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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 6.00.08 PM
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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 6.01.43 PM
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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 6.05.57 PM
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!

Advertisements

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!

23032696_1686199428059168_3990051942718485892_n

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.

Start of a New Semester

20170125_134356A little less than a month in to my second semester teaching at Soochow University, I am back settled in to Suzhou and my new routine.

This semester, I am teaching three different classes: Sophomore Writing, Sophomore Speaking, and American History and Culture. Lesson planning and preparation has been more time consuming than last semester because I am teaching several different lessons per week on two different campuses of Soochow University. But thankfully, I have almost all of the same students as last year!

For a teacher like me, having the same students is very important. The classroom culture I worked to create with my students over the course of the last semester can be built upon and expanded. This means I do not have to start from scratch with a classroom full of bright but painfully shy twenty year olds. My students already know that making mistakes is a celebrated part of the learning process in my classroom and that their contributions are valuable assets for my teaching style. These students who have had classes with me in the past are more willing to try alternative learning methods and get out of their comfort zone to learn something in a new way.

I also have learned so much from these students about teaching at the college level, teaching in the students’ second language, and cross-cultural curriculum development and implementation. We know each other’s quirks and strengths, so I am confident that we will all be able to grow as learners through the coursework.

20170301_113611

The Joy and fulfillment I feel after getting back into the classroom, and the enthusiastic response to this work from my students, has re-affirmed that Teaching is a Spiritual Gift that God has given me to serve others. Though so much has changed in my life over the past nine months of mission service, it is comforting to see this common thread throughout my work in the church.

Thinking about the continued presence of this Spiritual Gift in my life led me to re-take the Spiritual Gifts Assessment offered online by the UMC. It had been a while since I last examined my Spiritual Gifts this way.

Some of the results surprised me! I received Tongues, Interpretation of Tongues, and Shepherding from the assessment. As the daughter of two UMC ministers and an active member of youth groups and Bible studies growing up, I had taken the Spiritual Gifts Assessment several times before in my life, but I had never seen these three gifts as some of my strongest.

Looking around me, to the call God has on my life and the way I have chosen to follow that call, these gifts make sense for the work I am doing now. Though I did not previously recognize those fruits in myself, God is always working on our hearts and equipping us for the kingdom-building work ahead. I pray you will be open to the nudging of the Holy Spirit as God continues to transform us all for the mission work of life as Christ’s ambassadors!

Since my last blog post about my time in Gansu, I was blessed by a visit to Taiwan with fullsizeoutput_6a4bmy sister, Tiffania. This was a much-needed week of relaxation and fun! We went to a beach, visited natural hot springs, and spent a day in the mountainous tea-growing region outside of the city. Because my sister served in the Global Mission Fellow’s predecessor, the Mission Intern program, she completely understands the challenges and joys of international mission service. It was so refreshing to speak openly about my mission work and to be able to introduce myself as a missionary, even if just for a week.

In about a month, the 2017-2019 class of Global Mission Fellows will meet in Cambodia for our Mid Term Event. This means missionaries from around the world will be traveling to one place to meet, process, and re-focus for the second half of our service. Please keep this conference in your prayers as there are visa issues, travel arrangements, and other logistical obstacles to overcome before we can be together.

cropped-13909370_10153607766496415_8437736464701999942_o.jpgAlthough I am thousands of miles away, my heart aches for the communities affected by the recent hurricanes, in my home state of Florida and also Texas and Puerto Rico. Please join me in praying for those suffering and in taking action for those less fortunate. I am so thankful for my friends and family who were not severely impacted by these storms but there is a lot of relief work to be done! Please check out the following links or click on the image from the UMCOR page for more information about how you can get involved and respond to these natural disasters:

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 2.01.13 PM

http://www.umc.org/how-we-serve/responding-after-hurricane-harvey

https://www.umcor.org/umcor/resources/news-stories/2017/september/hurricanemaria

15941408_10208278075645311_6214775244037392072_n

I also have a joy to report! My best friend Carly is coming to visit me in China during the upcoming National Holiday week. She and I met six years ago while we were both serving as summer camp counselors at Warren W. Willis Camp, a ministry of the UMC. We were both involved in the Wesley Foundation of Florida State University and later, she helped with my work as a Youth Ministry Director of John Wesley UMC in Tallahassee, Florida. She is a huge blessing in my life and I am so happy to have her here to celebrate my birthday in just a few days! If you have a spare moment in your prayer time, I’d really appreciate prayers for safe travel for her and a great visit.

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 Month In Gansu

In the blink of an eye, my first semester at Soochow University ended and my summer working in Gansu province began.

The Amity Foundation (the faith-based Chinese NGO I have been primarily serving through the English Clubs in Kunshan) has several international volunteer opportunities. Amity’s Summer English Program utilizes the talents of willing volunteers to make a lasting impact in less developed parts of China. According to the Amity website, “the Amity Summer English Program (SEP) invites English speakers to volunteer in training Chinese teachers of English,” and “provides Chinese teachers of English with a chance to upgrade their listening and speaking skills through an intensive four weeks of classroom and other activities with native or near-native English speakers (preferably educated to college level).”

img_20170807_110405.jpg

This year’s team mainly consisted of volunteers from Germany with a few North Americans. It was inspiring to meet these men and women willing to give of their time and energy to promote English literacy in a foreign country. For many of the volunteers, this was their first time travelling in Asia and their first time teaching in a formal classroom setting.

Although the week of orientation and training in Nanjing was completed as a whole group, four volunteers out of this group were not assigned to serve through the SEP. Instead, we would serve through the Summer English Camp.

This program is focused on delivering three one-week Summer English Camps to local students in rural parts of China. My team consisted of two second-generation Chinese-American underclassmen on summer break from college and Chie, the newly arrived GMF from my cohort who was also assigned to serve in Suzhou with Amity and Soochow University for the 2016-2018 term.

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 6.48.45 PM

In the second week of July, we were sent to Jiuquan in the western province of Gansu. This city has a long history and was once a stop on the Silk Road. Relatively small by Chinese standards, about one million people live in Jiuquan, though it is fairly remote and rarely visited by foreigners.

As team leader, I designed a set schedule for each day of the five-day camp that included warm-up games and songs for the welcome, two hour-long English lessons in the morning with a snack break in between, and recess, a craft, and review activities of the morning lessons in the afternoon.

mmexport1501847893038

Monday was primarily a “get to know you” day with activities designed to informally assess students’ fluency levels and allow the students to get acquainted with the teachers and each other. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, we split the students into two groups for formal English lessons and the four volunteers rotated leading the lessons in pairs. The two younger volunteers taught bilingual lessons in Chinese and English, and assisted Chie and me with translations as needed. On Fridays, we reviewed all eight lessons from the week and had a closing ceremony open to the parents which including a Talent Show and personalized certificate ceremony.

mmexport1501847863951

For three weeks, we ran the Summer English Camp Monday through Friday from 9AM until we departed for our hotel in town each evening around 6PM.

mmexport1501847884723

Unfortunately, after successfully completing the first week of camp, Chie had to return to Suzhou to resolve some issues with her Residence Permit and she was unable to return to Gansu province during the Summer English Camp. These issues have since been resolved, and she has officially begun her service as a GMF! Praise God!

And now that I am settled back in Suzhou, I can certainly admit that, looking back, this certainly was a hard summer.

Any educator will agree that co-teaching is challenging, and any camp director will say the same thing about leading a team to implement three weeks of programming. Doing both of those things in a rural, cross-cultural setting; in a team that, for the majority of the time, consisted of only myself and two teenagers; in a context where all the local staff, people, students, other team members fluently spoke a language I can only produce a few sentences in; is even more challenging.

mmexport1501847979328

But God never sends us into these situations empty-handed.

All my years directing Vacation Bible School, youth group, and children’s Sunday school in various local UMCs across the state of Florida were preparing me for this work. And this work, compounded by those previous experiences, is preparing me for the next big work that will once again push me to my limits; giving me the chance to grow in many ways, and especially in humility and faith as dependency on God becomes less and less optional in more and more difficult conditions.

IMG_20170721_172913_1

I thought that, because I have lived in Suzhou for 7 months, I would find familiarity in the culture of Gansu. Instead, I was gawked at by strangers in the street, on the bus, on the train, in a way I’d never experienced in the more globalized Chinese cities I have previously visited. This was also compounded by the fact that the two other Summer English Camp volunteers are Chinese, so the extra-intense, heavier, more uncomfortable stares from people who look different than me were not distributed across a group of foreigners, but rather focused entirely on me.

Because of these three tough weeks, I can now sympathize more deeply with those who have experienced the embarrassment and isolation of not belonging to the majority culture of a community. I’ve never known before what it’s like to stand out so much while trying to do normal things like buy groceries or catch a taxi. One evening, a pair of police officers knocked on my hotel room door because a fellow hotel guest reported to the local police department that a foreigner was staying there. It almost discourages a person from wanting to go out in public at all.

mmexport1501847846668Bridging this experience to the bigger picture, I realize that, despite these uncomfortable encounters, I still can barely imagine what it’s like for those members of marginalized communities, particularly those without native-English and/or white-skin privilege in the USA, who face not only the embarrassment and isolation of sticking out that I experienced in Jiuquan, but who have been and continue to be faced with torch-bearing fellow citizens carrying out violent acts of terrorism in the name of “racial” superiority echoing a message of division and hatred once spoken by Hitler, one of modern Western history’s most hated figures.

Although I am serving in China, the mission work I have been called to is global and I see the connections between my work here, my multicultural personal background, and the domestic terrorism plaguing my country of origin.

I can only hope that, as an educator and co-learner, I can equip students here in China to educate themselves on these issues involving both the construct of race and the moral evil of discrimination that the USA so plainly demonstrates to the international community. I pray that the impact my students will have on the world will make a difference, and that the churches and communities in the USA that forged me will answer Christ’s call to action against evil in the world, to bring God’s Kingdom.

A big part of our missionary training was focused on community organizing for social change to address injustice. Though I intend to get more involved in the international context where God has sent me, in light of recent events in my home country, I urge you, reader, Christian, friend, whoever you are, to allow this hard work to push you to the limits of your comfort zone and beyond, to your next level of humility and faith in your relationship with God. We are called to action to align ourselves to God’s Will.

Isaiah 1:16-17

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;

Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.

Cease to do evil,

Learn to do good;

Seek justice,

Rebuke the oppressor;

Defend the fatherless,

Plead for the widow.”

Zechariah 7:8-14

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

“But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.

“‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers. The land they left behind them was so desolate that no one traveled through it. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate.’”

Proverbs 31:8-9

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.

Jeremiah 22:3

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’”

Micah 6:8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God.

Matthew 25:40-43

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

Proverbs 29:7

The righteous care about justice for the poor,

but the wicked have no such concern.

For more information about how to get involved in the USA, check out any of the following links! Better yet, do your own Google search! Feel free to reach out to me. We are in this together!

Charity Navigator

Showing Up for Racial Justice

American Civil Libterties Union

National Center for Law and Economic Justice

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.

Summer: Endings and Beginnings

mmexport1495253995841
One of my two English Clubs in Kunshan

After 10 successful weeks of English Club with the forty 11-15 year old students from two migrant worker communities in Kunshan, I said goodbye for the first time to students of mine in China. For our last meeting, we spent time reviewing all the different games we’d played to reinforce the vocabulary, verbs, questions, and responses they learned over the course of the 10 weeks.

I think the students’ favorite activity was introduced during the third week of the course. I called it Charades, but I had to modify the classic structure of the game to suit the varying fluency levels among my students and to accommodate differences in traditional classroom culture. Rather than a game in which each student plays for her/himself, I divided the classroom into two teams. In my experience, when these students were part mmexport1496050231880of a team, they were more likely to stay actively engaged in the activity. The most difficult facet of the game for students to grasp was the appropriate response after identifying the vocabulary term being acted out by a fellow student.

If a student knew the word that was being silently acted out, she or he must silently raise a hand. As I counted down from 5 to 1, any student who thought they knew the answer must silently raise their hand. The team with the most hands raised got the opportunity to score a point because I would call on one student from the team with the most hands raised to share the answer. If the student said the correct term, their team got a point. Because some students remembered the game, they were easily able to translate the instructions for each other.

mmexport1495253978731Between Charades, Pictionary, and “Lao Shi (Teacher) Says” – a play on “Simon Says”- the students were kept laughing and learning through the reexamination of so many lessons.

After reviewing all the information from the course, we had a small party with snacks and music for each group of students. Amity Foundation provided each student with a notebook, and I penned a personalized message during our goodbye celebration. Several students even shared English songs they had learned for the occasion. As the students filed out of the classroom one by one for the last time, I gave each a hug; wondering where the 10 weeks had gone.

In a few weeks, I will administer the final exam to my undergraduate students at Soochow University and the first semester of my time here will come to a close. After all the changes and adjustments I have made in my journey through culture shock for my work and life in China, I am surprised to find that just as soon as I’ve found ways to get used to my routine, Winter and Spring have ended and another new season approaches.

Soon I will have new students. I am teaching different courses next semester and my new teaching schedule will result in a different workweek rhythm. One of my closest friends from the international church is moving back home to the UK at the end of this school year. The heat and humidity of Suzhou summer is mounting, the infamous Chinese mosquitos are emerging, and I find that the chatter of Chinese-speakers around me is no longer completely unintelligible. Words and phrases stand out in the conversations happening around me and when asked a question in a shop or on the bus, I have words to reply in Chinese.

image1

During the recent visit of Ruhong Liu and Judy Chung to Suzhou, I was surprised by my own familiarity with the city. Ruhong graciously let me play tour guide even though she is a Suzhou native, so we walked around the main campus where I predominantly teach, visited one of Suzhou’s famous old streets, and passed a pleasant hour in one of the most famous ancient gardens in Suzhou (and my favorite). And during this visit I realized, I have a favorite ancient garden. Not just that I know where the gardens are, but17264145_10154421120474607_833162849439125142_n I have been to enough of them to have chosen a favorite.

When did this happen? When did I become so familiar with this city that I know which teashop will give out tasty samples, which restaurant by the ancient garden is well priced, and what Chinese dishes to order for a good meal?

Everything will just keep changing, but far from these changes being negative or intimidating, in the midst of so much tumult, the things that are constant stand out even more sharply than they do when I’m in a routine I am more used to. God has made a way for me here, paved the path, and directed my steps so that I really feel in sync with the mission service, my faith community, and Suzhou itself. Its amazing to see what God can do when we are willing to follow the call. Even when God leads us to the other side of the world, God can make it work and with unanticipated abundance in any areas of our lives.

17203031_10154419818999607_655787978466312828_nThis summer, I will serve two communities in Western China through Amity Foundation. With the spiritual disciplines and self-care techniques I’ve developed so far in my time in China, I am sure this next chapter will be just as challenging and rewarding as the last.

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.

Three-Month Slump and Resurrection Sunday

20170423_110826
The walk toward my church (back left) on Easter morning.

This has been the most eventful period so far during my time serving in China.

My university students have successfully completed the first draft of their personal narrative essays and their first round of writing workshops, in which small groups of students assess, proofread, and discuss each other’s essays in class. It was incredible to watch the lively, bilingual discussions as students felt comfortable not only sharing their writing with each other but also sharing feedback and suggestions for improvement. Even my most opinionated students had only positive things to say about their workshop experience.

The midterm was created, copied, administered, graded, and submitted to the undergraduate office. Though 3 out of my 160 students did fail the exam, 73% earned A’s or B’s – reassuring proof that both the course I crafted and the test I created to assess their comprehension were fair.

Now, we are beginning to create research papers on topics of their choice and our second round of writing workshops.

mmexport1493022778037
Saturday Morning English Club in Kunshan

In the past several weeks, my tween and teenaged students in Kunshan have learned vocabulary and basic question and answer conversations on several topics including music, the human body, and most recently, diverse flora and fauna in celebration of Earth Day. Though not all of the students in the English Club are the same from week to week, I have noticed that the regular students are becoming more and more comfortable using the English they have learned and are more competent with listening comprehension.

My first Easter outside of the United States introduced a new church tradition: a family-style picnic after the worship service. My church celebrated Easter Sunday with a special choir, a short play, and contemporary versions of the classic hymns. This Resurrection Sunday was especially poignant for me because it marked the end of one stage of culture shock and the beginning of the next.

20170416_133921
Church family picnic with sanctuary in background.

Culture Shock is a term coined by anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in the 1950’s and introduced to all GMF participants in our training. It helps illuminate the emotional stages routinely evoked by immersion in a culture different than one’s own over time. In short, the stages are honeymoon, anxiety, adjustment, and acceptance.

Culture-Shock-Bell-CurveThe “honeymoon” or initial euphoria stage (during which everything is new and exciting) wears off after a few months; so as I now near the end of my fourth month in China, I can look back and thank God for the support of spiritual mentors and my church community who encouraged me through the “Three-Month Slump.”

All missionaries experience this; and I think this period presents an incredible opportunity to lean on God like never before. This has become one of the most important times of spiritual growth in my life. In this sink or swim season, spiritual disciplines like reading the daily lectionary, prayer journaling, and meditation are no longer optional.

We’ve all heard the passage, “My soul thirsts for the Lord.” But when you are serving as a missionary, living each day twelve hours ahead of your family and friends, in a country you’ve never known, surrounded by people you are just getting to know, as physically far away from your home context as humanly possible, you feel that thirst for God’s presence like never before.

Now, a few weeks into my renewed daily commitment to these disciplines, I am amazed at the relationship with God that can unfold with just a little bit more effort on my part. God can do so much more with however much more of our lives we surrender.

All areas of my life have blossomed in the light of God’s love; the more I have turned toward God, the more my heart has been warmed and satisfied. As I have sought delight in my spiritual walk, my friendships with Bible Study group members have deepened. My teaching and volunteer work is fueled by joy that is given from God through the exercising of spiritual gifts, and not by deadlines or duty. My creative outlets like songwriting and poetry have found new direction. I can’t believe nearly 4 months have gone by already! I can’t wait to see what God has in store as my work and walk continue.

fullsizeoutput_5b5d
From left to right: Me, Maria, and Val after church on Easter Sunday.

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.

Many Classrooms, One Spirit

I have officially completed two weeks as both a university teacher at two campuses of Soochow University and an Amity Foundation volunteer English teacher in Kunshan. God has provided such an engaging work for me here through the diverse groups I am learning with and serving. Besides the usual distinction of each class’s “personality”, each class takes place in one of three very different spheres.

20170125_134356
Soochow University, main campus

The three courses I teach on the main campus of Soochow University are relatively similar to each other. In each group of 25 to 30 students, there are learners who are more or less conversationally fluent in English and more or less comfortable raising their hands to offer an answer when I pose a question to the class. In contrast, the two courses I teach on the satellite campus of Soochow University in nearby Wenzheng each have between 35 and 40 students whose hands are rarely raised to answer a question – even after long, painful moments of awkward silence.

After my last class on the Wenzheng campus, two of my most proficient students invited me to lunch with them. While chasing vinegar-soaked dumplings around my plate with chopsticks, I asked them questions about their educational experiences in China.

They told me that students’ options for higher education are directly informed by their performance on standardized exams. While this is similar to the college application process in the USA, the intense pressure from family members and prevailing sense of competitiveness seem to impact students’ self-esteem and self-efficacy very strongly. For example, the two students I had lunch with dejectedly explained that they scored very highly in some areas of the state exams, but they did not score so well in other content areas. They attend the satellite campus of Soochow University because their total score was not high enough to gain entry to the main campus.

20170301_113611
University students on the Wenzheng campus watching one of my favorite TED talks, “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I have heard about the college application process from several Chinese parents and students through the Amity Foundation and my university teaching experience. Perhaps it is because they are navigating the limitations of communicating in a second language to explain these realities to me or maybe the Chinese culture is open to candidly sharing about these struggles, but the more I think about it, the more clearly I see that the same phenomena is present in the education systems of the United States – it is just not acknowledged as openly in America as it is in China.

In the course of our conversation, I also learned that from Chinese students’ earliest days in school, they are called on by the teacher to answer questions and never asked to volunteer. Even if a student is eager to answer a question, the student cannot give an answer unless the teacher calls on her or him.

I have been wondering what makes the students on the main campus more willing to try an unfamiliar teaching and learning style. It seems related to the higher test scores the main campus students receive and their familiarity with academic success. Does the socio-emotional baggage that comes with receiving lower test scores impact students’ flexibility as learners, their willingness to try something new, their confidence that they can succeed?

From this same train of thought, I will introduce the two English Clubs I provide in different communities of Kunshan.

screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-7-06-27-pm

Kunshan is a city halfway between Shanghai and Suzhou with roots in manufacturing. It has been and continues to be a home for migrant workers and, according to the Amity Foundation staff person who is my liaison for this area of my missionary service, the city has never been as affluent as either Suzhou or nearby Shanghai. It is common for grandparents to take care of grandchildren while parents work several jobs to maintain the family economy.

mmexport1488538247403
Getting information about my students in English Club in Kunshan.

In English Club, I teach 20 to 25 students ages 11 to 15 for 90 minutes with an English curriculum I have designed that incorporates topics they have expressed interest in, such as music, sports, food, and American culture. I also ask students to bring in their English homework so that I can act directly as a resource to bolster their performance in school and on state exams. English Club takes place on Saturdays in classrooms provided by the community centers of neighborhoods where Amity Foundation is already working in some capacity.

Just like in the USA, students in working-class communities do not have equal access to the same quality or quantity of educational resources as students in areas that are more well-off. These students with less access to supportive resources have to work harder while overcoming more socio-economic obstacles than their more affluent counterparts to achieve the same academic results.

Students’ performance on standardized tests dictates the universities they can attend. The caliber of their college education impacts their desirability on the job market. Consequently, their quality of life as professionals and the resulting availability of educational resources for their children are largely dictated by unequal educational opportunities. More often than not, this cycle continues in the lives of their children, grandchildren, and so on.

My service in Kunshan provides free, supplementary, extra curricular English instruction in communities where families could not afford to pay for it; though it is common for many parents to be able to afford this in Suzhou. I see this work as a contributing factor to the disruption of the social justice issue of cyclical poverty in these communities.

mmexport1488538250950
Giving instructions at English Club in Kunshan.

More than just the English content that I teach my diverse students in each unique classroom setting, I feel called to create educational environments that empower these young people wherever they are on their learning journey. As I continue discovering how to make this call a reality in these different educative spaces, I am grateful for your prayers!

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.