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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

"Where's Jesus' Car?"

White Jesus next to a car. Image text: "'For I did not speak of my own accord...' John 12:49" Image source. 
Here's a cute little story I heard in a sermon once:
I was telling my little daughter that Jesus is always with us and lives in our hearts. She said, "He lives with us?" I said yes. Then she looked out the window and asked, "Where's Jesus' car?"
Aww kids are so cute.

But what I didn't realize at the time is how culturally-dependent this story is. I come from a suburban, American background; when I was a little kid, every adult I knew had a car. I assumed that all adults have cars, that it's an essential part of being a responsible, independent, grown-up person. And the child in that little story also believed that. Because it was true of the culture she lived in.

There was one time when I was a college student and traveling by myself in China, and I stayed at a friend's apartment. She was not a student, she was a real adult with a full-time job in the real world. And I was surprised when I discovered she didn't have a car. I didn't say anything about it; I was very polite and I had gotten used to just going along with it when I encountered bizarre cultural habits in China.

It didn't occur to me that I myself was taking public transportation every day and getting around just fine with no car, and there's no reason "real adults with full-time jobs" couldn't do that too. I thought adults are supposed to own cars because that's just part of the definition of "being an adult"- I didn't think about how in some locations it's necessary to have a car and in other locations it's not necessary at all.

And since then, I've found out that this isn't really a "China thing", it's a "big cities" thing. I have friends who live in New York City, and they don't have cars. For many people living in a big city with a lot of traffic and an extensive, reliable system of public transportation, owning a car is way more trouble than it's worth. So they just don't have a car. And they are still real adults who aren't missing some huge essential part of their life.

Also I live in Shanghai now and I don't have a car because traffic is terrible and there's no parking anywhere. I take buses and subways and taxis, and I get around just fine.

So when the little girl asked the question, "Where's Jesus' car?" it revealed a lot about her cultural background. She lives in a culture where all adults have cars. And that's fine, it's not "good" or "bad", but I'm writing about this because a lot of white Americans think their experiences are just "normal" and they don't have a "culture." That's how I thought too, back then. Even though in China I recognized that other people had different experiences than I did, I still subconsciously imagined that my experiences were the "normal" reference point and other people would acknowledge "we are doing this in a way that's different from the normal way, but that's okay because in this setting it makes more sense to do it this way." For example, I imagined that everyone believed "all adults should have a car" and the Chinese people living in big cities would think to themselves "well ideally we are supposed to have a car, but we are doing something different from the normal way because of these reasons why having a car here is impractical." Lol. No. Whatever people grow up with, that's their "normal", and they don't intrinsically have some longing for or understanding of my "normal."

If we wanted to tell a similar story as the "where's Jesus' car" story, but for a Chinese setting, we could have the little girl ask "Where are Jesus' home shoes?" See, in China, if you're in someone's house, then you shouldn't wear your regular shoes that you wear when you go out, and you shouldn't go around barefoot or in socks, you need to wear special shoes which I call "home shoes" in English. "Home shoes" is my own translation; typically Chinese people will translate 拖鞋 [tuō xié] as "slippers" but that's WRONG. "Slippers", at least in the dialect of English I speak, are soft shoes [that you can only wear at home] that are usually worn to keep your feet warm in the winter, some people have them and some people don't, they're seen as more of a personal possession rather than something you offer to guests who visit your home, and they're often cute and feminine-looking. In contrast, most "home shoes" I've seen are rubbery-sandal-type things, which people wear because IT WOULD JUST BE UNTHINKABLE to walk around your own home barefoot (or rather, it's about being clean, Hendrix tells me), and you ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS need to provide them for any guest as soon as they walk through your door. (Like, people will clog up your doorway, unwilling to actually enter your home, as they search the doorway area and any of your nearby shelves or closets for home shoes.) I know one American friend who went to stay at his Chinese roommate's home, and the Chinese family thought his flip-flops were his home shoes. Because a lot of home shoes are very similar to flip-flops.

(Ugh but actually the translation is even more complicated than that: Actually, 拖鞋 [tuō xié] does not exactly mean home shoes. 拖鞋 [tuō xié] means any shoes that you just easily slip on. That includes home shoes, and that includes flip-flops that you wear outside. There's not a specific word in Chinese that only includes home shoes and not any others. I just asked Hendrix and he said there's not really an actual word for the belief that "when you're at home, you can't just go around barefoot, you have to wear home shoes." Because it's so normal in China, everyone gets it and you don't need specific words to explain the concept. I had to invent the English term "home shoes" myself, and there's no exact equivalent in Mandarin.)

Anyway, you keep everyone's home shoes by the front door, and then when they come home they change from their regular shoes to their home shoes. In that kind of context, it makes sense that a child might wonder, upon learning that Jesus lives with them, where Jesus' home shoes are.

So my point is, "Where's Jesus' car?" and "Where are Jesus' home shoes?" are both equally based in the culture of the child asking the question. It's not like one is more "normal" and the other is "exotic" and "foreign." For those of us who come from a suburban US background, obviously "Where's Jesus' car?" feels more "normal" and is easily understood- but our suburban US perspective isn't "objective." It's a culture just like anything else is a culture.

All Christians make Jesus into their own image. And that's not necessarily a bad thing- I believe Jesus is always with us and fully understands us, so yes he is fully present in every culture in the world. But don't ever forget that your perspective is not somehow "normal" or "objective." You have a culture that affects the way you see the world and the things you think OBVIOUSLY everyone should have (whether it's a car or home shoes). A Chinese-speaking Jesus who believes that of course people always wear home shoes when they're at home is just as real as the Jesus we pray to in English.

If you make a joke that combines some bible character with some aspect of your modern life, and "haha it's funny because they didn't have facebook back then"- don't forget it's not just about "back then." Even if the disciples lived now, who's to say they would speak English and post pun-filled memes on facebook? That's just one small subculture of people who live in this world right now. (And facebook is blocked in China...) Don't forget that time isn't the only thing separating us from those biblical figures. Don't forget language and culture.

I come from a white, American, English-speaking, suburban cultural background. But God does not.

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Related: Political Correctness and How I Learned Chinese People Don't "All Look the Same"

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