Back to Basics

Toni, Marcel and I have begun reading through C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity together. I bought an e-book discussion guide to help spark conversation and I’m pleased with how our first go at it went.

For anyone not familiar with Mere Christianity, it’s Lewis’ attempt at outlining the most basic beliefs that lie at the core of Christianity while intellectually defending those beliefs. It’s probably the best non-biblical starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about what Christians believe.

It’s actually a great resource for our little group because even among the three of us there are differences in the ‘frills’ of our individual faiths. By that I mean that we grew up with different kinds of worship services and we differ on some church doctrines. It’s nice to be taking a long look at the things that unify us and also separate us from other worldviews.

The first chapter of the book, which was the basis of our first discussion, wants to establish two points:

1) That all human beings believe that there are ways that they should behave
2) That they don’t behave in the way that they believe they should.

Living in China presents a unique challenge to our belief in an objective morality. For example, before moving here I would have said that all humans everywhere believed that it’s wrong behavior to spit on the floor at the gym. Now I know that I have to take certain issues like that out of the ‘universal morality’ category and put them into the ‘cultural norms’ category, just like I have to take my sweatshirt off of the gym floor and put it into a locker.

It’s such a privilege to be able to explore God’s truths outside of a Western World context. American Christianity can sometimes blur the lines between what’s cultural and what’s universal. Can’t wait to go further.

Sha-la-la-la-la-la My Oh My

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Screenshot from First Kiss by Tatia Pllieva

 Can we please talk about this for a minute? This week it felt like everywhere I looked online people were posting, tweeting and sharing a video of strangers kissing each other. The reactions to the video were almost universally positive. The word ‘beautiful’ was the word I saw thrown around the most. As I watched it I found myself more confused than excited. What is beautiful about two strangers making out with each other?

After the video blew up, we all found out that they were actors and models and the whole project was an ad for clothes. That means that one of the things these people do for their job is use body language to convincingly portray emotion.

I guess that might ruin it for some people since the scene wasn’t that authentic after all. It doesn’t make a huge difference to me. Frankly, I don’t understand why we were so surprised in the first place that people would enjoy making out with someone else, even a stranger. I have good news if you’re into that kind of thing, it’s happening regularly at a bar or club near you!

In reading through the comments sections I saw a lot of people commenting on the beauty, emotions and bond that the people were sharing. I’ll just go ahead and use this post to ask the questions I have after seeing all this and you can feel free to jump in and answer them for me.

1) Are we supposed to think that it’s beautiful because it shows how literally any two people can be asked to kiss and they’d enjoy it?

1a) If that’s true, doesn’t it follow that when all is said and done, enjoying kisses has nothing to do with who the other person is?

1b) And if 1a is true, then what is it about kissing that’s enjoyable?

1c)  Does it matter if it’s a person at all or would we enjoy kissing anything that was soft and covered in saliva? (Ugh, try not to think too much about that.)

2) Are we supposed to think it’s beautiful because we believe there is an actual connection being formed between these two people through a kiss?

2a) Does that connection have anything to do with who they are as a person?

2b) What if after this video they got into a conversation and it turned out the other person spent their free time drowning puppies in their bathtub, would that change their desire to kiss them?

2c) Would they still look back on the connection they shared as beautiful or horrifying?

2d) What does it mean if you shared a connection with a puppy-drowner?

Ok, you all get it. The last point I’ll make is similar to one I made in another post, and that is this: would all of the people who thought this was a touching video also find it beautiful if their significant other met an attractive stranger with whom they shared a 3-minute make-out session and then never saw them again? Wouldn’t that be a painful betrayal, even though they only shared a connection in that 3-minute period? I feel like the ‘WHO’ of our kisses is important.

State of the Union

The other day Toni and I were Skyping with some friends from back home and they asked us how our marriage was doing. It was actually a nice question to be asked since we don’t have much opportunity to talk to other married couples about things like that here. The honest answer was that things were (and are) going pretty well. This whole move to China has forced us to communicate better, work on problem-solving together and form new friendships with people together. But after that, the next thing I said was, ‘ The toughest thing we face right now is the fact that we literally spend every single minute of most days together.’ The friend’s reaction was to say, ‘Yeah that’s not good.’

From one of my favorite comics, "Zits" by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Check it out at zitscomics.com

From one of my favorite comics, “Zits” by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Check it out at zitscomics.com

I’m actually proud of how we’ve handled the challenge. We both miss having our own jobs to go to during the day, our own work-friends and the ability to come home and tell each other about our days.

But I think the hardest thing so far has been the ways that she and I have completely different work habits. Our teaching styles couldn’t be more different. We have a lot of conversations that are kinda like this:

“Hey, I noticed that you assigned the class a lot of homework for tonight.”
“Uh huh.”
“Are you sure you wanted to give them THAT much?”
“Yeah. Why?”
“Nothing! No! No, I just wasn’t sure if they did something to make you mad and you’re, like, punishing them with that much homework.”
“You think it’s too much?”
“No no no, I think it’s fine   …as long as you’re OK with the fact that they won’t have time to finish it.”
“You know what! You’re right! I’m being too hard on them. I’m gonna go in there right now and give them a big hug and tell them I’m sorry and that it’s OK if they don’t want to do their homework. In fact, they never have to do anything in my class ever again! We’ll just listen to music and party from now on! That’s been working really well for you, right? They’ve been learning A LOT in your classes, right?”

I like to let you guess which voice is whose.

We’ve also been using Google Docs to collaborate on activities for class. Today I was purposefully moving my cursor around the document so the little flag that said “Josh” would get in the way of her typing. It was annoying and immature but I had a good laugh. This is an example of a thing that doesn’t help the situation.

It’s possible that we might have to be intentional about finding our own activities to get us out of the house and provide some space. But to talk about the general state of our marriage, I’m really blessed that I have a wife that I get along with so well. If you were to look at certain areas of our personalities you would realize that we couldn’t be more different. I’m realizing that I can either allow that to get under my skin or I can take advantage of the fact that my wife is skilled and competent in some of the places where I am most inept.

I think we make a good team. Plus, she also likes the idea of coming home after a long day and curling up in front of an episode of House of Cards so most of our days end pretty well.

Consolidated Posts of Chinese New Year

DAY 1

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DAY 5

Journaling about the trip on the rooftops in Phnom Penh

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DAY 5 (part 2)

Reunited 6,656 miles away from where we used to hang out. Our Madrid family is scattered but we always find each other!

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DAY 6

Blowout on the way to Kampot.

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DAY 7

Crab feast and some swimming on Rabbit Island. Seasoned with the Kampot Peppers, these crabs even give Maryland blue crabs a run for the money. Of course the atmosphere doesn’t hurt either.

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DAY 7 (part 2)

Running around the countryside of Kampot in a tuk tuk all day followed by beach time on Rabbit Island took a heavy toll on the skin. We promptly hit a market for aloe and sunscreen for me.

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DAY 8

Sunset Cruise

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DAY 9

Walking across the border to Vietnam

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DAY 10

Gettin’ our Saigon… on

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DAY 11

People worshiping at the Cao Dai temple outside of Ho Chi Minh

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DAY 11 (part 2)

Exploring the tunnels that the Vietnamese used to escape US bombing

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DAY 12

Overnight train to Hoi An

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DAY 13

Morning at the amazing beaches of Hoi An

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DAY 15

The ancient art of Vietnamese water puppets

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DAY 16

John McCain’s uniform that he was captured in on display at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ where he was held prisoner

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DAY 16 (part 2)

The dead body of the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh, is on display in there. Guards with bayonets made sure I got zero pictures inside.

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DAY 17

Exploring Halong Bay

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DAY 18

End of vacation (and my constant updates. Thanks for putting up with them.)

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Can’t Buy Me Love

ONE FLESH

When I was a college freshman, my roommate had a ‘cuddle buddy’. In fact, his cuddle buddy was an upperclass(wo)man that was in charge of leading us through school orientation. As you can tell, she took the job seriously and went far beyond her call of duty.

Many times I would walk in from class and the two of them would be in his top bunk just… cuddling. As far as I know, there was never anything sexual going on. Only spooning. I didn’t really know what to make of it, so I didn’t say much. The thing I had the hardest time understanding was the fact that each of them had significant others back home. They claimed that their boyfriend and girlfriend were OK with the arrangement and they explained to me that they were simply fulfilling a need to be held while they were apart from their true loves.

I was reminded of this because I saw an article about an Oregon woman that runs a business as a ‘Professional Cuddler’. (My computer is alerting me that ‘cuddler’ is not a real word. That should tell you something right there.)

She charges people a dollar a minute to cuddle with them. KBOI-TV News, an Idaho news channel, did an interview with the girl and the video is awkward as heck.

I can’t wrap my head around the concept. Based on this girl’s quotes, what she is ACTUALLY selling is not a body to cuddle with, but “unconditional love”. That’s where this whole thing breaks down for me. The thing that makes cuddling with this girl different from simply holding tightly to a pillow becomes all about the person’s longing for acceptance and love. I’m sorry to give away the ending, but a 60-minute cuddle session will never fill that void.

I mean, if you think about it, the business is an oxymoron. Her ‘love’ is literally based on the condition of a monetary payment. Does she really love her clients if she gets up and leaves until they are ready to pay again?

And doesn’t this speak to a larger issue about our society’s view on physical affection? We talk about wanting to cuddle or kiss or have sex the same way we talk about wanting to eat an ice cream sundae or smoke a cigarette. We have a craving and we just need a way scratch the itch.

But just like some people’s eating and smoking habits actually come from psychological needs that food and cigarettes can’t fill, physical love is also about a need that physical touch alone can’t satisfy.

Something tells me that it wouldn’t go well if next time my wife went out of town for a few days I said ‘Take all the time you need, babe! If I find myself missing you at night I can just call Suzie, my Professional Cuddler friend. Maybe I can convince her to make out with me if I pay extra!’

If cuddling really is just a platonic act, why should it be inappropriate for me just because I’m married?

What do you all think? Am I on to something here or do I need to climb off my puritanical high-horse and join the real world?

Everybody Poops

FOREIGNERS

WARNING: If you are sensitive to discussions about bodily functions and toilet hygiene, just skip this post. I was hesitant to even write about this. But if you’ve ever lived in or even traveled to a place as different as China, you know that you must face the harsh reality that we all poop and pee… and you’ve gotta figure out how the locals handle that truth.

Today was the second time that I’ve suffered a slight embarrassment at the school where we work. Before I tell that story, I need to go back about 2 years and tell another.

During the 2011-2012 school year, my parents decided to host an exchange student from China. It was their first experience hosting a student from Asia and it didn’t really go very well for either party. The blame for that doesn’t fall completely on either side; there are just so many things about our two cultures that are different and you can’t anticipate all of the challenges. One of the things that my parents were unprepared for was the state of the bathroom in the house that was dedicated to this student. I don’t want to go into details, but let’s just say we take a lot more care to be discreet about our ‘stuff’ in America.

For part of that year I was living in the house while waiting to get married and it became a bit of a ‘thing’ in the house. All we had to do was mention the bathroom and everyone would take a moment to cringe, roll their eyes or concentrate on not vomiting. (I might be exaggerating a little, but it was gross.)

Now I live in China. Now I see Chinese bathrooms on a regular basis. While there are many western-style toilets in Jintan, I’d say the majority are still just holes in the floor. It’s a crap-shoot whether or not you’ll find doors on the stalls, toilet paper anywhere in the vicinity or soap by the sink. The Chinese simply don’t worry as much about this stuff as we do. (If you read that and found that a million questions popped into your head that start like this: ‘But.. how do they…?’ JOIN THE CLUB. I don’t have answers.)

Here’s a look at a typical Chinese bathroom:

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One wall is lined with these stalls

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This is what you have to work with inside the stall.

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This is a Chinese urinal. You stand on the ledge and aim for the trough.

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The only sink in sight.

So, on to my embarrassing story.

The school was nice enough to give the three of us a private, western-style bathroom on campus that we use. Chinese plumbing isn’t quite as hardy as ours at home and well… a couple weeks ago I clogged the toilet. They don’t leave a plunger in the bathroom, so I had to swallow my pride and send a text to our boss asking for help. He said he would have someone fix it and he warned us not to put paper in the toilet. I didn’t really pay attention to that because I didn’t like the idea of any of the alternative methods of getting rid of used toilet paper. Of course, the toilet became clogged again today. Frustrated, I sent my boss another text message and this time we all had to have a lengthier discussion about cross-cultural toilet paper disposal. It’s humbling to be told at 28 how to use the bathroom.

As I was thinking about it, I pictured the eye-rolling that is probably happening between my boss and whatever poor soul has to keep unclogging our toilet. To them, I may have become that foreigner with gross bathroom practices.

I think the moral of the story here is that we should be careful about looking down our noses at how other people live. I never thought I’d have the Chinese-toilet-tables turned on me like that.

Dare I ask if any of my friends have similar stories to share…?

Merry Odd Christmas

FOREIGNERS

I have a friend who was having a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit this year. He’s a friend from home, but we often exchange texts. He was telling me that he was frustrated because Christmas didn’t seem like it was going to be very ‘merry’ due to some stuff going on in his family. It’s not the first year that this has happened to him, but I don’t think it ever gets easy to be told over and over again through movies, commercials and music that Christmas is supposed to be perfect. We’re told that we should be surrounded by family and friends, we shouldn’t have to work and we should be showered with gifts. For my friend (and many others) life doesn’t follow that script.

This year I was responding to my friends’ texts with some griping of my own. We spent this Christmas in China, making it the strangest one yet for me. Christmas as a concept exists here, but it isn’t really celebrated by anyone. The shops and restaurants in our city had some small decorations and there was always Christmas music playing. Some of our Chinese friends wanted to help us to feel more like home, so they asked us if we wanted to come use their oven to cook a turkey on Christmas Eve. The turkey had to be imported from North America and it was not easy to cook in their small kitchen. Although we had a fun day with the group, the experience proved pretty frustrating at times. Remember the scene in Liar Liar when the mom’s new boyfriend tries to do ‘the claw’ for the son but it ends up being a little weird and creepy? That’s kinda what I was feeling like with all of the attempts to recreate my sacred holiday from home.

It wasn’t right for me to feel that way. I was responding to Christmas as if it’s the job of someone else to make it a special day for me.

It kinda clicked for me when we decided to buy some gifts for a few people that work here at the school. Our coworkers were genuinely touched that we thought of them. The best were the small boxes of chocolates that we brought to the lunch ladies that serve us every day. We learned how to say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Chinese and went up to the windows where they usually slop down some food on a tray for us and we handed them the chocolates. They had huge smiles on their faces and it was my favorite moment of the day. We also treated our students to a nice day by getting copies of ‘Elf’ and ‘Home Alone 2′ with Chinese subtitles for them.

It’s amazing how much joy comes from giving. Those small experiences were mostly able to make up for all the things I was missing from home.

I hope everyone back home had a wonderful holiday. Here are some pictures from our day:

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We managed to get ourselves a little tree for our apartment.

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Eventually we moved the tree into our room while we watched one of my favorite Christmas movies.

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Some of the Pinterest-inspired desserts that we had on Christmas Eve.

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Our Christmas Eve feast.

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Our Chinese friends that joined in the Christmas Eve dinner.

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Relaxing after dinner on Christmas Eve.

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Waiting to give some gifts to the kids at the Christmas Eve party.

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On Christmas Day we had a very special lunch of pizza and KFC.

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Our Christmas Day buddies.