If You Go Carrying Pictures of Chairman Mao
We were told there would be spies, nothing out of a le Carre novel, but spies nonetheless. We were told to beware being spat upon by the townspeople who had little regard for our kind, or at least there would be an ungodly amount of spitting in public. We were told the cuisine might be like prison food, or it could involve intestines and brains and animals we usually consider house pets instead of dinner. And it was all true. And more. So much more, that a recollection of my time in China over the past summer would take up more than an article, and certainly could fill more than an hour of recording time. And so we put down some of the stories in a recent podcast. Check it out here.
I want to tell you that I have returned and can now report that the Chinese people are just what you thought. Or I could tell you that they are completely different from what you assumed. But we didn’t have enough time to meet enough people to come back with a complete field report. I suppose it would be akin to having a foreigner with no English come to the deep South for a bit, jetting them over to Los Angeles for a few days and then letting them recuperate in Boulder before shipping them home and expecting a De Tocqueville-esque account of life in our country. The most they could say is what I will say: they seem to be a complicated people divided by generations and geography. If we didn’t go to China with the intentions of coming back with a clearer picture of the 1.3 billion people spread out over a land mass larger than the United States, but more densely populated than New York, then what was our purpose? We went to China to teach English, and to do so by using the archetypes in fairytales to talk about virtue. We were taking the things we talk about on our show and through this organization and putting them into practice. This was the reason, prima facie for going. But, as with all intentions, they are always mixed and never completely pure.
We went anticipating for new experiences and adventures, I also had personal writing to do. But, once I got to China I also discovered it would be the perfect place to get some distance from duties back home, and finish my book. Or maybe by teaching and serving in a foreign country I could write more clearly about vocations and living as a mask of God. Perhaps a story about a dog, a milk bath, and free laundry service from a hotel I wasn’t staying in, would be enough fodder for podcasts and writing. Alas, none of it worked out exactly as planned. Everything seemed half done. My concentration wasn’t solely in one place and my purpose wasn’t crystal clear just because I got on a plane and went far away (as if distance from my problems wasn’t one of my problems already). I am now writing at a table inside of a Starbucks. I am at Lat: 33.683947, Long: -117.794694. A few weeks ago I was doing so, at a different time, but with earth’s rotation similarly situated towards the sun at Lat: 23.021479 Long: 113.121436. A 7,000-mile difference, and yet the same familiar faux-rustic wooden furniture and cooling venti Americano. The water and espresso are separating on my tongue, revealing the slightly over-roasted (to my taste) beans, and the air conditioning is on just a tick or two higher than it should be this late at night. Everything is different and nothing has changed.
I’m trying to make sense, now, just as then, what my calling is and how I can, in turn, write to you about the kind of calling(s) you might consider that you have. And whether my longitude is positive or negative (seriously, what does it mean that my longitude is negative?) I am just as stuck. I am willing to be vulnerable and tell you every last embarrassing story. I am willing to write out how bad I am at this so that we can all feel better about not being very good at something.
I could provide three tips that either a) you already know and thus have your assumptions confirmed or b) give you some food for thought until you stub your toe, or your mom calls, or you read something better and think on that instead. I had a calling, for 30 days to serve alongside Jeff and Jared and Stacie and Jourden as well as Dolphin, Cupid, Qing and a host of others to whom I will never stand in the same relationship again. Whether it was the “right” calling or not is now immaterial. I would rarely call anything done sincerely, wasted time, but perhaps some time can be spent more responsibly than others. My vocation is always different, depending on the relationship to which I stand to something. I don’t have one, nor a list of many callings that I rearrange based on my current attitude towards a person or group of people.
I could have stayed home and finally painted my patio to get the homeowners association off my back. I could have fixed the base boards and worked on hanging things on the walls that have sat and glared at me for months. I could have finished writing the one book, and gone on to start another for the sake of my career. I could claim that I needed the time off from everything to recharge. I could have, and should have, done all of those things.
This 30-day calling that I took on involved flying half way around the world, with 90% humidity, over four hundred miles logged by my pedometer and both frustrating and fulfilling interactions with a broad range of people in a very different part of a foreign country. So, you want the moral of the story? The payoff? The thesis to my “What I did over my summer vacation” essay? There’s never enough time to do it perfectly. I’ll accept some callings for selfish reasons and others out of an actual altruism. I’ll have to fight hard not to regret choosing A over B. That mirror and those pictures aren’t ever being hung. And in all of these lukewarm, half hearted attempts to fulfill my callings, I can remain faithful to a proposition: I’m a mask of God trying to serve a broken world. A larvae Dei, but a clumsy one at that, in Irvine or China or anywhere else Starbucks plunks down its automated espresso machines.
My callings, and yours, are mundane and invisible punctuated with a little excitement and soured by a few regrets. And in all of it, wherever I stand in relationship to the various things in my life, I will serve my neighbor as a mask of the God of the creation who uses imperfect vessels to bring light and life into the world. I will do so for vain reasons and with impure motives, and sometimes with a modicum of success or a flash of brilliance. Maybe, someday, I’ll hear about how a teacher or student’s life was changed by a little act of then unrecognized charity. Or I’ll realize how much spending that much time in a compressed space with someone with son-of-an-alcoholic tendencies and my recovering-alcoholic tendencies can cause me to think uncomfortable thoughts about how I perceive myself and treat others.
What’s difficult can seem simple, and what’s easy can seem hard. Most of the time, things are boring, only to be interrupted with brief thrills or gasps. Sometimes you get to eat the whole dog and sometimes you need to paint the deck so your HOA doesn’t come after you.