Monday, November 11, 2019

Culture, Objectivity, God, and the Real Reason I Moved to China

Image text: "Every tongue. Every tribe. Every nation." With an artistic blue background. Image source.
"6 Years Later": A blog series reflecting on the fact that I, a white American, moved to China and have been living here for the past 6 years

Part 1: I Didn't Know I Had a Culture Until I Lost It
Part 2: On Immigration and Double Standards
Part 3: Because of an Idea
Part 4: Culture, Objectivity, God, and the Real Reason I Moved to China


God loves the whole world. Every person in the world. God loves every person equally. I believed that back then, and I still believe that now.

And every person bears the image of God. Equally. I believed that back then, and I still believe that now.

It was easy to make these sweeping statements, like "God loves everyone equally", back when I was growing up in a white church in the US, and I didn't know what culture was. I thought that if I was kind and loving toward everyone in my life, then I was loving people the way God did. An impossible goal for sure, but that's what I should be striving toward.

Everything changed when I went on a short-term mission trip to China, and learned how naive and clueless I was about the world. In the US, I felt like I knew how everything worked. It was quite shocking to discover a whole entire society that was so completely different, where I was constantly amazed and confused about things I saw- but to the people living there, those things were completely normal.

It shattered my entire worldview- including my view of God. It changed my life- this knowledge that other cultures besides my own exist and are valid.

In the US, I had tried to love the way God did by loving people who were members of my own culture. But I realized that, even if I did that perfectly, it would only be a tiny tiny percentage of the way God loves people. Because God loves Chinese people- and people of every nation in the world- just as much as They love Americans. And I don't. Nope, I don't. Not even close. I don't even know anything about what people's lives are like in other countries. Of course I don't love them in a way that's equal to the way I love people of my own culture.

Of course when I read news stories about tragedies that are happening in faraway foreign countries, I don't care as much as if it had happened to white people in the US. But this is the case for everyone- everyone is more emotionally affected when they feel they can relate to the victims of a tragedy. When they feel like it could have happened to them or their friends, rather than some unknown people far away.

But God is not like that. God loves the whole world equally; They aren't localized to one culture the way I am. God is emotionally affected by all tragedies equally. God is equally close to all the victims. I am not.

Back then I totally believed in the whole "personal relationship with God" thing, and I thought I knew God pretty well. But then I learned what culture was, and I realized that if the image of God lives in every person in the world, then I don't have a clue about God. I know so little about the vast majority of the people in this world, because their culture is so different than mine.

About 4% of the world's population are Americans. Even if I was able to perfectly love everyone I met in the US, I would still only love 4% of the way God loves. And I would only know 4% of God. Well, I definitely don't even know 4% of God, because there's a lot I don't know about Americans from a different race or culture than mine. But God knows. And they bear the image of God- and so this means I don't know that part of God.

For the first time in my life, I realized how completely biased I am. Completely, totally, biased- every single thing about the way I think and the way I live is steeped in my own culture. I hardly know anything about people at all! I only know what life is like for people in my own culture.

I saw myself, living in one tiny bubble on a giant global landscape. I felt that it didn't make sense for me to stay in that bubble. I should look at the world from an objective, outside view. I should love everyone equally, just like God does. After all, I "have a personal relationship with God" and that relationship is supposed to dominate every aspect of my life, right?

I thought it was a bit strange, how the vast majority of people just stay in the same culture they grew up in. The vast majority of American college students want to find a job in the United States- they don't even consider other countries. That felt very weird to me. They're biased, they're extremely biased, we're all so biased, and I felt that it shouldn't be that way.

And I went to the Urbana conference, and believed in radical Christian missions ideology. I imagined that all of us Christian college students were a resource that God had, and God's goal was to send people to preach the gospel to the entire world- so wouldn't it make sense to spread us all out uniformly all over the world? Isn't that the way it should be? And the reason that the overwhelming majority of us stay in our own country, and the percentage of international missionaries isn't ANYWHERE CLOSE to "spreading us out uniformly" is just that people aren't willing to do what they *should* do?

I felt that I *should* be equally familiar with every culture in the world- that would be the ideal state. And of course, that's impossible, but I should work as hard as I can toward that goal. And that means getting OUT of the culture I'm the most familiar with, and spending time in a different culture. If I stay in the culture I'm most familiar with, I'm wasting my time. Since I know I'll never reach the "ideal" state of being equally familiar with every culture, it doesn't really matter which culture I go spend time in, as long as it's not the one I already know completely. At least then I'm making progress.

So I moved to China, and I didn't seek out other international, English-speaking people to make friends with. I thought, I'm here to learn Chinese culture, and if I talk to other western people in English, I'm wasting my time. That's only for people who can't speak Chinese well enough yet; ideally we get to a point where we don't need English-speaking friends any more. Because, I am morally obligated to be out of my own culture and absorbing a different culture as much as I possibly can.

Looking back at it now, I see how important it is to my mental and emotional health to have people from my own culture that I can relate to and talk to. I'm glad that I do have a lot of international friends now. And I see that writing this blog has been very good for me; it gives me space to talk about things that are important to me as an American. If I want to talk about "here's my opinion about a weird quirk of the white American evangelical subculture I grew up in", there are very very few people in my life here in China that would understand.

In last week's post, Because of an Idea, I said the reason I did all that work to learn Chinese and move to China was just one simple idea, which turned out to be wrong. The idea was this: The ideal situation is me viewing the world from an outside, objective perspective, and knowing and loving everyone equally, just like God does. I know that that's impossible, but I should at least work as hard as I can toward that goal.

And now, 6 years later, I've learned so much, and I see that initial idea was wrong. Specifically, I have learned about culture and privilege. Specifically, my own culture and my own privilege. (See the first two posts in this series: I Didn't Know I Had a Culture Until I Lost It and On Immigration and Double Standards.)

I knew it would be "hard" living in China. Of course it's "hard." Everyone always said it was "hard," when they talked about giving up everything to obey God and be a missionary on the other side of the world. (Note that I am not a missionary, but I was very much influenced by that ideology.) But I didn't know how deeply, deeply hard and painful it would be. I knew it would be hard to find good cheese in China. But it's so much more than that. I didn't know I'd be losing my culture and my privilege; I didn't really even know I had those things in the first place.

Now it's 6 years later, and I'm looking back on my ideas about being "objective." How I believed there was something *wrong* with people just staying in their own culture, how I believed ideally we *should* be open to all cultures equally, and people growing up in the US and then staying in the US for their adult lives showed a failure to live up to that ideal because it was easier to just ignore that ideal.

I was wrong. I didn't understand how important my own culture was to me and how difficult it is to be separated from it.

And because I didn't *really* understand privilege, I thought I was going from "living in the US" to "living in China"- like some kind of objective definition of what "living in China" means. No. I didn't realize what I was actually doing was "living in China as an immigrant" and all that ways that's so much harder than just "living in China." (But obviously, "as an immigrant" is the only way I personally can live in China.)

Now I see how there are actual good reasons for staying in one's own culture. We're all so biased, but I no longer think that's a bad thing. The harder I worked to become "unbiased", the more isolated I felt, because it meant cutting myself off from all the people who truly deeply understand me.

So I've given up on "loving the world the way God does." I can't love everyone equally, and I have stopped trying, because losing my own culture is just so hard.

And it means emotionally, I am more affected by things that happen to people of my own culture, and I'm no longer trying to change that so I love everyone equally. This is troubling to me, though, because when we have this kind of bias, it means we will be less motivated to take action to help people who aren't like us. And that has very real consequences in the real world. And now I'm saying this bias I have isn't a bad thing? That I've stopped trying to "love everyone equally" and that's okay?

(Hmm, maybe it's not possible for a single person to "love everyone equally," but if you had an extremely diverse group of people who all valued each other's perspectives and made decisions together, that group would be able to "love everyone equally." ... So ... that's what I have to say about politics.)

Well, let's back up. Maybe instead of "I already know my own culture, so no point spending any more time on that if my goal is to love everyone, let's leave it all behind and learn another culture" I should do something like this: Have a support system of friends and family who understand me, who will understand when I talk about things that are important to me- and the vast majority of these people will be from my own culture. And then, after I have that support system, I should also meet people from other cultures and learn about them. In other words, recognizing how I truly need to connect with people that I can relate to, and at the same time recognizing that it's important to sometimes be out of my comfort zone in order to love the world better.

And interestingly, accidentally, that's basically what I have now. I'm happy to be part of the international community here in Shanghai. I have a lot of American friends, and a lot of friends from other countries. And I also interact with Chinese people all the time, sometimes in Chinese and sometimes in English.

And interestingly, accidentally, I am closer to the "love everyone equally" ideal, but in ways I didn't expect. I thought I would be learning to love Chinese people, and yes that's part of it. But I've met friends from so many different countries now- England, France, Italy, the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, South Africa. When I hear about something in the news that happened in some foreign country, it doesn't feel like a mysterious faraway place; instead, I think to myself "oh I've met someone from there" or "I know people who have traveled there." Sure, that's not the same thing as actually knowing what that place and its people are like, but it's better than just thinking in terms of stereotypes.

The international community in Shanghai is extremely diverse in terms of what countries we are from, but not very diverse in other ways. Most of us are young, like in our 20s and 30s. We speak English- many speak English as their second language, very fluently. We're the kind of people who study languages and travel to many different countries.

But the biggest unexpected development on the "love everyone equally" front is the empathy I now have for immigrants. I'm an immigrant, and I've experienced so much stress because of that- missing my home and my family, 14-hour flights, worrying about getting kicked out because of paperwork problems, adapting to a new language and culture. I did this all legally and I've never had any governments telling me I'm not allowed in for political reasons, and yet I've still had so much stress navigating all this bureaucracy, where failing to get my residence permit renewed means I literally have to leave the country. Wow, what a massive upheaval of my life that would be. Nobody wants that.

So I find that, emotionally, I care a lot about all the immigrants in this world. Including refugees, including undocumented immigrants, all of them. I want everyone to be able to live where they want.

I don't "love everyone equally," but at least that's something.

Oh, and another thing. I married a Chinese man.

Yes, see, back then I thought it was odd that the vast majority of married people are married to someone of their own race and culture. Shouldn't all cultures be equally likely, when you are choosing a partner? (Weighted by population, of course.) I thought, isn't it kind of messed-up that I always imagined I would marry a white American man, as if that is the "default" because I am a straight white American woman? Ideally, there shouldn't be a "default", right? I should be objective, standing outside of culture. But we see that in reality people are many many times more likely to marry someone from their own culture than another culture, and that means we're biased... and that's bad, right?

No, now I see that culture actually matters. There are a lot of things I love about being in a cross-cultural marriage, and a lot of things that are hard. I do have a need to connect with people who share my cultural background, and so I get that need met through friends instead of through my husband.

My husband is great and I am very happy I get to be with him. But I'm realizing that I didn't really understand what I was getting into- specifically, that we are going to be an immigrant family for the rest of our lives.

So, to sum this all up: Before I moved to China, I believed in objectivity as the ideal. God is objective; God is not attached to any one culture, God loves everyone equally, and we should all be like that. I believed that being more attached to my own culture above all others was a bad thing, and therefore I should get away from my own culture as much as I can, in order to spend all my time and energy absorbing foreign cultures, with the goal of learning all cultures in the entire world just as intimately as I know my own culture. Obviously an impossible goal, but I should at least work as hard as I can in that direction, right?

I still believe that about God- that They are objective and love everyone equally. But I no longer believe I should be like God in that sense. I am attached to my own culture- white, American, English-speaking, suburban, northern-US, etc. That's not a bad thing; actually, it's a need. I need to have human connections with people who understand me, and that usually means people with a similar cultural background. Of course it's also important to get to know people from other cultures. But it is reasonable if the majority of my close friends are from my own culture. Yes, that means I'm biased. But that's not a bad thing.

So now, 6 years later, I have learned that one of the main factors that motivated me to move to China was wrong. But paradoxically, I never would have realized that if I hadn't left the US. I would still be sitting there thinking, "I should love everyone in the world equally, like God does. I should be objective, like God." Still not understanding my own deep emotional need to connect with people from my own culture. Still unaware of how much my life is rooted in my own culture and my own privilege.

And all of this is the reason I'm ready to move back to the US. Emotionally, I am ready now, but for practical reasons it will probably happen in a couple years. Hendrix (my husband) and I know that eventually we want to live in the US, but there are a whole lot of steps that need to happen, about jobs and green cards and money.

I love my life here in China. I love all the amazing experiences I've had and all the great people I've met. I don't want people to read this blog post and think I'm saying I regret coming to China. I definitely don't regret it.

But it's shown me there was so much I didn't know. And I was wrong about objectivity.


Francis Chan and Objectivity

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