The Day I Almost Became the First Wife

To the Chinese, they say, there are only two countries in the world: China, and America. This bothers the Norwegians to no end, but we have little pity for them.

This hypothesis was borne out the other day when Jared was getting a shoe fixed in a small shop near our apartment. While he was in there, watching the shop owner carefully stitch up his shoe with strong thread, another Chinese man came in and began talking.

“You so strong! You so handsome! You must be an American,” he said.

Jared replied, “Thank you! I am an American.”

“You’re so good-looking,” he intoned again.

“Uh, thanks.” Jared said. “You are a teacher (he asked in Chinese)?”

“Yes,” he replied in English, “I am professor.” But his English wasn’t quite good enough to specify what it was he professed. So he returned to his favorite subject–the attractiveness of my husband.

“You are so good-looking, you can take care of two wifes,” he matter-of-factly stated.

Jared was a little shocked, but managed to croak out, “Uh, thank you, but I’m happy with the one I have.”

“No,” the man insisted, “you can take care of a second lover, one with nice legs, because you’re so handsome.” (No, this was not a comment on the state of my legs–I wasn’t there, and as far as I know the man had no idea if Jared was even married or had a wife!)

Jared was nonplussed by that, and could think of nothing more to say than, “Um, have a nice day!” as he ran away with his newly-fixed shoes. Chinese may admire America more now, but apparently traditional China isn’t dead yet!

All of this seemed particularly reminiscent to us as we’re reading Pearl Buck’s famous book The Good Earth, which tells the story of a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung, in traditional China. He begins poor. But then he gets a wife who up till then had been a slave in a Great House, and who now works beside him in the fields, bears him lots of sons, and makes him rich through her diligence (and talents at acquiring jewels). He then does what every self-respecting wealthy traditional Chinese man would do, and buys himself a second wife, appropriately named Lotus, for she was the human form of the flower: dainty, sweet smelling, useless in the fields, but my, what a sight to behold. Anyway, in the story, once he gets his Lotus, as you can imagine, the First Wife (O-lan) wasn’t very pleased, and his household became a very unhappy place. Wang Lung then forgets about his First Wife and enjoys his flower. Only when O-lan begins to die does he notice her again, but by then it is too late.

So I’m thankful Jared had the moral fortitude to run away from his hypothetical second wife with beautiful legs. He told me he didn’t need another flower–he already had his Rose.


Gattaca, Sex, and Chocolate Chip Cookies

Warning: somewhat complicated and/or tedious post may follow. I’m no theologian or movie reviewer. Just a crazy blogger.

A few nights ago, since Jared was sick, we watched the movie Gattaca. Made in the 1990s, it’s a sci-fi thriller that starts with the premise that in a few years, DNA will be the promise of the future. Parents will be able to choose what they want their children to look like, whether they will have any heritable diseases, their IQ—pretty much everything about a person can be decided before they’ve even implanted in their mother’s womb (or perhaps they don’t even implant? The movie wasn’t clear).   These people, the ones who are “GMO” people, are “Valid.” Everyone else is “In-Valid.”

The stage is set for some pretty massive and unstoppable discrimination. Everyone has to undergo DNA testing practically every five minutes. People are identified by their DNA instead of their faces, so companies won’t hire you unless you’re a “valid” person. Dating (or courting, if you insist), is reduced to looking at people’s DNA to make sure they were who they said they were. Nothing about personality, character, or even looks—any of the things we value about ourselves and that make us human—is important anymore. Although these “valid” people had longer, healthier lives, they had become less human. They became valued for a collection of traits, not for who they were. Being a person was no longer enough.

Parents had children not because children were a natural outpouring of the union of marriage, a concrete physical expression of their love for each other, but because they wanted a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who would never get heart disease and would live the life they wished they could have had. People became commodities that you could choose to have, or not, as you wished. And if you chose to have your child the natural way, you could count on him or her being one of the lowest members of society.

What the movie really showed well, though, was the effect this had on the individuals who made up society. They felt undervalued and worthless—even when they were the most highly prized members. All anyone else cared about was what was in their blood. Their hearts and souls—even their intelligence—were suddenly second-rate.

Gattaca may be an extreme example of what happens when sex and children are no longer connected, but the devaluing of human life does happen, even today. We may not see it as that, argue that it isn’t, but it’s still possible to take something good—like marriage or children, and make it suit our own ends.

What happens when we make people into things? This haunting article makes the point clear: when we deny the humanity of others, whether newly-conceived child or fully-grown adult, we deny our own humanity. If they’re not created in the image of God, neither are we.  And suddenly, if a child who isn’t wanted can be killed, can’t we exercise that same right to “choose” the life of a grown person who annoys us or gets in the way of our life?

Just as we can’t choose to remove people when they stand in our way, we can’t add people when we want them there. Human life—all human life—is sacred.  People have dignity. And this sacredness, this dignity, invades all aspects of our lives, even the seemingly pointless ones. It makes sex not simply about pleasure. It makes marriage not simply about two people. It makes childbearing not simply about the mother, and child-rearing not simply about the child. We can’t deny it, and we can’t get rid of it (though some certainly have tried!).

We can’t reduce people to what they can do for us. It would be folly to choose a husband or wife based on the deliciousness of their chocolate chip cookies, and it’s still folly to choose on the basis of how you feel around them. It’s folly to stay away from marriage because you fear it, but it’s folly to get married because you fear being single. We shouldn’t have children because they can do what we failed to do, or because they can fill a hole in our aching hearts. Children—or any blessings, really—are not ours to command. Just as I don’t believe it’s a “woman’s right” to be able to kill a child whom she has conceived, I don’t believe it’s her right to demand a child when she wants one. Yahweh gives, and Yahweh takes away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.

Obviously I’m not qualified to tell you how to live your life and what specific things you should or shouldn’t do.  So I’ll leave you with a bit of advice from the immortal Shakespeare (did I tell you I’ve watched Much Ado About Nothing five times in the last week? I could practically quote it by heart now). Keep in mind that the middle bit is particularly important: “Serve God, love me, and mend [your ways].”

Have you watched the movie Gattaca? What are your thoughts on GMO people? Are humans inherently dignified, or is that merely a cultural construct that needs to go away?

7 Things I’m Missing in China

Life in China so far has been wonderful. It’s amazing how nice having a place of your own, even when it’s up four flights of bare concrete stairs, can be. And Jared’s really loving his desk (as different from MY desk–generally covered with papers). We’re both beginning to feel at home. We have great friends, a wonderful church, and a lot of great food close by. That said, there are still some comforts of home that I, at least, miss.

1. A piano.

And preferably, a pianist to go with it. (Just kidding–though a live-in accompanist would be nice.)

Can you say “essential for sanity?” There’s something about having an instrument out in the open, waiting to be played on. I don’t know how I’m surviving right now without a piano. Jared says that surely the school has one–but it’s just not the same.  One of these days, I will have my own piano, I promise!

2. Real hot (drinkable!) water in the kitchen sink

It’s gotten to the point where when I watch videos of people drinking water straight from the tap or doing dishes in warm water, I’m shocked. I want to tell them it’s dangerous to drink the water, and then I remember–in America, it’s okay to do things like that. You’d think 20 years of drinking straight from the sink would stick with me far more than two months of not being able to, but hey. I’m weird that way, apparently.

And just for the record, dishes do not get as clean in cold water as they do in hot. Ask me how I know.

3. A dishwasher

I know, I know–who needs a dishwasher if you actually have hot water in the kitchen sink? But it’s so much easier to put silverware and stuff into the dishwasher and run it. You guys who have these things are so spoiled.

4.  A bathtub

There’s something so relaxing about being able to sit in a tub of warm water. For now, we’ll have to be content with our “shower bathroom,” but one of these days I’m actually going to live in a house with a bathtub in it.

At least I don’t have to SCRUB the bathtub right now–there’s a bright side to everything, right?

5. Books. Actual, physical books.

Kindles are nice–they allow you to read practically anything, most of it for very little money–but they don’t have the same feel as a real book that you can turn the pages of and see sitting on the shelf and feel the weight of it. It’s just not the same.

6. A full-sized oven.

There are so many things you can cook  in a toaster oven; sadly, all of them are small things. Cookies, squash, pizza–all bake fine. But roast beef? Not a chance. I’m not sure how we’re going to get anything even approximating a roast turkey cooked for Thanksgiving (besides the fact that turkey is not a Chinese bird).  Any suggestions?

7. A study for Jared

What Jared wants more than anything is a room all to himself, with books, a window, and a desk for him to write at. Perfect lighting too, of course.


What are all you cushy readers back in America wishing for?


Joining 7 Quick Takes at This Ain’t the Lyceum.

With Grunts and Groans: Attempting to Learn Chinese

My new wall hanging. If I learn Chinese well enough, I should even be able to read it!

Saying sounds on their own is not a good way to fall in love with a language. I’m surprised it ever worked for me back in kindergarten when I was learning phonics! Maybe it’s just because English sounds are more normal to me. Perhaps I’m even getting as English-centric as the fellow who declared that English was the best and most common-sense language in the world—and his proof was that he thought in it (I pray I’m not that narcissistic, though!).

Chinese sounds, however, are weirder than English sounds. All the zhs and chs and shs and rs (no, it’s NOT said like an “r” in English) are mind-bogglingly similar. And don’t even get me started on the vowel sounds—who knew that the simple letter “e” could make a sound similar to the one you make when you’re punched in the gut? I didn’t. Or that the difference between “chu” (pronounced /tʃu/) and “qu” (pronounced /tʃeu/) is a slight rounding of the vowel sound, which English speakers generally don’t even listen for?

So on the first few days of class, as the teacher went around the room having everyone pronounce all the sounds of Chinese, I have to admit they sounded funny. None of us—all Americans—were good at sounding like a Chinese speaker. In fact, we all sounded distinctly American and out-of-place. Sometimes we sounded like we’d had the wind knocked out of us. Speaking American English doesn’t prepare you well for learning the sounds of a different language, and Chinese has some definitely odd sounds.

On the plus side, though, tones are actually one of the easiest parts of learning Chinese. It’s a built in way to make you start thinking in the rhythm and intonation of the language. Of course they use them differently than English speakers do—instead of rising in intonation for a yes/no question, they rise in intonation for second-tone words. Just listen to a Chinese person speaking English and you’ll get an idea of the differences in intonation.

Language learning is like sanctification—it tears away masks put on by habits and shows you for who you really are. Then it builds you back up till you are, in some ways, a new person. It’s hard. It can’t happen immediately. And you will make mistakes—probably many times. And you will probably never become perfect.

You can’t be a perfectionist either—or you never get anywhere. Whenever Jared or I try to say anything in Chinese to a Chinese person, they laugh. Or look confused. Introducing himself to a random Chinese person in the cafeteria today, Jared tried to say, “Wo zhongye shi guoji zhuanxi” (my major is international relations). The Chinese person replied, “Oh, you study alternative medicine?” Apparently Jared had a tone wrong someplace or another.

To really excel at learning a language, you have to be willing to put aside some things that you think of as truly essential to who you are—you have to totally change the way you think and speak. You have to be willing to speak confidently, even when something as ingrown as your language is being changed. And you have to be willing to try again—and again, and again, and again. Hesitance and pride will get you nowhere. If you say something hesitantly in Chinese (as I tend to do), you will get the tone wrong (unless it’s a fourth tone and falling anyways).

They say perfect fluency is hard to achieve in any second language—the last five percent is the hardest to achieve. Ask anyone who’s lived a long life, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing about perfection. Of course, perfection is impossible, and learning a language perfectly is not. But sometimes the hard things are the ones most worth striving for.

P. S. Jared is actively working on his sanctification right now—he’s drawing characters and making pronouncements in Chinese about my family, while singing along to Mumford and Sons (I’m not sure how that really helps him with Chinese!).

On the Meaning of Stuff

Boxes line the walls of our bedroom as we pack every one of our belongings. Who knew that books that take up so little space on the shelves would take so many boxes to pack them into? Just as we think we’ve neared the end, something else appears to be shoved into a box and labeled. 

Is it any wonder tempers run short when THIS is our living area?

 There’s nothing much like packing for learning how much character you’ve built up (or failed to build up). Deciding what to bring and what to leave, what to keep and what to throw away is hard enough without worrying if your suitcase is going to be over the weight limit or if the valuable space a violin takes up is worth it. Pet peeves are also abundant–like the “Open-dangerous-knife-things” (otherwise known as safety pins). Every time he sees one, Jared groans and proclaims it loudly, whether it’s truly dangerous (like on the floor) or residing quietly in a drawer. And when Jared asked for the umpteenth time what I  was doing with a certain pile, suddenly I’d come closer to shouting at him than I ever have (I did catch myself just in time, though). When packing, I’ve decided, you say goodbye not only to your worldly goods, but also to your sense of actually being a good person. It shows up every ounce of original sin you possess!

Jared looking melancholy after realizing how much more there is to do.

These upcoming years, we will be living the minimalist lifestyle–nothing except the bare essentials of clothing is going with us. Books, kitchen items, shoes, clothes, bedding will all be stored away. I have a feeling there will be few people in the world as grateful for simple belongings as we will be when we return. Stuff really isn’t important–but when you have to do without, it feels a lot harder!

So we say goodbye–to our friends, our little basement, our belongings, and to Virginia. 

Of Rituals and Repetitions: Hey, let me show you my books!

Around here, books are precious. So precious, in fact, that every time someone who would possibly be interested in them comes over, there’s an entire ritual dedicated to showing them The Books. Jared lures the unsuspecting visitor down to the basement with the promise of showing him his books, usually taking the opportunity to hold forth on the mysteries contained behind each colorful cover. Depending on the visitor and his level of interest, this ceremony can take up to an hour and a half.

The Books

Two years ago, I was shown Jared’s books. Although I didn’t realize it then, it was a monumental occasion, for Jared’s books are his vocation. He studies. He reads. He writes. And he laments how much more there is to read to even be up on the scholarship of the day, much less the scholarship of twenty years ago.

I’ve read 81 books so far this year, and have always thought of myself as rather a bookish person, but when it comes to serious scholarship, Jared is far beyond me. His book showings are him showing his deepest thoughts–his life, in fact. But we can’t take any of them with us to China.

Tomorrow we’re packing up our books. And it’s a little bit like packing away our lives. No more book showings–at least for the next few years. No more studying of these particular books; no more looking at the faces of our familiar friends.

There will be new faces in Beijing, new books, new places. But it’s hard to leave the ones you know and love so well behind.