Tag Archives: Kristina in Singapore

Appreciating Minnesota… from Asia

“Now, hypothetically,” says my British professor as only a British professor can, “let us say that Kristina the American decides to go to missions in France. And Kristina the American, no, Kristina the Minnesotan, gets on a plane and goes…” It is only a scenario made up by one of my professors to illustrate something for the class. He scrawls out a Venn diagram on the whiteboard with a circle labeled “M” for Minnesota, and another overlapping circle labeled “F” for France and begins to talk about cultural overlap, how some things would be shared between Minnesotan and French culture and others not. But I confess that for a moment I am not listening. I am caught up in the idea of being identified as a Minnesotan. And I like it.

Living in Singapore, my first obvious characteristic that people notice is that I’m Caucasian, which isn’t terribly uncommon around here, but enough to be different (we’re part of that 1.4% “other”). The second, which comes out as soon as I open my mouth, is that I’m American (as opposed to British, Australian, French or German, other common options). However, being American is problematic, as far as identity goes, for two reasons.

First, when people approach you as an “American” they do so with certain stereotypes and preconceptions. These may be positive or negative, and they may be right or wrong, but, because America tends to export itself globally and without restraint, they are usually very strong. However, these stereotypes are incapable of encompassing what it means to be American as a whole because America is so diverse. So people will ask me “How do Americans feel about gun control?” or something like that. Such questions are impossible to answer simply, and my usual response is “Well, which Americans? East Coast, South, Midwest, or West Coast? Urban or Rural? Liberal or Conservative?”

Secondly, because the idea of being American is so vague and large, it is a very difficult thing to personally identify with. When I say I’m American what does that mean, not just to the people who interact with me, what does it mean TO ME? And the short answer is, I don’t know. Some American characteristics I can identify with, like liberty and justice for all and so on. Others, however, I don’t identify with, such as materialism or individualism.

Because of this, I have tended in my time here in Singapore to veer away from the label “American” and towards my home state, Minnesota, instead. So when people ask “Do Americans value their extended families?” I can answer, “Well, it differs around American, but at least in Minnesota, people tend to not move far from home and to be pretty involved in their extended families.” This is something tangible, something familiar, and something near enough that I can both identify it and identify WITH it. What are Americans like? I don’t know. Most of them are foreigners to me. But Minnesotans, ah, I can tell you what they, what we, are like.

So, while I’m not ashamed (usually) of being an American and I don’t hide my nationality, I have discovered a greater pride and sense of identity with being Minnesotan. America is my country, but Minnesota is my homeland.

Midterm Election Reflections from Singapore

“Have you gotten your absentee ballot yet?” my dad asked me over skype.

Oh yeah, I should do that, I thought to myself. I wasn’t sure how to request one, but my dad being the faithfully politically conscientious person that he is was only too happy to poke around the interwebs and get me in contact with my local election officials. The ballot was requested and arrived exactly one week before election day. Since things typically take exactly one week to post from Singapore to Minnesota, I quickly filled it out, relying heavily on the research heavy email my father had sent to all three of his daughters. I knew the big names: Emmer, Dayton, Bachmann and so on, but the local offices are harder to follow from the other side of the world. And so I filled out my ballot, packaged it all up securely, and trekked down the block to drop it in the mailbox while being bombarded by two psychotic crows. I’m not kidding. I have no idea what the crows have against the American political process but they chased me all the way down the block. However, despite the bizarre aerial barrage, mission accomplished: ballot mailed.

Then it was just a question of sitting back for a week and dreaming of the day when Fox News would no longer be dominated by the petty he-said, she-said drama that is election season. I confess, though this may not be the best place to do it, that I suffer from an unfortunate amount of political apathy. I’ve come a long way from riding in the car as an eight year old and cheering every time we passed a Republican campaign sign while booing the Democratic ones. One day I realized that at least the federal government, on both sides of the aisle, had become 90% political games and 10% getting stuff done and it was all downhill from there.

However, despite this attitude of disenchantment, there’s just something about election day. Even here on the other side of the world I woke up excited. I may be politically pessimistic for 364 days of the year (times two), but on election day I am an incurable optimist. It’s the one day in the year it feels like maybe, just maybe, America, the Great Experiment, might work after all. Allowing for the thirteen hour time difference, I started stalking election results websites Wednesday morning in between classes. I was listening to country music and grinning every time “I VOTED!” popped into my facebook news feed. I called my family on skype. I knew they would be at home, in front of the TV with popcorn and peanuts to watch the results come in. So I skyped into election night with them, got the latest results (which were rather scarce at the time), and enjoyed my dad’s speculations and commentary that I’ve been hearing as long as I can remember. Even on the other side of the world, election day and everything that goes with it never seems to lose its shine.

A few days later I got cornered after dinner by my friend Byra from Mongolia who wanted to know all about the American election and how it had gone and if I was pleased with the results. He and I and our friend David from India ended up sitting and talking for over two hours about the political systems of our various countries and how they worked and how they had been developed. Byra shared with us his memories of Mongolia’s (completely bloodless) switch from communism to democracy in 1990 (amazing story, look it up). And I found it strange to look for a moment at America and our process of government through foreign eyes. As I sat and talked with them I felt like being an American somehow felt like more than it had before, not better, not more important, just more distinct as it sat beside Mongolia and India.

So, will we get it right this time? Will these elected officials have what it takes to get the job done (whatever that means) and put our country on solid footing again? Well, given that it is one of the OTHER 364 days of the year, my answer is no, probably not. But even so, our election day has been an exhibition once again, of the foundation of what America is, “We the People”, and, even in a vast global community, that is something special.

Not So Foreign Countries

It’s quarter to 8pm in Singapore.

The very last tints of twilight blue are subsiding into darkness on the western horizon, which just happens to be to the left of my third story window. Directly north a large thunderhead is putting on a silent light show. Brief electric illuminations demark the borders of the wall cloud before it vanishes against the night sky again. I can see one star almost overhead. It seems as if the storm is coming closer, but it’s hard to tell. We’ve had one cloudburst already today, but it only increased the humidity of an already uncomfortably warm afternoon. Rain tonight might actually cool things down.

Traffic on the main road outside has not yet slowed, but traffic is always bad. A classmate told me today that his friend once spent $200 on gas in one day of driving because all of the driving is city driving in stop and go traffic. There are only five kinds of vehicles on the road: taxis, Japanese utility trucks, luxury cars, motorcycles and public buses. The quiet cars are out right now; it seems that all the muffler less vehicles wait until midnight to take to the streets.

Tonight, this is Singapore. It is not how I pictured it when I prepared to cross the Pacific but, then again, foreign countries never are. A big reason for this is that one of the foundational definitions we have for countries other than our own is “foreign”. The definition of foreign is “alien in nature, strange, unfamiliar”. But once you set foot in a place that has previously to you been only a “foreign” country, it is, in some sense, no longer foreign. Now it is something you have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. It is no longer “that place over there”, it is rather, the place right here, and that is not what you expected.

This is not to say that it is no longer alien in nature, strange and unfamiliar. There will always be things and moments that catch you off guard, no matter how long you stay. You still feel like a stranger, like you don’t quite belong, and that some things here will never make sense. But the country is no longer separate from you. Regardless of how long or short your time there, it is now part of you and thus, no longer foundationally defined as “foreign”.

When I communicate with people back stateside, they always want to know “How’s Singapore? What’s it like?”. I’m finding more and more that the most instinctual answer for me to give is “normal”. The sun rose this morning, and since I have to do chores on campus at 6:40am, I was an eyewitness to the event. It was hot and humid today. I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner. I went to class. I made plans with people to see a movie tomorrow night. The sun went down. I sat in my window and watched lightning on the horizon, thinking somewhat nostalgically of similar summer storms back home in Minnesota. And I procrastinated from my homework by writing a blog piece. Normal. Today’s normal just happened to be in Singapore, the not so foreign country were I currently live.

9/11 Quran Burner – Think of the Consequences

Last month I wrote regarding the American Influence that we sometimes don’t even realize we have. I pointed out “how ignorant we can often be of the immeasurable influence we have” and I asked “what will we do with that responsibility?”.

This month I want to address a specific way an American will influence the world, possibly without being aware of the consequences his actions might have.

I heard about Terry Jones for the first time around my cafeteria dinner table here in Singapore. My Indonesian friend, Naomi, asked me about him, “Do you know Terry Jones in Florida?” she asked.
“No, is he a friend of yours?” I replied.
Her answer was an emphatic no and she went on to explain that Terry Jones is a pastor at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FA who is planning to hold a Quran burning on 9/11. My initial reaction to this news was to roll my eyes
“Radical trying to get attention,” I thought to myself, but Naomi’s eyes weren’t rolling. They were filled with anxiety.

“If he does this,” she said, “the muslims in my country will hurt us again. They will attack our churches and our families. They will be very angry.”
And suddenly the consequences of Terry Jones actions went global. This wasn’t just about some American pastor reacting against Islam. This was an act of provocation that could easily threaten both my, and Terry Jones’, Christian brethren worldwide.

Now, I have no doubt regarding Terry Jones’ boldness, courage and conviction, and for these I applaud him. His desire to commemorate 9/11 is commendable. His desire to raise awareness about Islam is also not a negative sentiment. His methods, at first, appear only radical and disrespectful. However, the effects of his methods are deadly.

If Terry Jones wants to endanger himself and his church (which he is certainly doing) then that is his business and his choice. However, he does not have the right to endanger the lives, livelihood and well-being of Christian families, workers and children worldwide who tenuously cohabitate neighborhoods and cities with their muslim neighbors. Already this month has seen violence in Indonesia against churches and their members; already tensions are high. Such an act by one man in the world spotlight of America could cost men, women and children their lives.

Often America and Americans do not realize the influence we have worldwide. But this is a situation where we cannot afford to ignore it. My classmates here at seminary whose churches and families often live side by side with muslim neighbors are aware and are afraid.
“Can’t the government stop him from doing it?” a classmate asked me, “I am so afraid of what will happen.”

So, on their behalf I appeal to Terry Jones: do not endanger your brothers and sisters, my classmates, my friends, their families and churches, with this well-meant but foolhardy act. The impact may have consequences you do not want to answer for before the throne of your God.

(To voice your concerns for Christians and churches worldwide to Terry Jones, you can contact his church here. You can be sure I have already done so)

The Great Media Bias

The nightly news, well more accurately, the nightly, morning, daily, and incessant news, is a very deceptive thing, and the information age has made it possible for this deception to become an even more pervasive and insidious element in our society. Despite the talk about unbiased reporting and so on and so forth, the reporting that goes on today is completely and totaled biased in a fundamental and unalterable way. The news media is determined to only cover stories that are abnormal.

For example, in the United States alone there is an average of about 27,000 domestic airplane flights daily. However, the news will NEVER report on the thousands and thousands of flights and passengers that successfully travel around the country, not to mention the world, day after day after day. No, the news will ONLY report a plane flight where something goes wrong whether that be flying an hour past their intended destination or crashing into a huge ball of fire. This same bias causes the media to intricately report on some person somewhere finding a dead mouse in their happy meal and completely ignore the millions of mouse-less happy meals that are served every year.

This deception has a twofold effect that pervades our culture. The first of these effects is that the news shows us a world that is full of excitement and happenings and upheavals and drama and makes our own lives look exceptionally dull and boring. The second of these effects is that this hyper-sensationalism causes us to become blind to the sensational stuff that makes up the monotony of our every day lives.

Consider this: the news will cover the story of a man who unexpectedly buys a winning lotto ticket, becomes an overnight billionaire and retires at the age of thirty. The news will not cover the story of a man who faithfully works a 9-5 job until he’s seventy to provide for a family, send his children to college, and quietly retire in the suburbs to spoil the next generation. Yet this is the beautiful and wondrous stuff of our lives.

Such things are the glories that G.K. Chesterton called “tremendous trifles” (and if you want to bring balance into your life from the biased media, you should find and read his book by that name; it’s online at Gutenberg Press). It is he who calls us to draw our attention from the biased media that proclaims that all the world is interesting except you and to consider that incredibly valuable and precious and wonderful thing that we dismiss under the ignoble title of “the ordinary”.

I conclude with an excerpt from this prophet of common sense

“By fixing our attention almost fiercely on the facts actually before us, [we can] force them to turn into adventures; force them to give up their meaning and fulfill their mysterious purpose… The object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing. …I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”

Photo credit – wrongfulconvictionlawsuitdefense.com

War, Peace, and the Human Soul

In the last 2,000 years, according to historians, we have had a grand total of 100 years of peace. That is, there have only been 100 years scattered among two millennia in which there has not been some kind of armed conflict somewhere in the world.

A classmate of mine today, who has lived through wars in his own country, shared the observation that it is easy to consider war to be something unusual, an enigma, an anomaly, a break from the routine. It is more accurate, he pointed out, to observe peace as the anomaly, the exception rather than the rule. Human history is much more a tapestry of consistent war occasionally interrupted by aberrant outbreaks of peace. So then, it is much more realistic in considering a particular nation not to wonder IF they will have a war but WHEN, how, with whom and why.

This is not, however, because people do not want peace. In fact, a very real part of the problem is that everyone wants peace, they just want it on their own terms. The world does not fail to attain peace and utopia for a lack of trying. In fact, every man who has ever lived has lived in pursuit of utopia. The difficulty is that every man also has a different idea of what that utopia, that peace, would look like and, likewise, how to attain it. Americans want it with liberty and justice for all, Islam wants it with every knee bent to Allah and Kim Jong II wants it with luxury, power and preeminence for himself. Same pursuit; different goals.

Clinton (the former president, not the wanna-be president) was wrong when he said…

“The real differences around the world today are not between Jews and Arabs; Protestants and Catholics; Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. The real differences are between those who embrace peace and those who would destroy it.”

It is a strange thing that man should bear both the proclivity for war and the desire for peace in the same soul. As shown above, war is the rule and peace the exception. And yet, even so, man has never submitted to the classical conditioning around him that would adapt his spirit to warfare as a way of life. Rather, there is still something in the soul of man that looks at war and says “this is wrong, this is out of place, this thing should not be.” Both those who abstain from warlike acts and those who engage in them know that they are bad; indeed, those who wage war would not do so unless it was bad! You do not wage war against your enemies because war is GOOD but because war is BAD and you are using a bad thing in an attempt to punish, threaten, subdue or destroy those who stand in the way of your peace on your terms.

Thus we find these two curious things to be so. First, that man recognizes war as an atrocity and a bad thing and that man also desires peace of some kind. And second, that despite this aversion to war and desire for peace, 95% of our most recent world history has seen war of some kind. Something is, it would seem, fundamentally wrong. Perhaps man is broken.

The American Influence

I stepped off the plane and onto Asian soil for the first time (well, Asian tarmac and concrete) and found America all over again. I had read books to prepare me to come to Singapore, books that detailed aspects of the rich cultures that comprise Singapore’s complex society. I had learned about the Chinese, the Malay, the Indian, and I read about how Singapore was still emerging as a united cultural entity from this melting pot.

Singapore is the halfbreed brainchild of the east and the west. It’s a sea of Asian faces that all speak English. It’s a McDonalds and Pizza Hut on the corner down the street (they both deliver to your door), and Oreos and Ritz next to seaweed crackers and dried shrimp in the grocery store. It’s people introducing themselves to you by their Chinese name and then their English name as they smile with the tolerant knowledge that you won’t be able to remember the first one. It’s sitting at the bus stop and being serenaded by three tween girls singing Bon Jovi’s “living on a prayer”.

The western influence here is apparent, not only on the surface but also in the shifting fabric of Singaporean culture. All my Singaporean classmates can speak of the generational gaps in their families, similarly to what is often experienced by Asian immigrants and their children in the States. The Singapore that my classmates grew up in is not the Singapore of their parents or grandparents. My classmates may or may not speak their native tongue (some dialect from China, Malaysia or India usually). Their parents typically speak both English and their native tongue. Often their grandparents will not know English at all. The language is only a measuring rod for other cultural differences such as the materialism and individualism that seem to inevitably follow western influence.

The extent of the western influence in Singapore is vast and pervasive. The other day, it caught me off guard in an unexpected way. My professor was talking about his religious background and how he used to be Taoist before he became a Christian as a college student. “My whole family was Taoist,” he shared, “we prayed to everything. We prayed to the kitchen god, to the sea god, to the household gods, and we prayed to the moon, well, until the Americans landed on it.”

The class laughed, as did I, but I was suddenly struck by this perspective on what had for me always just been a great American scientific accomplishment. Countless cultures and religions around the world throughout human history have, in some way, shape or form, worshiped or venerated the moon or a lunar deity. It was an unreachable and luminous heavenly body that had both the indifferent distance of a god and yet the predictable rhythms of something trustworthy. And then America landed on her. Suddenly, the distant became near, the unreachable had been reached, the luminous wonder was exposed as a colorless rock in the sky. And we never even thought about the cultural and religious implications of that act. Just the scientific accomplishment.

Now, this is not a criticism of the moon landing or American science. It is merely an observation of how ignorant we can often be of the immeasurable influence we have. Though we are still young as a nation, barely out of our awkward teen years, there are younger siblings around the world watching us, imitating us, wanting to grow up to be like us. The question now is what will we do with that responsibility?