and peanuts.

With the holiday season ending and Lent’s beginning, the change of seasons also starts. Now instead of snow, it’s rain. Instead of brown, bare branches, I see the first flowers and buds of spring on my walk down the old streets of old town (the part of Suzhou where I live).

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Beginning to focus on the coming celebration of Easter, I can’t help feeling like Christmas was just yesterday. This might be partly due to the fact that in China, Christmas decorations are kept up until the end of Spring Festival so I’ve still seen rosy-cheeked Santas in family-run restaurant windows and plastic cone Christmas trees standing a story tall in the shopping mall for a couple of months now. Still, Lent snuck up on me this year and I can’t believe it’s already one-fourth of the way through.

Instead of buying a new planner in January, I decided to start using the 2018 Prayer Calendar released by the UMC. This tool has provided extra structure and more reminders about spiritual disciplines through daily-suggested Bible readings, testimonies from the global church, and a listing of all missionaries’ birthdays so I can remember them in my prayers. Church activities and service opportunities have been minimal during this quiet season in China, so I’m looking forward to the resumption of the normal rhythms I’ve gotten used to living and serving here.

As I am about to re-enter the classroom as a teacher, my heart aches for my home state and the recent school shooting that took place there. Though I am usually good with words, I find it hard to find something to say in the face of another tragedy of this nature.

Some of my friends from other parts of the world have questioned me about the practices and policies in regards to access to guns in the USA. Many know about the suggestions made through the Twitter handle of a world leader proposing the militarization of public schools. All of them are as confused and concerned as I am by the irrational and intolerable, impulsive and irresponsible behavior of many state and federal politicians, especially those who receive campaign funding from the NRA and then seek to defame high school students participating in democracy.

These words from an article by Amanda Erickson posted on the Chicago Tribune website on February 15, 2018, provide some context for understanding how gun violence in the USA compares to the rest of the world:

“So far this year, there have been at least seven school shootings in the United States. That’s more than one a week, more school shootings than many countries have ever had.”

I was surprised at these words from the same article, particularly by the lack of available information about gun violence in my home country, especially considering that the data on school violence around the world collected by the Academy for Critical Incident Analysis indicates 57 incidents in which someone was injured or killed on school grounds took place in the first decade of this century and that 28 of these occurred in the USA.

 

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(Click the image for link to another article)

 

“Since 2000, there have been more than 188 shootings at schools and universities, my Washington Post colleague Philip Bump estimates. (It’s hard to cite a definitive number, because the federal government does not study gun violence in the United States. The National Rifle Association has opposed any measure to fund research or accounting of America’s gun epidemic.)

More than 200 students have been killed. At least 200 more have been injured.”

Read the full article here.

In China, I always feel completely safe strolling home from the grocery store or using public transportation by myself to get from one side of town to the other or walking through the university campus. One thing I am not looking forward to about going back to the USA is the threat of violence that has become so normalized in my country but which is bizarre, tragic, and preventable in the eyes of the rest of the world.

In this Christian season of sacrifice and seeking while preparing for the coming suffering and subsequent victory of Jesus Christ over death, it is my prayer that the God of Justice and Mercy will intervene through righteous people in holy protest against the gun violence that plagues the schools, students, and teachers of my homeland.

Thank you for keeping up with my blog posts and email blasts, which I will be sending out monthly. If my story connects with you, I encourage you to join me on my journey as a missionary! Please visit my Support page for more information on how to be part of my call to engage with local communities, connect the church in mission, and grow in personal and social holiness.

Year 1 in Review

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Local sites in Suzhou

I have officially been in China for over one year and all the clichés about how quickly time goes by fittingly describe my perspective with only one semester of service left.

Maybe it’s just a natural product of growing older; that as more years pass they each seem to have passed more quickly than the last. Maybe it’s because the GMF program marks this particular season of my life in specific terms, a certain number of months designated for mission service, so my time here always felt temporary, finite, and fleeting. Maybe it’s the mental countdown that, though always winding down, only audibly ticks in conversation with new acquaintances in the constantly rotating cast of English-speakers from all over the globe who have come to Suzhou to work or study. “How long have you been here?” with some variation of, “And how long will you be staying?” following. Because of how many new people I meet through work, church, and playing music, I’ve heard myself give changing answers to these questions each step of the way. And yet I’m still shocked to now find myself as one of those people giving an answer in years and not in months.

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Students Debating

 

This past semester, I taught English speaking class for the first time and we did debates on topics the students chose. Students were organized into debate teams and each student was assigned a lens to guide their research and conversation: political, economic, religious/philosophical, and social. They worked in their debate teams to share research, build their arguments avoiding the several logical fallacies we had learned about in class, construct questions to challenge opposing points of view, form rebuttals to anticipate questions from opponents, and write opening and closing statements.

My writing classes learned about the short story, and over the course of the semester, each student composed a short story of 5-7 pages with 6 structure points (exposition, rising action, climax, etc.), 2-4 characters, at least 5 scenes, and an internal conflict related to an external conflict. In the first semester, when I told these same students to choose a topic for their personal narrative essay or their research paper they panicked because they were not used to having such a high degree of agency in their learning process. However, their creativity and enthusiasm in the second semester floored me.

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Writing Workshop

Many stories included supernatural elements, like characters with superpowers, and some were dark, murder mysteries. Most stories were some kind of dramatic romance that spanned years despite my encouragement for them to focus on one or two days in the protagonist’s life. One of the key features of the short story genre is the limited time frame in which the action of the story occurs, but I quickly realized I had to prioritize general creative writing elements like character development and grammar over specific norms of the particular form. Although the finished products were admittedly a far cry from Pulitzer Prize winners, this was the longest composition in English my students had ever created and almost all of my students did not believe they could compose 5 pages in English at the beginning of the semester. Through periodic writing workshops on segments of the short story, each student was able to assess and be assessed by their peers using the same criteria I ultimately used to give their final grade on the project.

 

I have seen so many changes in my students during the time I’ve spent learning and growing in China, but have also noticed spiritual and professional transformation in my self.

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A picnic with friends from Bible Study

Nothing moves my heart toward God more than multicultural and multilingual sacred moments. During GMF training and the Mid Terms, I soaked in the celebration of diversity within the body of Christ through the songs, dances, prayers, and conversations shared among my brothers and sisters from different backgrounds. My church family in China is similarly diverse. The lessons for each Bible Study small group session are facilitated by a Ukrainian man, the opening songs are led by a guy from Indonesia, my closest friend in the group is Taiwanese, and the two girls who are my prayer partners are from Nigeria. Living in this global church reality has helped me see the importance and benefits of cross-cultural ministry.

Though an ESOL endorsement was part of my Masters program, teaching students who speak multiple languages and who have only studied English in school gave me new insights. I have learned so much from my students especially because I have worked with the same group of about 150 undergraduates for my 2 previous semesters and am scheduled to work with them again in my final semester. We have created a unique classroom culture that blends my educative philosophy with their experiences and expectations. For example, in my first semester when I asked students if they had any questions, no one would dare to raise their hands but instead they would begin whispering to each other in Chinese. I know now that they would rather whisper to their neighbor than reveal to the whole class that they do not understand something, but after some convincing they seemed to understand that I need their questions to guide my instruction and that I value their questions so much more than their silence. To reinforce the habit of asking questions, I design my instruction and content delivery in chunks so that after each chunk, I tell students that the class will not move forward until someone asks at least one question. With this practice, I have developed an understanding of what tends to confuse them and can implement strategies to aid their comprehension.

As I look ahead to the last 6 months of my time in the GMF program, I want to embrace every opportunity to engage with the local community, connect the church back home to this mission service in China, and grow in personal and social holiness.

I have created this slideshow with 12 images from the past 12 months in China. Enjoy!

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Thank you for keeping up with my blog posts and email blasts, which I will be sending out monthly. If my story connects with you, I encourage you to join me on my journey as a missionary! Please visit my Support page for more information on how to be part of my call to engage with local communities, connect the church in mission, and grow in personal and social holiness.

Christmas Has Come

At the beginning of December, I asked God how it could possibly feel anything like Christmas at all, way over here in China.

And my prayer was answered.

My church’s Christmas activities, from a modern Christmas cantata to the classic live nativity, the lighting of the advent candles to the hanging of the greens, were especially meaningful this year. Suzhou International Fellowship (or SIF) has such a diverse, multicultural congregation that, during these different programs, I often heard about Christmas traditions from other parts of the world.

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Image from SIF’s website

Some Swedish friends told me about Lutfisk – a fish preserved in sodium hydroxide for most of the year that is blanched before being eaten on Christmas.

Friends from Mexico talked about Nochebuena celebrations with friends and family lasting well into the early hours of Christmas Day.

Most of China doesn’t really recognize Christmas, and for the non-Christian people of China who do celebrate, it’s mainly a shopping holiday. The recent tradition of gifting apples on Christmas Eve, because of the way the word “apple” sounds like the word “peace” in Mandarin, inspired a Chinese friend to warn me that on Christmas Eve apples are very expensive or hard to find!

After a beautiful Christmas Eve service on Sunday morning and my weekly Bible Study small group’s Christmas gift exchange, I was able to spend Christmas morning with a family; unwrapping presents, playing games, and building the new Lego kits the children had just received. This was all such a blessing and really made the holiday away from home feel like “real” Christmas time.

But honestly, for me, Christmas really came in a moment of quiet reflection.

While re-reading Luke 2 alone, after the bustle had subsided, I realized it’s really not a happy, simple story!

In a tense political environment of foreign military occupation, despite the reasonable skepticism of Jesus’ soon-to-be extended family faced with the human impossibility of the Immaculate Conception, after the treacherous 100-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in the hopeless vulnerability of Mary and Joseph’s homelessness, the Messiah was born.

The solitude and social isolation of the shepherds contrasted against the majesty of the Seekers from the East at the manger should remind us of the ongoing struggle against classism and growing economic inequality around the world and in the USA; and how whole-heartedly seeking Jesus can lead us all to the same shared space of humility in God’s presence.

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Image from Pintrest

Jesus’ early years spent as a refugee in a foreign country after his family narrowly escaped a threatened ruler’s violent decree sounds a lot like modern humanitarian crises such as the tragic violence in Syria and the exploitation of Africans who are enslaved by human traffickers promising transport to asylum in Europe but who instead are sold by traffickers as day laborers in Libya.

Obviously, it is a happy story for believers because it is the start of the New Covenant with God that allow us to be adopted as brothers and sisters of and in Christ, but those tangible social justice issues of Women’s Health and Human Rights, international refugees and migration, attacks against Human Rights and specifically the Rights of the Child by the politically powerful, all intersect in the story of God’s radical love unleashed on the world through the miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ.

The Christmas story is miraculous because of the ways God divinely intervenes and inspires each person that we read about in the varying Gospel accounts. But it is also miraculous because person after person chooses to follow God from the place where she or he is familiar to where the going is not easy and even into where it’s most dangerous.

Re-reading this story again this year, I was struck by the fact that Jesus was also, in those early moments, the fruition of what must have been the most challenging months of Mary’s life up to that point. Physically, socially, and politically, both she and Joseph, and their extended families, would have been completely disrupted because of this miraculous, but still unplanned, pregnancy.

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Image from Rethink Worship

Socially, physically, politically, each person in the Christmas story put a lot at risk to fulfill her or his role in the Greatest Story Ever Told. In the midst of all of this striving and difficulty and doubt, there was enduring faithfulness and eventually profoundest joy through the coming of the Savior.

In the first moments of what would become Jesus’ Earth-shaking and history-making life, He was already present and extraordinary as our cosmic, omnipotent Messiah made flesh at that specific time for the ongoing salvation of this world. But he was also something else extraordinary too: a baby. God’s infinite authority and power made even more precious to us because of His human fragility and accessibility after the months and months of Mary’s complicated pregnancy.

Arriving to change the world in the form of an ordinary miracle, the Christ Child invites us once again to embrace Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope like never before.

Just like the people of the Christmas story, we have the opportunity to be part of what God started with creation, fulfilled through Christ, and continues doing today. Through our everyday decisions, God’s Kingdom can be built if we are sensitive to the nudging of The Spirit that inspires us to act in ways that may be dangerous to our comfortable lives.

But this is the way to live out the Christmas story, not just as a holiday at the end of December, but instead as a call to action from the God we serve all the time, who reminds us in Proverbs 31:8-9 that it is our job to, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,/ for the rights of all who are destitute/ Speak up and judge fairly;/ defend the rights of the poor and needy.”’

Thank you for keeping up with my blog posts and email blasts, which I will be sending out monthly. If my story connects with you, I encourage you to join me on my journey as a missionary! Please visit my Support page for more information on how to be part of my call to engage with local communities, connect the church in mission, and grow in personal and social holiness.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

GMF Midterms

23456206_10155631851001675_104274201389368559_o.jpgTwo weeks ago, I was in Cambodia at the GMF Midterm event with the entire cohort of 45 young adults ages 20-30, originally from everywhere sent to serve everywhere, and now all gathered together for the first time in Phnom Penh. Though the cohort was split during training, some of us having been trained in the USA and some in South Korea, we were able to all come together for 10 days at this point – halfway through our service.

The midterm event lasted from October 28th until November 7th and the weeks before this trip were extra-stressful as I prepared everything necessary for the two weeks of work I would be missing: planning 2 class meetings for each of my 3 different courses, arranging alternative times for my classes to meet before my absences, creating the midterms unique to each of my 5 classes, arranging substitutes on two college campuses with the Chinese-speaking staff of Soochow University to administer the exams on my behalf, all while dancing on the line of telling the university where I was going but not the entire story of why I had to be gone for 2 weeks in the middle of the semester – particularly why I would be missing the extremely rare, extremely important, week-long, official government review of the university’s teachers and administrators.

Once I finally made it to Phnom Penh in one piece, I found God was already there and moving. This incredible time of retreat/recharge/refocus utilized several elements of discussion, discipleship, and debriefing, including morning devotions, spiritual practices, individual meetings, group discussions, engagement with the local community, and nightly activities planned by GMFs serving in the same region.

The GMFs serving in the same region as the location of the conference went first, so for Asia Night Café the GMFs serving in South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Cambodia, China, and Hong Kong brought various treats: sweet, salty, and even wasabi. I brought the rose tea pictured below!

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There was Latin America/Caribbean Night Café, Africa, and Europe as well. Because it organized by region of place of assignment, because it was up to the GMFs to plan and facilitate each night, and because everyone was invited to participate in these regional introductions, the boundaries between those trained in the USA and those trained in South Korea quickly dissolved.

However, other boundaries were tested through Open Space Discussions and GMF Forums. The cohort chose a dozen different topics to be discussed at different times, ranging from Fundraising to Food Safety to Feminism. After each Open Space Discussion, a proposal could be made that would be shown to and ultimately approved or disapproved of by the whole group during one of the GMF Forums. At certain points, this process reminded me a lot of the Global Young People’s Convocation and Legislative Assembly of 2014. Knee-jerk responses about some of the issues that proposals were attempting to navigate quickly showed our biases and the resulting limitations of our ability to be involved in something as a united body.

Besides talking about issues we chose, we were also shown some of the critical issues of our beautiful host country, Cambodia. Many of the difficulties faced by Cambodians today are the lingering legacy of a challenging history. After gaining independence from France in 1953, the Vietnam War spread into Cambodia with the USA bombing the country from 1969 until 1973. The Cambodian Genocide by the Chinese-backed anti-intellectual military group, the Khmer Rogue, lasted only from 1975 to 1979 but during this period, about a quarter of the population of Cambodia was killed. The Cambodian-Vietnamese War from 1979 until 1991 followed until a coup in 1997 put Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party in power, a position they maintain today.

23116726_10210331890553546_6453685565392764432_o.jpgI continue to process the sights, sounds, and smells of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (a few blocks away and clearly visible from the rooftop of the centrally-located hotel where we were staying in Phnom Penh) and the Killing Fields (what was once an orchard outside the city corrupted by the Khmer Rogue as a site for mass killings of men, women, and children). As an American citizen and as a resident of China, I am haunted by the roles both countries played in Cambodia’s tragic history.

23331359_10210351995016145_6712635852557561156_o.jpgSeveral UMC missionaries are working in Cambodia, and hearing their stories after confronting such dark realities of human greed and global politics uplifted everyone’s spirits. There is hope, and I believe God is at work in Cambodia in many ways.

Specifically, several of the UMC missionaries focus on promoting the rights of young women and girls, and access to education. They support scholars at each phase of the educative process, and in Phnom Penh, we were able to meet students pursuing higher education in the capital city. These UMC missionaries work to secure access to education despite the cultural bias against educating females, the physical danger faced by young girls walking miles through the countryside to get to school, the financial burden of school costs, the lack of teachers, school-related resources, and classroom space. In a nation where most of the population is under 30 years old, competition for jobs is high and opportunities for higher education are rare.

Another aspect of Midterms that really moved me was the time for sharing Sacred Moments. Each GMF gets 5 uninterrupted minutes to share a Sacred Moment from their placement site – a time when they experienced God in the unexpected. These testimonies ranged from the extravagant gratitude of someone receiving simple help in Malawi to miraculous physical healing during revivals in Brazil to finding oneself perfectly suited to the unexpected work God had waiting in Germany. All around the world, God is moving. And I am a part of that. And so are you.

My time in Cambodia stays with me even as I return to the normalcy of life in Suzhou: class, church, teaching, friends, groceries, playing music, grading papers. The Midterm Event helped me remember that every day I have had here, and every day I have left, is a precious offering, a small but worthy contribution, to sharing that Great Love which is higher and deeper than I can even imagine.

If you would like to know more about the work the UMC is doing in Cambodia, please check out the following links:

http://www.umcmission.org/Explore-Our-Work/Asia-and-Pacific/Cambodia

http://www.umcmission.org/Give-to-Mission/Search-for-Projects/Projects/00230A

http://www.umcmission.org/Give-to-Mission/Search-for-Projects/Projects/14916A

http://www.umcmission.org/Explore-Our-Work/Missionaries-in-Service/Missionary-Profiles/Chan-Marilyn-Sovann

Thank you for keeping up with my blog posts and email blasts, which I will be sending out monthly. If my story connects with you, I encourage you to join me on my journey as a missionary! Please visit my Support page for more information on how to be part of my call to engage with local communities, connect the church in mission, and grow in personal and social holiness.