Monday, May 4, 2015

Gods of Place and Culture

I rolled up to our local hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeout on my bike, because, well, it was a nice night, and I felt like it.

The place was bustling with the energies of that little family business, just as it's always bustling.  The matriarch came out, chatting amiably with me about the bike as she rang up the order.  It was the same sequence of questions she asked the last time I rode the bike to pick up food, but hey.  Small talk is small talk, and it was pleasant.

Her two granddaughters meandered about in the parking lot out front, noodling in circles on two bright pink bicycles.  Back in the kitchen, her daughter...or daughter-in-law...could be heard shouting out conversation in Mandarin over the sounds of food preparation.  There were a couple of new relatives working, folks I'd not seen before.

"You take a seat," said she.  "It'll be a few minutes."  So I did, and rather than disappear into my pocket-screen, I looked at my surroundings.  We've been going to that little place for years, back even before this family owned the business.  It hasn't changed too much in the last four or five years of this family owning it--shoot, even the menu is the same as it's always been.

The waiting area is filled with luck-totems and Confucianesque-prosperity-posters, which have gathered and increased in number over the years.  There's the inescapable luck-cat with the waggly paw.  There are great fat cherubs and smiling rosy-cheeked elders, beaming from posters lush with gold and fruit.  There's a big luck-Buddha, rotund and beaming and wearing what appeared to be a ton of lipstick, his arms raised to hold a platter/shrine to the well-being of the business.

It's all part of the ambiance.

But next to a poster of a beaming wizened Confucian elder overlaid with an American-flag-freedom-tchotchke, and behind the slightly stoned looking Buddha, something new caught my eye.  Wasn't there last time out.

A calendar.  On the calendar, a scripture.  New Testament.  "I am the resurrection and the life."  John 11.  Under the scripture, a picture of a huge screen in a local Chinese megachurch, under which was a decent-sized choir, looking every bit as shiny and prosperous as the other images.

I suppose I should have felt psyched to see my own faith making an incursion.  Go Team Jesus!  But it felt at first out of place, like encountering a Ganesha statuette in a Tex-Mex place. this supposed to be here?  I just don't associate Jesus with the flavor of American faux-Chinese cuisine.

This was, of course, an absurd reaction, one from some strange lingering categorical honkey-American thinking.  "Hey! I'm here fer mah Chai-neez food!  That ain't no China god!  Y'all s'posed ta just have Buddhas and [stuff]!  Is mah Moo Goo Guy Pan ready yet?"

Which is silly, given how Christianity is notable for its ability to go completely transcultural, adopting the forms and shapes and images of any society it encounters as it expresses the Gospel.  And doubly silly, given that Christianity has been present in China for longer than it's been present on this continent.  And triply silly, given that there are thirty times more Christians in China than there are, oh, say, American Presbyterians.

And so I waited, and reflected, and later thoroughly enjoyed my Home Style Bean Curd.

Mmmm, bean curd.