Cliches, part 2

I said that I would write more on the topic of my first post, so this is me trying. I don’t know that I want to, actually, but neither do I know that it’s a good idea only to write when and what one wants. To sum up my last post: a Christian traveler trying to write out their experiences, or even just synthesize them for themselves, is stuck between a cliche and a vacuum. The narrative we’re often taught and observe is nearly entirely expressed in cliches: I totally stepped out of my comfort zone to love on joyfully impoverished children, and learned more from them than they did from me, especially about gratitude and trusting God. And of course, if all that is true of oneself, than one must say so, even if it requires a postmodern acknowledgment that it’s both cliche and also true.

Still, it might not be true. It might be that a Christian could go to a foreign country, whether on a mission trip, or simply as a Christian person, and not encounter those things at all, or they might not be the most important things she encounters. In which case she might not be well equipped conceptually to make sense of what she experiences. Perhaps she finds that it is, unexpectedly, about as well aligned with his comfort zone as life at home. Perhaps that’s simply not a major experiential category for him — she may be comfortable, or uncomfortable, and that doesn’t seem especially important; only worth a rather minor mention; certainly not a major discovery. What will she say?

“It wasn’t actually as socially uncomfortable as I had hoped.”

“I didn’t have to put all that much thought or effort into trusting God; He never gave me much cause to distrust Him.”

“The children are lovely, as children so often are, but I’m shy around children — mostly we said hello to one another a lot. Nobody made me play, and begin both shy and awkward, I didn’t do so. I wouldn’t have even known how.”

“I’m not quite certain how I changed or grew. I know something more about grammar, and another alphabet, and I met some interesting people. I may or may not be a better teacher; it’s possible that by College of Ed standards I’m a worse teacher. Do those things count?”

“Not having central heating is rather inconvenient, but not a major problem. The people there think so as well. I had thought so before I went. The same is true of outhouses, long electrical outages, and lengthy water interruptions.”

“Not being able to speak the language is kind of inconvenient.”

“I was a little lonely sometimes, kind of like I am when I’m at home; it would have been nice to have had a close friend to talk about things with.”

“Living in a stranger’s house is sometimes difficult and we can hurt each other’s feelings rather easily sometimes, rather like living in in a stranger’s house in America.”

“After a few weeks I don’t have any more energy for getting out and doing extroverted sorts of things there than I have at home, so I spend a goodly amounting of time drinking tea, reading, writing, and thinking, just like I do at home.”

Those are rather lackluster observations, to be sure. It would make terribly boring church presentation. So then he’s asked: well, what have you noticed? Perhaps, then, she says that she noticed that living in a foreign country is quite a lot like living in America, and that, as in America, she noticed that his own encounters with people and other people’s reports of them were quite different, even at odds — there are all these reports of other people meeting creepy, intrusive, alcoholic sorts of people, and generally she met people rather like himself. And other people give the oddest accounts of Americans — even other people very much like herself — they talk all the time about “fakeness,” “masks,” a “Disneyland culture,” emptiness, hollowness, infatuation with pop culture, hedonism, spoiled, entitled children, and on and on. And she has encountered a bit of that, sometimes, but it hasn’t struck her as a major thing; it certainly never seemed to be the most interesting or apparent attributes of people she met or things they struggled with.

And those observations seem true to her, and interesting, because she doesn’t know what they mean, and whether they’re observations about herself or about her country or about something else altogether — but she usually doesn’t go into things like that, because they don’t fit into the narrative. She was supposed to go off and find differences, so that she could be inspired by those differences and talk about how bad and immature her own culture is; if she finds things like that, what is she to do with them, what does she say? What kind of narrative do they belong in? She wasn’t supposed to go and find that she fit in alright, considering the language barrier and her ignorance in the fine points of toasting at a supra.

To be continued… (I think)


3 thoughts on “Cliches, part 2

  1. A__ and I are reading Evidence Not Seen, by Darlene Deibler Rose, for our book club. It is a story of a missionary who was captured by the Japanese in WWII. I’ll try to remember this post as I read the book to see if I see any contrasts to stories of Christian travelers.

    I know if I ever wanted to be a Christian traveler I would want to walk in the same footsteps as the Great Christian travelers of yesterday. Like in poetry, originality must be rooted in the past (in my opinion)

  2. this is a pretty good little writing right here–I’ve just been reading David Foster Wallace’s essay on Joseph Frank’s big biography of Dostoevsky.your honesty-humility makes for a refreshing return to reality rather than looking for big experiences or plumbing the heights and depths as we seem obligated to do. I think we’re infected with hyperbole in America and evangelical circles.

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