Monday, February 29, 2016

Ruth's Rules for a Better Life, Part 2

  • Stockpile coffee
  • Keep your passport current
  • Take delight in the ridiculous
  • Don't rely on memory
  • Take legible notes
  • Always have a book handy
  • Wear comfortable shoes
  • Acquire historical boyfriends
  • Enroll in automatic bill pay
  • Drink water; eat breakfast; get enough sleep 
  • Eliminate spiders
  • Engage in public Morris Dancing
  • Keep the bathroom clean
  • Sip cold sweet tea in the warm sunshine 
  • Read where you travel and travel where you read
  • Tip well
  • Share your faith
  • Ask tough questions
  • Confuse strangers 
  • Invest in friendship
  • Do hard things
  • Learn to fail
  • Never measure over the mixing bowl
  • Never confuse your pillar candle with your coffee mug
  • Never grow out a pixie cut

Monday, February 22, 2016

How to Make Wishes

If you read fairy tales, then you know that eventually as you trip through a sunlit meadow one golden afternoon, you will stumble across a fairy godparent (or a talking woodland creature or a small, warty troll) who will grant you three wishes. I mean, it's just a matter of time. If you read fairy tales, then you also know how easily that whole situation can backfire.

When your turn comes, follow these steps to keep yourself out of trouble.

Step One: Wish for more wishes. Obviously. That's just Wish-Making 101. The only question is how many wishes to ask for.

Requesting unlimited wishes might sound like a no-brainer, but there's a pitfall. Given what we know of the human condition, unlimited wishes could cause more harm than good. After all, aren't the children who always get what they want often the most unpleasant, unhappy, impossible-to-satisfy children of all? Of course they are. Contrary to expectation, selfishness doesn't make us happy: ironically, it merely makes us less content and impossible to please. None of us would wish that sort of character development upon ourselves; therefore, it seems wise to take unlimited wishes off the table.

You can request a large number of wishes if you want, but keep yourself in check. In doing so, you'll retain a measure of perspective, retain gratefulness for each wish, and use each one with measured caution. Think of it as a failsafe to curb megalomania. 

Step Two: Wish that none of your wishes will backfire. Don't skip this step: otherwise those of you wishing for a "smoking-hot husband" could wind up married to a partially-immolated burn victim.

Step Three: Wish to know what you should wish for. Would we spend our wishes differently if we could see every implication of every wish we could possibly make? What if we knew the implications of everything--everything that's ever happened, everything that ever will happen, and everything that ever could happen? How would our wishes change? 

I planned this post to be wholly lighthearted with no overt spiritual connection, but as I worked on this last point, I couldn't help but consider the correlation between wishes and prayer. Obviously, real prayer is different from seeking outright wish fulfillment; however, Step Three highlights a clear overlap.

When we pray, we don't just seek our own desires but the will of God. Praying in the will of God is less about knowing exactly what to pray (at least, in situations that are not clearly addressed by scriptural command) and more about a willingness to say, "Here's how I'm feeling, and here's what I think I want; but Lord, give me what I would ask for if I knew everything that you know."

If we really believe in the sovereignty and omnipotence of God, why would we attempt to mandate his actions based on our own limited perspective? In doing so, we might not be much different from fairy tale characters who can't see the far-reaching implications of their own wishes until it's too late.

In the end, I'm not sure I'd ever want to have any of my wishes automatically granted. I know what I've desired in the past, and I shudder to think what might have happened to my life if I'd been given all I wanted before I'd matured enough to realize that it wasn't what I should have wanted at all.


"...Lord, give me what I would ask for if I knew everything that you know." Tim Keller, The Songs of Jesus, p. 52. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Change that Remains: My Year in China

During 2004-2005, I spent a year teaching in Shanghai, China. That year overseas changed my life in some fairly significant ways. Some of the changes, of course, turned out to be mere adaptions that got me through the year and then wore off shortly after I returned to the States. 

Some change, however, remains.

The Change that Remains:

An Unshakable Conviction that the Ground Is Gross

The Asian understanding that the ground is gross and that outdoor shoes are disgusting, germ-infested disease carriers got into my head pretty quickly and took up permanent residence. I simply can't believe that most Americans wear their outside shoes indoors, tracking public-restroom germs all over their own carpets - and I can't believe this concept never occurred to me before traveling to China. I never walk around barefoot now, try not to sit directly on paved steps or walkways when I can help it, and I wear slippers in my own home. Since studies show that a scary percentage of shoes track e. coli and C. diff all over your carpet, you might want to consider joining me.

An Ability to Tell Asian Cultures (and People!) Apart

I find it startling that for all America's pride in "multicultural education," most of us just clump all of Asia together, not knowing (or seeming to care!) which country gave the world Sumo wrestlers, which gave us Samsung electronics, and which gave us Ang Lee. Granted, Eastern countries tend to have some linguistic and cultural overlaps (as do Western ones, I might add), but Japan is not Korea is not China is not Thailand is not Laos is not Vietnam is not the Philippines, and so forth. All Asians do not look alike, sound alike, or think alike. They are a diverse assortment of peoples, histories, and languages; and their distinct cultures have contributed greatly to our world.

Impressive Chopstickery 

Yes, I learned to eat with chopsticks. Yes, I kept eating with chopsticks after I came home. Don't get me wrong - I don't eat every meal with chopsticks, but I do use chopsticks regularly -- during meals I eat by myself, of course, so as not to seem pretentious. This isn't some sort of affectation, either: once you learn what you're doing, some foods are actually easier to eat that way.

Besides, my ongoing chopstickery helps me keep my hand in. That way whenever I travel in Asia, I'm not dribbling noodles all over myself.

Prayer for China

Before my year in China, I assumed that every single Chinese Christian was persecuted and in danger of being thrown into labor camp at any moment. Such is not generally the case. While the government still has some work to do on religious freedom and human rights, much political change in the last twenty years has paved the way for more freedom. 

The Christian church in China is currently growing by leaps and bounds; and most Chinese believers are reached with the Gospel by other Chinese believers. My understanding of the situation has affected how I pray for China's overall spiritual development and how I pray for specific friends and former students still living on the Mainland.

Traveling Light

Travel in Asia is crowded and complicated, and the less carried around, the better. By the spring of the year, I was going on two-week trips with just a standard-size Jansport backpack. I've traveled light ever since.

And just for fun...

Changes that Did Not Remain:

Speaking Mandarin (It's been over a decade. I've forgotten almost all of it.)
Drinking hot water after meals
Spitting fish bones directly onto the table
Using an umbrella in the sunshine
Drinking hot soup in summer to cool down
Riding a bicycle to work
Drinking loose-leaf tea
Elbowing people aside at subway stations and bus stops
Balancing "hot" and "cold" foods (Admission: I never really grasped this concept anyway.)

China Things I Still Do, but Only When Traveling:

Wearing my backpack on my front to discourage thieves
Maneuvering easily through crowds
Bartering like a boss

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Lost History of a Forgotten Time: My Year in China

I spent the weekend reconnecting with my friend Lucy, who was my roommate and teaching partner during 2004-2005, the year that I lived in China. The conjunction with Chinese New Year was purely coincidental on our part.
When I first came back to the States, my experiences in China dominated my thinking. That year colored my interpretation of everything. Like most experiences, however, the memories faded. Honestly, as important as that year was to me, sometimes I forget that it actually happened. Based on some conversations that I had with Lucy over the weekend, I really have begun to forget that it happened. At least, I've started to forget exactly what happened.
Through the course of this past weekend, Lucy and I were both astounded at the sorts of things we'd forgotten. And I don't just mean "forgotten" in that we didn't remember certain events until we read about them in our respective travel journals. I mean "forgotten" in that even after reading the journal entries, neither of us have any memory at all of the events described.

These aren't little things, either. These are the stories you bring home to tell. These are stories of helping to catch rats in convenience stores and attempting to leverage our rat-catching skills into a discount on our purchases. Stories of witnessing Chinese people picking pockets with pairs of kitchen tongs. Stories of almost-relationships and confessed feelings. Stories of being tasked with picking people up from the airport without knowing when they would arrive and still somehow showing up within ten minutes of their flights landing. Stories of illness, injury, and experiments with Eastern Medicine. Stories in which we've not only forgotten the events, but all of the people described in the journal entries.
We've forgotten much more than we've remembered. Why?

Certainly, this has something to do with the passage of time, but I don't think that's the entire story. I think a decade is too short to forget catching a rat in a convenience store and then using the act as leverage in bartering. I think the forgetting has much more to do with the fact that we experienced so much in 2004-2005 that China actually broke our brains a little bit.
Living as a foreigner in China is intense. Since the language is tonal, it's extra hard for non-natives to learn; and since it's written in characters rather than with an alphabet, it's taxing to memorize. Many cities and regions in China speak their own dialects rather than the standard Mandarin, making in-country travel challenging even for visitors who learn some Mandarin. Eastern and Western cultures are pretty much polar opposites in every way, making social situations complicated to navigate--especially at first. Since more than 90% of all people living in China are Han Chinese, anyone who's not Han is subject to much scrutiny.
Once in China, Lucy and I grappled with learning the language; adjusting to life in a city of 18 million people; navigating the transportation system of Shanghai (much of which was labeled with Mandarin characters rather than numbers); exploring entirely new grocery-shopping, cooking, and dining experiences; adjusting to our team dynamic; finding our place among the the faculty of a large Chinese university; working to understand discipline and student-teacher relationships in an Asian classroom; planning trips across Asia without the benefit of most travel sites that are popular today; and living without our relational and spiritual support systems. We had no social media, no Skype, no translation apps, and no way to contact people when we found ourselves lost and far from campus. Winging it became our baseline.
It was a wild, beautiful, and terrible year. Bursts of excitement were followed by long stretches of tedium. We were confused and discouraged much of the time.
The tasks of daily life worked our brains so hard that they occasionally just short-circuited entirely. In the middle of October, I suddenly forgot every number and password I had ever known: my phone number, my e-mail password, my bank card pin number--all of it. It's as if the section of my brain that stored such information had suddenly gone dark. My e-mail password was a simple enough fix, but when I went down to my Chinese bank and worked through a translator to explain my pin number problem, the bank employee kept insisting that I give my old pin number in order to change it to a new one. The fact that I couldn't remember my old number didn't seem to phase her. 

"See--that's why I'm here," I'd say through the translator, "because I forgot my pin number and need to change it so that I can start paying for things like food and bus fares again." 

And she would say, "I understand. Just tell me your former password and we will change it." We probably repeated this conversational circuit ten times. She seemed a little surprised when I eventually just started laugh-crying and slapping at my own face repeatedly; but after all, I was a foreigner. Foreigners will do anything.
The face-slapping must have worked eventually, because the bank changed my pin number. At least, I'm assuming that's what happened. I have clear memories of not starving to death during the second half of the year, so the situation must have resolved itself somehow. I just can't remember how.

That's the thing. There was just so much to remember.

When nearly every day brings something "unforgettable," the brain quickly becomes overloaded, keeping some memories and jettisoning others--sometimes indiscriminate of vital information like passwords and pin numbers. 

If I have one regret, it's that I didn't journal more during my year in China: that I didn't write down everything. 

That I hadn't assumed I'd remember the unforgettable.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Greatest Apps that Haven't Been Invented

There really are a lot of amazing apps out there: apps to make dinner reservations before you leave the house, apps to track your diet, to help you remember where you parked your car, and even apps to help you find the cleanest public restrooms.

I firmly believe, however, that the greatest apps are still to come. 
  • an app that lets you sleep while you're really awake
  • an app that coordinates traffic lights so that you never have to wait
  • an app that lets you preview people's reactions to comments you're about to make so that you can know how far is too far before you actually go too far
  • an app that tracks socks through the entire laundry process
  • an app that turns on the shower when your alarm clock goes off so that the whole bathroom's nice and toasty before you even get out of bed
  • an app that adds a canned laugh track when nobody gets your jokes
  • an app that matches you with the least awkward seat partner on a long flight
  • an app that tracks your conversations and creates fake websites to back you up in the event that a trivial argument resorts to Googling
  • an app that tracks what your in-laws give you for Christmas so that you can always set the items out or wear them when they visit
  • an app that remembers your dreams so that you can re-watch them in the morning
  • an app that automatically auto tunes your voice whenever you have to sing in public
  • an app that lets you know when your coffee's the perfect temperature for sipping


Thanks to my friends Laura and Joel for helping me brainstorm!


Photo Credit: 
By Mozilla Foundation [MPL 1.1 (], via Wikimedia Commons