City Mouse Goes to a Country Wedding

I always have to laugh at how we define big towns vs. small towns. One person’s Salt Lake City is another person’s Salt Lake Traffic Light. (I was informed of this by a friend from Tokyo who was very disappointed when his airplane to SLC touched down in “the middle of the countryside.”)

That said, the following story takes place in the largest city in the state of Montana. Billings is a bustling metropolis of 100,000 people built on the industry of cattle shipping. So, you know. Town. They even have an Olive Garden, so for all the country mice gathered there for a wedding a couple years back it was bound to be one heck of a hoedown. For City Mouse big sister, it was an adventure into the untamed wilds of the West!

I was living in Provo, Utah when I found out that my little sister was getting married to her handsome cowboy beau in the summer of 2009. My chances to go back home to Montana were too few and far between so I was happy to hear that she was planning to hold the wedding at the Billings, Montana LDS (Mormon) temple. Mormon weddings often take place in our temples, where we believe that we can perform sealing ordinances that bind families together not just for this life but after death as well. Because it’s a religious ordinance it’s not like the stereotypical wedding in a chapel with bridesmaids and photographers and lots of guests. It’s a private ceremony with typically only a few friends and relatives and is very simple. Because of this, most of the festivity parts of the wedding center around the photographs on the temple grounds and then, of course, the reception.

With all of this in mind, I excitedly planned my trip to Montana. I commute by bike and haven’t owned a car in years so long trips mean I get to rent a car and renting a car usually means one very important thing: new fancy stereo system. It’s very exciting for the first couple hours.

I had my iPod connected and was rocketing down I-15 in my shiny little blue rental car. I had all of my favorite music playing as loudly as I could as I sailed through the landscape of northern Utah and into Idaho. Right south of Pocatello, the landscape starts getting all scrubby and surreal, like you’re slowly driving onto Mars. It’s that landscape where they film action movies now to make you think they’re in Afghanistan. The rocks grow into spiky, bizarre shapes and textures and the trees can’t decide whether they’re trees or short, angry animals. Listening to my wacky eclectic music as I looked out on this landscape got more and more disjointed. I have a lot of world music in my collection – I especially love African, Arabic and Spanish music – and I’m pretty sure these songs were written without the inspiration of the sagebrush of the American West. I started thinking how funny it was that these same landscapes had been seen by so many different people who had sung such different songs. This used to all be Shoshone country, but I’m sure they weren’t the first ones to move through the valleys on their way from summer to winter camps. What were the songs they sang as they journeyed through? The early white settlers who came to these areas were probably first Mountain Men, maybe French, and later the Mormons and then the homesteaders and cattle ranchers spreading out across the American West. They would have all sung their own songs. I turned off my African jams and drove in silence for a while.

I drove up highway 20, leaving the flat, quiet plains of Southeast Idaho and climbing up into the Yellowstone area. The geothermal forces rolling beneath the road spun me northward up the narrow Gallatin river valley and into Bozeman, Montana, where I’d lived for five great years getting my undergraduate degree. I was happy to see the familiar foothills leading up to the Bridger mountains, and more songs came back to mind. I turned on the FM radio and let it scan around through stations as it scanned through my memories, from classic rock to country to NPR, and I happily re-lived the times of my life that those sounds had defined. But it was the good old wacky independent college station that served up the happiest tunes of the trip: I tuned to it just in time to hear the first chords of a familiar song. And this time the song reminded me of where I was going and who I was going to see, and I broke out into a giant grin as I sailed over Bozeman pass into Livingston.

“I made it down the coast in seventeen hours
Pickin’ me a bouquet of dogwood flowers
And I’m a hopin’ for Raleigh
I can see my baby tonight

So rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama any way you feel
Hey mama rock me,”

The summer that my little sister had worked as a camp counselor in North Carolina she left with a a guitar and came back with a guitar full of songs. This was one that she would always sing – an Old Crow Medicine Show song that she’d sung with her campers night after night. And she and I had lived together for just a few months in Missoula before I’d left for grad school and of all her songs, this was one of the ones that I loved to hear her sing the most. Let me tell you about Country Mouse, that little mama knows how to rock you.

————–

When I finally got to Billings I was tired and stiff, but getting to see the family and the family-to-be made the long drive worthwhile. I got busy with my mom and my sisters helping to set everything up for the big day. My sister had plenty of need to catch up on her sleep but she was there in the gym of the nearby church building with us, directing us on how to set up for the reception. I was touched with what she’d done with her time, creativity and limited resources. I know a lot of brides-to-be get hung up on spending money they don’t have to make a party memorable for all the wrong reasons. But Country Mouse was a classy girl who didn’t complain for a second that she didn’t have a party planner and a team of professionals to roll out the rented linens and the miles of twinkle lights and tulle that too many people deem necessary for a wedding. She had some adorable orange gerbera daisies, some teal ribbon and some sticks she’d gathered from the ranch and we turned them into adorable centerpieces in a warm, inviting room.

P8290018The next morning came too soon. I put on the “brown dress of destiny,” the polka-dotted brown shirt dress that I knew was meant to be as soon as I’d seen it there on the 75% off rack in exactly my size and exactly my sister’s wedding colors. I joined my mom, sisters, little brother and our grandmother outside the temple after the sealing ceremony as we waited for the bride and groom to emerge.

When I saw my little sister, my rockin’ mama, come out of the temple the first thing I noticed was her radiant smile. She was happy. I know we like to say that brides are beautiful, elegant, memorable, and she was all of those, but more important than how she looked was how she was. I saw her hand in hand with her cowboy man and I knew she’d made the best possible choice she could have. Most importantly, she knew that. She was confident that this was a good man, a good match for her, and being with him forever filled her with complete, comprehensive joy.

She was in a re-tailored version of our mother’s wedding dress, and the lace around the neck and sleeves lay perfectly. As she smiled for a nearby camera, though, she winked conspiratorially and lifted up the hem of her dress to reveal ornate teal cowboy boots. This classy lady was not keeping the cowgirl completely under wraps.P8290060

It was a clear, beautiful day. It was a small but happy group that had gathered. It was really touching to me to see a thread in my life continuing forward. I have these little threads that start and I never know whether they’re going to end up somewhere and then years later I come back and find them again. This time it was about this place – we had come as a group of teenage girls from my church group on a summer trip through Billings and had stopped to see the temple grounds that had recently been purchased, before any building began. Later, as a freshman in college in Bozeman, I made the two-hour drive with my friends to see the temple dedication and felt a special connection to this place even though it was far from my hometown and wouldn’t be the temple that my family visited regularly. And now to find myself back here with my little sister and the love of her life on a lovely August day was really touching, and really heartening to me. I looked up over the rimrocks – the rocky outcropping that frames Billings and sets it off from the endless plains that stretch into forever beyond it. The sky was bright and criss-crossed with contrails that looked like lonely cattle paths that centuries of animals and their keepers had followed as they plodded on, not realizing they had walked off the prairie, over the edge of the horizon and right off into the sky.

I looked back to my radiant sister, surrounded by the friends and family that loved her, and felt privileged to be here, even though I felt like the strange wanderer roaming through the town and these were the kindly homesteaders letting me stay a few nights in their hospitality.

After the wedding, we headed over to the chapel for the reception and a hearty lunch, and were joined in the parking lot by a herd of antelope. You can make the Billings-is-a-city argument, but antelope do not attend city weddings, my friends! I’m pretty sure they were trying to sneak in and get in on the cake.

And my sister being my sister and my brother-in-law being my brother-in-law, there was music. There was musical music for as long as everyone could sing. There were acoustic guitars and harmonies and breathtakingly beautiful melodies. Country Mouse and Mr. Mouse wowed us with acoustic duos of old Gospel songs, and it’s not just any wedding where the newlyweds outshine anyone you could have hired as musical talent.

We waved goodbye to the couple as they drove off into that prairie-horizon and we got to work getting everyone packed up and safely on their way. And we had songs humming under our breath and strumming in our hearts for days to follow.

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Rewind

Last night I got on the subway to go visiting teaching. It was only three stops away, on the line I always ride, and so I didn’t have to be on edge, constantly watching the stops like I do if I’m going somewhere unfamiliar.

So I had the luxury of losing myself listening to a podcast. There are quite a few that I enjoy, some of my favorites being This American LifeHardcore HistoryFreakonomics and of course A Prairie Home Companion. Listening to Garrison Keillor’s soothing baritone voice is nice anywhere; doing it with headphones so you walk around in public chuckling under your breath is priceless. Doing this in China where a bunch of strangers are going to be staring at the only white girl on the subway no matter what just adds to the delicious incongruity of it all.

I listened to Garrison tell about another exploit from Darlene at the Chatterbox Café as I watched the subway stations tick by. But I let my thoughts drift a little as I looked around the inside of the subway car and started reading ads and posters. I was snapped out of my reverie and realized that I hadn’t been listening clearly to the last few sentences of the story. I pulled my iPod out of my pocket and swiped the screen awake. There’s a handy button on the podcast app that lets you go back 10 seconds; I pushed it three times. I started listening and, yes, this was around where I stopped paying attention.

Just as I was thinking this, the subway was nearing a station and slowing down. I tried to catch one of the moving signs outside to double-check that I knew which station we were at. It should be Shanghai Science and Technology Musuem, I thought, since we had already passed Century Park. But then, in the non-verbal weird logic part of my thoughts, I was remembering the skip-back-10-seconds button and was puzzled for a moment about whether or not I had skipped back to before Century Park. Yes – that’s probably right. I skipped back three times so that probably put me right before we had stopped at Century Park so we must be there again.

It only lasted for the briefest flash. As soon as I was able to articulate the thought to myself I realized how totally ridiculous it was. I had to give myself a condescending little comment – “the podcast button does not have an effect on real time or the movement of the subway, genius.”

—————–

I’ll leave you with a little video I took while waiting to cross the street outside the subway station. Asia’s big on skyscrapers that turn into light shows at night.

Spanish Ward

Last summer, after I was married, we lived for a few months with my in-laws in Connecticut. Now, I’d been a bit of a City Mouse before. I’d lived in a couple areas in and around Tokyo, I’d lived in a city of 400,000 in Taiwan, and I’d lived for 4 years in Provo, Utah, which my Montana friends referred to as “the city” and my California friends referred to as “a small town.” But this was my first time experiencing the city life of the US East Coast, and I was loving it.

My in-laws live in the little tail of Connecticut, about 30 miles from the heart of New York City. The first thing I was surprised by was how close everything there seems. You get in the car and six miles later you’re in New York and if you’re not careful and you miss your highway exit you end up in New Jersey and it’s not even lunch time. Public transportation there is amazing (if a bit pricey) and you feel like the Indiana Jones of the urban jungle as you hop on a commuter train to Grand Central Station, swing your way over to a subway stop, and adventure your way all over the five boroughs of New York City. My husband and I trekked around Chinatown and Little Italy, funky art museums and music festivals in Brooklyn, and to every major museum in Manhattan. I even made him take me to the Uniqlo flagship store once I found out it existed. It’s one of my favorite clothing companies – I like to call it the Japanese Gap. And finding out there was one in America was almost as exciting as finding out it was right next to the original Macy’s. Like, you know, the giant department store that spawned all those parades that you imagine as being the world’s largest repository of funky silk scarves and pretentious rich-lady hats. Turns out husbands aren’t nearly excited about Japanese flagship stores or Macy’s locations, no matter how historic they are, but the beauty of it all is that after you bore them to death in one part of town you just hop on a subway and zip them off to another.

But the other interesting thing I observed living on the East Coast was how it was all so close, but it was fragmented into tiny little worlds. It’s like they were overlapping each other, all kind of existing in the same space. Inside each little world life for the people was extremely unique and distinct from the others. I’ve seen this before as a hallmark of the American experience but nowhere had I seen it so clearly as during those few months on the East Coast.

In the West, we’ve got plenty of room for things. And we see an array of people and societies but they’re all a bit more geographically distinct. I guess I really developed a mindset like this coming from a place where the most distinct ethnic groups were the “whites” and the “Indians,” but where their spheres were largely divided along actual borders and announced with signs. I wasn’t used to the neighborhood you lived in determining who you were, where your ancestors were from or what language you spoke. And I definitely wasn’t used to the expectations that changed as you crossed these subtle lines.

My in-laws attend a Spanish ward. In the LDS church, congregations are usually determined geographically, and living within a certain set of boundaries determines where and when and with whom you’ll attend church. But sometimes, based on the needs of certain areas, congregations (which are called wards or branches) are provided for speakers of different languages. Here in China, we attend an English-speaking ward. There were English and Portuguese wards where I lived in Japan. And all over the United States you’ll find wards and branches for speakers of Non-English languages. My husband served as a missionary in Dallas, Texas, in the Chinese branch, teaching Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants and students in their native language. It’s a really neat thing, I think, to see the diversity of backgrounds and lifestyles among church members, especially to those whose understanding of what Mormons are like may be based on stereotypes or their own experience with people in a certain socio-economic group.

And Spanish wards are something else. All the things I’d grown up with as a Mormon in the Western United States were still there. There was still a bishop and his counselors, still a women’s organization, a youth organization, still talks given every Sunday by three or four of the ward members on topics like charity or forgiveness or the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And there was still a feeling of love and acceptance even for the newcomers. In fact, you walk in the door of a Spanish ward and you feel like everyone’s long-lost cousin. Ladies who’ve never met you are kissing and hugging you, latching on to your arm and telling you what a lovely princess you are. But then there are the ways in which the Spanish ward is different from the English wards you grew up in, and they can be an absolute riot.

One of the things that stands out to me about my couple months in the Spanish ward is how many parties there were. Now granted, we were there during a particularly festive time of year – just as students were graduating and people were getting married. We kicked it all off with our own wedding. We had told my mother-in-law that we didn’t have a lot of money to spend so after the temple ceremony we just wanted to have maybe some punch, maybe a casual get-together for our friends. Erick said “a stereo and a bag of chips. Really, what else do you need?” But she looked at us with the “seriously, guys, come on” look. She said. “We are Spanish. It’s a wedding. We dance. We eat.”

And oh man, was that true. We danced. And we ATE. And we DANCED. And my mother-in-law hired a surprise mariachi band. They were in the middle of one of the old songs that everyone in the extended family knew and the mariachi singer shouted “¡Viva México!” Then everyone in the family glared and he leaned over to my father-in-law and asked “Where are you guys from?”

“Honduras.”

“¡Viva Honduras!”

And I thought the wedding was easily the biggest party of the year, but that was only one weekend. In the weeks that followed we had quinceañera parties, graduation parties, Relief Society parties. And my personal favorite was the ward Mothers’ Day party.

All the Mothers’ Days at church that I could remember growing up consisted of all the speakers that day talking about Moms, and all the Moms in the congregation getting a rose or a carnation. Then individual families went home and had dinners or spoil-mom days. I wasn’t aware that people had parties, or that those parties, like every other party every weekend, consisted of really huge meals and then a really huge dance. It was super fancy – the church gym was all decorated and set up with round tables and tablecloths and the men and the boys were the waiters. And then there was lots of loud Spanish music and my mother-in-law and all her lady friends had to get up and get down. It was so much fun and such a memorable party – it’s no surprise to me that Hispanic communities remain so tightly knit, even several generations after immigrating to the US.

And I easily felt a part of this new community. I really felt that I was genuinely appreciated and accepted. But it’s such a funny thing seeing how little worlds like this interact. And it’s interesting to see where the fracture lines still lie. The Spanish ward is part of a larger organization – a stake – made up of the other wards and congregations in the area. All of the other wards are English-speaking, and it just happens to be one of the most affluent areas in the country, so most of the “white” families that my in-laws and their friends interact with are very wealthy and very well-off. In fact, for most people, it’s easy to assume that all white people are rich, are Republicans, and hire people to clean their houses and trim their hedges. That is what they see in the “white” world around them. And it’s hard to understand the huge, complex realities of American society with such a limited snapshot.

And that’s all I really got too – snapshots of all these other little worlds. In my in-laws’ apartment building just about everyone is Hispanic. There’s a “Tabernaculo Real” around the corner which is where the Spanish Pentecostals meet on Sunday, another little world that overlaps with our own. Then down the street is a Haitian church. The local medical clinic had signs up in Haitian Creole which I realized I could read because it looks like French as sounded out by a child or a foreigner. If you go down a block the other way, there’s a huge Catholic church and a school where the services are in Polish. The Polish and the Italians are the “white” people here, and they built a lot of the houses on this side of town, though their demographic is moving out little by little each year.

Walking down the street to the train station, under the freeway into downtown, a white girl will start to feel like the odd one out, however Spanish her last name is, as a lot of the people she passes are black. I even had a funny moment as I took a long walk to get my hair and nails done one day. I’m definitely in the minority out in the “commuter towns” as being one of the people who doesn’t drive everywhere. I walked up to the west end of town to get my nails fixed by the Chinese ladies who had done them for my wedding and I had passed a hair salon on my way up. Realizing I really needed a trim, I decided to stop there on my way back home. An hour or so and one Dunkin’ donut later (it’s a long walk out to the Chinese ladies’ salon!) I stopped in the little hair salon, opening the door and looking around.

There wasn’t a desk with a receptionist and though there were a couple of chairs, only one was occupied by a customer and a stylist. The stylist was a middle-aged black lady; her customer was an older black lady getting a complicated dye job.

“Can I help you?” the stylist asked, looking me over and clearly wondering what on earth I was doing in this part of town.

“I was just wondering if you had any slots today to do a trim.”

“Do I look like I have time?” She continued whatever process the foil and bottles entailed.

“Do you have any free openings later?” I asked.

“I’ll be done with this one in a couple hours,” she answered.

“Ok – I’ll just come back,” I said, trying to sound pleasant and closing the door.

I didn’t go back. I still wonder if that was the best choice. I certainly didn’t feel like she knew what to do with me and wondered if it was just in everyone’s own interest to stay on our own sides of town. I’d grown up believing there were no differences between any of us, and was still a little bewildered that maybe there were certain businesses in certain parts of town that certain people just didn’t go to. I imagined the older lady getting her hair done would probably have felt just as uncomfortable walking into a nice upscale salon in Greenwich full of white ladies and gay men with spikey hair as I had felt upon realizing that maybe I wasn’t the average customer on that side of town. I was sad about it, in a way, because it really shouldn’t make any difference apart from whether or not the stylist knows how to manage different textures of hair. But it does, and though we as a nation think of ourselves as a melting pot we’re still, in a large way, more of a big chunky stew.

And the big challenge of our age is to learn how to deal with that.

安心

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.

Welcome to the City

“I was talking to Beth and Lacey today,” my husband told me a few weeks ago.

“Oh, your classmates from Nanjing? I’m glad we’re not the only ones who moved to Shanghai for our internships. We really need to invite them to dinner one of these days,” I answered.

“Yeah, actually, guess what? Beth works just one station away from here, on line 2. But the two of them are living way over by Hongqiao.”

“That’s so far!” I said, thinking about my husband’s own 1-hour commute every day. Beth’s must be at least an hour and a half.

“Yeah, I was thinking since we have an extra bedroom in this apartment we should have seen if she wanted to rent it,” he continued, “you know, it would be a lot more convenient for her and it would help us pay the bills. We still haven’t come up with the rent for May.”

“That would be really cool, but we can’t ask her that now. That wouldn’t be fair to Lacey.”

“I know. But it would have worked out perfectly.”

Well, a few weeks passed, everyone got back to town after Chinese New Year, and my husband started back to his leave-the-house-at-7-get-home-at-7 schedule. And then last week he got a call from Beth. He called me right afterward to see what I thought. Some after-the-fact technicality had come up in Beth and Lacey’s housing contract and she wouldn’t be able to stay there after all. Kind of par for the course in the chaos that is finding a place to rent in China. Add to that, though, the expense of living in a city like Shanghai and the short-term schedule that my husband and his classmates are all on, and it’s understandable why Beth was in such a tough spot. She had called asking my husband if he had any recommendations for a good real estate agent, one who preferably could handle emergencies. We offered her the second room in our apartment.

So mild-mannered but witty Beth moved in last weekend, and we all celebrated by going out to dinner in a neighborhood that didn’t actually have any viable forms of dinner. We were trying to see a movie afterwards, and apparently Movie Neighborhood and Affordable Dinner Neighborhood are not a very close commute. Shanghai is kind of two cities smashed into one. One of those cities is in China. It’s the kind of place where you live on the seventh floor of a building with no elevators, where you have to dump a bucket of water in your toilet sometimes to get it to flush, where you can buy a whole chicken out on the street and they kill and pluck it for you, and where dinner is about $1.50 US. $3.00 tops, if you want to get fancy. The second city is like an amped-up Manhattan with a Ladies’ Club outing to get to. It’s all finance companies and shopping malls, but there’s not anything you could actually afford in those malls. The stores you stroll past in those malls have names like St. Laurent Paris, Miu Miu and Mont Blanc. Those malls hire dudes to stand next to every door and you feel bad walking out of them because you’re wearing your running shoes and you’re pretty sure the door dudes are going to go home and talk about the shabby American they had to hold the door for today. And that second city is where you have to go to find a movie theater, and there aren’t a lot of places for get-to-know-your-new-roommate dinners in that city.

We paused at the door of a Japanese place that looked sort of affordable. There was wheatgrass growing on stainless silver trays in the window. I counted the bills in my purse, coming up with about $8 total. The movie tickets had been a lot more than we’d been planning on, since they told us the student discount only worked during the day.

“Let’s go out and see what we can find down the street.”

It was one of the last cold evenings of the year. March was apparently coming in with its last burst of lion energy. Even now, five days later, I’m opening my apartment windows and the rickety heater has been resting silently for at least 48 hours. But that night the wind was cold, and the three of us rambled past the subway stop, down a little street south of the expat housing developments where people were walking around and it looked like we might be getting closer to China again. We saw some flashing lights; they were all spas and massage parlors, but I thought I saw a convenience store up ahead and we might just have a shot.

A lady was helping her little boy pee on the side of the sidewalk. Afterwards, she bundled him back up in at least 14 layers of padded clothing that made him toddle around like a marshmallow, round except for the sewn-in slits that exposed his little bum in the back. Beth was talking about the kinds of fruit she wanted to look for and how they compared here to the prices at her grandmother’s house in Taiwan, and I was getting hungry thinking of the prospect of finding some mangosteens or dragon eyes. “Where the heck am I and what am I doing here?” I thought, watching the lights from the department stores behind us reflect in a lazy blink from the darkened windows lining the street ahead. The cold wind bit at my cheeks and inflated my bangs yet again and something my husband was saying was punctuated with a little corny joke that was supposed to be my cue to laugh.

I snapped back to the conversation and joined with a joke about duck stomachs being packaged like candy and we all giggled together. My husband squeezed my hand and rubbed the back of my fingers to warm them up and I thought, “Nevermind. I know exactly where I am.”