Hong Kong, July 1978
The Bible says that in Christ there is no Jew, no Gentile, no Roman, nor Greek ... or something like that. The idea is equality in diversity, and it is a very modern controversy with historic overtones. And, for those who go abroad as "ambassadors for Christ," there is a shared experience despite denominational diversity. It is called Language School. No matter whether Protestant, Catholic, cult, or sect, language training is the great equalizer. Some come to the "mission field" with the notion that if one preaches the word of the Lord loud enough or with enough zeal in his native tongue, God will "unstop" the ears of the hearers, and the message will miraculously get through. After all, the Bible even features a talking donkey ... Balaam's ass, that is. If a donkey can speak a foreign language, how hard can it really be?
On our first day of Chinese (Cantonese) study, Beth and I at least had in inkling of what was to come, since we had already had the pleasure of learning Tagalog in the Philippines some years earlier. Most of the Europeans had already learned English so that they could then learn Chinese. There just weren't textbooks, from Norwegian or Italian to Chinese, let alone teachers. English was the starting point, and we all were on square one.
The native English speakers were an odd collection of Americans, Canadians, and Brits, of various descriptions. Mostly Protestants, there were the Baptists, the Pentecostals, and the weird "others" like the Moonies, the Mormons, and the independent folks of indeterminate persuasion. The British were an equal hodgepodge.
The Catholics came from all over, but my favorites were two Italian priests, Paolo and Francesco. They were assigned to work together as a team, and I was impressed that the Catholic Church had been so adroit at matching them up so well. I ran into them some years later in one of Hong Kong's gay bars, and we all had a beer and a great laugh together. I had read Dante and got the joke. They were impressed that I had always known that they were lovers.
There was a Mexican priest whose name in Chinese sounded like "very troublesome," and an assortment of French, German, and Swiss missionaries who filled out the Catholic roster. The rest consisted of a group of Norwegian Lutherans, two Swedes, and a spare Finn. But not all who were enrolled were clergy. The business community makes a stumbling effort to "immerse" its executives in the "local language" wherever they are assigned. Big wigs from Coca‑Cola, Chase Manhattan, General Motors, and American Express – and their wives – made the scene with crisp, sparkling clean notebooks and pencils at the ready.
I wasn't ready for the Japanese. Many travel agencies required their staff and tour guides to learn the local lingo to help herd the hordes of Japanese tourists around town. They had a certain advantage as they already knew the Chinese characters, which they call Kanji. The rest of us would have to pound into our heads as adults what these guys had already done years ago as kids. I, like some others, had already studied Chinese, and so had an ever so slight advantage as well. But, all that faded fast as we all set out together on a long journey that would see only about ten of us cross the finish line and graduate officially at the end of year two.
I read an account once of a ferry sinking somewhere in the South China Sea. The article went on and on about how the passengers had pulled together and saved each others' lives, never even thinking about nationalities or creeds. It didn't take long until we knew that we were "all in the same boat." Looking forward to the daily coffee break at 10:30 or so, when our brains were about ready to explode, we all hung out together like inmates, doing time together; our mutual suffering was our bond. We never talked about religious doctrine or politics that I recall ... just let friendships grow as they did naturally, encouraged by the advanced students ahead of us who knew what we were going through. And when our turn came, we encouraged the new students to avoid jumping from the third floor landing where we took our breaks.
It was an international milieu. Holidays were great fun, as we all got to share new experiences at Christmas, Easter, and the real biggie – Chinese New Year.
By the end of the first year, many of the original cast had left the stage – most notably, the executives and wives who were too busy with their whirlwind lives, entertaining high-powered guests and dignitaries. Some of the more "spiritual" folks got a word from the Lord that they had enough to preach a simple Gospel message, and that their funds for study had run out anyway. Others decided that Chinese was just too hard, and got "called" to the Philippines where they could preach in English. Big myth.
Whereas most two-year Asian language programs reserved the second year primarily for reading and writing, the Hong Kong Baptist College program was more oriented toward homiletics, hermeneutics, and oral preaching techniques. We faced a decision, and I chose to concentrate more on reading and writing, as opposed to preaching. Most chose the verbal approach, as it was possible to do so without learning the myriad Chinese ideographs required to read a newspaper, let alone the Chinese Bible. I regret the amount of time I invested in my daily grind, learning words like concupiscence, blasphemy, and idolatry, and phrases like Slaves, obey your earthly masters.
But I always had a penchant for the written calligraphy, as it was a natural extension of my artistic temperament. I had already demonstrated my facility with the written forms, having previously been exposed to Mandarin in college and the military. It was decided that, since everyone left in my class had opted out of the written class, I would be tossed in with a class well-advanced and far into its second year. There were only two other students in my class: Alice, an independent American missionary from an organization that I had never heard of, and Michelle, a French nun who always showed up in her sparkling white nun regalia. I had always liked nuns. I still think they get a bad rap.
When my wife and I had first arrived in Manila – having been evacuated from Saigon in April 1975 – I taught ESL (English as a Second Language) in the refugee camps for the Vietnamese escaping with us during that terrible time. The two nuns whom I worked with, a Vietnamese and a Filipina, were nothing short of heroic in their efforts to help these tragic escapees. I immediately liked my classmate in white, and never thought to call her by her first name until we all got together for a field trip to Ma Wan Island one weekend and she showed up in designer jeans and a very un-nun-like tube top. She may have been a nun, but she certainly did not lack for a French sense of style.
Of course, no person who has ever learned a new language – whether in the ministry, the military, Foreign Service, or just for the heck of it – can make it through without the inevitable mistakes and gaffs. I was no exception, or course; though, since I am writing this, I will refrain from self-incrimination. I have longed for years to write a book entitled something like Blunders and Bloopers on the Road to Fluency in (fill in here). Maybe that would be a worthwhile project. Most language learners finally give up all pride at some point, and just blurt out the most outrageous things.
I have always said that a sense of humor and self-deprecation is essential to getting past all the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and gerunds. In year one, I was lucky to have a classmate who had a wild sense of humor that kept the entire class in stitches (including the teachers). Early on he caught on to making intentional mistakes – saying the right answer, just off by one tone, which rendered it obtuse, absurd, or obscene. In most Asian languages, where tone changes meaning, it is so easy to say something totally wrong with the slightest change of inflection. A couple of times the teachers had to excuse the class early because they couldn't contain themselves. They also couldn't wait until we were all cleared out to go tell the other teachers what he had said.
Of course, the joke was that he really knew what he was saying all along ... and that was his ultimate joke. But, sometime later I heard that he had said something from the pulpit that left an entire congregation out of control. It was akin to an incident I recall from a prayer meeting in Augsburg, Germany when the preacher called for a "moment of silence." Well, it was a rather long moment of utter silence until someone accidentally farted loudly. Everybody tried like mad to maintain composure. Some managed. Others (especially the teenagers) lost it.
...Language school had been over for several months, and we were all in the field preaching with our new language skills. My friend and coworker was preaching at a fairly large church one Sunday morning. His message was about "family values" or some such appropriate fare. He had a daughter and a son at the time, and was expecting his third. He meant to say: "I only have one son," then adding, "but I love him very much!" That would have made fine sense. But what he really said accidentally was: "I only have one testicle!" Apparently, most of the congregation held it together ... that is, until he finished the sentence: "But I love it very much!"