When We Make (Awkward) Small Talk

I used to talk to strangers a lot more than I do now. Of course that was when I lived in China, was single, and took every opportunity imaginable to practice my Chinese. Conversing with my neighbor was a win-win. I got language practice and my neighbors could satisfy their curiosity and ask me ALL the questions:

“How much money do you make?”

“Are you married?”

“Do you want me to find you a Chinese boyfriend?”

And because of that, I got to ask them everything I wanted to know as well.

One day in China I was waiting for the bus at rush hour. There were no lines, no “But I was here first’s” and no personal space. This was every man and woman for themselves. So I decided to sit on the bench with my packages and just wait for the sea to subside. I watched with amusement as elbows and knees were thrown. The mob moved as one to try and ooze into the small opening of the bus.

But as I watched, I began to notice something.


One man in particular ran up to the crowd, pressing in against them, then retreated right before the bus drove away. I watched as this happened at least five times. Eventually, I noticed something else. As this man pressed in, I saw his hands search pockets and purses. This man was a thief.

I continued to sit and watch. Eventually, the man noticed the waiguoren (outside person/foreigner) sitting on the bench, lap piled high with packages, watching him. I finally got up my nerve.

“So how much money do you make in a day?” I asked.

Without missing a beat, he answered, “About 1000 yuan a day.” This was easily a month’s wages for a lower middle class Chinese person in my city.

Another bus approached. He glanced past me, “Excuse me,” he said. “I need to work.” I watched him run up against the crowd again, then retreat at the last moment. We chatted between each of his “work trips” and I asked about his home, his family and if he felt bad about what he was doing. “Mei ban fa,” he said. No other way.

When the crowds began to subside, I kept a hand on my bag and bid my new acquaintance goodbye. “Man zou,” Go slowly, he said. “Man zou,” I replied.


Since moving back to the states seven years ago, I have gotten rusty in my social skills. I no longer talk to strangers, am awkward when the grocery store cashier asks me how my day is going, and prefer texting to talking on the phone. But since moving to a new home two months ago, I am hoping for a fresh start. I want to do the things I once did in China to get to know my neighbors. Surely those methods translate to my home culture?

So two nights ago when I ran out to buy beer (yes), I hesitated when two men stood smoking in front of the entrance to the liquor store. But my old brave self took over, pushing aside my minivan-driving, latte-drinking mom self. Just do it. Go in, she said.

The men parted quickly as I approached them, the one in the hood scurried around the corner, the skinny one entered the store, apologizing. “Can I help you find anything?” he said.

“Do you have any seasonal beers?” I asked. He pointed out a few.

Bottles lined the entire back wall behind the cashier, from floor to ceiling. I was the only one in the store. “So it sounded like that guy was speaking another language,” I mentioned.

“Yeah, I think it was Hebrew,” he said. “He comes around here a lot, but he usually comes back drunk within an hour.”

“So what do you do in a case like that?” I asked. “When someone comes in drunk, do you serve them?”

We chatted a bit more and I left, my pony tail swinging as I put my Blue Moon in the passenger seat. I felt like my old self again. The self who was curious, asked questions and was interested in people. (Okay, perhaps I’m mainly interested in those who are different from me, but still.) It felt good to be inquisitive again.


I recently listened to a TED talk about a community on an Italian island where there are ten times the amount of centenarians than in North America. Research shows that their longevity is not due to their diet, exercise or even positive thinking. The main reason for their extended life expectancy seems to be that they live in a tight-knit community where they have daily social interactions. They make eye contact, greet one another and exchange small talk.

Though suburban living has the potential to isolate me from my neighbor, I can still seek out community. I want to greet my neighbors, make eye contact, and ask probing questions. I want to use the tools for language learning I developed in China to get to know my neighbors right here in America. What’s the main ingredient in noticing my neighbor?


If we are not intentional about getting to know our neighbors, it will not happen.

So how am I going to do this? I’m taking my children trick-or-treating for Halloween. We’re going on walks around the block and stopping to chat with neighbors along the way. I’m forcing myself to talk to random teenagers or moms at the park. And I’m asking cashiers how their day is going before they have a chance to ask me.

I’m embracing my awkward for the sake of community because Jesus tells me to love my neighbor. And sometimes loving is awkward, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t say loving our neighbor is comfortable or convenient. In fact, the story right after he commands this unreasonable love for our neighbor is about two men who side-stepped someone in need and another man who stopped to help even though it required time, money and effort he may not have wanted to give.

I’m praying for a holy curiosity in all the people around me.

I want to start loving with my ears. Every encounter with every person in my day is pre-ordained by God and full of potential. I don’t want to assume I know people’s stories, because even the most ordinary-seeming person can astound us.

A Letter to the One Returning Home {for Velvet Ashes}

Seven years ago, with all my earthly belongings bundled into two 50 pound suitcases, I flagged my last taxi to the airport. I dozed on the 13 hour flight arcing over the North Pole to return back to the U.S. after living in China for five years. I was returning home.

If you are preparing to leave or floundering to find your footing back home, then this letter is for you.

To the One Returning Home,

Like a transplanted lilac bush, you are being uprooted. Roots severed, your heart, mind and body are undergoing the silent trauma of displacement. You feel lost, alone and out of sorts. You are a misfit in a place where you should belong. Home is now a wild and unfamiliar landscape.

Like a woman’s body after giving birth, you are forever altered. Even when back to your original weight, your body mass has shifted with the weight of new life, your skin stretched to capacity and back. And yet perhaps only you will notice the difference. Some will never know the life you birthed abroad and how it transformed you. People will want you to wear the same clothes, but they no longer fit.

You carry hidden scars and surprising superpowers. You suffered in large and small ways. But you also celebrated. The first time you were able to tell the shopkeeper exactly what color fabric you wanted to buy, the first time you went across town in a taxi alone or the time you finally detected a spark of something you doubted would ever happen cross-culturally—true friendship. You developed competency in a foreign culture. By the end of year three, you dared say it. You were thriving.

But now your gifts are useless. You no longer need to barter for every item you buy. You don’t need to know where to get your umbrella spokes repaired, your socks darned or how to cook without cheese or butter. Your language skills and cultural expertise are wasted. You cry the first time someone asks you, “So are you using the language you learned?” Because you fear you never will again.

You feel guilty. You believed living abroad was the pinnacle of faith for a person completely “sold out and radical” for Jesus. Even on the hard days, knowing your sacrifice brought a smile to God’s face spurred you on. But now you can’t wave The High Calling Banner everywhere you go. You are just ordinary you.

And you have unspoken questions. Will God love you as much? Will the people who know you admire you? Will you keep loving yourself when you are “just” a teacher, mother, accountant, engineer or computer programmer?

Will your faith survive being transplanted from foreign soil to familiar land?

Garden experts advise you not to prune a lilac bush that is being transplanted. But a person going through re-entry experiences the pain of simultaneously being pruned and replanted. You will survive, but your growth may be stunted for a time. In fact, the garden manuals warn it may take up to five years for a lilac bush to bloom again. This rate of new growth will frustrate you.

But you need to grieve. You may cry every day at first. This is normal. You have mourning to do. You’ve left behind stand-in mothers, fathers, grannies, grandpas, aunties, uncles, sisters and brothers. They adopted you and were the fulfillment of God’s promise to you to “put the lonely in families.”

Perhaps you are leaving spiritual children behind. You bumbled and fumbled with language, but trusted God would speak. And He did. You saw lives transformed by God working in spite of you. A transplanted lilac bush inevitably leaves some roots behind. You will need to mourn the parts of you that will stay in your foreign country. Not every piece of you will return …

Continue reading at Velvet Ashes.

Day 16: White in China + 14 Stereotypes Chinese Have about Americans {31 Days of #WOKE}

White in China + 14 Stereotypes Chinese Have about Americans

How to Become Famous in China

If you are white and live in China, you’ve probably heard of the Canadian known as “Da Shan” (Big Mountain). If you have never been to China, I’m guessing you have no idea who I am talking about.

When I lived in China, everyone assumed I knew about Da Shan. Da Shan first appeared on Chinese television in 1988 and quickly became a household name–in China, that is.  Known for his fluent Chinese, he hosted T.V. programs, performed comedy, acted in films and was sometimes a cultural informant between east and west.

If you were white and knew Chinese in the 80’s, you were an anomaly. It might even help you rise to fame.

Da Shan
Da Shan

But when I lived in China from 2005 to 2010, English was the currency of supremacy in northwest China. If you spoke English and were a “foreigner” you could get a job almost anywhere. And if you were an English-speaking foreigner with white skin, you were a rock star.

It was hard not to enjoy it. (You can read about God squelching my pride in regards to that here and here.)

Of course, being a communist country, there was suspicion. We could be spies. This was the main fear. But as long as we kept everything above board, we could live the “harmonious life” the billboards advertised. The organization I went with was up front about the fact that they only sent Christian English teachers. And we were told the government appreciated that Christians tended to adhere to higher moral standards than non-Christians.

Wrong or Different?

Unlike living in Uganda, when I lived in China I was also a graduate student formally studying culture. Because of this, I felt like I finally had a decoder to aid in deciphering the culture of the people around me. I knew better what to expect. I had a framework for our different perceptions of time, relationships and tasks. Instead of assuming “the Chinese” were doing it all wrong, I assumed they were doing it all different. I still got frustrated with last minute cancellation of class due to school-wide tree planting, but I eventually chocked inconveniences up to “cultural differences.” Sometimes I figured out ways to beat the system.

For example, when I was a language student during my fourth and fifth years in China, I invited my classmates who were from all different countries to my apartment on Friday nights to play games and practice our Chinese. After the first few weeks I altered the time I told each classmate depending on which country they were from. The goal was to begin at 6 pm, so I would tell the Chinese students to come at 6, the Americans to come at 5:45, the Pakistanis to come at 5 pm, and the Nigerians to come at 4:30. In the end, everyone arrived precisely at 6 pm.

White in China + 14 Stereotypes Chinese Had about Americans
Chinese Corner: My classmates from Japan, Kyrgystan and Pakistan

Stereotypes Chinese Had about Americans

My Chinese friends had many stereotypes about Americans that were sometimes offensive, but eventually just comical. I asked some Facebook friends to weigh-in on this question to jog my memory.

Apparently, white Americans all:

1.      Use facial whitener.

2.      Are “open.” (tolerant, free-thinking, independent—this wasn’t necessarily a good thing)

3.      Carry guns.

4.      Are rich.

5.      Have a lot of kids (so more than the one).

6.      Live in a 3+ bedroom home with a well-manicured yard and dog.

7.      Aren’t very studious because our schools are easier.

8.      Like the T.V. show “Friends” and act like those characters do (A.K.A. sleep around).

9.      Look like movie stars.

10.   And yet we’re all fat.

11.   Maybe because we all eat:

McDonald’s, KFC, cheese, drink milk, eat a lot of meat and have desserts all the time?

12.   And as a result, our homes smell like spoiled milk.

And from my friends of other races:

13.   “Black Americans are not American, but African.”

14.   “Chinese-Americans aren’t real Americans.”

I’ll refrain from posting the lengthy list Americans have developed of stereotypes about Chinese (for now, at least).

White in China + 14 Stereotypes Chinese Have about Americans

Changing Cultures, Changing Perceptions

The longer you live overseas as an expat, the more your “whiteness” morphs into a new culture. Sometimes, you even start to dislike your home culture, forming your own stereotypes. “Americans are so materialistic, consumerist, self-centered, individualistic and ethnocentric.” You tiptoe across the “third culture” line where you belong everywhere and nowhere.   

When you are a white person traveling to a non-white country, you usually climb the social ladder. But if you are a person from a non-white country migrating to America or another majority-white country, you can usually expect to slide down several notches in social status.

Everyone has heard stories of non-English-speaking physicians, lawyers or professors with phDs moving to the United States and only being able to get a job at MacDonald’s. Some are able to learn English and resume their work in the U.S., but even these immigrants experience discrimination. (i.e. here’s a quiz for you: If you had to choose a new doctor just by looking at the last name, how would you choose?)

Megan Lietz in her article titled Whiteness and White Identity, offered three dimensions of whiteness. They included the “power to define social norms,” assuming because the majority does things a certain way that this is the best way to do them. The second is that whites in the U.S. have a structural advantage over non-whites in terms of politics and economy because of sheer numbers. And the third, called “white transparency,” means that whites often don’t even need to think about race. 

“White transparency” in the U.S.—being ignorant of our race–becomes “white opaqueness” in China and many other non-European countries. You can’t escape the fact that you are being put on a pedestal for no other reason other than you are white. While it may be possible to ignore race as a white person living in the United States, if you travel to a country where the people are not of European origin, it gets much harder to ignore.


If you have traveled to a non-western country, what was your experience of “whiteness”? Were you treated differently because you were white?

If you are not white, what was your experience living abroad?

Check back tomorrow–a friend of mine will be sharing her story as a person of color in the U.S.!

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Day 4: Rich, Loud and Carries a Backpack {31 Days of #WOKE}

Rich, Loud and Carries a Backpack--the danger of stereotypes

All Americans are loud, carry backpacks, wear sneakers, eat dessert and junk food, are overweight, speak only one language, are promiscuous, kick our kids out at age 18 and are rich. These are a few of the stereotypes about Americans I’ve heard in my travels, but especially from my Chinese friends during the five years I lived in northwest China.

“We know you love sweets,” my Chinese students said as I passed out brownies after dinner one Sunday evening. Three shy freshman students had come over to “teach” me how to cook Chinese food (a.k.a. they argued about how to do it the way their mothers had done it while I frantically scribbled notes on index cards). In an attempt to find something authentically American to serve to them, brownies was all I could come up with.

“Yes, many Americans like sweets,” I said. But then I blew them away.

“But I never ate dessert in my home.” They traded glances, questioning my sincerity since I had already rattled their worlds as I told them earlier that I loved spicy Chinese food and rarely ate burgers back in the states.

After five years in China, silence would still descend upon the room as I sat down to dinner with a new group of students in a restaurant. “You can use chopsticks?!” they would gasp, in awe of my skill. Snapping up a piece of eggplant from the dish, I’d suppress my sarcastic reply.

We stereotype others because it makes us feel like we are in control. It gives us a framework to solve the mystery of the “other.”

Don’t think you have stereotypes? Slowly read through this list and see what words your brain inserts:

Men are …

Women are …

Three year olds are …

Introverts like …

Extroverts like …

Evangelical Christians are …

Muslims are …

African Americans are …

Chinese are …

Mexicans are …

Indians are …

If you found yourself quickly responding with a word or phrase, you have made a stereotype.

Some stereotypes are helpful for decoding culture, but most insult the humanity of the unique individual. There is a striking scene in the T.V. show The Man in the High Castle where a Japanese family invites a white American man over under the guise of friendship. The couple rattles off questions about music and sports that whites “usually like,” but are increasingly disappointed when the man doesn’t fit their stereotypes. The white man senses he let down his new friends, but isn’t sure why.

It’s a scene I experienced many times in China and Uganda when friends would assume they understood me, only to find I didn’t fit their mold. I sensed their disappointment when I couldn’t educate them on pop culture or fashion in America. Some Americans might have cared, but I didn’t.

During my senior year of college I lived with an African family in a village outside of Kampala, Uganda. It was considered a middle class home, yet we didn’t have running water. The house servants washed dishes in the morning on a wooden table in the front yard as chickens squawked in the distance. Feeling useless, I offered to rise at dawn and help wash dishes. My host mother looked skeptical. “But we will just have to rewash them,” she said. “I know you have machines that do that in your country.”

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave the infamous TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, she said: “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar …

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I believe relationship is the key to deconstructing stereotypes. It is in relationship that we can finally see that we are more similar than we thought. At our core, we all desire love, purpose and security.

Unfortunately you may not have the opportunity to live with an African family, teach in the inner city or have a Muslim live in your home. And even experiencing other cultures in that way does not ensure you do not have stereotypes. So what can you do?

Read, listen and learn. Seek out new and possibly uncomfortable friendships. Pray for fresh eyes, open ears and humble hearts. Peel away the stereotypes you have formed and allow each person to stand on their own as the unique individuals they were created to be. But I would also encourage you to tell your own story. You never know when you might smash someone else’s stereotype of “people like you.”


What stereotypes do you have about the “other”?

How do these diminish the humanity of your neighbor?

Have you ever been hurt by being stereotyped?

If you haven’t, I would highly recommend watching “The Danger of a Single Story”:

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.


Rich, Loud and Carries a Backpack