Saturday, October 20, 2012

Flying Potatoes and Stained Shirts

I find potatoes extremely difficult to prepare.  I hate to claim superiority here but I have to state the facts: Rice easy.  Potatoes hard.  Potatoes take FOREVER to cook through, and they're only good crispy yet mine always turn out soggy.

This evening I tried a new recipe in which one boils the potatoes first until fork tender, then lightly mash them on a greased cookie sheet before roasting in the oven.  After 20 minutes of boiling and being able to fork the potatoes with ease, I figure it's ready.  I was wrong.  A ready potato would have yielded to the pressure of my potato masher and result in a perfectly appetizing mound.  You know, the way it looks on Pioneer Woman's pictures.

My undercooked potato slipped out from underneath my kitchen tool and aided by the slick olive oil on the cookie sheet flew through the air, achieving that appetizing mound I intended - right on the kitchen floor.  To make matters worse, as the cookie sheet was balanced only partly on the kitchen counter, the unexpected jar to the tray catapulted most of the other potatoes hurtling towards the ground.

Could I have declared major catastrophe on dinner, given up on the sizzling pork chops in my pan, threw out the steamed veggies, and ordered out right then and there?  The thought indeed crossed my mind, but Husband came to the rescue.  Together we picked up the hot potatoes (fingers still raging red here), rinsed them out and salvaged the potatoes.  Sure, they're not pinterest pretty individual mounds of mashed potatoes like I originally expected, but one massive heap of scraped up potatoes didn't taste half bad, if I may say so myself.

The point is, with all that kitchen drama going on, I neglected to notice my shirt and shorts were stained from the greased flying potatoes.  You know how grease stains at first just look like water stains, but then an hour later you wonder why your shirt hasn't dried and BAM, you remember the greasy potatoes.  I immediately googled how to remove stains and proceeded swiftly with necessary action.  As I sat waiting for the detergent to soak through the stain, I muttered:  "Oh well, I didn't like that shirt very much anyway."  Except I did.  It's one of my favorite T-shirts, but now with this stain I either have to throw it out or live with the defect.  Unless laundrymom's tips work, my shirt will no longer be pristine.

Interesting how we are so quick to devalue something when it is broken.  Our justification serves to manage our pain.

When I feel excluded and hurt by friends, I tell myself I didn't care for them anyway.

When a project you're passionate about goes awry, you tell yourself it didn't mean that much to you to begin with.

When we have to uproot from a beloved home to another community, we tell ourselves to move on.

But life is so often the opposite of pristine.  It is filled with disappointments, unfulfilled promises, broken relationships.  Stains even the most powerful cleaning agents cannot remove.  I guess the decision we have to make is whether to throw out the shirt with an indifferent shrug, or live with its defects.

My old T-shirt is in the washer right now, cold water cycle, just as laundrymom suggested.  If the stain's still there, I'll probably throw it out or give it to good will.  Let's face it, it's just a T-shirt.  But when it comes to my friendships, my most passionate projects, my beloved community, I hope the choice is always to embrace the stains.  Yes, the miscommunication stings, the lack of interest hurts, the conflicts bring pain.  But if I throw them out, I'll never know how it ends.  I won't get to see how redemption delivers.  I'll miss the beauty healing may bring.

The stains may remain, but the rest of the outfit might create an ensemble more dazzling than we ever imagined.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Lost in Translation

I am not a professional translator, but because I am bilingual I often have opportunities to translate.  In fact, for my job I translate our school newsletter every week to ensure both our Chinese and English readers can comprehend the information.  A rule I abide by in my translating work is to make sure I translate the meaning, and not simply word for word.  The reason google translate fails so often is because the mechanics are not yet sophisticated enough to decipher the meaning behind the words - it can only rigidly substitute words with a close equivalent.

Language is more than strings of an alphabet (or strokes in a character, as the case may be in Chinese).  Language is merely a vessel for meaning.  In order to translate with integrity, one must transfer the concepts, worldview, values and history from one cultural framework to the other.  As you can imagine, this is a momentous task, and thus much of the meaning merely transfers superficially or are simply "lost in translation."  This is why in order to fully appreciate a work of literature, you must read it in its original language.    

I often encounter words in English I can't translate to Chinese and vice versa.  For example, the word "fun" is inexplicably difficult to translate.  It feels quite defeating to be stumped by such a short word!  In Chinese, one sometimes translates "有趣的“, or "好玩的“, both of which connotes childish playfulness.  And yet, in American culture you use the word fun to describe a myriad of activities for grown-ups.  "The music was really fun at the wedding!" or "What do you do for fun on the weekends?" The value American culture places on entertainment and "having fun" just does not translate into Chinese culture, where fun is reserved for children only.  I hate to break it to my foreigner friends, but sometimes what you think are fun, whimsical behaviour are viewed as ridiculous childishness precisely because of this cultural disconnect.

In recent years, the value of bilingualism (or multi-lingualism) is being praised for its many benefits.  The most important of which is the way our worldview expands as we confront the limitations of a monolingual worldview.  I can't help but marvel at the incredible diversity of ways life can be done because I am offered two windows through which to view our world.  As a Christian, it reminds me of how big our God is, and how other cultures reveal more ways to be faithful as a follower of Jesus.  

An example of a Chinese word which does not find an easy equivalent in English is the word "陪“ (pei, pronounced "pay").  Chinese people often say, "wo pei ni *insert activity*".  It means, I'll accompany you "on your walk home", or "to the movies".  It can also be used in a more longer term perspective, so a husband might vow to "pei" his wife forever.  However, the word "accompany" or "do something with" does not fully convey the Chinese value of companionship and togetherness.  Americans find accompanying as something you do along-side someone, and it is viewed as either a formal escort, like children who need chaperoning, or two individuals enjoying an activity together.  The former interpretation implies a weakness in one party that needs to be addressed by the one accompanying.  The latter implies two parties in an unspoken contractual agreement to do something together so long as the activity is beneficial to themselves.  Neither one of these definitions accurately capture the essence of "陪“, which assumes an interdependent relationship.  When a Chinese person says, "wo pei ni" or "ni pei wo" (I accompany you, or you accompany me), the implied understanding is a mutual need for each other.  This is a spirit which is easily dismissed in American culture where value is found in independence, and needing company is a sign of weakness.  

I quickly discovered this cultural difference in my encounters with American friends and husband.  I realised if I asked someone to "pei" me, it was a sign of weakness.  Why on earth would I need someone to accompany to the grocery store, something I can easily do by myself?  If I feared the dark and needed someone to "pei" me to assuage my fears, I should just get over it.  To better function in the American cultural context, I learned to become independent.  I learned to be self sufficient, and to tuck the vocabulary of "pei" away for a while.  

Yet in my life journey of interweaving cultural paths, I am rediscovering the beauty of this Chinese value.  I am a firm believer in the missiological concept that God is already at work in every culture, and I believe he placed this gem of truth inside the Chinese language to reveal a foundational element of the Gospel.  

Because the astounding mystery of the Gospel is this:  God, the Creator of all things, came to us in the Person of Jesus, the Great I Am clothed in flesh and blood.  Emmanuel, God with us.  

The Promise is not that everything will be okay in life, but that He will never leave us nor forsake us.  

Though I walk through the darkest valley, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me.  

The truth of the Gospel is God "pei" us through this battle of life.  And He asks us to "pei" each other.  No more walls of hostility, no more judgment.  No more lies of individual strength, no more isolation.  Our fears are meant to be overcome in community, not on our own.  Our needing others is a sign of strength, not weakness.  We become heroes in our life stories not because of our own resilience and might, but because of our utter reliance on each other.  

So dear American readers, the next time your Chinese friend asks you to "pei" them, say yes.  Not as a chaperone or even as a partner.  Pei them and you might discover you need them as much as they needed you.