Awkward social circumstances are bad enough. Awkward social circumstances when you don’t understand the cultural context and unspoken undertones are pretty miserable. First, some backstory:
I have a dear friend named Jing. She’s a doctor from Xi’an, China who I originally met in Japan. At that time, I was a missionary, and when we met her she was studying Japanese, trying to pass an exam to get into a post-graduate medical research program at one of Japan’s top universities. Now, years later, she’s a graduate of that university and is a medical professor back in China. She recently got a job in Shanghai at a research hospital specializing in pediatrics. And she’s a Mormon. Don’t you think that would make an awesome one of those “I’m a Mormon” commercials? Well, she’s more than just awesome commercial material, she’s an angel of a human being.
In Chinese culture, there is a complex set of rules surrounding social relationships. Friendships and kinships are interwoven with webs of reciprocal obligation. When people do nice things for you, it is expected that you will do nice things in return for them when the need arises. I would do nice things for Jing no matter what because I love her and she is a dear friend, but as it is, I don’t think I will ever “get even” with her in this lifetime. Every time I see her she does things for me and gives things to me. Once when we were still in Japan we rode our bikes to her apartment and it was raining so I had my rain suit on. She insisted that my rain suit wasn’t warm enough and gave me a down coat to put on underneath it. I tried to give the coat back later and she said it was “too big for her.” A few years later, while I was living in Taiwan, I visited Japan for a week and stayed at Jing’s house. Of course I showed up with a cold and allergies because my body likes to make good impressions on people, so she wrapped me up and stuffed me full of expensive medicines and fed me everything she had. Later on that week I complimented a parasol she owned and she gave it to me. When I left, she snuck a beautiful shawl into my luggage.
This time when I met up with her again she promptly bought us dinner and tried to give me another beautiful shawl and another coat because the one I was wearing “wasn’t warm enough.” Then she gave me some more expensive medicine because my body was trying to make an impression again with a lingering cough. I started thinking about what I could do to pay any of this kindness back. Thinking I’d like to be spending some of my free time doing helpful things and especially after my experiences of a few months ago being admitted to a hospital in China, I told her I’d like to volunteer at her hospital and wondered if there were any volunteer activities available.
That turned into her finagling me an under-the-table job. She set me up with the volunteer department but said that when I came to volunteer I could come work in her office and help her make publicity materials and translate things. She then told me she found some money she could pay me for some of that work, and I found out later she was intending to pay me out of her own pocket.
For these couple weeks, I’ve been coming to the hospital three or four days a week, awkwardly shuttling between my friend’s office and the official volunteer department, who had me join in a couple activities at the beginning but hasn’t seemed to have anything valuable I can do for them with my limited language skills. So it’s turned, for the most part, into me working on things for Jing in her office and eating lunch together with her in the cafeteria, which they give me a free ticket for since I’m a volunteer.
Well, I guess there’s stuff going on under the surface and I really try my best to be savvy and on top of things, but it’s really hard at this point to make a good decision about the reality of this whole situation.
This morning, the lady who supervises the volunteer office where I go to sign my name and get my free lunch ticket each day asked if I had some time today to talk. Sure, I said, I can talk right now. So I sat down and smiled and got into a conversation that would have been full of awkward silences even if I had fully understood what was going on. She asked me about myself, what I study, why I’m here. She asked me how long I would be here and what my schedule was like. These were things that I’d already told them when I signed up as a volunteer, and I wasn’t quite sure where it all was headed. We spoke standard Mandarin, which I can get along in as far as simple conversations, but I felt like we might as well have been speaking Turkish for all I really got about what was really going on. She talked about how it sure would be nice for me to work with the college-aged volunteers. She was sure I had some wisdom and experience I could share with them, and they’re all young and speak the standard dialect. (In many areas of China, families speak their native dialects at home, many of which are totally unintelligible to those who have only studied the standard national dialect, and older people don’t usually communicate well outside of that native language.) So I said of course I’d be willing to do whatever she thought was helpful with the younger volunteers.
“Oh, they’re all in school now, of course,” she said. They won’t be out of school until the summer, by which time I won’t be here anymore.
“I mean, I guess I could arrange to come in during later hours on a weekday sometime,” I said. She nodded vaguely and then said they don’t come in on weekdays.
“I don’t know if you have college volunteers on the weekend, and I usually have other activities on the weekend, but maybe I could arrange a time?”
She kind of nodded half-heartedly. She asked for my phone number and told me to have a nice day.
I have no problem with the fact that there’s not actually much for me to do here. I realized a few days into my start as a volunteer that my abilities to help would be hampered a lot by the fact that I don’t speak or understand the local dialect. But I appreciated all of the trouble my friend had gone to to get me set up and I wanted to do the most I could to pay her back for her kindness. Even though the hospital didn’t have a lot for me to do, I thought that working for her in her office and helping her translate emails and lay out little posters and booklets was a legitimately helpful thing to do and resolved to come down as many days as possible. But now it seems likely that not only does the volunteer department not have any use for me, they might be trying to tell me to leave so I stop “taking advantage” of the free lunches. And I’m afraid most of all that I might have gotten my friend in trouble or be causing her some problems here in a new job because of all the strings she tried to pull for me.
I came back to Jing’s office after the conversation with the volunteer coordinator and told her briefly what had happened but I noticed that she looked very sad and distracted. She told me that her mother is missing and that she’d have to leave for today. She’s been taking care of her parents, who came back to live with her after the Chinese New Year holiday, and apparently her mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and hasn’t been doing very well. So as soon as I came back to my friend’s office with this social awkwardness I’m trying to figure out, I find out that she’s been waiting for me to come back so she could leave to go find her mother, who wandered out of the house this morning and can’t be found. She was trying to hold it all together but I could tell that stress and worry were gnawing at her. I asked her if there was anything I could possibly do to help out, and told her to call me if there was. I asked if she needed to contact the police and she said no – and I’m culturally clueless and powerless enough here to even know where I could look for outside help. So all I can do is sit down and write things out and try to piece together enough of a coherent understanding of the situation to know how I can best help out my friend. The only thing I can come up with right now is to pray.
I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to get back to an internet connection to post this. I don’t know what use an open-ended story full of anxiety is for anyone else. I wonder if prayers can work retro-actively. In the hopes that they can, I’m going to send this little story out there and ask anyone who might read it to send up a little prayer for Jing and for her mother and to ask that she might be found and safely returned home. And I realize that you may not even read this until long after the situation gets resolved, but in the hopes that God’s mercy isn’t limited by our timeline, I’d ask for your hopes and prayers to be with us.
I just had the best conversation with Jing. Once again, she’s somehow pulled through and not only is everything OK, everything is better than it was before. In Japan, I was ostensibly teaching her, but she constantly teaches me. Here I am in her office, ostensibly helping her, but she is helping me.
She came back and said she’d found her mother and had gotten her safely home. I was so happy to hear that, and I said an immediate silent prayer of thanks to Heavenly Father and to anyone whose prayers might have come back in time and helped out. (I still like that idea of time-traveling prayers.) She sat and rested a little – I’m finishing up the booklet she had me laying out and I was about to move from her desk but she said not to worry, she’s off to a meeting at the hospital’s other location and was just going to rest here for the few minutes before she had to leave, and so we chatted about things.
I recently helped her write up an email in really polite-sounding English. She’s been trying to get some help from a professor she worked with in Japan and he’s being weirdly uncooperative. A separate professor responded gladly, but she says this one was always hard to work with and tried to sideline her work while she was there so she suspects he may be trying to be political or vindictive or something in all of this, which is pretty ridiculous since what she’s trying to do is cure disease in sick kids. But we tried our best and sent a newly worded email out and I told her I hoped it would work.
Then she told me, “When I was in Japan I got a lot of nice things. Like, physical things and good living conditions. But the best thing I got there was the things having to do with the Church – the peace of mind and the good feelings it gave me. The …” she struggled to find the Japanese word, because when we talk about Church things it’s best to do it in a language that won’t be overheard – “the jiai that I learned.” Charity.
“Those people,” she continued, referring back to the cranky professor, “just don’t understand those things. They have an easy life in some ways but they’ve never learned the most important things that can make you truly happy. And so they hold on to their anger and competitiveness because to them those are the only things that matter.”
It was so overwhelming to sit there and talk with her – I almost wanted to cry, but held it in – about how much the basic tenets of Christianity had meant to her. Forgiveness, charity, love for others – these are what she considered the most important things she’d gained. And all my worry and fret about my social shortcomings melted away as I was able to again feel 安心 about it all. That’s a great word – it’s pronounced almost identically in Chinese and Japanese as “anshin.” It literally means peace-heart, and it’s just that. We’d translate it in English as “peace of mind,” but I like to think of the feeling as peace of heart because that’s exactly where you feel it, as the huge knot of tension in your chest melts away. While it sometimes describes a fleeting feeling, like the flood of relief felt when someone lost is found safe, it can also be an over-arching state of being. It can be a calm assurance in the eventual resolution of trouble that leads us to be confident in our unease. It leads to gratefulness rather than distress when you’re faced with people who are being confrontational or difficult. It helps you to face them with compassion and understanding rather than anger. And the dear lady I met and taught these things to all those years back just taught me again why it’s such a blessing to have in our lives.