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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Painful Silence: The Art of Biting My Tongue in Chiina

During a wondeful trip to another city, I was speaking to a group about intellectual property strategy when a leader from another part of our large company showed up. He had met me when I was interviewing in China and had learned from an American friend about my Chinese-speaking son who served a mission in Taiwan. I think he is from Taiwan and is very familiar with LDS missionaries and has a lot of respect for them. He gave the group I was speaking to another introduction for me and said some very kind things, and then said, "And now Jeff, would you like to tell us about your religion?"

This was an important moment for me. All my life I've been happy when given opportunities to share a few thoughts about my religion for I think it's the greatest thing to bring peace, happiness and meaning to people's lives. It was the kind of open invitation that rarely comes and is a great opportunity when it does. My answer, of course, was to look down, shake my head, and say, "No, thanks."

That's right, I just said no. He was OK with that and went on to explain that he thought it was cool how my son had been a missionary in Taiwan. I then picked up the comfortable secular topic of IP strategy and moved on.

Talking about the Church in any degree was an opportunity I had to decline to be faithful to the very strong requirements of our Church leaders here in China, who plead with us to carefully repect the rules that we are under. It's good to know and follow these rules, even if (or especially if) you're just a tourist passing through. Some leaders in the Chinese government have actually been very kind to us and may have put their own necks on the line, I suspect, to grant us foreign members the privilege of meeting freely provided we don't proselyte among native Chinese people (whether they are members of the Church or not). With the long-term benefit to the Church and to the people of China in mind, we respect those rules carefully. But it was painful to say no to such a kind invitation.

I later told my friend that I was sorry for declining his invitation, but explained to him the rules we have. He was very understanding.

Someday this will change and more doors will open. Someday missionaries, even if only service missionaries, will be visible in China. Someday Blogger will be available in China (it's blocked now, so I'm not too worried about what I write here influencing the Chinese--actually a bit convenient at the moment, I guess). Some native Chinese branches will be able to combine with foreign branches and worship together in some form. Someday thousands more Chinese will have Family Home Evening, will store food to be even better neighbors when disasters strike, and will join in home teaching service, temple service, and LDS-organized humanitarian service. This nation will be stronger for it, but first we must pass the present test and show through our actions that we can keep our word (and that this strange religion of ours really does bring out the good in people).

9 comments:

CuriousSmith said...

Jeff, just stumbled across your blog and have really enjoyed reading your posts. My family and I lived in Shanghai from 2006-2008 and attended Church in the Pudong Branch. Keep up the great writing!
Steve

Michemily said...

Why can't natives and non-natives worship together? And do you know what the Church does when someone lives hours and hours from the nearest branch or ward? I.e., how does one then secure a temple recommend for trips?

Papa D said...

That would be hard, Jeff. I admire your restraint and commitment - and I am sure it will be rewarded in the future, somehow. You might or might not see it, but this difficult effort (to remain silent) will turn for good.

Jeff Lindsay: said...

China does not allow proselyting. Religious gatherings are usually only allowed when conducted by state-approved religious leaders. For us to be able to meet openly without having state influence on our leaders is really remarkable, but requires that we not proselyte and restrict out meetings and activities to involve non-native Chinese only. I don't fully understand all the concerns, not being attuned to Chinese political theory, but I understand the privilege we've been given and recognize we must continue to earn trust.

One man, after I explained that I can't talk about my religion, said, "Yes, I know you can't talk about it-but we can." What he meant was that behind our backs, they could see and discuss who were and jusge us, for better or for worse. He meant this very positively, but it can go either way if we aren't careful.

In China, there's a sense that we are being watched carefully, not a creepy surveillance sense but a positive, almost exciting sense, and it makes it easier to remember to always try to be be a good example.

It also makes it a lot of fun. It's so strange, but I keep getting treated like a celebrity just for doing simple things like showing up to a shop and chatting and buying something. I bought some dried kumquats tonight and boom, a crowd of employees gathers to joke and chat and get me to try more fruits. Loads of fun. Or I walk into KFC and suddenly 3 or 4 employees across the room are waiving at me like I'm their star customer, when all I buy is their cheapest little item, the 7 RMB ice cream cup when I'm overheated. Or I ride the ferry across the river and two teenage girls take turns have their picture taken standing next to me, like I'm Yao Ming or something. Hilarious. Scary how much damage I could do if I mess up (more than I do already, that is).

Michemily said...

Your reply should almost be a post itself--and a great one at that!

Bookslinger said...

Jeff, when you declined to talk about the church in the group setting, was the unspoken reason why obvious to the other participants? Or should you have said, "No thanks, your government prohibits religious talk by foreigners" ?

As far as the celebrity status, that often happens to missionaries in 3rd world countries.

Robert said...

The church has a similar non-proselyting agreement with Israel. It is a strange thing to have a great missionary opportunity and not be able to say anything. I was at the Jerusalem Center last fall, we came to realize just how powerful our example is. I'm certain that the trust we build by keeping our agreements will turn out to open doors later and give the church greater influence for good.

Jeff Lindsay: said...

Bookslinger, I don't know if it was obvious -- maybe not. Next time I will explain a little more. Great question!

Anonymous said...

I lived and worked in a number of Muslim countries and one finds similar restriction in some of them. But, many people know of us. When I lived in Iran in the mid-70s I met several who had gone to Utah State Univ. and they recognized me as a Mormon when I didn't drink tea. They also asked me about the temple and equated it to their going to Mecca. At that time (under the Shah) there was freedom of religion and for a short time there was an Iran mission (not too widely advertized, however).

When living in Pakistan we received permission from the General Authorities to baptize non-Muslim Pakistanis. but the Church would not cause problems by proselyting Muslims. We were careful to honor this. Pakistni members now number in the thousands. It is part of one of the Indian missions. Many of the young men have served or are serving missions.