Friday, 16 March 2007

Being an ambassador (Part 1)

Suzanne at Blessed Among Men wrote a lovely post earlier this week in which she talked about the rude comments she gets sometimes from complete strangers about the fact that she has more than 2.4 children (or whatever the average is these days). She sees it as important to be polite in return, saying "I see it as doing my part, however small, to help change the general impressions society has of motherhood, of pregnancy, of children, and of large families" and "I am more likely to change hearts with charity than with sarcasm".

Well, I haven't had that particular experience - sadly, God's plan for me to date doesn't seem to have included marriage and children. But I think I have felt a similar sort of responsibility.

Fifteen years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I went to live and work in China. For most of the people I worked with, I was the first foreigner they had ever known. In fact, I frequently visited areas where I was the first foreigner they had ever seen. So the impression that these people had of Westerners was formed largely from the impression that I gave them.

There are huge frustrations to being stared at wherever you go. The smaller the town or village I was visiting, the larger the crowds that used to gather around me whenever I stood still. The first time someone shouts "Hal-lo" or "Laowai" (Foreigner) after you in the street, it doesn't grate too much. When you hear it for the hundredth time in a day, having heard it a hundred times the previous day and the day before that and the... well, let's just say sometimes it was easiest to stay indoors and hide.

I once tried to explain to someone how ennervating it was to have "Laowai" shouted after me wherever I went. After about an hour, I thought he'd got it - he nodded and looked thoughtful, saying, "Oh, I see - it makes you feel uncomfortable and different when everybody who sees you walk past shouts 'Laowai' at you. OK, I won't do that again when I see a foreigner."

I was just beginning to feel pleased with the success of my diplomatic skills, when he began to talk again.

"So, when I see a foreigner in the street in the future, can you tell me, please .... what should I shout?"

Anyway, the point is that, however frustrated I was, however tired, homesick and utterly fed up, when I heard someone shouting "Hallo" or "Da bizi" (Big nose) or "Laowai", if I got angry or reacted in a negative way, they didn't think, "Oh, this person has probably heard that 100 times today". No, they would be more likely to think, "I've just seen my first ever foreigner and tried to greet her, and I don't understand why she was rude to me."

If you knew you were going to become someone's idea of the stereotypical Westerner, how would you ensure that the stereotype was both as positive and as accurate as possible?

And if you knew that you were the first Catholic someone had ever met, how would you ensure that this person went away with a positive and accurate idea of Catholicism?

We don't all have the former experience, but I bet most of us, whether knowingly or unknowingly, have had the latter. So the thought I'll leave you with tonight is this:

What sort of ambassadors are we for our faith?

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