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“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
I traveled back and forth to Asia for a period of two years as the newly promoted Director of Sales for the region, and if the soil of my heart had not already been thoroughly harrowed by the divine discipline, the rigors of this lifestyle would certainly have done the trick. I was constantly jet lagged, pushing my horizons, brushing off fatigue, putting myself forth in strange company, off-kilter in foreign cities, and alone for such long stretches of time, there was little else to do but pray.
My itinerary usually consisted of a one-week trip, splitting my time between two cities in the Far East, or a two week trip, splitting my time between four cities in the South East. I traveled, on average, every six weeks for a spell of one-to-two weeks at a time. And I went to almost every city in Asia, shoring up my considerable feelings of ease in the region.
The time I spent in this position was not easy, and I did not wish to find another job in the same field when I was eventually laid off. All my phone calls had to be made at night because of the mostly twelve hour time difference between New York and the Far East, and this meant that I was either working alone in the office as late as midnight, or was making calls at home in my pajamas. And travel loses some of its glamor after a while – no really, it does.
But for a time in my twenty-five year old life, I had arrived. I wore suits with short skirts from Victoria Secret (quite fashionable at the time), and I had my own desk in a shared office, with relative freedom as to when I showed up and when I left. When I entered the building, I walked past the glass room where Madonna took yoga classes. And when I went out for lunch, I saw a harried Meg Ryan crossing over to a boutique in SoHo, hidden behind her large sunglasses, and Mr. Bean performing on the street, to the appreciation of a small audience. I clutched my briefcase to my side and took my place in the motley crowd.
I was playing a part. I neither understood finance, unable to go beyond the platitudes as to why these executives would want to advertise in our magazine – nor was I shark, willing to do anything to make a sale. I didn’t let on that I was out of my element when I sat with the Finance Minister of Thailand as he detailed his country’s macro-economics for me, and I followed his discourse through a thick veil of incomprehension. But I claimed the position I had been given so I could enjoy its perks, and I faked my way through the rest.
When the Asian economy started to fold in 1998, leading to the eventual loss of my job, I finally understood that I had been coasting on the newspaper’s reputation. The economy was rich and my sales just came in without my having to work for them. But there came a point when nothing else was forthcoming, and I found myself sitting across from the Finance Minister of some emerging market country, as he shrugged his shoulders and said, “What should I do? Buy your company profile or provide food for my people?” The demise of my position was not long in coming after that.
But for those two years, I lived in a tired state of wonder, gaining experience beyond what I could have imagined. I stayed in nice hotels with spa-like bathrooms, tiled in beige, and which afforded some of the most luxurious showers I’d ever taken. I took cabs everywhere, ate in restaurants and expensed it all. I filled my suitcase with samples of the newspaper, business cards, media kits and business suits, and I packed quickly before each trip, a blasé routine born of habit and calm assurance.
Sometimes the countries were inviting places to visit, and I knew to expect an excellent level of English and an attention to comfort. In Singapore, I stayed at the Holiday Inn on the Park, where I slept off my jet lag in the king-sized bed with crisp cotton sheets and a heavy white duvet. In the morning, I sat at the desk in the monogrammed cotton bathrobe, staring contentedly at the trees outside the window as I ate my breakfast in solitude, pouring the strong hot coffee from the silver carafe. As the week wore on, and the jet lag shrugged off, I swam laps in the rooftop terrace pool before the day began, dressing in the cool air conditioning before facing a day full of business meetings in the heat.
On these trips, I was usually alone, and relied on my smile, a few pat phrases and the reputation of the newspaper to conduct business. I had plenty of time to think as I stared numbly at the scenes that flew by from my taxi window, always rushing from one meeting to the next. And I would come to life again as I was ushered into the elegant conference room, where I was offered sweet tea or coffee to drink while waiting for the director to come in. Fatigue was offset by privilege, and this façade gave me pleasure for some time.
Each country was just different enough for me to appreciate the subtleties involved in doing business there. In Japan, I would take the director’s business card with two hands, study it and ask questions about their position before putting it on the table, as was expected. In Taipei, I would find the clerks sleeping at their desks if I attended a meeting during the lunch hour, but I was used to that, and happy to be back in a country I knew so well. In Shanghai I strolled through the old city after my workday was done, finding romance in the architecture, and scouting a place to eat dinner amidst the warm lights and delicious smells that were floating in the air. The fragrant spices emanating from the restaurants were familiar to me from my two years in Taiwan, and I felt at home.
I was also obliged to discover cultures that were less familiar to me, and I faced them with a mix of eagerness and apprehension. When an upcoming trip to Pakistan was proposed, it jostled to my awareness a deep-rooted prejudice I had against Muslims, particularly Muslim men – I who thought I had no prejudice at all! I was not only frightened to go because of how I might be treated, I was also disdainful about what goodness and beauty I might find there. This revelation shocked me into prayer for God to remove such a prejudice from my heart; there was no question of my remaining that way.
It was thus that I found myself on the very next flight, seated next to a Muslim man who proudly showed me pictures of his wife and children, lovingly boasting about how perfect they were as he smiled at me, then down at the picture. I smiled back at his friendliness and gentleness, and was inwardly touched as his beautiful heart was revealed to me. There was no room for prejudice against this worthy soul, and the ugly weed was rooted out.
However, once in Pakistan, I knew not to stray outside of the hotel, except in the company of the local consultant. I felt small, alone, and so white – so female in this country. I eagerly looked around me, staring at the pale men of Karachi with their angular features, whose beards and hair were often henna-dyed red. When I later compared them to their compatriots further North who were thicker and swarthier, it was hard to believe that these two peoples came from the same country.
Even the scenery was different, with the sandy, desert-like aspect to Karachi, compared to the lush verdant countryside that greeted me in Lahore. In the taxi ride from the airport to the city center, I drove past long stretches of bright green fields, bordered by low-lying trees and rich clay roads leading to, what I assumed were, quiet villages tucked away. Staring at such fertile landscape was surreal in its beauty, and the chords of my chest thrummed as I imagined that this must be what heaven looked like.
At the conclusion of my journey through Pakistan, I landed in the small dark airport of Islamabad, a rude building surrounded by desert. At first glance, I found that I was the only foreigner there. But when I looked to my right, I noticed a veiled Caucasian women with washed-out, pale features and pale blue eyes. My heart leapt at finding, what I thought was, an American who was there by marriage. I longed to connect to her, but she completely ignored me.
I was trying to place her, this woman who looked like me but was so clearly shrouded in foreign customs. I soon came to the conclusion that she must not be American, but it was only later that I made the connection that the Caucasus people – the ancestors to my own race – were also located in Afghanistan and had leaked out to the surrounding regions from there. This veiled woman was not American and living there because of marriage, as I had assumed. She was home, and it was a home so removed from my own.
It wasn’t just the religious variances that shook my narrow understanding of the world, but also the governmental ones. I was required to engage a local business consultant in China because it would have been difficult to move freely on my own. She had a poor partner in me because I was more interested in courting adventure than in landing the deal. But she was very hard-core – concerned about image, brand names, making money, and most importantly about landing the deal. I angered her when she lost face with a client by my refusing to try the deep-fried sea cockroaches he had ordered, and she scolded me roundly when we were on our own.
We communicated in a mixture of Chinese and English, and she cleared her throat constantly, a nervous tic that belied her fear of failure in spite of her hard edge. As we rode down a broad street on our way to a meeting in Beijing, I looked over and saw a long red brick wall, extending over several blocks.
“What’s that,” I asked her.
“It’s Tiananmen,” she answered clearing her throat nervously.
“Wait. You mean Tiananmen Square? Where the massacre took place?” I was looking at her in astonishment, and then turning back in wonder to witness this majestic site full of tragic history.
“Shh.” she admonished me, glancing at the cab driver. “We don’t talk about that here,” she added under her breath.
“But this is amazing! Did you know it was happening at the time?” I carried on, oblivious to her concern. I didn’t understand that her life could be in danger if the taxi driver understood English and our talk could be traced back to her. I couldn’t fathom that in the age of post-Cold War, there could still be danger of free speech in a communist country, and along with it, repercussions.
She unbent enough to say quietly, “It was not on the news, but we had friends in Singapore who told us that it was happening. But we cannot talk about this,” she emphasized again, and then turned her head towards the window and looked out, terminating the conversation.
In other countries, I was initiated into the difficulties of poverty and religious persecution. Whenever I could, I contacted the the sister churches in the cities I was visiting, although in some of the places, the Christians had been forced underground to avoid certain death or imprisonment.
Spending time with these foreign brothers and sisters built my faith, and gave me a breath of life after my solitude and formal conversations held in the business meetings. In them, I saw the same convictions, and the same joy and brotherhood that I found in my home church. I also understood how easy we had it in America, not just in our wealth, but also in our freedom.
I invited the Women’s Ministry Leader in Jakarta to dinner at my hotel because I would not be there on Sunday to go to church. We spoke comfortably about our lives, and she mentioned in passing the religious riots that had been occurring in the months prior – the persecution of Christians under certain Muslim sects. She told me that one Sunday they heard yelling and fighting growing louder, near where their church service was being held. She stopped her story to take a bite of her dinner.
“What did you do?” I prompted her, my eyes fixed on her face.
“We held our breath,” she answered matter-of-factly. “The mob headed down our street, and we didn’t make a sound. We were afraid for our lives. But then,” she went on, “the noise eventually died down later in the day, and we saw that we were out of danger so we went home.”
This matter-of-fact approach to difficulties seemed to be universal in this part of the world, yet there appeared to be no lack of joy in the midst of both persecution and poverty. I handed my passport to the Immigration clerk in Manila as I was arriving in the Philippines for the first time. He glanced at my passport, then stamped it and bid me a cheerful, “Happy Birthday!” I was taken aback, touched, and thought to myself, “This is the most welcoming of countries where they wish strangers a happy birthday!” But I discovered, as I rode by the children playing and laughing outside of their homes on the towering garbage heap, that their joy was born out of hardship, and many were wreathed in smiles while living in abject poverty.
On one visit I decided to stay an extra night with some of the sisters in their apartment instead of paying out of pocket for a hotel. I had already gotten to know them on previous trips and they made me feel very welcome to come stay in their home.
That night I slept on a mattress on the floor with two other women in the same room. And there were three more on the living room floor of the small apartment. Their front door was half-eaten by termites, and one of the roommates could only pay her share of rent and food by doing all the cleaning and cooking because she was too poor to contribute in any other way. The next morning we all got up early to pray together – two of them in Tagalog, the only language they knew. I was impressed by their cheerful industry, and it didn’t take many visits to fall in love with the Filipino people.
On my trip to India, I was invited in my spare time to assist the Women’s Ministry Leader (an Indian national) by sitting in a study with an older woman, whose sons had left the Hindu faith to become Christians. And now the mother was close to making the leap herself, despite angry opposition from her husband. The minister asked her, “Are you willing to die for your faith?” At this time, the threats in India were growing against the Christians. She went on, “Are you willing to see your sons die for their faith?” The woman humbly murmured, “Yes” “Yes” in response to these questions.
I sat there stunned that someone should have to face such a thing in a country where Christianity was not officially illegal. Then the minister asked her, “Your husband is against your becoming a Christian. What if he locks you out of the house? What if you cannot return to your home?” Apparently, this was the risk others had faced who had gone before her.
The woman answered, “He cannot lock me out. We don’t have a door.”
It took us both a minute to process just what she was saying. This family was so poor their house didn’t even have a front door that could be closed and locked. Without a front door, there was no threat of her being locked out. All three of us, including the older woman herself, burst into laughter at this upside to extreme poverty.
My faith was growing from the different challenge and circumstances I encountered country to country, but it was also tried in very intimate ways by forcing me to face the embarrassing phobia I’d had since I was little – a phobia so humiliating I wasn’t even able to voice it until I was nearly thirty.
It all started out innocently enough. I was in elementary school, and our family was sitting in the pew at church one day, when I asked my mom if I could go to the bathroom. She said no because the service was about to end. But I thought to myself, “You mean … I might be in a place where I have to go the bathroom and I can’t? But what if I have to?” This event coincided with an unfortunate bout of OCD, and kicked off a period of about a year where I went to the bathroom every five minutes when I was outside of the house, just in case the next five minutes involved being in a place where there was no bathroom.
Of course I overcame this compulsive behavior, but then when I was fifteen I started having stomach problems, related to what I now know is coeliac disease – gluten intolerance. I was constantly at the pediatrician who would alternatively put me on diets of bread and Pepto Bismol, then apples and prunes in a span of three days each. With time, I mostly managed the stomach problems with a whole foods diet when under stress, but the secret phobia itself never left. So when I found myself in situations where the problem kicked in, I had nothing to rely on except for my faith. And my life at that point was a disaster waiting to happen, mixing bathroom phobias, third world countries and a nervous stomach.
Oh dear, talk about having faith in the mundane! Talk about the foolish, the embarrassing, the – well, prayers don’t get any more ridiculous than this – need for faith. And yet, when emergency struck, I found myself praying, “God please help me to hold on until I can make it to a bathroom!” When you are that vulnerable, and I almost don’t think you can be more vulnerable except for when giving birth, desperation kicks in and you just lower your pride and ring your appeal out to the heavens.
I was sitting in a hot cab in India, completely stationary because of a traffic jam, and surrounded by beggars pawing at the car on all sides, when the sweaty cramps of the travel stomach began to kick in. I was on my way to a very important meeting that could not be rescheduled, but I was forced to ask the cab driver to turn around and go back to the hotel. I prayed that God would bind my stomach so I could make it even that short distance, and that he would clear the traffic jam so I would make it in time. He did. He did it every time. It’s funny how faith can be built by such human weakness, but mine was.
I was stretched in courage and faith, time and time again. I had made it to the Mumbai airport at three o’clock in the morning for my flight. It involved dragging myself from a sound sleep into the shower, then into a taxi racing to the airport through the black, deserted streets of the countryside. When I arrived, the place was in tumult, with hordes of people clamoring to be heard and shoving their tickets in the agents’ faces. I waited patiently to the side until someone noticed me, a foreigner.
“Yes, I’m here for the flight leaving to London?” I said optimistically.
“Did you confirm your booking while in India?” the woman asked.
“No!” I said, crestfallen. “I didn’t know I needed to do that.
“Ma’am, we are so overbooked. I don’t see how we’re going to be able to get you on the plane.”
On that particular trip I had been burrowing into the Charles Dicken’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit and was drawing spiritual lessons from it. (I have great fondness for Dickens). I was inspired by the attitude of the secondary character, who had decided he would take whatever life handed him cheerfully, determined to make the best of it – and he had a pretty bad run of luck. So, despite the fact that I was exhausted and so ready to go home, and had what seemed like both a bladder infection and an upset stomach kicking in, I decided to do the same. I answered the agent with a smile, “Just do what you can.”
She bit her lip. “What’s your final destination?” I told her that it was New York and she said, “Let me see what I can do.”
Five minutes later, the problem was solved by bumping me up to First Class, where I sat next to a very tanned white man with an Indian accent, and discovered that there was such a thing as British nationals who had lived in India for so many generations their citizenship was no longer British, but Indian. And although I wasn’t able to enjoy the First Class fare because of my upset stomach, I did indeed feel cheerful, and very well taken-care of by God.
Sometimes I traveled for a World or Development Bank Meeting, instead of a sales trip, and this meant I was surrounded by familiar people – the editorial and journalist staff from New York. We had to deliver the newspapers to every hotel doorstep in the city by six o’clock AM, and still be alert enough to organize conferences and set up sales meetings during the day, so although the conference was fun, it was also exhausting.
On the last day of the Asian Development Bank meeting in Fukuoka, Japan, we had the afternoon to ourselves before flying out the next morning. I was exhausted from a week of intense conferencing, and decided to wander off alone on the near-deserted beach in the coolish Spring weather. I had shorts on, and I kicked my shoes off and waded into the shallow water, soaking in the grey sky of the horizon far away, and the soft sounds of water lapping against the shore behind me. With so few people nearby, I decided to pray, and then out of my light-heartedness, to sing softly so no one would hear me.
It started to rain, and the few people on the beach fled for cover. I glanced around and saw that I was alone, so I started to sing more loudly, daring myself to throw up my hands and praise God. I blushed at my audacity, feeling like an utter fool. But then I figured I may as well praise Jesus too, thinking that it was about time I mentioned him in more ways than just to terminate a prayer. It was difficult for me to say his name out loud, even though I believed in what he promised.
You see, I was just never a “Jesus” person. God I could do. God is easy. You say God and it’s all-encompassing. There might be some other names for it, like Allah or Jehovah, but it’s still the same God and you’re still on the same wavelength as the rest of the world. But the minute you use Jesus’ name, you put yourself on a narrower path because he was the only one who claimed to be the way. My whole being revolted against the idea of being narrow, because I was afraid it meant I would become narrow-minded.
But on the day when I dared to say Jesus’ name out loud (just a whisper at first, and then increasing in volume) something clicked in me. I realized that Jesus never said that I had to be divisive – he never asked that of me, and in fact taught the very opposite. He just asked for my love, which was something I could do, even if it was given rather sheepish at first.
Standing alone in the shallow waters of Fukuoka beach, I broke through my reserve for the first time and praised Jesus in public solitude. I caught a brief, virulent fever for my efforts and missed that night’s closing revelry. But the next morning I woke up, fresh and alert for our flight back, and tucked the memory into my heart of the time I sang in the rain and overcame prejudice in my own faith.
There were so many long flights – fourteen hours in the air, layovers, plus an additional five hours when going to SouthEast Asia. I remained silent on the flights, frightened by the turbulence, only opening my mouth to order dinner, and I almost always traveled bleary-eyed and awake. As the months wore on, I flew so often, I eventually learned to surrender my destiny and fall sleep on the plane.
I watched the sun rise on the clouds, the beam of morning sunlight reflecting off the wings and blinding me with its light. I saw the frightening night-time thunder storms below me, with lightening shooting off silently in different directions. I heard the flight attendant announce that we were not permitted to take pictures while we flew over Russia, as I stared below at the bleak snowy tundra of Siberia.
One night towards the end of my period of travels, I was on my way into Singapore. We were nearly an hour away from our destination, and I was lost in the dark sky, the stars and my faded reflection as I leaned my forehead against the cold window and looked down into the darkness.
Suddenly, I noticed white lights below me. At first it was just a light here and there, which made me think that they were houses lost in the vast countryside. But then I realized that Singapore was an island – or at least, a series of islands, so these couldn’t be lights from houses that I was seeing. Where could they possibly be coming from?!
We flew on, and as I started to see more and more lights, I became convinced that, as we were flying over the ocean, it had to be – lights coming from fishing boats that I was seeing! There were so many of them, and they were so far apart from one another, even when viewed from high altitude. I looked on in wonder, imagining what it must be like to be so far away at sea, that you’re surrounded by black water and nothing else. Eventually the boats appeared closer together, and as we descended, I started to see details, like strings of lights on the sails, giving these massive vessels the appearance of charming toy sailboats.
But far, far up, with just the darkness above and below me, I stared down at the boats that were lost and isolated in the vast obscurity of the ocean, and whose lights were visible only to me. It struck me, as I contemplated this star-studded sky upside down, that this must be the way God sees his people who love goodness and mercy. We are the bright, shining lights he sees in a dark world, ravaged by evil and decay.