Living in the Minority
|Finding my balance on the Great Wall of China|
A stranger to the crowd
We didn't understand
What he was all about
He walked a different pace
So out of place in Rocketown"
-Michael W. Smith, "Rocketown"
It can be very character-building to willingly put yourself in the minority.
Let me say up front that I am not in a racial minority in my country. Also, I did not really grow up in a faith minority. I was raised as a Christian in the so-called Bible Belt, and my church always had a lot of activities going on in which I could take part. My parents were at church all the time, so it was like a second home. It was easy to fill my time doing youth group things, like the annual Halloween "Amazing Maze", where my spunky youth leader and a troop of adult volunteers spent hours and hours constructing a huge crawling maze out of cardboard boxes. Their Amazing Maze truly lived up to its name.
We were encouraged to bring our friends from school to the Amazing Maze night. We middle schoolers would all crawl around in the darkened cardboard alleys, getting lost and excited and delirious. Then, we would go downstairs to the gym where we were fed healthy stuff like Dr. Pepper and Cheetos. While we ate our yummy snacks, our youth leader, Mark, passionately talked to us about Jesus's love. I still remember him telling us a story about sharing his faith in Jesus with a friend. He told his friend about heaven, and said, "I just wanna see you there."
I have been a Christian for as long as I can remember, and I really take it seriously that God calls us in the Bible to share our faith with our friends. And lately I have been thinking that that often involves us doing what Jesus did, stepping out of our comfortable places and willingly putting ourselves in the minority.
After being married for just a year and a half, my husband and I left our home in Dallas, Texas to be missionaries/university instructors in central China. One first impression of the country: I had never seen so many matching heads of hair in one room before, or had so little power to understand the signs that I passed on the street. Because the words were in characters, I couldn't even guess how to pronounce them or attempt to understand their meaning, like I could in a place like Mexico.
We once stayed in a hostel in Beijing where guests had written various messages on the wall. One message read, "Being black in China is like being a celebrity or an alien." When my fellow teacher and friend, Keiz, who is from California and has long, wavy, beach blonde hair, took a trip to a small village one weekend with a few other foreign teachers, their group attracted a following of four curious locals, who followed them all around town, walking at a safe distance on the road behind them.
I had heard that the Chinese sometimes call Westerners "big noses", but I didn't always understand just how obvious we were in a crowd. Instead, I usually just struggled not to be annoyed at the people who would boldly and blankly stare at us, offering no wave or smile to break the tension. Then, one Saturday, a group of us took a trip to the fabric market in the nearby city of Zhengzhou.
The fabric market runs the length of probably two or three football fields, and is filled with small stalls of all different kinds of fabrics. We foreign teachers would go there on weekends to pick out fabric, then take it back to our town, where we would pay the local tailor to make clothes for us.
Our group decided to split up for an hour and I walked around the fabric market by myself, which was a rarity for me in China. As usual, I felt a bit self-conscious as I would catch people staring at me, frustrated that there was nothing I could do to make them look somewhere else. Is this what celebrities feel like all the time? I just wanted to be able to shop anonymously, but wherever I went, I seemed to attract attention.
I was about to walk across one of the streets in the market when, in the crowd of black haired heads, I suddenly saw someone who looked so different from everyone else around me that I was stunned. The sight was like a visual cymbal crash.
It took me maybe a second or two to realize that the person who had caught my attention so powerfully was me. I was looking at my own reflection in a passing van, and it was the first time I realized how clear it was, just at a quick glance, that I was different.
In China, I often felt incompetent. I had to ask how to mail something, how to take a bus, how to bargain for items in a market. I couldn't read signs and I didn't know all of the nuances of the social rules that helped people get through their day. I was taller than most of the women around me, and, even though I had learned some basic Mandarin, I was shy about using it. I would practice a sentence to perfection, and then, when I finally used it out in the real world, the person I was talking to would assume, because of how hard I had worked to pronounce that sentence, that I spoke more than basic Chinese, and they would respond accordingly. Then I just felt incompetent again, and lost.
China was hard for me.
But you know what? Ever since we came back Stateside, I have noticed that my empathy for and sense of kinship with anyone who looks remotely Asian has increased. I have a context for understanding their culture. Having traveled in the opposite direction, I can guess at how disorienting it must be for a Chinese person to try to live in the United States. I am much more drawn to East Asian people after having lived as foreigner in their homeland.
Being a minority was good for me.
And when it comes to getting outside the four walls of a church, my desire to make it as an actor has taught me what it means to be in a faith minority.
I remember sitting with my dad over dinner at The Oasis in Austin. My husband Chris and I had just come back from China and were about to move to New York City, partly because of a job offer that Chris had received, and partly because I wanted to give acting a real shot. I asked Dad what he thought about the whole thing, and he was lovingly honest: "This is not the path I would have chosen for you, but we will support you."
I grew up pretty sheltered, and that was good in so many ways. It also meant that I felt like a definite minority in the world of actors trying to make it in New York. I could go into all the ways that this was true, and all the ways that I have both faced temptation and come face to face with Jesus in a new way because of my journey as an actor, but really, that would take more of a book than a blog post.
For now, I want to say that, from walking as a Christian and an actor, one big lesson I have learned is that God is ALL-encompassing. He is alive and moving just as much in a praise song on Sunday morning as he is in the heart of an actress dressed up like a 19th-century Londoner who has found a dark corner backstage so that she can pray Psalm 139 in a British dialect to both get into character and invite her Jesus into the performance she is about to give on stage.
God is madly in love with every pastor who has ever stood at a pulpit, and every church lady who has ever made a casserole. And he is madly in love with 20 nervous young actors in a Manhattan audition waiting room, trying to prove their worth by telling each other that they have worked with such-and-such director at such-and-such university, all the while daydreaming about their first big Broadway role, but also keenly aware that because they are not in the actors' union, they have to go out of the building and around the corner if they so much as want to use the bathroom.
There is so much I could say, and so much I am not yet sure how to share. But for now, I guess the most important thing I could say in this blog post is that there is a God, a good one, who willingly put himself in the ultimate minority--a minority of one--and allowed the sinner's majority to publicly humiliate him, torture him, and eventually put him to death, all for the far greater joy of proving to his friends that they are worth it.
You are worth it.