It was Christmas time several years ago while we were in language school, hunkered down in a bitterly cold northern China city. I had just spent the afternoon baking and decorating cookies with the kids in preparation to hand them out to friends and attend a cookie exchange party.
I had been utilizing the things I was learning in class with my neighbors on a daily basis. (A huge perk of studying the mother tongue in-country!) Gone were the days of repeating “I don’t understand” over and over. I was enjoying the real-life practice and the small steps toward building actual friendships.
Our downstairs neighbors consisted of a family of grandparents, parents that I rarely saw because they lived and worked in another city, and a six-year-old girl. By Christmas, I still couldn’t carry a conversation, but I could at least ask and respond to some simple questions.
Since we saw each other often, I decided to deliver a plate of cookies to them. I knocked on their door, and once opened, I saw their very simple living room that catered to the grandpa, who had to walk with crutches. I happily gave them the cookies and told them “Merry Christmas” in Chinese. The little girl’s eyes grew huge at seeing the plate of treats she had probably never tasted. I was thrilled to share with them! There wasn’t much conversation to be had, so I quickly left. Whew, I did it!
Less than five minutes later, I heard a knock on my door. I was perplexed, since we rarely had uninvited visitors. I opened the door, and there was the little girl. She thrust an apple at me, paired with a nervous smile. Confused, I took it, and she ran away.
Then it all hit me—they couldn’t, could not, accept a free gift. Something had to be returned in thanks. And quickly.
Fast forward a few years to our current city. Where we lived before, our building mostly housed our American teammates, except for an Italian/Chinese couple. Our first Christmas here, I decided to try to befriend the gruff old man and rarely-there woman. Again, I knocked, with a plate of cookies in my hand, more ready this time to use the proper verbiage to let them know this was a gift of kindness, a tradition for us to share with others. I was kind of hoping for the Italian man to answer, since he would have been more familiar with our traditions.
You guessed it. The Chinese wife, who really was almost never home, answered. I explained what I had made and why I was gifting it to them. A free gift! No strings attached! Merry Christmas! She thanked me ten times. Whew, I did it better this time!
Five minutes later…a knock on the door. Really?! She couldn’t stand it, either. This time, the gift was a doily-type thing that I’m pretty sure she either pulled off her shelf, or had been a freebie with the purchase of a bottle of Coke.
You could say I struck out with those neighbors in terms of sharing gifts and befriending them. Language and understanding the culture were big issues. I’m slowly (still) learning that gift-giving carries a lot of weight in this culture. It either means that in the future, you’ll want something from them, you’re apologizing in advance for something, or some other kind of buttering up.
Currently, we’re apartment-sitting for teammates who are on home leave. When we first arrived, I wanted to dive right in with the neighbors. We recently came off of a home leave ourselves and are in a different part of the city, so we’re kind of starting over with local relationships. Who better to start with than neighbors?
It hasn’t been easy. We rarely cross paths. It’s been so few times, in fact, that I think it would be awkward to knock on their door and strike up a conversation. During one of their big holidays recently, I made butter cookies that resembled their traditional moon cakes. An east-meets-west kind of spin on the traditional cakes. I thought long and hard about delivering a plate to them. The stories of past attempts to share treats with neighbors quickly came to mind. Perhaps that’s just not the way to do it here. It’s taken me nearly nine years to realize this, probably because it fully goes against what I’d do if I lived in a neighborhood in the States.
We’re also only going to be here for a year, then we’ll move yet again. So are the relationships even worth investing in? Our teammates have already poured into these neighbors; why not just let them pick them back up when they return? That didn’t settle well either.
So I chose the middle ground. I won’t be delivering plates of cookies, but I won’t shy away from conversations when I run into people in the hall, elevator, or outside. I’ve settled with knowing I probably won’t get to go too deeply with very many people, but that’s ok. I think of Jesus—He was a busy man! He gave what He could to the crowds before moving on. I truly do see all the “random” happenings as chances to share pieces of Light, even if it’s a short flicker.
What does it look like to be a good neighbor in the culture you serve? Have you had any failed attempts? Any amazing happenings?
This year, we’re sending our older kids to a local MK school. Morning wake-ups come early, and I’m up before that trying to come up with a filling, healthy breakfast. My go-to is peanut butter banana toast, but they get tired of that! These muffins are super quick to throw together (for me, the night before!), are packed full of tasteless but oh-so-good-for-you spinach, and are slightly sweet. The kids love them, and I love watching them eat so many veggies for breakfast. If you have picky eaters, I dare you to have your kids do a blind taste test with these. Some kids are turned off by green food, but if they’re convinced of their goodness before they see them, they’ll be sold! Also, blind taste tests with kids is just hilarious.
Makes about: 18 muffins
Ready in: 30 minutes
Slightly adapted from: Super Healthy Kids
2 cups flour (half whole wheat, half all-purpose is ok, too)
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled slightly
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup honey
1 large banana
6 ounce raw spinach (about 5 cups)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 F, and line a muffin pan with paper liners (or use silicone muffin cups).
Combine all dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
Using a blender or food processor, blend the raw spinach, banana, honey, milk, egg, vanilla, and melted butter until completely pureed.
Pour the puree into the dry ingredient bowl, and fold together gently until just combined. (Do not over-mix or muffins will be tough.)
Spoon the batter into the muffin pan, and bake for 18-22 minutes, or until the muffins are firm to the touch on top, but not quite browning.
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