The road to our school was blocked by a jerry-rigged gate, the key to the padlock hidden in some small shack nearby and the owner of the key waited for, until finally we lumbered through onto the dusty straightaway.
The passing of the New Year happened and I hardly noticed, except for a few comments from fellow team members. We were there, hours away from our city home, eager to share gifts of love and smiles and time and a few resources with this small minority village. The schools were our focus, spending time in window-lit classrooms packed like sardines with anywhere from 40-80 beautiful children, living in a world all their own on the side of dusty mountains in the heart of Sichuan Province.
We taught, and played, and hiked with them up into the hills to visit their homes, meet their families, hear their stories, and bring gifts that we hoped would be received or at least leave a small seed of Love and Light for the future.
A trip like this, for me and my heart, leaves an aftermath of tangled thoughts and feelings. I was challenged, in some expected and almost cliche ways, but also in ways I did not see coming. Living in China for nearly eight years now, I still feel much like a baby who has barely scratched the surface of understanding. My language, while much improved since those early days, is still so far from allowing real depth of communication. My insight into the culture, thinking and heart of Chinese people is something I long for but admittedly still falls far short of anything to be confident in. I still feel like I have so much to learn, and even to realize that I don't know. But still, I have also grown used to feeling like I don't understand. I have become somewhat versed in knowing my cultural ignorance.
So to go from my now established way of life and understanding in a Chinese city to a remote Yi minority village in the countryside where the language is different, the culture and customs are different, and even the social and economic class is another step removed, I am thrown back on my heels grasping for a way to know how to respond appropriately. As seems to be the knee-jerk reaction I can't quite rid myself of, the White Man Savior complex quickly kicked into high gear. I cannot help but see the poverty, the barrenness, the dirt, the material need and immediately feel the guilt of all that I own and have at my fingertips. I see the simple and struggling education system, the broken families, the loss, the children with big, staring eyes and want to help. I feel what I think is a very real compassion, and then jump to all my known systems of how to turn that compassion into action.
I was surprised and a bit embarrassed at how easily I was jumping to these responses too. I felt I should have known better. It was humbling to see the perceived need, and how I so quickly would do the wealthy-upper-class-swooping-in things to help.
And the humbling did not stop there. I can critique social media and technology and all it's effects on the way we live our lives like it's my job, and I put measures in place to fight against some of that. Yet here I am, still prone to the social sins I so readily observe. It has become almost a way of life we don't even think about anymore: taking pictures of what we are doing and telling everyone about it, instead of actually just doing what we're doing. And in our picture sharing, we project so much that is not reality, both of the setting and the people, and what we were doing and feeling in that moment.
My understanding of these Yi people, their lives, even their hearts, is limited by the few short hours I spent with them, the inability to speak their language, and all of my false conceptions. Yet, I can so readily project sentimental ideas of either the beauty or loss of their situation. All in a picture. I love photography and for me it is most often an artistic medium to share and think through the realities both physical and spiritual. But how to share our life here and our experience even on trips like this without exploiting? How to be honest and not make things appear better or worse than they are?
The most insightful part the trip for me was listening to the thoughts of local Chinese friends who went with us. Their criticisms and questions cut to the quick but also cracked open my understanding in a way that I want and need. Their reflections about everything from growing up in China, to poverty, criticism, and ultimately the level playing field we are all on in our need for Jesus was endlessly instructive to me. And beyond even the wisest cultural and sociological insights, their patient reminders to pray and be open to hearing His voice is the overarching reminder we all need to hear.
In the end, I left feeling like I know nothing. Entirely humbled, I was brought back to the verse I had begun with, meditating on it days before we left, but this time with a bit of a different perspective.
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father for such was your good pleasure... no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. ~Matthew 11