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December 30, 2012

living grace in asia

Almost one month ago, I arrived in Asia to start my new job. To mark that one-month anniversary, I want to share a bit about the sensory overload that is this incredible (and incredibly different) Asian country. I don't want to forget it, and I want to share it with you.

A few days ago, I looked at my surroundings, shot a few photos, and literally thought: this is a National Geographic shoot. This place is exotic. To me, and to most of you, it truly is.

The irony is that to most of the residents of this city, I am the exotic one. I stand out in every way here: I'm tall, blonde, fair-skinned, blue-eyed and I don't speak the local language. That is to say, I'm a misfit.
    In the particular community we were visiting (seen in these photos), people stood at the doorways of their homes and watched us. I don't know what thoughts go through people's minds when they see me. A well-dressed man at the market followed us for 15 minutes; why? And what did he think of us? I wonder what the servers at our restaurant said about us to each other, as we tried to communicate but couldn't make them understand. I hope that somehow they catch a glimpse of grace.

    In my first month here I've had the privilege of meeting both the wealthy and the poor. Our friends and neighbours are often of the middle or upper class, but any venture to the streets has us rubbing shoulders with every class.

    Upper class friends live in spacious apartments, speak good English, play Avril Lavigne, wear jeans and use Blackberries. They eat imported goods and talk about Hollywood films. Some have traveled abroad. Cooks, drivers, and cleaners are at their beck and call. They are kind hosts and fun to be with.

    But this is a land of extreme contrasts. Just meters away from some of our city's polished malls, Nike stores and walled communities are tent cities. Early morning finds the inhabitants rustling, preparing small fires to heat tea and ward off the chill. A tattooed camel lazily chews its cud, waiting for its boss to finish breakfast and get to work. Modern highrises form the backdrop to this impoverished scene.

    The community pictured in these photos exists to create pottery. Clay water pots line the pathways of their community and a small mosque marks the end of the enclosure. We visited a family there, and they welcomed us into their home, a cloth tent. The mother busied herself making tea, which we drank from saucers (not cups), and she found some scraps of toast to serve us. No IKEA kitchen here: she worked on the ground to prepare our snack. We rocked their fussing baby's hammock and took pictures. As we headed out the tent door, the mother told us it was a shame we could not stay longer, for her to make flatbread for us. The people of this state, whether rich or poor, are known for their hospitality.

    During a game of ping pong, a new, well-to-do friend described a Western cafe where the clients "pay it forward" and donate coffees to poorer clients. It was a novel idea to her.

    "You should start something like that here," she said. "If foreigners start new ventures, it has more draw." I understand the whole "draw" thing; staring eyes are everywhere here. But I told her, "If a foreigner does something, local people will see it as something outsiders do. If you start something, they can look at you and say, 'If she did that, I can too.'" Grassroots grace. 

    Much of the world is used to foreigners coming to needy areas and showing grace. It's hip. But what of grace in everyday life, to the people on your doorstep?

    In Canada, I thought I knew what grace looked like. But now I wonder how grace embodies itself in a culture so foreign from my own. Does grace smile at the person who so brazenly cut in line? Does grace say "thank you" even when the culture doesn't expect it? Does grace help clear the table or allow itself to be waited on? How does grace treat the cook, the cleaner, or the driver? Does grace bite its tongue when it wants to make a joke about cultural differences? How does grace express itself when spoken language isn't yet present? These are a few of my questions.

    What grace looks like in a so-different culture is still a bit sketchy to me. But I think it starts by being filled by Him who fills all things. Then He pours out of you, and grace spills over. I can't look at the picture below without remembering that famous petition, "Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” That same spring of water "wells up" in us. Overflowing grace.

    The Sunday market next to the river swells with nearly every object imaginable. Wealthy locals would likely avoid such gatherings, but for us it is an adventure. The vendors' wares are an incredible mix of rusty tools, used clothing, pans, carts and animals. I snagged some booklets that teach the local language's alphabet. We saw baby chicks whose feathers had been dyed hot pink. Fake Ray-Bans and Dell backpacks. Cuddly baby goats. Old cameras. A padlock in the shape of a turtle.

    But most of all, the market swells with people. Tall or short, black-haired or blonde, rich or poor...we're right near the river and we all need grace.

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