LOUDER THAN WORDS

Streets lined with red lanterns, firecracker debris scattered on the streets like red confetti, lion dances outside restaurants and storefronts with that dun-dun-dun-dun drumroll with the crashing cymbals that lets you know that the new year has come! Listen closely, and come see the bright red banners with shiny gold Chinese characters, the fresh shrimp chips with the oil dripping into its three-tiered paper towel cushion, and hear the sound of the wok’s sizzle song as the wooden spoon keeps the stirfry on beat. Artfully displayed cuts of fresh fruit, shiny red Chinese candies, gold coins of solid milk chocolate. It’s like Valentine’s Day, but better! No one is alone and sad. Everyone is together, there is decidedly less pink, and there are hung baos (red envelopes) full of cash.

Lion dances on Mott Street, Chinatown NYC. Dragons eat cabbage!

These Chinese New Year memories have sharp sounds and savory smells and flavors and feelings and little kid wonders. As a third-generation Chinese-American whose parents were born in New York City and whose Chinese is limited to “Gung Hay Fat Choy” (happy new year), a few food dishes, and “ne mo gaw cho-ah” (what is your problem?), I have sometimes felt like an outsider looking into a culture not quite my own. Is this mine, too? After years of the slow work of God healing my understanding of my identity (more on that in another post!), I have been freed to say yes, it is also mine. From a much greater distance than my ancestors in China, but yes, it still speaks to a family whose story and culture has shaped me deeply. It’s a culture about which excitedly enjoy learning and celebrating!

One of the things I most appreciate about my Chinese culture is the sheer generosity in expressing love. Through many perspectives, that might sound odd because Chinese communication could be seen as stingy – quiet, passive, not direct enough to say “I love you.” But if you look closely you’ll see that it is not passive but quite active; we communicate love through quietly anticipating needs and thoughtful, generous acts of service. It is not a deficiency of love but a different means of expressing it. It’s the best.

My family out at Chinese New Year in 1994! Guess which child I am 🙂

If you listen curiously to the indirect communication within a Chinese family, you might be surprised to see the subtle but strong ways need, love, and appreciation are expressed with lavish generosity, yet subtly so that the recipient will not feel ashamed. If you listen closely, you will hear stories of my dad coming to my apartment when I’m away for the weekend and dropping off two watermelons, a Costco ream of toilet paper, and containers of hearts of palm (something I love but don’t want to spend money on). You’ll see the group text between my mom and sisters and the ways we care for each other by constant updates and pictures of Harper, cats, and me with yogurt masks on my face. You’ll see softly given, unpretentious generosity from Chinese church families who support the ministry to students continuously and with great faith. You’ll see my parents driving to Boston to bring snow tires up for Andrew for the winter.  You’ll see tables abundant with all of our favorite Chinese food whenever we come home, communicating an affection without words. But, to us, it’s understood as plain as day. You will see me trying on wedding dresses with my sisters and mom, falling in love with the most expensive one in the store, crestfallen at the price, then receiving a text from my dad the week after saying “Don’t worry about the dress.” And then getting similar texts from my sisters to see if I needed help to get the dress. You’ll see me cry. You’ll see my parents ensuring that we had real hot food and a tent for our wedding so that we didn’t have to do a potluck picnic haha (a real option). You will see the cards from my parents, with prayerful and powerful words of pride and joy. Rarely spoken, but heard and treasured forever.

My dad got a first look of my golden-flower princess poof wedding dress! Photo by Shipra Panosian Photography

It is a beautiful song of call and response that you will miss if you’re not listening. Families seeing each other deeply, anticipating each other’s needs, and helping each other. Whole communities functioning and flourishing with this sweet, subtle communication to help one another, to save face and protect honor. It is a song that that communicates pain and softness, strength and wisdom, courage and pride. It is not without missteps – harshness where there should be softness, passive aggression when it doesn’t feel accessible to express negative feelings, needs not well anticipated. And in emergencies when decisions need to be made quickly, indirect communication doesn’t work so well. But when it is just right – when there is learning and giving and receiving, and a shame-lifting grace, it is powerful. It would bring tears to your eyes.

As I’ve walked with God I have found that he sometimes he speaks boldly and directly in  moments that change your life forever. But there are also times where he is subtle and indirect, where you feel seen and gently invited if you so choose to trust him. There are the bold declarations of the prophet, and also the gentle whisper of the Lord after the wind, earthquake, and fire. You see Jesus blatantly chastising the self-righteous, and you also see him teaching in parables for him who has ears to hear.  Those earth-shattering “ah ha” moments are powerful, but the indirect ways he speaks to me are some of the sweetest. I often find myself crying and repenting when reading for pleasure; God speaking subtly and yet powerfully through fictional characters! Or through a thoughtful note from a friend gently suggesting the very thing I need, reminding me of how seen I am.  Or in writing – as I wrote the last post on generosity via our wedding cake, I heard God’s invitation to be radically generous to a brother when I really didn’t want to be generous (haha, irony). But I heard God’s voice constantly as I wrote (it was annoying but endearing) and eventually said yes to him. And it has brought life. His indirect, gentle beckoning and care is one of the ways that his long-suffering love comes along side of us. It is a deep seeing, soft with kindness and strong for the long road. How has God shown you his love in subtle, gentle ways?