Monday, 2 March 2009

My Memories of India (Part II- a confession)

"Very few of us are what we seem." Agatha Christie

Who would have thought that by living in Indonesia last year, I would be a step closer to India?

In Indonesia was where I met Ms. Lalit. (Not her real name. The name I chose for her in this story is a Tamil word for beautiful. ) She was my teaching colleague from Chennai, India and was the most wonderful and kind-hearted person I've ever met. It only took me five months to see that and two weeks for me to make amends for what I did.

No, I'm not about to tell you a comforting story or a mysterious tale from a distant land. It's more about my dark side that came out while living in Indonesia. The story revolves around something that you may be familiar with but may not feel comfortable admitting. It's about prejudice. And it is also about redemption. I had wanted to write about her for more than a year but couldn't bring myself to do it until now. Sometimes, a difficult story needs years to make its debut.

I didn't like her when we first met. She had dark skin and long coarse, curly hair. When I sat next to her on a school bus, her hair would poke my arm like needles. I could smell her from miles away. She'd often wear a sari to school and her "v" sounds like a "w." The word water , for instance, was always pronounced vater. And she would shake her head when she meant yes. It hurt my ears trying to comprehend what she said. Her English sounded like a foreign language. She didn't know how to use Word or Excel or a cell phone and couldn't navigate the city on her own. And what did I do? Nothing noble really. I never once offered to help her because I felt uncomfortable being around her. I kept my conversations with her to the minimum. Also she couldn't seem to get along with most colleagues. We gossiped about her. And she was the scapegoat of our frustration and the butt of our jokes oftentimes. Oh, did I forget to mention that she was a Christian who went to the same church as I did.

Ms. Lalit had a hard time both at work and at home. She came to Indonesia with two daughters. They were 6 and 8. One day when I told the kids that I'd stop by their apartment and go swimming with them, their eyes got really big. But for five months, it was one empty promise after another. Until one day, they said I probably would never go.

I'd like to say that as someone who tries to follow Christ, I'm a goody two-shoes. Well, I'm not. Like you, I have my dark side. Nine years as a Christian, I'm still wrestling with my dark side and will be... for the rest of my life.

In the back of my mind, I knew that what I did was wrong and was, somehow, slowly finding ways to make things better. I had so much pride and couldn't bring myself to apologize for my attitude and actions toward her. One day, after fives months of suffering in Indonesia, Ms. Lalit told me that she was going back to India in two weeks... for good. It was the first time I saw a twinkle in her eyes.

As far as I could remember, that was the day I cried.

It was an uncomfortable experience when the brightness in her touched a dark spot in my heart. I wasn't ready, but I had no time to wait. I couldn't bear the thought of her being gone forever from my life and I did nothing about it.

I confessed to God and asked for his forgiveness. I confessed to my trusted friend. I cried until my eyes were burning with hot tears. But my friend helped me to understand that that was why Jesus went to the cross: to die for whatever I did that was wrong and hurt other people. He paid the price. In all honesty, I'd heard that before and understood it in my head, but not really in my heart.

I spent the next two weeks trying to make it up to her and the kids. I felt like I had much to pay for. I needed to be punished. Punishment never came. However something she said while we were having lunch hit me: she had prayed for so long that one day she could eat and talk to me like friends...

Isn't this what Jesus calls mercy? I'd read about it a thousand times before but never quite understood it till then. I'm such a slow learner. It's not something you can read about at church on Sundays. You won't understand it during the good times either. When life is hard and uncomfortable, it may just be God's way of teaching us something so precious like mercy, and the best kind of vessel to receive it is not a good or happy heart, but broken.

In two weeks, I did more than I should have done in five months. I went swimming with the kids. I went over to Ms. Lalit's apartment and she made chicken curry for me from scratch. I brought over juice. We ate and talked like friends. We went shopping together. Please allow me to tell you some more of how beautiful this woman's heart was. During five difficult months, she continued to share Christ with anyone who came across her path. She brought many visitors to church as well as an Indian couple who were also from Chennai. She had all the excuses in the world to be into herself. But she chose a different path. The path that affected eternity.

Before she left, she asked me for a favor. She wanted me to continue the friendship she'd built with her neighbor. She wanted me to help her neighbor to know Christ. I promised her that I'd be a friend to Jenni, and I'm keeping that promise still, even though I'm no longer in Indonesia. I'm doing what I can to share Christ's love, and I hope that one day Jenni will come to know Christ as Ms. Lalit did

My Memories of India (Part I)

I have never been to India.

But the story of how I'm about to go there this April is worth noting. It started somewhere long, long ago.

My mom graduated from India. She was one of the few women in her class to graduate with a pharmaceutical degree. This was back in the 60's. As I flipped through my mom's photo album, I saw a black and white photo of her in a sari. She was the only woman with straight hair. Also the first time I saw the Taj Mahal, it was with my mom posing in the foreground. The Taj is no doubt beautiful and thousands of men give praise to its beauty, but to a child, her mother was the more important focus. Years later, I put this black and white photo next to a colored one that had me posing in front of the Eiffle Tower. We had the same pose.

Mom would talk about the smell that she never quite got used to. And that she almost fell for this guy who was like an angel to her because he helped her with all her classes. But in the end she turned him down because he was Indian. The guy ended up writing my mom a birthday card every year for the next twenty something years. Poor guy got his heart broken by my mom, but he's now doing very well as a doctor somewhere in America. I wish I could talk to him to find out more what my mom was like then. But then Mom said, if she ended up with him, I wouldn't have been born. Or that I'd be a mixed kid with really long eyelashes and an Indian last name. Anyway, my mom can speak good English , but she's never quite used to my accent, and she'd ask me to repeat certain words or slow down when I talk. She also doesn't like that fact that I'm so Americanized. Bollywood doesn't bother her but Hollywood does.

When I went to America, the thought of India somewhat faded away.

Later in college, I got a chance to read E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. It was the first time in a long awhile that India drifted back into my consciousness. I threw out many books from college when I left America, but I've kept this one. Something about it just tells me to hold on to it.

In a strange way, I feel like India was a part of my childhood. A part of my mother that made her who she is today. I somehow feel like India is calling me there. And the voice got louder and louder over the past recent years.

Finally Cambodia...

So I had this conversation with two guy friends from different corners of the world, one in the US and the other in OZ. It's funny how they mentioned the same thing to me on the same day, just seconds apart from the other. (Is this some kind of conspiracy theory?) That maybe I should consider settling down and stop being a global nomad. The first friend is married. The second is a single man who had traveled a lot in his twenties and feels the need to settle down. (Don't worry, I'm keeping you guys' identity protected.) I appreciate the two friends sharing their opinions. Opinions are interesting and I love listening to them.

I also agree that traveling can be exhausting, uncomfortable, and unpredictable. You're not in total control of your surroundings like you would on a normal day in your hometown. You don't know where you'll get your next cup of coffee, or that you'll end up at an open-air shop owned by a Chinese Malaysian drinking Te Tarik and having naan for breakfast with a local friend you just met yesterday who is now letting you stay in her house and giving you a tour around the city, and whom you are speaking with in a language you can barely understand. You may not like the fact that you have to count the money in a new currency like a child learning to count coins and bills in grade school. Or worse yet, you ask a total stranger to dig into your wallet just to count the correct amount cos you get so overwhelmed by so many zeros. Or the distinct smell of some people that makes you hold your breath when they walk by. Or crossing the streets, not knowing whether to look left or right, so you do both. You may hate the thought of saying goodbye without knowing whether you'll see your new friends again. Of course, their lives go on but you mourn them like you would someone dying because you really don't know if you'll see them again. Then you wish that you had all the money in the world, so you can fly back and see them as you wish. But then you work out these feelings: the passion and the pain. That's why people call and write to each other years after they last saw one another. The smiles and the tears they shed when they knew you were leaving. The longing. The waiting. But if you ask me, is it worth going through it all just to meet them and have to endure these uncomfortable feelings. I think you know my answer.

But come to think of it, in many ways, I didn't choose to go to these places. They chose me. Here's why. I didn't originally plan to go to Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, or live in Thailand, but they kind of came along my path as I continued on my journey. I guess the idea of being on a journey stays the same, but God fills in the details, not me. Guess I'm not exactly the author of my life afterall.

The plan to go back to Cambodia was supposed to be done a year and a half ago. But I finally booked the ticket to go there this Friday. It's funny how things often don't turn out as planned, but I think through God's eyes, things turn out better than I could imagine.

Going to Cambodia this time makes me feel a bit nervous, like seeing my long lost love for the first time in years.

I appreciate my two guy friends and think they're right. At some point, I need to settle down. But I hope that I won't have to stop traveling. It's like a love affair of some sort, so mystical, mysterious, and magical. At least for now anyway...