The smudges of a man’s face and right ear were smeared on the glass doors of the subway, like the fading memories of the Beijing I arrived at 12-13 years ago. This city just keeps changing. I remember the dustiness of it all, the long bus rides, the endless amounts of scooters and motor bikes… now there are shimmering towers that line the sky, olympic monuments that leave me speechless, an intricate and growing subway system… this isn’t the same Beijing. Even just a month ago when I first entered into Beijing, it was different. Along the path of my morning walk, there are new statues, a new life-sized chess set made of marble, and a strange red apple that turns into a pair of lips with a cherry sticking out of it.
But one thing remains the same. Seas of people that look like me… but with a resemblance that continually seems to be ephemeral and fading. The resemblance fades the most when I open my mouth and sounds stumble out clumsily… I can barely even order a meal. What does one do when he or she is not seen as American in America, and is not Chinese when heard in China? This dissolution of identity is a familiar struggle for me that I have wrestled with all my life… and I know that this disintegration of identity must continuously be surrendered to Him who gives me true identity. But I often find myself sighing on account that I will never fit in perfectly anywhere but in heaven. I was not made for this world, but He has called me to it anyways. Perhaps so that I could be one who reminds people that our home is not this fading reality… Our hearts are built for eternity. These realities point to the true reality of the kingdom, but they are not the kingdom.
But at the same time, the language has begun to return. The taxi driver was yelling at me angrily that I was lying about my nationality as an American today. We then proceeded to have a conversation about the different accents around China and how different they each sound. We talked about how there are no unintelligent people, just people with different types of intelligence. It was a surreal I could understand it all.
Last week, I listened to a painter in Chongqing explain his art to me. I was a little anxious when it became evident that I had asked a question which would begin a much longer and complicated conversation than I felt ready to understand. There was one piece of art that was different from the others. It was not a picture of any real scene or model, like his other paintings of scenery and people. It was the ancient Chinese symbol for money and it was sinking towards the bottom of the ocean, in the midst of a Roman temple. According to him, it was a symbol of money and riches and its futility… how it will fall to ruin and forgottenness at the bottom of the ocean in the end. Then he started launching fully into an explanation of “houxiandai” (postmodernity) and Jean Paul Sartre… I’m not sure I understood it all, but I could understand one thing: He was thirsty for the kingdom. The language and thirst for the kingdom… I can understand that.
But yesterday I walked into a McDonalds out of a desire for something familiar in this ever changing city that is so unlike what I am surrounded by every day. I felt like I had reached an oasis after not being in American culture so long. I missed my Big Mac, with processed meat, secret sauce and lettuce in that glorious tower of hamburger that represented the pinnacle of American food… so I pointed at the picture proudly and thought I said very clearly in Chinese that I would like a Big Mac meal.
Instead of a Big mac, out came two strawberry sundaes.
Perhaps the familiar has become a language I no longer understand anymore. Perhaps in the midst of this ever changing city, it becomes evident that although I can never be fully fluent in any culture, there is one culture in me that I can always rely on and trust.
The kingdom. That is my language, that is my culture, and its calling burns brightly within me.