Miller: Things are rarely what they seem

Jun 4, 2018 by

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I recently visited China with my younger brother Chad and returned home with a wealth of sensations and memories. China is a country both traditional and modern, atheistic and Christian, wealthy and poor, respectful and brutal, old and new. It is, above all things, complex. Here are a few of my experiences:

Lucinda J. Miller

Miller

We visit the Global Center in Chengdu, all marble and gold glistening under lights, millennials surging past in name brands and trendy outfits, our eyes following the contours of the building up and up and up. We ride to the top floor rink and watch elementary-aged boys attack a hockey puck under the direction of a coach; watch a girl twirl, bend, reach, rise — grace on ice — her trainer standing over her with a safety harness. “The suicide rate is high in China,” my cousin tells us. “For young people, there is tremendous pressure to perform.”

We visit a mountain village where women squat beside the water to wash their vegetables, where our hotel room has only a squat pot and no Western toilet, where a woman cooks us a goldfish caught fresh from the canal. A little boy drops his shoe over the side of a ditch, and a little girl with a red bandana at her throat — uniform of the Young Pioneers — pokes with a stick to try to retrieve it. Chad scrambles down to get it for them, and later that evening they find us in the town street, offer us friendship and dried fruit.

I sit beside a pleasant elderly woman on a bench in a city. She talks to me in a language I cannot understand, and I shake my head, regretful. I offer her a DVD I have in my purse: Jesus, in 24 languages. She takes my gift, smiling, studies it for a long moment and gives it back, shaking her head but still smiling. I wish I could understand her explanation.

I sit beside a young woman on one of China’s high-speed bullet trains and offer her the DVD. She glances and comprehends it in a moment, flashes gratitude from her eyes, slips it into her purse. Later, on a different bullet train to a different city, I read that the government has outlawed the sale of Bibles online. In a certain poor county, villagers have been informed that if they want to receive their quota from the poverty relief fund, they must replace pictures of Jesus with pictures of President Xi Jinping.

“The city is so safe I don’t worry if my wife walks out alone at night,” says our cousin in Chengdu.

“It is estimated that more people were killed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution than in all of World War II,” our guide in Xian tells us.

“A lot of people here will say they are Christians but won’t live it out,” a young Chinese Christian tells us. “Parents don’t want their children to give up the pursuit of success to be a humble Christian man.”

And yet Christianity is an undeniable force in this country. Under 50 years of Communist persecution, while pastors planted churches in the jails, it rocketed from thousands of adherents to tens of millions. Because so many churches are unregistered, it is difficult to estimate just how many Christians there are.

On the plane flight out of Guangzhou, I browse through a Chinese newspaper. In America, I grow weary and disgusted at the endless round of government criticism, negativity and gossip, but now, for the first time in my life, I wish for it. The news in this paper is glossy and bright. The economy is booming, President Xi makes all the right decisions, and because it is all too perfect, I cannot believe any of it.

What is this country? I cannot tell. “Remember that things are never what they seem to be,” a wise man and a pastor told me once. In China, I remember.

Lucinda J. Miller lives with her own mysterious family in Rusk County, Wis., and is the author of Anything But Simple: My Life as a Mennonite. To read more of her China experiences, visit her blog at lucindajmiller.com.


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