Contented and Thankful–Memories Past

My first Thanksgiving away from family. Wearing summery clothing, the tropical air surrounded me as I sat on the floor with a plate full of traditional food in front of me–turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes,– the whole works. The table was not big enough for all of us so I made my chair my table as did some of the others.  I was surrounded by new friends and living in a new world totally different from what I had ever experienced. It was the first of countless holidays that would be different from what I grew up with.  I had signed up to teach in a small Christian school on the island of Puerto Rico after graduating from college in 1980. One of the teacher’s family lived in the capital and had us over for Thanksgiving. Sitting in front of my feast and tasting many familiar foods  I felt content.  I missed being with my family but I realized my colleagues also missed their families and somehow that soothed our hearts and bonded us together.  We decided to accept each others’ friendships (and food) that day as beautiful substitutes which would create new holiday memories.  We ate, laughed and talked.  No, we could not tell stories from past celebrations which we never shared, but we could talk of the present and… enjoy and be content with that.

Never again did I share a Thanksgiving with those same people but that day began a list of  many unique and special holidays which followed…

–My last Thanksgiving as a family, before I headed to Asia in 1983.  It was an early Christmas for me too at my brother and his wife’s first home.  But also it turned out to be the last time our whole family was all together before our parents divorced and thanksgivingbegan separate lives.

–Thanksgiving celebrations in Hong Kong with teammates making delicious dinners in tiny kitchens with even tinier toaster size ovens and large Chinese woks.   Also the fun of sharing American traditional Thanksgiving foods with local Chinese friends who would bravely taste the new foods.   Mashed potatoes were always a great hit.

Then as I headed to Mainland China the celebrations continued.  Finding the right foods we cherished for our American  Thanksgiving meals even in the capital during the early ’90s was one of many challenges.  When they were found and not too costly, transporting the goods without a car became quite an adventure. Bikes were the most common transportation mode those days since buses were often too crowded and taxis were hard to find. Small kitchens provided both amusement and frustration as we would juggle a limited assortment of pots and pans on one or two burner stoves and in toaster ovens, all the time fearing the fuse would blow or the electric wires and sockets would melt.

But oh the fun!   The meals those days were more international and creative.  We Americans got to introduce one of our favorite holidays with other expatriates.  An early one I remember while living in a filthy dorm for foreign students was spearheaded by an Aussie couple who wanted to make a traditional American Thanksgiving. (The husband enjoyed cooking!).  Others joined in and we had a wonderful meal but I’m thinking we must have had chicken instead of turkey.   The next year or so as a teacher I joined other foreign friends for a huge potluck meal in a small apartment.  That one included chicken from a western restaurant that had recently opened  as well as all kinds of hot dishes and desserts — some locally bought, others shared from care packages sent from the States.  (I remember sharing about Thanksgiving with my Chinese students then but I don’t remember sharing food with them at that time; Christmas cookie making was an easier tradition to do with them.)

There was also another well-remembered Thanksgiving celebration shared  with a Finnish-Dutch couple and an Chinese-Australian lady.  Another American gal and I figured out how to make two stuffed chickens with our little ovens. I can still remember vividly the two of us standing in front of a table with a cookbook opened for directions  (years before Google), two small raw chickens in front of us and  then realizing we didn’t have a string or thick thread to sew up the chickens after stuffing them.   We refused to waste our precious dental floss (probably impossible to buy there at that time), so instead my friend went to the front desk of the building (housing for foreigners on campus)  and got some string from the gal in charge.  Neither of us had ever done anything like this before and were delighted that some time later the chickens turned out cooked and delicious from our little ovens.  Also for that meal we could not decide what pies to make.  Her husband loved all kinds of pies.  So we ended up with: pecan, pseudo-pumpkin, coconut cream, chocolate cream, banana cream, and apple.  I made the apple and pumpkin pie (out of sweet potatoes) and she did the rest with ingredients she had gathered or had been given.  I think we all felt a bit guilty with all the desserts  (basically a pie a person),  but it was a memory we will always have… and never repeat.

Not all Thanksgivings overseas were great. I remember living in one city when Thanksgiving was approaching and having no invitation for dinner that evening.  And I was not new and also there were a lot of Americans around. Perhaps an oversight of others but still it was really hard.  I’d rather not think about it but it has made me more aware of those who may not have a place to go on Thanksgiving.

So now I’m back in the USA and I have had a place to go these last three years.  My sister-in-law’s family has invited me over and I have enjoyed a truly delicious traditional meal– American all the way.  There’s even the Macy’s Parade on TV and American football.  So even though I miss the international atmosphere, the mixture of various backgrounds and unshared histories and  even the adventure of finding foods  and making them (although for me personally to make a turkey would be quite challenging),  I  am learning that even here and now God wants me to be thankful and content. And I am.  But I can’t help but think about what future Thanksgivings may be like.

Labels

English-speaking, wealthy and… promiscuous — labels attached to me as a Caucasian American living and working in China.  True I spoke English and even have a degree in teaching English but I didn’t enjoy strangers shouting “Hello” to me or inquiring if I had time to teach their child on the weekends. Yet I did enjoy interacting with my English students and helping friends with their English (sometimes).  But I was also comfortable in speaking Chinese with those who weren’t my students. Wealthy?  Well, compared to many of the poor who lived in poverty, as farmers in the countryside or migrants in the city, yes, I was rich.  However,  as more and more folk around me began to make more money over the years, their evident assets were quite in contrast to mine.  I wrote bike and they had cars.  I rented, they bought apartments.  I looked for nice but cheap clothes, they wanted brand names.   Promiscuous?  No, not me at all.  But American movies and TV, enthusiastically watched over the years by those in my adopted land, promoted the erroneous idea that “all” American women had and enjoyed affairs and would go to bed with anyone. Also, being single may have had further supported this wrong thinking.  Far from being any kind of beauty and even as I got older, I would encounter advances– both subtle ones and not so subtle ones.

After returning to the USA I realize that there are labels here too.  Perhaps I wasn’t as aware of them decades ago when I first left for overseas.  But now I am getting more settled here … and more aware.

My last name labels me.  Stauffer.  It’s a very common Lancaster County name so locals here will invariably try to figure out what Stauffer I am related to.  (By the way, I am not related to the Stauffer’s of Kissel Hill.)  Truth be told I’m as much of an outsider as those moving into the county or even more so since I lived most of my adult life overseas.

Being single is another kind of label.  This area is very family focused so to not have children or grandchildren for some locals is hard to imagine, and it’s difficult for some (not all!)  folk to find other topics to talk about.

And the label list continues.

During this messy election year I look again at the labels and stereotypes I myself have attached to our major political parties as I grew up: Republicans — conservative, pro-life, small government (and do I dare say, evangelical Christian?!).   Democrats — the opposite.   But to me personally, the lines are muddled now.  I see and analyze and question.   I am  definitely pro-life but do I, or do the Republican politicians do enough to help those who want abortions?  Are we actually doing something about the root causes of these baby deaths rather than just voicing how terrible they are?  Are we doing something to help the poor, the drug addicts, the helpless who may not see a way out of an unwanted pregnancy?  Are we doing anything?

Labels.

I call myself a Jesus-follower.  Another label.  Saying I’m a Christian is true but so many others use that label and really don’t know what it means.  Some say they’re a Christian because they go to church once in a while and they’re not a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. Or maybe they were baptized as an infant or their parents were Christian. They believe there is a God but have no real personal relationship with Him.

I want to be a true Jesus-follower.  He cared for the poor, the sick, the unlovely, the foreigner, the minority, the ones living on the fringes of society.  He condemned those who wrapped themselves in religious piety and didn’t live the words they eloquently spoke.   He followed His Father’s will and wasn’t influenced by those around Him who were of a culture twisted by pride and evil.

And so my heart cry is … May I be given a label that reflects Jesus, and nothing or no one else.

 

Not Yet Married

One of the most common questions asked even from complete strangers while living overseas was about my marital status.  When I responded in the negative using correct Chinese grammar I would say, I’m not yet married 我还没结婚. However to me it always sounded like my life was on hold as I waited to be married.  In that society, marriage was the norm and to answer it in a different way would imply I won’t marry and don’t want to.  Even though I lived overseas for decades, my single status compounded with the fact I was already a white American at times often created within me a sense of not belonging or fitting in my adopted culture and people group.  I just didn’t fit the norm.

Returning to the USA last year I knew my singleness, especially as an older person, was more common and accepted.  Also one’s person marital status as well as details dealing with finances, age, weight, and so on are considered personal and private.  However I have been reminded that I live in a traditional area (Lancaster County, PA) where families are pretty much the hub of one’s life.  Perhaps this phenomena is more common among my peers, or perhaps it’s more common among evangelical Christians too, but getting married, raising the kids and then helping with the grandchildren are often the focus of one’s life, time, and energy.  Also taking care of older parents and/or siblings are often added to the needs and responsibilities within an extended family.

As a single older woman who has spent most of her life overseas, I’m trying to figure out how I fit into all of this.  Many church activities and programs focus on families’ needs and interests.   School functions focus on the students and their families.  Holidays are times when families and/or extended families get together.  Vacations are times when families do things together. Many of my friends are very busy with helping their children, visiting or going to grandchildren’s activities, and being sure their own parents are doing okay.  Life here does seem to center around the family.

So, if one is single,  where does one fit in?

And I think I’m not the only one.  There are others who perhaps are single parents, childless couples, or are from another part of the country with no family around, or they have no family living or have family member relationships that are strained.  But I don’t always know who they are because if they’re like me I don’t want to share I’m lonely.  When social media is full of photos of family outings, grandbabies, family get-togethers, who wants to share that they have no family to do things with?

I know for sure that God has a heart for widows, orphans, and foreigners– passages can be found all through His Word.

And I know God has a heart for the lonely. And also He has made us for community. It’s not just a matter of getting together, but it’s also working on being connected to each other.  Like a family.  Caring, sharing, laughing, crying, eating, having fun, making memories…

So, I want to look around and see who else is feeling lonely, disconnected and then reach out. I know that will help me out of my own self-pity and keep me from becoming a bitter old spinster.  I also want to be willing to go deeper in my walk with God and really know what it means to find Him sufficient.

But I’m thinking that I may always have this longing to fit in and belong, and may never achieve that until I’m in heaven, complete, perfect and connected with God through Jesus and with all those who believe in Him.

One of my favorite quotes is from C.S. Lewis’ last book of  the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Battle.  Jewel, the unicorn says…”I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”

Some day I will fit in. I will really belong.  But until then perhaps it’s just a wish, a hope, a longing…