When I first met Debi, we were barely out of college, perched at the edge of our First Big Adventure: a year of teaching English in China.
I should start by saying that I went to China not really because I’d ever wanted to…but because I’d married a man who did. A condition of Andrew’s International Business degree was a year of cross-cultural experience abroad. And so a few weeks after my 21st birthday, we hauled two gigantic suitcases to O’Hare International Airport, exchanged a teary goodbye with our parents, and flew away.
We didn’t know that there’s be other English teachers there until they came…a whole group of them in long skirts and collared shirts with suitcases and smiles and previous experience teaching English camps in Pinghu, China.
They trickled in from an extremely fundamentalist tilt of Christianity. The College in Michigan from which they’d just graduated (and which seemed to follow them to China) had confined them to the moral and spiritual ideals of Bill Gothard, notable for his extremely conservative teachings and his Institute of Basic Life Principals (IBLP).
The first day I went shopping in the streets of Pinghu with the girls, I made an off-handed comment about birth control, and they all looked at me wide-eyed and startled. I didn’t understand them at all.
Which is not to say that we didn’t bond in certain, important ways. We created meals together and cobbled together holidays and stepped in to help out with each other’s classes. We took a trip to Beijing where we wandered together around the Forbidden City and indulged in Starbucks…and in so many ways, we were just a bunch of kids, trying to figure out how to be grown ups.
Debi and I sat at opposite ends of the English Office at the school in Pinghu where we taught, and I was intimidated by her posture, her beauty, by the way she seemed to so easily step in line with rules that I didn’t understand. We were friendly, but we weren’t friends. Not really. Not at the truest, deepest sense of the world.
The seasons changed, and Pinghu stayed Factory Town Gray, and I began to sink into Depression. By winter, I was looking at the world exclusively through the fogged-over filter of my own loneliness. I thought that everyone else was doing okay; I thought that I was the only one who wanted to disappear.
If I’d had the capacity, then, to look a little more deeply, I would have seen that it wasn’t true. All around me the teachers from the College in Michigan were trying to navigate their first tentative taste of freedom in the streets of a foreign country. They were trying to figure out who they were without The Rules, in relation to The Rules, in relation to one another, and I suppose, to their faith. I think there was a lot more loneliness than I ever understood.
And there’s no way to go back with the knowledge I have now. I wish I could re-do Pinghu and choose the community I so desperately wanted. To choose love and seeing and understanding. I wish I could go back and live a bigger story than that of my own sadness. But I can’t.
But here’s what I love about redemption. It means that even though we can’t do it over, we still get a chance to do it again, do it right, make it beautiful.
I reconnected with Debi a year or so ago on Facebook. We realized, through blog posts and comments and the odd back-and-forth message exchange, that we’ve been in our own cycles of redefining, of changing, of being changed by God’s grace.
And now I’m sitting in the dark of her guest room. My kids are sleeping on air mattresses next to the bed, worn out from a day of playing with her kids, of breathing in ocean air and running wild through her home.
We’ve spent the last three days cleaning the kitchen together, hauling kids to and from the beach, talking in short but meaningful spurts about our lives, our faith. About the hard, confusing work of raising kids. We’ve talked about coffee and post-baby body issues, and church and crockpot recipes. We’ve talked about the past and the future and the God who holds it all together.
And redemption means this: second chances and hospitality and the realization that we have more in common than we ever thought possible a decade ago in the sweltering English Office in Pinghu, China.
The kids go to bed and we flop on the couch and sigh in tandem. Nine years later, we’re not just friendly. We’re friends in the truest, deepest, sense of the word. It’s a gift, a breath, a seashell beautiful and glittering, waiting on the sand. And I’m grateful.