A few years ago, I was privileged to spend an entire summer in my birthplace of Taiwan to study Mandarin Chinese. I thought it would be easy for me to pick up since I grew up in a home where my parents spoke Mandarin to each other. But, I soon found that the vocabulary I learned from my parents—which mostly consisted of bodily functions, household words, and family chatter about school and friends and doctors’ appointments—would not get me far in a Chinese-speaking country.
Things that I enjoy in my English-speaking life, like film, news, church, and political discussions were beyond my linguistic comprehension in Taiwan. When I was a part of a group of people who were discussing anything interesting, I found myself smiling and nodding at things that were said just because everyone else was. They could have been talking about serial killers or how dumb Americans are, for all I know. I just wanted to fit in, so I pretended and stayed silent.
Until one glorious day when I wandered into my home church office and met a middle-aged ethnically Chinese man…who was as fluent as I was in English. He was a Methodist pastor from Singapore studying in Taiwan. And we talked for a really long time…mostly about homosexuality. We talked about what the Bible said about homosexuality—he argued that scripture condemns it; I argued that scripture blesses it.
Now, I normally avoid these kinds of Bible debates at all costs, but somehow I left that conversation feeling strangely refreshed and energized. And it was not because I am right, which I am.
It was because it had been a month since I had engaged in any real conversation with someone in Taiwan. So it had been a month since anyone had seen the real Vicki. In English, I like to think that I am pretty smart and articulate and sometimes funny. In Mandarin, I am none of these things. In Mandarin, I am ignorant, confused, and lost. In English, I have interesting and significant things to say about social justice and theology and life. In Mandarin, I smile and nod, terrified that someone will ask me a question. Until that summer, I had never realized how important a native language is. It is the medium by which we express our true selves with the world, and it can feel so lonely when we are away from it.
The other important realization I had in Taiwan that summer was about my dad. For my entire life, I had only known my Chinese dad in the United States. Very soon after we arrived in the U.S., my father’s hearing began to decline, and he never became very proficient in the English language. That’s partly why he never worked in the States. So for my entire conscious life in the U.S., Dad had been unemployed and—like I was in Mandarin—isolated and out of touch.
When I was in Taiwan that summer, I spent most of my time at the university where my father had served as the chief accountant. And when I told people who I was, I was so surprised at how they reacted. They smiled and embraced me, not because I was smart and articulate and sometimes funny—because I was not any of those things in Mandarin. They were excited and honored to meet me because of who my father was. Because they respected him and remembered him fondly as a smart, professional leader.
And that was when I realized that I have never really known my dad. Because I have never known him in his native language. In English, he was never able to be himself—smart, capable, articulate, maybe even a little funny.
When I took my father, who was a high-ranking military veteran, to Taiwan to live in a nursing home last year, the equivalent of our Secretary of Veterans Affairs was personally notified of my father’s homecoming. This cabinet-level official sent a representative to meet us at the airport and escort us throughout our time in Taiwan. My dad was—is—a very respected man in his own culture and language. And I just had no idea.
My own time abroad made me wonder if Dad ever felt as isolated and misunderstood in the U.S. as I felt in Taiwan.
Because of this, Pentecost—which we will celebrate on Sunday—has always been a special day for me. It is known as the birthday of the church, and comes with this story:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
I just think of all of those people from around the world staying in Jerusalem. I imagine what it must have been like being a foreigner, surrounded by a language that is not your own. How many of those pilgrims may have been respected far away, in homes and academic institutions and workplaces, how they must have been funny and smart in their native tongues, how little the people around them could have known about how interesting and special they were. How many times they would have smiled and nodded, terrified that someone would ask them a question.
And how the day we celebrate as the birthday of the Christian church is the day those foreigners heard people speaking in their own native languages.
I love that the whole Christian experiment begins with including those who had formerly felt excluded, by opening ourselves up to people as they really are, with all of their cultural-linguistic quirks and competencies and respectabilities. And how this story calls us to try our best to see each other and interact with each other as whole, special human beings, just as the Spirit sees and interacts with us—in our native tongues.
You are invited to join us for this Pentecost Sunday, May 19, as well as for our Asian Pacific American Heritage Celebration on June 2. We worship on the corner of 7th Ave and 13th St every Sunday at 10:30am.