There is nothing like inconvenience and cultural isolation to draw out our innermost entitlement and self-absorbed nature. Since I was a little girl my parents have preached into my soul the phrase “It’s not about you.” Yes, I can hear my mother’s voice telling me this as I whine about having to go to my sister’s orchestra concert. My father’s scolding tone speaks into my mind repeating this phrase as I object to not being allowed to do something for some reason or another. My whole life my parents have told me that life, particularly MY LIFE is NOT about ME. However, when you are a selfish person, you really never learn this truth. Unless, your whole world is turned upside down. The first time I really came face to face with this fact was after my horseback riding accident in 2012. I glimpsed what meant, but easily forgot the lesson.
My experience in China, however, though it has not cured me of my selfishness… it has revealed to me how REALLY true that statement is. I suppose I should explain myself, but I warn you it’s not a short story and it’s not a story that presents my best self. Still, if I am to learn what true selflessness is, then I think I should take the opportunity to tell you how I am starting to really understand what it means live your life for something bigger than just yourself.
First, I moved to China, you know this. You also know that China, the most populated country in the world, speaks Mandarin… a language considered by many to be the most difficult language to learn. Tones, measure words, written characters… these are just the tip of the iceberg when comes to how DIFFERENT Chinese is from my first language – English.
But when I arrived in China over a year ago, I was so excited to learn the language. I had these unbelievable expectations that I would come home from school every day and study Chinese for one hour. As you can guess, that lasted about three days into my school year. I was also surprised to discover how many expats in the city I live in, don’t speak Chinese. Most of them expressed their doubtful attitude when I talked about my excitement for language learning. Now, I understand that was because they realized the challenge of working full time and being a language student. Plus, I’m working in an all English environment, it doesn’t exactly accommodate immersive language learning (despite the fact that 30% of my co-workers are native Chinese speakers). Let’s just say I quickly became quite disillusioned about my language learning only a few months after my arrival in China.
My school is super cool in that they provide tutors for the teachers to meet with twice a week. Quickly, I discovered that while my tutor was one of the nicest people you could meet, there was no curriculum and the tutoring classes were really what you made them. I’m not criticizing my school or my teacher, I’m just saying what I was feeling. I realized this twice a week during a planning period one-on-one language practice was not enough… and really not what I personally needed or wanted.
Now, some people said I just had unrealistic expectations about what I was doing in China. My work is in a foreign school with the children of foreigners. They are my “m-work”. I believe this is true. My classroom is my field… BUT, you have to understand, I have a unique calling and self-inflicted pressure when it comes to language. My parents, as most of you should know, are Ms and have worked in BOOK translation for over 25 years (basically my whole life). I was raised believing that my Father speaks ALL languages. This means that if I pack up my life and move to another country, whether I am working in an English environment or not, it is a part of my soul belief that I should learn the language of the country I am living in. Otherwise, I am doing my Father, the one who called me to this place, a great disservice. Honestly, if I don’t put in an effort to study Chinese then I might as well live in the U.S. where I am comfortable and basic life (things from grocery shopping to travel) are EASY. Language is a part of my testimony as a believer, this I feel in the deepest recesses of my heart. Some may not agree with me, but I feel this.
So, you can imagine my frustration and truthfully RAGE at how unfulfilled I was in my almost non-existent language learning. Sure, I was learning survival phrases for basic everyday life stuff. I know way more now than I did when I arrived, but I still can’t talk, truly talk, to people… and I hate that. I think I’ve long prided myself in being eloquent and well-educated. I moved to China and suddenly I’m basically deaf, blind, mute, and dumb. It’s humiliating and feels so insulting to the wonderful Chinese people around me.
Over the summer, I wrote about how I really felt I had made more progress in two weeks of daily study than I had my whole first year. But, I could focus then… I could go home and had time to do two hours of Chinese homework. It ended and I felt myself become more bitter and resentful than before. I had talked to the tutoring supervisor at our school, expressing my dissatisfaction with my current tutoring situation, but found myself scheduled back with the same teacher… still with no goal. I was feeling unheard, angry, and downright selfish. I am not proud to admit how nasty my thoughts were about the whole situation.
I didn’t pr-y about it. I just decided I wanted to take things into my own hands. My motivations were completely selfish and honestly, spiteful. I went behind the back of my current tutor and the supervisor and talked to my friend the head of our student Chinese department. I asked her if one of the teachers would allow me to sit in on the student Chinese classes that meet everyday during first period. Truthfully, I thought she would say no. Instead, she excitedly told me she would ask all around and find me a class to become a student in.
The next day, one of the teachers came to me and told me she had a class of middle school students (all my students) taking Chinese I and she would love it if I would become a member of her class. So, I found myself a little unhappily giving up a 45 minute planning period every day to take Chinese class with 5 middle school students.
On the first day, we were writing Chinese characters. I was like “I’ve never studied characters! Only pinyin!” (pinyin is the Romanized version of the Chinese language and used when typing). The students laughed as I struggled to write characters for the first time.
I need you to understand how selfish my motivations were when I chose to be in this class. I just wanted something “better” for myself. I wanted… well, in short, I wanted to get what I wanted. Then, when I got it, I was mad because I’d had to give up my own time (precious planning period time) to have it. Over the next two weeks of classes, the Father rocked that selfishness to the core and humbled me incredibly.
After one week in the class, my teacher (and friend and co-worker) pulled me aside after class to explain that she had pr-yed to the Father for some sort of intervention in her small beginners class of five. See, the students in that class are pretty much all quiet, introverted students who lack confidence. She explained that the first three weeks of school getting any of them to talk had been literally impossible. Yet, she told me that when I joined the class… full of five of my own students, suddenly they were speaking. Not only were they speaking, but they were laughing and trying. They were failing, but they were also succeeding in expanding their language. She told me that it was because they saw me, their teacher, also commit to being a student. They saw me failing – badly, mind you – and doing things I’d never done before.
“I can see that you have given them a challenge and have brought energy to the class. We did not have that before.” She thanked me. She THANKED me. ME! The one who joined this class out of selfishness and spite. How guilty and truly chastised I felt in that moment. Unworthy, too. This thing I had done out of hateful, self-absorbed pride… she had pr-yed for…
It didn’t stop there. I found myself waiting outside the Chinese classrooms in the morning before class every day. More of my students in other classes began to notice.
“What are you doing here, Miss Manning?” they would ask.
“I’m going to class,” I told them. Then, I would get one of two responses. Pure laughter and joy OR shock and confusion. They began asking me what I was learning. They would beg to see my book filled with my toddler fail character writing. They would ask me to say the new words and make sentences out of the things I was learning. Some laughed, some corrected me, many said “Good job, Miss Manning!”
Others said, “Now you see how hard we have it, don’t you Miss Manning?”
“I do!” I replied. “You guys are amazing! I don’t know how you do this! Some of you this is your third or fourth language!” They shrugged, smiled, and nodded. They wished me luck on quizzes and told me it was okay when I got a bad score.
Then, there were the other co-workers. Other national staff who are not involved in the Chinese department began asking me about my classes. Telling me how impressed they were that a foreign teacher would be so committed to learning Chinese. They told me how inspired they were, how happy it made them to hear I was committed to fully taking these classes.
I have never been so… humiliated with myself. My high and mighty aspirations to learn Chinese were based off of selfish expectations. But it meant SO MUCH MORE to my coworkers and my students. Suddenly, these classes meant more than just “learning Chinese”. It’s my testimony to my coworkers… not in knowing the language, but in showing I wanted to learn. It’s my testimony to my students… not that I am the smartest person in the room, but instead that I fail and keep trying and do my best totally unrelated to a grade.
Boy, oh boy… I wish I could express how humbled I am. This thing that I did for me, for my own good, had absolutely NOTHING to do with me.
My Father let me pursue my selfishness in order to bless others.
In order to be an answer to pray to someone else.
In order to encourage someone else.
In order to motivate someone else.
This was not about me.
This was about the people around me that I was not seeing because I was too swept up in wanting what I wanted and getting it the only way I could. I’m not going to lie, the class is hard. Losing that planning period is so inconvenient. But the week before break, I read a book out loud to the class. It was a baby book, but all the words were Chinese characters.
It went something like this:
“The dragon is beside the mountain. The dragon is above the river. The dragon is in the river. The dragon is behind the tree. The dragon is in the tree.”
But I could read it! And my student who was sitting next to me in class, a girl who almost never talks, picked out a similar book and read it to me.
I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve just come to really understand that very little in my life is actually about me.
Any success that I have...
Any joy that I experience...
Any utter and total failure I live through…
it’s not. About. me.
It’s first and foremost about my heavenly Father and work that He is doing. Then, it’s about the people around me and how my life… the good, the bad, and the really ugly… what those experiences mean for them. I know I won’t always see this truth in my life. Sometimes because I’m too blind and self-absorbed to and sometimes because it’s just not for me to know.
Still, it matters. It matters that I realize that the experiences I have in my life are often times not about me.
I think about Joseph and Esther… these people who lived through really horrible times and really wonderful times, but it wasn’t about them. It was about the Father’s PEOPLE. Their tragedies and glories were the Father saving the lives of the people around them. Almost all of those saved were people that Joseph and Esther never even knew, but the Father knew them. The Father LOVED them. It’s because He loves the world that He uses us in this way.
I want to be a slave to that love. I don’t want to be a slave to my own selfishness anymore. I’m thankful that my selfishness was used to bless, but I wish I could have found that blessing without being consumed with myself.
My life is not about me.
Your life is not about you.
The minute I truly know this… I am sure I will feel such freedom and hope. Because if it’s not about me, then nothing in my life can crush me. There is something so much bigger happening in life when we recognize that it’s not about us.
I acted badly when I was full of selfish motivation. Yet, I am amazed by how my Father used my selfish plans to bring about so much good. From now on, I would like to live less selfishly and be motivated by the thought of those around me. This expanse of love is not my own, but that of He who is so much greater and wiser that little ole me. Whatever you do, whatever happens to you – the good and the bad – I hope you will remember and be comforted by the fact that the Father uses it all. He can bless anyone through any and every situation and circumstance… and often times we will never realize the impact these portions of our lives have on everyone, except for us. That, my friends, is good news.
But Joseph said to them,
“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people."
"For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"