A few weeks back I posted a blog on faces. There were no captions, no insights, and no real understandings of the people, just pictures and words from Whitman. After posting, I again looked through the faces and wished I knew more about them. I wished I knew their stories, why they were here, and what they longed for.
But I can’t, because my Chinese is terrible.
Then I remembered a Tedtalk entitled, “Embrace the Shake.” In it, Phil Hansen calls for people to stop trying to think outside the box, but rather, to embrace it, embrace the limitations and see where our creativity takes us.
An idea formed, embrace my linguistic limitations.
If I can’t speak with the nationals, embrace the foreigners. For fifty days.
Every day, for fifty days straight, I have to meet a new face. I cannot stack faces (find two or three in one day and spread them out over the next few) and I can’t find people I know – it has to be a stranger. And it has to be someone new, every day.
I am currently on day 17.
I was planning to wait until the end to share some thoughts, but after tonight, I couldn’t. I have to get some of it out now.
The First Days:
I was terrified to approach anyone. I actually started the 50/50 a few days later than intended because I just couldn’t get myself to start conversation with random people on the street. I would see someone, walk towards them, chicken out at the last second, and then be that creepy guy who walks back and forth, hovering, pausing occasionally, and looking at you out of the corner of his eye. It was miserable for everyone.
Then I finally did it. I was sitting in a Starbucks on the other side of town and a foreign gentleman was sitting behind me, chatting with a national woman in Chinese. I figured she was hit tutor.
I hovered a bit, sensed their awkward glances, and then finally dove in. Neither of them spoke English. Awesome. I packed up my bags and went home.
A few days later, I tried again and soon, like Doc Holiday in Tombstone, I was rolling.
I met Julius from Illinois at a soccer club on day two. Day three it was Neil from
Whales and his native wife Dan Dan with their dog named Frank. Stan Song was day four. He runs a Back to the Rack sort of clothing store with over 80 percent of his clothes coming from London.
Day after day I was meeting people, and day after day it got easier and slightly less awkward as people showed themselves overwhelmingly nice, not mean or standoffish. Nice. Genuinely nice.
I was shocked.
From a young age I’ve been told that people are born sinners, deprived, and in need of a sinner. “You want to know the true nature of humanity?” I would be asked, “Look at a baby. All they care about is themselves, no one else; we are born selfish.” It sounded a tad harsh, but also believable. I would nod in agreement, but I also tucked away some doubts. Are we really fully bad . . . all the time?
At university, I was asked to write out my theological stance on the nature of man. I wrote something similar to my early years teachings, then I erased it. When I handed in the blue booklet, I was terrified. “Man isn’t fully fallible,” I argued, “we are just imperfect, perhaps incomplete even.” I don’t think I articulated myself well or defended my stance sufficiently because I got a C+. Again, I hid away some doubts.
But this project has pulled some of those wonderings out from the cracks between the bed and the walls.
Humans are indeed fallible and born sinful. However, we are also born in the image of God. We are creative, artistic, relational, musical, athletic, funny, resilient, intuitive, and adventurous (to name a few). And we are also born, I think, with a desire to be kind, as Christ was kind. He was also gentle, sharing, and loving. These too are a part of His image, the image we were created in. So they must be a part of us.
In the two-plus weeks that I’ve started this project, it is this truth that I have found, that people want to be helpful, kind, and relational, even if they would rather not be interviewed. Like Ferdinand Dippenaar. Ferdinand was uncomfortable, agitated even, while his brother was all smiles. But he wasn’t rude. To me, he was kind and perhaps even more helpful because it was clearly so unnatural for him. I had to ask him to several times to repeat himself (his accent was very strong), and he did so patiently. He chose kindness over selfishness.
And he’s not alone.
In sixteen days I have met over eighteen people. None of them were rude or refused to talk to me. Two said they were in a hurry (and I should have picked that up on my own) and one kind lady who preferred her face not be posted on social media (I tell all of them about my Instagram page) still sat and chatted with me about her job, her life in China, and her hopes for a future career (she is an economist from Germany who wants to someday work a job where she can make a difference without having to “get [her] hands dirty.” She isn’t all that fond of American politics.) But she was still eager to chat, be friendly, and share her story.
And she taught me a great lesson.
More Than a Post:
The woman from Germany came around day eight, and she taught me that just because I can’t gain something from someone doesn’t mean they aren’t worth my time. This may sound terribly ugly, but when she said “No” to the picture, my first thought was, “Then what’s the point?” I had to fight against finding an excuse to get up and leave, but after a few short minutes, my mind stopped thinking about what a waste of time this was and I actually started listening. She was crazy smart, a little witty, and had never heard of Ted Talks before. She was worth chatting with, even without the picture.
She was worth more than another Instagram post or pin on the map (Judah and I are pinning all the countries we discover on a giant world map).
And she taught me that 50 faces/50 days is more about connecting with people around me for no other purpose than to connect with the people around me – to be more human.
So Much More:
Once I realized that all people weren’t criminals or jerks and that they, for the most part, are kind and open, I began to expect something different from them, and myself. From them I expected kindness. From myself, awareness.
Over the years, I’ve developed a routine when traveling around the city: put in headphones, press play, go. I would either listen to a podcast or music, but always I would be in my own world.
This project has forced me to take out the headphones and look around, to leave the house looking for people to meet. The German lady challenged me to see people as people, not projects or possible resources.
And if she was the voice of wisdom, Rabbi Dovi was the echo of truth.
It was a Sunday and I hadn’t found my “face” for the day yet. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” I told Josey, “I just need to find a foreigner quick and then I’ll be back.” Two hours later, I returned home because Dovi had invited me into his home for some Israeli coffee.
Dovi was on his way to buy flowers for his wife because they had had a giant party the night before and he wanted to say, “Thank you.” He brought me home instead. For over sixty minutes, I sat with Dovi and his wife while their two beautiful and shy little girls played around the house. His wife was from New York and had a knack for design. The Israeli coffee was fantastic, and super strong. We talked about my project, the nature of mankind, and his role as the leader within the Jewish community of Chengdu. Two cleaners swept the hay from off the floor. Dovi’s wife had strewn it all over the house the night before to encourage a “small village” feel. It smelled fantastic.
A week later (tonight), I shared a rum and coke with Tony and Eugene.
I met the Tony and Eugene at Tianfu Square. Scanning over the square, searching for someone to meet, I spotted Eugene from a ways a way and had to quickly catch up to them before they were lost in the city’s shuffle. They immediately invited me to their favorite pub.
Our rum and coke came in a tiny tin pale and Bob Dylan played over the pub. Tony, from Ohio, is a singer/songwriter who dabbles in almost all musical instruments. He likes to over glorify America and simplify China while Eugene, from the Ukraine, remains mostly silent. He only started learning English a year ago and speaks in heavy accented, broken sentences. But, according to Tony, he is a magician on the drums, and that is language the two of them share, almost everyday.
Eugene refills my glass, “To Bono!” We drink. We both love Bono.
I hung out with Tony and Eugene for almost two hours, all because of awareness. Awareness of the people around me, and awareness of the opportunities that can come when the focus out instead of in, when the headphones come off.
When people are more than just a post.
Before leaving, Eugene took a selfie with me and posted it on his own Instagram. They’re both coming to my house for a rooftop jam party in May.
Something is in all of this, beyond what I’ve already posted, but I can’t quite figure out what it is yet, I know it’s there, like a thought on the tip of my tongue, I just can’t articulate it yet.
But I think it’s okay that I don’t know yet, because that’s the point, to keep going.
There’s still thirty-three more days.