Thanks

    In America, today is Thanksgiving, but For me in Beijing, yesterday was thanksgiving. I have been thinking about thankfulness and what I am thankful.

      For me the list of things I am thankful is a long list and some it might seem strange:

1. I am thankful for my wonderful family. I woke up at 6am this morning (my day off) just so I could call and talk to my Mom, brother, and Grandma. I miss them a lot and I know they miss me. They are the driving force behind what I do, I have their love and full support in the venture of being a writer and living overseas, and I feel it everytime I discover something new about Beijing or sit down at my desk to write. I am so thankful God placed them in my life.

2. I am thankful for my friends all over the world, but currently I am especially thankful for those that are here with me in Beijing. They have been lifesavers and kept me from going crazy when this city gets to me. I am eternally grateful to them and for them.

3. I am thankful for quality alcohol. whether it be fine scotch or bourbon or craft. I thankful that “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”. I am not an alcoholic, I just appreciate what alcohol lends to social situations and the little nuances of taste that it has.

4. I am thankful for pipes and good pipe tobacco. There isn’t a problem in this world I can’t solve with an hour, my churchwarden, and a couple of grams of Frog Morton.

5. I am thankful that I can find a decent burger in Beijing. Having grown up in the Midwest, sometimes you just get a craving for a burger done right, and sometimes in China finding a good burger is as impossible as finding the Loch Ness monster. Luckily Beijing has a few joints that know their beef.

6. I of course thankful that I found a great church in Beijing, BICF.

7. And I am thankful for all the opportunities that God has given me, even when they don’t always feel like opportunities.

8. Finally I am thankful that there are people out there who actually read my blog.

                                                       Happy Thanksgiving

                                                                            Jon  

                       

 

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The Truman Effect

Sometimes the hardest part of living in a foreign country, is how developed it is. Most people would assume that it would be the opposite, how undeveloped it is, that makes living in a foreign country hard. I think that when a country becomes developed, it loses something, it becomes over-explored. It is harder to find the charm among the Starbucks, four-star restaurants, and designer outlets in an over-developed city like Beijing.

 This thought struck me today as I was looking at a photo project I’ve been working on (I’m not an artist or a photographer, so it probably isn’t that great of a project). I have taken many photographs since I moved to Beijing, and I have been recoloring and retouching some of them to evoke the old sepia photographs of the early travelers who visited China in the 1900s. As I look at the photo I had taken of the Bell Tower, I realized that I couldn’t capture the real feelings evoked by seeing this a hundred years ago. The photo overall looks good, but in the background are giant construction cranes and in the foreground are tour buses. The hutong that the tower stands in is marked for demolition, so the Government can build a replica hutong shopping center. Even as I write, the history and landscape of this building is being altered.

 I feel lost in Beijing sometimes, not because it is a particularly hard city to find your way around or because the constant construction is always changing the landmarks, it is because I can’t feel the history of the place, I can’t feel its ghosts.  I am a man who defines myself by my connection to the past. If I can’t feel that someplace has a past, I feel rootless and restless. In Beijing, it is hard sometimes for me to know what role I play, because things are always changing.

Gone are the days of gin and tonics, white linen suits, rickshaws pulled by people, gone is the mystery and pageantry of the East. Instead we have Starbucks, Armani, tuk-tuks, and the slow decay and neglect of history.

In telling my story, I often have referenced a scene from a movie I like, The Truman Show (If you’ve never seen the movie, Jim Carrey plays a man who’s whole life has been a reality show, only he doesn’t know it). The scene that I sometimes feels sums up some aspect of my life, takes place when young Truman is in school telling the class what he wants to be when he grows up. He says he wants to be an explorer, and the teacher (a paid actress whose job is to keep Truman in his hometown) pulls down a map and says you can’t be an explorer, everything’s already been found.

I get the distinct feeling sometime that there are forces in life that want to keep me from exploring both literally and figuratively. These powers that be tell me, like they told Columbus that if I go too far, I’ll fall off the map. These insidious forces keep me in check.

 In my spiritual life these forces keep me from going deeper in my faith and my walk with God. In my career, They keep in check by telling me that it would be easier to keep teaching than to  hone craft and write and that I can’t pursue my dream of opening a brewery, because isn’t shouldn’t be a calling to make good and beer isn’t a respectable passion for a Christian.  In my daily life these forces keep me check by keeping me worried about money and talking me out of doing things because I don’t speak Chinese (this is my number excuse that I give myself that keeps from doing things as simple as eating in a restaurant, which can be daunting if you don’t speak Chinese, especially in Beijing, because they make fun of mispronunciation and pretend they can’t understand you).

The problem is that if we let these forces keep from exploring, our map ends up looking like something form the 15th century, large featureless landmasses with the words “ here be dragons” scrawled across it.  We can’t let the threat of “dragons” keep us from exploring. We can’t let the fact tha everything has been discovered (because it hasn’t) keep us from exploring. We should always be looking for something new,   even in old places.

 For me, I have to make the decision every day that I am going to find something new, either something I didn’t know about myself, something I didn’t know about God, or something I didn’t know about Beijing. I can’t let the fact that the days of the Grand Tour are gone get me down. Yes , today Beijing is more about looking interesting than actually being interesting, but I still have to live here. And if I can only what is bad or mediocre about a place, I’m not going to have much of a life there.

    

 

Fake it Til You Don’t Make it

  I absolutely hate mediocrity, it’s pointless. Mediocrity is the same as stagnation, both bring death. Currently I am dealing a situation in which people are operating in a broken system and completely happy with it. This doesn’t set well with me for three reasons: one, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. This is an immutable law of nature. Two, I have been studying organizational leadership for 18 of my 30 years on earth (I started learning at age twelve, when my parents forced me to start reading John Maxwell after I led a failed playground revolt that nearly got me kicked out of Sunday school), and spebt five in JROTC and ROTC. Three, the parties that advise this ill-conceived project, refuse to get involved and dismiss my concerns by saying ”this is China” (which essentially means that they acknowledge how F&*%ed up the situation is and that they have no intention of doing anything about it).

            Unfortunately, mediocrity rears its ugly head in every aspect of life, the most insidious of which is spiritual mediocrity. I was talking to a student at school the other day and he told me that for his required essay he was writing about the importance of attending church as a child. It is nice sentiment, but this student told me recently, that he didn’t actually believe in God. The problem evident here is that too often, we get caught up in saying the right words rather than the heart change that becoming a Christian should signal.

I know this true, because I grew up just drinking the Kool-Aid, I didn’t actually believe in God, in fact I hated him. I knew all the songs, I prayed the right prayers, I fell down when people prayed (I was raised in the Pentecostal church), and said “God is good all the time”, all the time ( this was in spite of the fact that one, I didn’t believe in God and , two, Things weren’t good my parents were constantly fighting and my dad was abusive).  I was living a broken system and completely okay with it.

I was 15 when I finally became a Christian, the broken system wasn’t working for me any more, and I realized it would take more than just acting right to fix my life.

My point here is that is that it comes down to being more than words. John Yoder, one of the pastors at BICF (Beijing International Christian Fellowship), where I go to church, said last Sunday that “praying a prayer doesn’t make you a Christian”. I thought about this for a long while, I like many other Christians , erroneously believed that what made me a Christian was the prayer I prayed. Wrong. What made me a Christian was the faith that I have that God is who he says he is and that Jesus died for my sins.

I think in life, we (Christians and non-Christians alike) get got up in appearance. China is country that is all about appearance and looking good in spite of the fact that either aren’t as great as the mask you wear, or that you actually have no idea what you are doing. This is actually a cultural concept here, called face. We in this West talk about “saving face” sometimes, but we have no idea what it actually means. Face is basically (in a completely Western nutshell, the real concept is super hard to understand) not doing anything that sets you outside the status quo or brings shame or embarrassment. As a teacher I have seen the insidious side of “saving face”, I have had parents and students try to bribe me  so that their student wouldn’t fill an exam and shame them by under preforming. I once caught an entire copying one kids homework, so that they could all pass (unfortunately, I think he was the dumbest kid class because all his answers were wrong).

We get into this “fake til you make it” mentality, when we decide that we would rather do what’s easy rather than tackle the real challenges. Yes it’s hard sometimes, but pain brings growth. Growing up, I loved the old movie called “Teahouse of the August Moon”, it’s a ridiculous comedy about post-WWII Okinawa (Marlon Brando plays a Japanese guy), there was a line spoken by Brando’s character: “Pain makes man think, thought makes man wise, and wisdom makes life endurable”.  Even at 8 years-old, I liked that quote. To me it means that if we aren’t faking it, it’s going to hurt, but there will be a reward in the end. That reward may not seem like much to us in modern society, wisdom isn’t sexy or popular (case in point the Kardashians and the rise of YOLO culture). We would rather fit in, fake it, and stagnate, rather than cause a disruption and thrive.

When I was living in Changsha, I got to the point where I was faking it. I did what everybody else did: I halfassedly prepared for classes, I went to class late, I bitched about my classes and students every chance, and I drank at the end of the day to dull the nagging sense that I wasn’t doing a damn thing. Then reality pimp slapped me in the face, I realized that I was seeking to write about my life in China, and I wasn’t living anything worth reading. I realized that people don’t read books about people who survive, they read books about people who thrive.

I did the only thing you can do when you realize that faking it isn’t enough, I got off my ass, stopped whining, and tried to find a way to live a story writing. The six months that followed were some of the most rewarding times I ever experienced. I starting living in Changsha, meaning that up to that point I had largely avoided the things that cared me about living in China: I stopped eating at Macdonald’s and KFC, and started eating in Chinese restaurants; I started learning the language; I engaged the people around me, and ended up making some great friends. In the end, I ended up having experiences I never thought I would: I got inked; I wrote for the school magazine, I was local T.V. numerous times, and I become the xiongdi (essentially adopted brother) of the Vice-mayor of a small town in Hunan.

I’m not saying it’s easy, or that the results are always good, but when you stop faking it and start living, even the bad isn’t so bad (and it makes for great writing. We have to get to the point where we realize, that if we fake it, we’ll never make it.

 

 

Where Risk Meets the Road

I have seen a shirt around Beijing lately that says, “Adventure is where the mountains meet the sky.” It’s idyllic and very Chinese, and complete crap. This phrase makes adventure seem easy. Adventures are never easy; they just seem that way because we don’t live them, we just watch them on a screen.
I am currently rereading “The Fellowship of the Ring”, and I assume Frodo didn’t feel inspired during his journey. I have feeling he cursed fate and was terrified of his adventure. A few years ago, as I was getting ready to depart America for China, I asked my friend Ian why I was doing it, and he said, “Because it’s an adventure.” I now believe more than ever that this is an adventure, simply because (to paraphrase Mao) “an adventure is not a tea party”.
Nothing worth doing is easy. So it has been with my time in China. I have second guessed myself every step of the way; “should I be here?” “Should I take this job?” “Should I quit this job?”
Looking at things I’ve been reading lately, I get the impression that doubt and uncomfortability (according to word, this isn’t a real, but I am coining it today) come with the territory of an adventure. I am a regular reader of the Storyline Blog by Donald Miller and company, a few weeks ago, there was a post called “If you’re not scared, you’re not doing it right” (http://storylineblog.com/2013/09/11/if-youre-not-scared-youre-not-doing-it-right/). In this post the author talked about second guessing his life and wondering if he was heading the right direction, he took his fears to God in prayer and God told him “If you’re no scared, you’re not doing it right. Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, says “The counterfeit innovator is wildly self confident. The real one is scared to death”.
Fear is an inherent part of an adventure (if you ain’t scared, you ain’t doing it right). As I read more of The Fellowship of the Ring, I feel that if Frodo were real, he’d agree with me. In China, all the best historical epics end with the hero dying. I used to hate this until it was explained to me that anyone can do incredible things when they know they will live, but a hero does them knowing he will die. Going back to Frodo, he didn’t die in a physical sense, but he was seriously depleted at the end of his adventure. The truth of it is that adventure kills us in some way.
When we go on an adventure, something in us dies, it has to. I have friend whose wife is fond of quoting a Chinese proverb that says, “If the old doesn’t go, the new won’t come.” I think that is why something always dies on an adventure, because an adventure also causes something new to be born.
This birthing is also another that adventure is dangerous. There is a force in this world that hates beauty and seeks to destroy us and everything good in us. Christians generally refer to this force as the devil, and until recently so did I (no I haven’t changed religions). I read a book by a guy who claims Christianity, but whose doctrine seems a little off, but he refers to this force as resistance. I like this term better than using the word devil, because I believe that the word devil has been high-jacked. When most people think of the devil, they picture a guy in red pajamas with horns and a pitch fork, not the embodiment of all evil and malevolence in the world. Resistance is the best word for what we face, heck the word Satan is Arabic for adversary.
Anyway, I digress; Resistance is out to get us resistance opposing anything we do that causes growth. When we point to the distant shore and say there is where my destiny lies, resistance takes heed and seeks to drown you during the crossing.
As Steven Pressfield says: “Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique, priceless gift that we were put on this earth to give and that no one but us has. Resistance means business. When we fight resistance, it is a war to the death.”…”Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.”…”
Resistance is, by its very nature, an upheaval of the accepted order. This another why adventure is good for us, it shakes up the order impose on the chaos that is life. I am sure Frodo had planned to spend his whole life in Shire, smoking his pipe and eating eight meals a day, and never really having to deal with the messiness of the world around him. Life doesn’t work like that. “All men die, few men ever really live”. This is one of the immortal line of William Wallace (Mel Gibson) in the move Braveheart. I love it, and I mourn it’s truth.
I think for too long I wasn’t really living, simply because I wasn’t risking. I don’t always embrace adventure like I should. I often see as a punishment or a rebuke, rather than the opportunity it is. I also don’t always see it as an adventure; I often see it more as a trial, something to get through rather than something to conquer. It takes an adjustment of your thinking to be able to handle real adventures. And by real adventures I don’t meant something asinine like jumping out of a plane or snowboarding , I am talking about the stuff that that takes real risk: getting married; uprooting your life to move half way around the world; having kids; joining the Peace Corps; going back to school; getting up in morning, even though you’re crushed by depression, these are real adventures and these are the adventures that yield real danger and real growth.
Adventures yield danger because their point is change. It may not always seem like that is true but it is. I think that a more appropriate shirt would read “Adventure is where risk meets the road”, meaning that adventure happens when you acknowledge the danger, and take action in spite of it.