Your love is the place where I belong

Thursday, 24 April, 2008

Lately I've been thinking about belonging and our desire to belong. I know that it's because instinctively we want to be comfortable; if you feel like you belong, you feel at ease—at home—accepted—even loved. If you don't, you feel the opposite: uneasy, alienated, ostracised, ignored. Michelle U was talking about this yesterday in the session she led: she shared with us her experiences of finishing college and going with her husband to their first parish where he serves as the assistant minister. She talked about how, for her, it was a huge shock: all her life, she felt like she belonged because she grew up in a Christian household, attended a Christian school, went to a close-knit church, engaged in ministry like leading camps, then went to college where she studied with like-minded people who were as keen about doing ministry as she was. All of a sudden, in this new parish, she found herself somewhere where she did not belong. She was not like these people in any way, and really struggled to relate to them. For example, she didn't know what to talk about with the women. Her natural inclination was to talk about the bargain purchase she made the other day while shopping, whereas these women were so rich, they didn't need to go bargain shopping. She wanted to talk about the new recipe she tried the other day, but these women all had cooks. She wanted to talk about the dramas of child-rearing, but these women all had nannies. Discovering all this was quite a culture shock for her because, for the first time, she was in the minority.

In contrast to Michelle, I'm used to not belonging. I've not belonged for most of my life. In Canada, I was probably too young to notice difference and being a western Asian there seems to be less of a big deal (or so it appears to me; Jose can correct me if she wants!) However, the sense of alienation I felt when I came to this country has stayed with me throughout my entire life. I was from an Asian background living in a predominantly Anglo Saxon society (this was in the mid-80s when there weren't a lot of Asians around). I still remember crossing the street one day when this boy came rolling along on his skateboard; he saw me and immediately he began to kowtow in a parody of a chinaman. Most people would ask me whether or not I spoke English when English was the only language I knew how to speak. And this meant that I didn't fit into Chinese culture either. I had the trappings of Asian-ness but not the upbringing. My father would take us back to Hong Kong and the natives would laugh at me pathetic attempts at Cantonese. I not only had to adjust to the Australian cultural norms (e.g. cutting down the tall poppies, people teasing you because they like you), I also had to be mindful of the Chinese cultural norms (e.g. greeting your elders whenever you entered a room; calling people who are not your relatives “uncle” and “aunty”). Oh, and deal with the differences in food and traditions. And to make matters worse, my Canadian-ness (or what I like to think is my Canadian-ness) marked me as different again.

I never fitted in in primary school. I had one or two friends but I felt the difference between myself and my other classmates and that wasn't only the Chinese thing (there was only one other Chinese kid in the school for quite a number of years). It was also because I was smart and got good grades, and the rest of my year group ostracised me for it.

In high school, I did feel like I belonged a bit more because I went to school with girls who were a lot like me: highly intelligent, often bookish, usually socially inept in their nerdishness. (All right, I hope the other STGGHS alumni who are reading this aren't offended by that!) It also helped that my high school had a significant Asian population and strong ethnic mix. I stood out a little for getting good grades but I wasn't ostracised or alienated for it because academic achievement went with the culture of the school. It was an interesting environment as well because the “popular” group didn't hold quite the social sway that they would have in other schools. I was only vaguely aware of who they were and I certainly had no desire to be part of their clique.

That said, I did feel a bit different in high school because of my family background. I did have an inkling that it wasn't normal for most of my friends didn't have parents who were divorced. I don't think I realised the full extent of the difference between my friends' home life and mine back then, and it certainly didn't matter to them (I don't think they really knew what was going on in my home life back then; certainly the mother of one of my closest friends in primary school and high school was flabbergasted when she found out years later because she had no idea that was going on), but I think I still felt there was a difference there. For example, my parents didn't drive me around as much as their parents did (because they often weren't around), and my parents seemed to be more permissive than their parents were (because I don't think they really understood the nature of some of the things I got up to and they raised me to be independent. For example, when I was 16, I caught the train to Wollongong by myself and stayed overnight down there because this ex-STGGHS student invited me: she was doing the degree that I wanted to do, and she invited me to the Big Read so I could see what it was like).

The feelings of alienation increased when I went to Uni and discovered just how sheltered my life at high school had been. I moved into residential college which was a huge shock to the system because it was so much like an American high school: there were cliques, there were popular people and unpopular people, there were jocks and nerds, and the dominant culture was about getting drunk and having sex (and I wasn't interested in any of it). There was a diverse group of people because of the international students who lived there, but they were natives of their home country, not Australian-raised like me. I hung out with them (I would hang out with all sorts of people) but not feel like I belonged.

It was around this time that I started taking Christianity more seriously. And I did feel like I belonged among Christians for, after all, Christians form a spiritual family with God as our Father. But there was still difference: I could feel it around the edges. Many of the Christians I associated with had Christian parents and had been raised as Christians—had been brought up in a culture of Sunday school attendance, church-going, beach missioning, house parties, conferences, Christian in-jokes, and so on. I felt the difference most acutely when I did something which was a little abnormal in their worlds—odd, perhaps erratic behaviour which they then politely ignored—and when I tripped on something I didn't understand but which everyone else all seemed to understand. I belonged and yet I never felt at home.

In the workforce, I've often stood out as well—either for being fast and efficient, for being young (for some reason, most of my jobs have been among people who are older than me), for being knowledgeable (e.g. in website stuff), etc. And at college we were different because we weren't on the same ministry path as the rest of the people in our year and we didn't fit the primary demographic (i.e. married with children).

I'm used to not belonging. And it's interesting that the people I feel the most comfortable with now are my school friends, and people like Elsie, George, Guan and Bec—people who are used to grappling with the Asian/Western divide as well as the divorce/dysfunctional family aspect.

Now, please don't get me wrong: I am not saying that there is something wrong with difference. Difference is great and should be celebrated. Nor am I advocating for homogeneous cultures and groups. The gospel is for all nations, and we need to learn to live with and recognise diversity. Nor am I saying that you need to change yourself to suit the dominant culture or dominant demographic (e.g. joining in with the Australian drinking culture by going down to the pub and getting smashed like the rest of the people in your office if that's what they normally do). I guess at times I just get sick of feeling different all the time—of continually working to have others understand me and my situation—of the constant negotiation and re-negotiation that I do every day as I move through life. Michelle found it tough when she experienced that feeling of difference—that culture shock (or culture stress, as Mike Raiter called it)—for the first time; imagine feeling that all the time.

But, as Michelle pointed out, Christians are always going to be aliens and strangers in this world. We don't belong because the only place where we do belong is in heaven—our true home, where the house of our heavenly Father lies. Peter wrote:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.

(1 Peter 2:9-11; emphasis mine)

Similar language appears in Hebrews 11 (after the long list of heroes of the faith):

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16; emphasis mine)

It seems to me that the Bible seems to be saying is that difference and alienation is the normal state for the Christian. We do not belong to the world; we belong to Christ, and so of course we are going to stand out (salt, light, city on a hill—Matthew 5). Indeed, we should.

This doesn't make it easier, but in a sense it's comforting to recognise that home is not here—that belonging isn't something I should be striving for while on this earth. Sure, it's lovely when I can find it (and I am fortunate to have good friends with whom I feel “at home”). But I know I shouldn't get too comfortable; here is not where I'll be forever.

Knowing this helps me to grieve for the “loss” of belonging. It helps me to see the concept of belonging in a realistic light. It may not relieve the burden of difference that I carry, but at least I know, in part, why I feel it and why, in a sense, that's okay.


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