Becoming Chinese by Jay McDaniel Several years ago I had the good fortune of becoming Chinese. It happened at the invitation of the Chinese American writer, Maxine Hong Kingston, as she gave a lecture at the college where I teach. Much of her talk was devoted telling a traditional Chinese story about a man who became shipwrecked on an island but finally escaped. As she shared the story from China she invited us to become the man and thus to become Chinese. “When you hear this myth you are Chinese also.”
I had become Chinese before so I knew what to expect. I have been to China many times and have discovered that when I listen to friends tell me about their lives and their outlooks on life, their perspectives become a small part of my own life, too. Admittedly I cannot become Chinese in the same way or to the same degree that they are Chinese. If they are, say, ninety percent Chinese, then perhaps I am only two percent. Still I can listen to my Chinese friends and allow their perspectives to alter the shape of my consciousness and fill it with new content. This is the way listening works. It changes the listener.
As she spoke I was reminded of Thomas Cahill’s description of the people who lived in Ireland in How the Irish Saved Civilization. Apparently, the earliest inhabitants of Ireland believed that human beings have shape-shifting abilities and can change into natural elements and gods. They can become oceans and mountains and spirits. This capacity for shape shifting had, for Cahill, a “terrifying implication” for individuals: namely “that I myself have no fixed identity but am, like the rest of reality, essentially fluid.” Kingston did not find this implication terrifying at all. She liked the fact that our souls can change shapes. She was inviting us to celebrate our fluidity.
When Kingston spoke that night, often drew from Buddhist influences, but she was also interested in a kind of fluidity we find in Jesus of Nazareth. It is said that when he was in the presence of the poor and powerless of his society, he would become them through an act of sympathetic imagination, such that their hopes and his hopes coincided. “Whenever you feed the hungry or clothe the naked or visit the sick in prison, you do the same to me.” The New Testament also says that, by the end of his life, his heart had grown so wide that he identified with all people, even those who nailed his hands to a cross. As she spoke it occurred to me that maybe this is what forgiveness means. Maybe it is a kind of shape shifting of the soul. It happens when something grows wide in our hearts and we refuse to hate and instead seek the well-being of people who have harmed us. Maybe Jesus, true to the Judaism that shaped him, was a pretty good Buddhist.
She spoke on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday and part of her aim was to link becoming Chinese with King’s notion of beloved community. She explained how, as a Chinese American, her own life had been enriched by becoming Latin American and becoming African American. In getting to know people of different cultures she had sometimes “become Black” and “become Hispanic.” There is a danger in this activity, she explained, if we lose any sense of self-worth or self-identity. People need roots as well as wings. And there is danger is we pretend that we can fully walk in the shoes of people who are different from us. But she thought that a great problem in life today is that too many people are seeking to become one thing to become pure in one identity, and that, for many of us, the need is to overcome preoccupations with purity and accept our manyness, too.
Kingston envisioned a beloved community in much the way that Martin Luther King would have. It is a community that is creative, compassionate, participatory, respectful of diversity, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying with no one left behind. She talked beloved households, beloved schoolrooms, beloved workplaces, beloved rock concerts, beloved libraries, and beloved kitchens. A beloved library would be a place where people from different cultures can hear stories from different cultures and then talk about them afterwards. A beloved kitchen would be a place where people with different beliefs gather together and enjoy different kinds of food without talking about politics at all. This was her style. She was funny, serious, creative, and realistic.
As Kingston developed her ideas that night, she continually lapsed into a slip of the tongue. Every time she referred to this kind of community she mistakenly called it the beautiful community. The audience laughed every time, and she did, too. Finally she gave up trying to get it right and simply admitted that, for her, a beloved community is a beautiful community. Even justice, she said, is a form of beauty.
This is a good idea. It is the the idea that goodness is a form of beauty and that the lure toward beauty within the human heart includes a lure to dwell in creative harmony with other people, including people of different cultures and people who might otherwise be neglected. Whitehead speaks of this lure toward beauty as God.
It goes without saying that the word “God” can be a highly charged word. For some people it is a very positive word and for others a very negative one. If you are in the latter camp I encourage you to replace it with other words. For example, if you are influenced by evolutionary biology, you might replace the word “God” with the phrase “the indwelling lure toward love” and then say that it is a product of evolutionary adaptation, and somehow buried in our genes.”
Whatever words or phrases we use, there seems to something inside us by which we feel beckoned to listen to others and treat them with respect. It may be buried very deep within our psyches, covered over by fear or guilt or sadness, such that it is very ineffective in our daily lives. It may take particular circumstances to remind us of its possibility: a loving parent, a kindly teacher, a forgiving friend, a companion animal, or just an invitation, on the part of a speaker one night, to become Chinese.