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Category Archives: Stupid questions

Online posts are a mixed blessing: On one hand, you gain lots of “likes” and encouraging words, but on the other hand, your tired, unrefined  thoughts get published at the click of a button. This encourages more scrupulous readers to remind me to adhere to standard grammar rules, or, for the more audacious, to critique the attitude or ideas of the post.

One such reader gently objected to my use of ghetto/ratchet to describe Inglewood. The reprimand forced me to reflect on my choice of words.

Why did I choose those words over other diplomatic (but less colorful) ones such as “challenging” or “difficult”? I’ve changed the post’s term to “difficult” because, in addition to heeding the advice of my reader, I also realize I’m uncomfortable with the words ratchet and ghetto. This story might help illustrate:

One day I used the word “ratchet” in a lecture to my students. I forget why I used it, probably for effect, but most likely it was an attempt to connect the subject-matter with my students. I had a pretty good understanding of the word – ghetto, uncouth, low-classness, etc. – and needed to find a way to communicate this idea by employing one of their own words.

The word, however, did not generate its intended effect. A few of them, especially some of my brighter students, were astonished. Maybe they were even offended. I was confused by their reaction, because everyone and anyone I knew threw the word around in the hallways like it was nobody’s business, so I treated it as such. Besides, I’m trying to find ways to communicate with my students by using their lingo, so, why should they be offended? Shouldn’t they give me the benefit of the doubt?

If you’ve ever taught ESL or just been around foreigners long enough, the first thing they’ll want to learn is how to cuss. In my experience, however, every time I hear a foreigner bleating cuss words I cringe in disgust. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the accent. Perhaps it’s my snooty upbringing. Or maybe it’s because I feel that the foreigner is trying to gain entry into my culture with cheap entry tokens, as if these ugly words signify their authenticity and inclusion. It’s like a nerdlinger donning expensive jeans and La Coste polos at the club. Or like that one time at the Billy Graham Center in North Carolina, where a white girl zeroed in on our family in the parking lot and enthusiastically started speaking her heavily accented Mandarin to us. I think she was so excited to flaunt her Mandarin with these Asian people so we could marvel at her cultural competence and linguistic powers. Sorry, not impressed.

And, perhaps my using of “ratchet” and “ghetto” with my students served as a cheap ploy for me to gain entry into their circle. The use on WordPress is even worse, because it’s like I’m broadcasting my hardcoreness to my very upper-middle class circle of friends. It’s like a smug Peace corps volunteer brandishing a Peace Corps pin on a NorthFace backpack, which will inevitably draw compliments like, “WOW, you are SO HARDCORE!” oogle oogle oogle. -__-

Anyways, I realize that I’m being a little hard on myself and the hypothetical people I’ve described. After all, being in Peace Corps is somewhat hardcore, and speaking decent Mandarin is really no easy feat. Still, the nerdlinger can eat it, and the teacher trying to get “in” with his students with a few phrases he picked off the street should be rightly ridiculed.

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It’s been 2 years since writing the journal entry below, but I’m still posting it today because I still find it, sadly, relevant to my life today.

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January 17, 2012

or 16th. I don’t know….

I’m exhausted. My lesson plan sort of fell through today. Teaching can be humbling or debilitating – it’s only humbling if you are humble enough to learn from your mistakes, but debilitating if you let your failure undercut and waste you. Sometimes the difference between these two connotative words is a choice. Sometimes it’s not. In fact, it’s a constant mind war between your fear and your dreams and somewhere in the middle lies your character, your persistence.

We must always be wary, in such times, of false dreams and siren songs that tempt us from our immediate tasks. Somehow Society does not encourage us to persevere enough, but to flee, relax, spend, enjoy. These visions of vanity distract us from our true happiness, and, for the man, that is honest, pure work. Do not flee. Move towards your dreams.

This is inappropriate but I don’t care:

“procrastination is a lot like masturbation. In the end, you realize you’re only screwing yourself”.

Yep…a teacher working on a lesson plan on a Sunday night? Never…

Other random thoughts I’m having at the moment:

1) I found this dated gem on the internetz which has inspired me to write more. Writing more, however, will inevitably lead to the demise of the quality of the writing (ha! did I just assume that my writing is quality?). From now on, my own blog will no longer adhere to proper standards for writing. I’m just going to conveniently toss aside concerns for grammar, flow, logic, or any other writing convention that might actually make this blog decent and presentable. In fact, this blog will have no standards. I’m just hoping that it will grow into a much prettier version of my juvenile Xanga posts of old.

2) in college I used to think that true friendships developed over open-heart confessions. Often times I desired (subconsciously or consciously) those cathartic moments where I could listen to a brave individual break down in tears during sharing time, or I thirsted for those ‘heart-to-heart’ late night talks, or just simple confession of shameful sins. Good, honest discussion should always be the aim of every relationship, but now I realize that a relationship fundamentally built upon heavy doses of confession eventually fizzle out. I wondered why, because isn’t heart-to-heart confession what we are looking for?

Yes and no. The truth is, like all things, we need balance. If I cannot rofl or lol a deep, hearty laugh with you then no matter how many dark sins we’ve shared with each other our friendship will never grow. I’ve seen many bonds form around commiseration (aka Peace Corps), but after a while those friendships dissipate as well. I’m thinking about this in particular because certain organizations (read: churches) are always trying to chip away at our fake facades by means of confrontation rather than by creating a warm, inviting environment.

However, on the other hand, other churches fall into superficiality when they focus too much on creating a jocund atmosphere. (Game night anyone? -____- ) Like my pastor commented about certain churches before: “The regular Sunday routine is this – you go to church, listen to a sermon, go to Sunday school, then go to a nice church lunch afterwards and that’s your Sunday”. Yep. He’s spot on. It’s hard to break the ice of superficialness when you’ve got a meaningless but comfortable routine to begin with. I find that this problem pervades most churches rather than the one mentioned above.

3) I seriously thought about dropping out of teaching this past week. I saw the mound of papers on my desk and no matter where I hid them ( in the trunk of my car, in the safe confines of my backpack, at the very edge of my desk just where my peripheral vision can’t reach), these papers, like a haunting Chinese ancestor, crept up on me and harrowed my conscience.

But I’m going back to work tomorrow. And I’m glad. Why?

I’m affecting livesI’m so happy!

Well because I can’t wait to see the bright happy faces that greet me every morning! Because I love affecting lives! Because I love students! Because teaching is the one profession where I can make a true difference!

no, no, no.

Just as how an animal lover should never become a veterinarian, a person who “loves” kids should never become a teacher. Teachers have to work hard. On top of the mounds of paper work, you have to essentially tell your students to “Shut up and get to work” in the most delicate way possible so as to not find yourself without a job the next day. You have to manage students who are prone to lie and cheat and find every possible excuse to not do the work that you’ve assigned them weeks before. You have to discipline your students (all 150) to the point where they will curse and hate you because they feel you are killing them with all these demands.

In other words, you really, really, really have to love them. And if I’m honest with myself, I am NOT loving my students as much as I should.

But I digress. I am a teacher because, morally speaking, it’s the cleanest profession I can think of. I don’t have to make any moral compromises with this profession. I never have to push a product, or help a solely, profit-driven company that tries to profit off of our idiocy and human greed. The goals of a teacher are inextricably tied with the success and development of students. Even if you are gunning to be the teacher of the year, dreaming of being the next Erin Grunwell, or doing it for fame, there is no way to be successful at teaching without caring for the well being of a student. I’m happy to be a teacher because I don’t have to sell my soul. So many of my friends who have entered the corporate world may be advancing their skills and careers, but I wonder if they ever wonder about whether they are actually adding any value to this world.

I surrender all. I surrender all. All to Jesus…I surrender… I surrender all.

 “I fucking hate that aspect of Christianity. The idea that you have to give up everything – your power, your agency – to some magical God that will magically fix your fucking mundane problems.”

Bob always loved punctuating his lines with profanity. He was letting off some residual anger he felt during the school assembly where one teacher did an interpretive dance to an evangelical song. I chuckled genuinely, but felt no harm in hearing his diatribe.

“So accepting Jesus means to whine and bitch to a God like a child rather than face reality and work through problems…Christianity strips people of their power and forces them to crawl under the blanket of religion.”

I surrender all. I surrender all. All to Jesus, I surrender….I. surrender. all.

I’m recalling my friend’s words now during Sunday Communion, and ironically enough the music leaders are singing, “I Surrender All”, against the irritating background hum of the Casio synthesizer piano. I’m sitting on a stackable, trapezoidal banquet chair, the kind that is designed to withstand the abuse and weight of elephants rather than cushion the human body, and shivering from the blast of the icy AC. While people patiently line up to receive their stale wafers and grape juice – the body and blood of Christ – I sit, shivering my ass off and listening to the dutiful servers mechanically punctuate the background noise of “I Surrender All” with, “Grace and peace to you in the Lord Jesus Christ” each time a wafer is taken. With my head buried in my hands, my thoughts vacillate between contemplative reflection of the lyrics and my conversation with Bob.

Bob’s right. Why should we surrender all to Jesus? Isn’t this just another form of escapism? Do I fall back on my religion when the responsibility of living becomes too begrudging? Do I surrender everything to an ideal – the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-everything God – because I cannot bear my own weight in this world? Does God become the exit strategy, the plan B, in case our dreams to conquer, to succeed, to live, suddenly transform into a horrible bureaucratic nightmare like the Afghanistan war? Am I shirking my responsibility?

Yes, yes, yes. If any of the above is true, then God, even if he is real, would not be glorified by this kind of fatalistic, resigned attitude, for I am manipulating him to inject some hormonal significance into my sorry, underfed being. And yet, Bonhoeffer’s stark but comforting words still whisper in my ear as encouragement:

“It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a man’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself.”

So…yes, surrender is stupid, but it’s an absolute requirement to follow Christ. Because it takes the ultimate humility from humanity to recognize that our free will cannot will itself into salvation. Without Christ, I can live a clean, moral life, but I cannot live as a free man. For only in full surrender to another’s Will am I truly free from making decisions for myself.

“When a man really gives up trying to make something of himself – a saint, or a converted sinner, or a church man ( a so-called clerical somebody), a righteous or unrighteous man,…when in the fullness of tasks, questions, success or ill-hap, experiences and perplexities, a man throws himself into the arms of God…then he wakes with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia and it is thus that he becomes a man and a Christian. How can a man wax arrogant if in a this-sided life he shares the suffering of God?”

– good ol’ Bonnie hoeffer.

I feel like Bonnie is calling for self-annihilation. To relinquish the pursuit of self, self-fulfillment, or concern for identity in exchange for hanging on a crucifix, or laying in a tomb with Jesus does not only sound morbid but also a little off putting. However, deep down I suppose we all desire that ultimate self-immolation, for I think spiritually we sense the need for dying to self  to bring freedom.

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It has been a miserable 2 years since my return from the Peace Corps. Since coming back from Turkmenistan, I’ve clumsily groped my way through the blinding speed and blurriness of American life. Out of desperation, I’ve loaned my poor soul to a giant corporate technology company for one long year, and retreated back to the familiar halls of education, where I now try to “mold minds” as English teacher at a local high school.

During my first year back, my mind often involuntarily drifted back to nostalgic visions of my former life as a PC volunteer. Many a day were spent on long, static sitting sessions where I gazed blankly into space, my mind performing séances with my emaciated memories of Turkmenistan.

Now, even two years later, I reminisce about those days of old. Some days, usually when I’m trying to avoid doing work, I’d let my nostalgia and curiosity lead me to search for Christian mission opportunities in Turkey as a way of exploring options to return to that region of the world. I’d often comb the internet with search terms such as, “Turkey Christian mission”, or “Central Asia Christian mission blog”, and hope to find missionaries’ blogs about their experiences in Turkey that would galvanize me to heed a calling.

Most searches for these terms, however, returned with alarming articles about how 3 Christian missionaries were tortured with rope and bread knives for 3 hours then finally murdered by slitting their throats. This did not encourage my nascent desires to go on a missions trip.

My spirits deflated, I descried another curious article title that promised to be just as cheerful and optimistic as the last one: “Failed Missionary”. I clicked, and the web opened a portal to a kindred spirit in the author, Rhonda Van Sluis.

Rhonda Van Sluis was just another Christian woman with a passion for the Lord, who, so convinced by the saving grace of the Gospel, embarked on a journey to a country half a world away to save the lost. She, too, like me, had ideals to live by, and followed a religious logic that demanded urgent action.

Sluis’ story, however, went off script. When she arrived, she did not enter a terrible, backwards country full of repressive customs and barbarism as she had imagined. Instead, she found a welcoming, generous, but Muslim host family that served her meals and tea, guided her through the customs of her community, and, doted and fussed about their new tenant as if she was their own daughter. In short, they loved her. And, for Sluis, as well as other hardcore believing Christians like myself, this was a huge problem.

She originally thought that the gospel would save her host family from sin, but instead found that these “lost” people possessed the same spiritual and moral values as her own:

All of the good Christian values that I had been led to believe were the result of Jesus’ transformative power were alive and well in the lives of this typical Turkish family. They weren’t acting like they were “lost.”

The disarming love of her Muslim host family caused her to question her own certainty in her own Christian dogma, causing the rocky soil of her heart to soften and accept the seeds of doubt.

Long story short, Sluis disappointedly finds out that her zeal for the Lord and the “lost” turned out to be a quick, but fleeting spark. The article, though full of hope, read more like an unresolved Lament Psalm gone awry, where the author failed to proclaim her unfailing trust in the Lord on cue in the last verses . Instead, she proudly proclaims her own transformation from a insistent fundamentalist to an open citizen of the world:

“I believed in the power of personal example and the ability of God’s spirit to change people for the better. I never expected that the most powerful personal examples would be those lived in front of me by Muslim friends. I never could have guessed that the person who would be changed for the better would be me.” 

While reading Sluis’s article, I felt my own memories surface, my emotions resonating with Sluis’ own spiritual struggle. Like the author, I, too, had a Virgilian host mother who demonstrated love, compassion, and patience better than anyone I had ever met in the church. I couldn’t help but chuckle out loud when I read her account of how her host mother dragged her to “bes cay” (5’oclock tea) time against her own personal desire for solitude. My host mother did the EXACT same thing with me. When I tried to hide and cloister myself from the strange world like a hermit, my host mother coaxed me out of my dark hole with hot tea, stale cookies, and cheap, sugary candy.

Two years later, I still think about the ultimate fate of my host mother and the other wonderful people I’ve met during my Peace Corps service. I’d like to think that I will see their bright faces in heaven (assuming that I’ve got membership to that club too), but according to what I’m supposed to believe, well…I just don’t know. I think I will tire myself to death by running around in these circles.

In one passage in the article, Sluis recounts a time where she is having a heart-to-heart conversation with her friend Nazmiye. At one moment, her Muslim friend wryly observes that “Christians believe that all Muslims are going to hell and Muslims believe all Christians are going to hell”, upon which the author recognizes that “neither are willing to consign each other to eternal damnation”. I am still sitting there on that carpeted floor, having that same heart-to-heart conversation with the world, irresolute and hesitant to condemn the world that sits across from me, sipping tea and eating stale biscuits.