My white face was still white. But the traditional black head covering kept my light hair under wraps so that it didn’t broadcast my outsider-ness. Wearing black, not only on my head but all the way down to my toes, I was disguised. Sitting on a slab of kindling wood around a table just five inches off the ground at a Sufi memorial festival in a local village, I was hidden even from my husband. He had briefly left his position of serving tea at the men’s tables and stood just 50 feet away from me, taking pictures of the thousand or so women dressed in black, gathered around tables, to honor the anniversary of the death of the founder of the village Sufi order.
“I didn’t see you,” he told me when our family had reconnected after the festival, back in our host family’s courtyard. I was pleased to point out to him in his photos exactly where I was sitting among all the black-clad women. This strange Western woman for once had not stood out in all of her whiteness. For the first time ever since we had moved to China 15 years earlier, I had blended in with those around me. Almost unbelievably, I actually looked like one of the local women.
Facing an environment where everyone else belongs, with cultural expectations that everyone else knows, with a common language that everyone else speaks, the foreignness of the foreigner feels glaringly obvious.
But if the facing of the new environment can be done with a face that doesn’t draw so much attention, there can be a greater sense of entering in, without feeling the weight of stares that so often penetrate the unspoken question in people’s eyes:
Why is she here?
No one is really noticing me, I marveled, while I tried to slurp down my spicy noodle soup before the next course was served by the young men of the village. I felt almost invisible, except for the question that came from a little girl across the table of how old I was. I smiled and told her to guess. She paused before suggesting a number “60?” For a 42-year old that felt a little embarrassing (did I have that many wrinkles on my face?) so I resolved to never offer the age-guessing option again.
But this was a milestone for me.
I had faced my fears by coming to live in a Chinese Muslim minority village of 2000 people for my husband’s PhD field research on Muslim minority groups. Before we had come, I had told my husband there was no way in the world it would work for us to live with a host family. We needed our space as a homeschooling family of three teenagers, and I definitely needed my own personal space as an introvert.
Somehow though, God had turned my no way into a maybe into an ok this is actually happening.
After our family had been warmly welcomed into the village as honored guests, I had opportunities to look into the many faces of men and women and children and had witnessed their community and connectedness and compassion for each other.
Covering my head while I was there had also seemed to cover up my self-doubts that I would be able to build relationships in this place and truly connect with these people who were so different from me. Yet, in many ways, I came to find they were not so different after all.
God provided a dear friend for me in the village whose eyes sparkled when I showed up at her front door. She happily served me tea and heaping plates of meat. It took some work to convince her to sit down instead of running back and forth to the kitchen; spending time with her really was more important to me than eating her delicious food.
And face to face, as we sipped tea together, we shared about our children and what we desired most for them in life. And our hearts connected as we discussed our relationships with the One True God and how He helps each of us through challenging times.
I discovered in the village that when I face the challenge of entering a new and intimidating culture, I can trust God to help me find the common ground.
How have you seen God move you from a no way to a maybe to an ok this is actually happening place of acceptance? What ministry opportunities are you facing now and how is God helping you to connect with how He’s already at work?