Skip to content

Peanut Butter Sticky Rice

Among the Missionaries

Our sudden and unexpected immersion in the American missionary society of Chiang Mai has been one of my greatest challenges, and certainly the hardest to write about.  I expected to feel like a foreigner among the Thais; I did not expect to feel like a minority so keenly among my fellow Americans.  And, here, I face the classic dilemma of anthropologists and investigative journalists: how do you write critically about people who have been your friends, in a public venue?

Within this blog’s readership are some of the new friends we’ve made through the Chiang Mai International School (CMIS).  Many of these friends consider themselves missionaries, and all of them are evangelical Christians. They have opened their hearts and families to me; their children are Ascher and Camilla’s beloved friends; their teenagers have babysat for us; they have answered my questions about their faith, their backgrounds, and their professions openly.  I have been welcomed warmly at prayer meetings, and made to feel comfortable and at home.  Mothers and their children prayed for my children when they got the flu, and the athletics director asked God that Ascher recover fast enough to play in the soccer tournament.  There has been no end to their kindness.

I have made no secret of not being a Christian—not being a Christian takes precedence over my Judaism–nor of the fact that I am one of those East Coast, blue-state, over-educated liberals who voted for Obama and favor abortion rights.  To my surprise, those great divisions within American culture are more easily overcome than I would have thought.  One of my very favorite families forbids their sons from playing Dachi cards (something like Pokemon), because they are a form of gambling.  I dislike Dachi cards because they cause dissent and unhappiness on the playground. Their fifth-grade daughter is modestly and reasonably dressed.  I am in full and violent agreement with them about appropriate clothing for young girls: it’s just that Scripture has nothing to do with it.  We find very common ground from different starting places.

And so I share some of my experiences amongst the missionaries of Chiang Mai with gratitude for the welcome and great kindness they’ve shown me, and the hopes that they will take this entry as testimony of what I’ve learned among them.

I have changed all names in an effort to preserve their privacy.  

What, Exactly, Is A Missionary?

One of the first lessons I learned is that “missionary” means different things to different people.  The industry-preferred term, it seems, is “Christian worker.”  But “missionary” still holds status, even as what qualifies as Christian work varies dramatically, and everybody wants to be known as a missionary, or their children as “missionary kids” (MKs).  Some of their work includes  actual evangelizing—which is what I always thought of as missionary work– some is with NGOs that try to alleviate hunger, or distribute health care, or eradicate the sex trade, and some of it is just ordinary school teaching or nursing done in a Christian environment.  Some of the families at CMIS are employed by businesses that support the Christian-aid industry, sort of Christian workers on behalf of Christian workers, running guesthouses, making travel arrangements, or providing spiritual counseling for missionaries troubled by cross-cultural challenges or facing “re-entry” in their home countries.  They, too, consider themselves missionaries.

Some of the Christian work I find redundant, and sickly sentimental.  There are more Christian child sponsorship programs in Northern Thailand than I could have imagined, and many fewer vocational programs than I would like.  Some of it I find absurd, like the enormous resources spent translating the Scriptures into tiny little minority languages because the few souls speaking those languages need the word of God (although I bet they’d settle happily for solid educations, clean running water, and perhaps regular maintenance on their mechanized plows).  Some of it is just unthinking, like the New Life Foundation, which encourages recovered victims of leprosy “to gradually stand on their own feet.”  Yes, really.

Yet some of this work incredibly moving.  The Free Burma Rangers, founded by a Christian pastor and ex-member of the U.S. Special Forces, are formed of Karen, Burman, Rahkine, and other ethnic groups from Burma.  These men and women are trained to move secretly across the border to deliver medical care, clothing, and shelter to people forced to flee their villages by the Burmese junta.  The medical needs range from the ordinary travails of malnutrition to limbs blown off by land-mines laid by the junta’s soldiers. In addition to providing humanitarian assistance, they also provide some of the very best human rights reporting from the area, relied upon by the legions of Christian and secular NGOs at work here.  All of this they do on a shoestring, and with immense humility.  You will not find self-promoting images of the Westerners involved anywhere on any of their materials.

Now that the Karen National Army is no longer a protective force, the Rangers must cross two lines of junta soldiers, who enjoy the license of shoot-to-kill orders.  The Rangers vow to stand with the villagers should they come under attack during one of their missions, and not take advantage of their training or resources to flee to safety.  They regularly die carrying out their duties.  FBR merges faith with pacifist practice and military precision, and has revolutionized my understanding of Christianity in action.

Christ in the School

Originally founded as a school for missionary kids after WWII, the Chiang Mai International School is now about one-half MKs.  In Chiang Mai, the population of missionaries and their families has grown considerably in the last few years.  Many Christian organizations were originally based in Hong Kong, but after China took over Hong Kong in 1997, they began moving to Chiang Mai.

In addition to this recent migration, several families we’ve met here are second—and even occasionally third—generation missionaries here.  Their grandparents were missionaries in northern Thailand, their parents were born here, sometimes educated in the US (often at a Bible college, it seems) and came back to work for an aid organization or a Christian university or school, and here are their grown children, taking the same path.  Many more of them were MKs in some other Asian country as a child.

The stunning thing to me is just how American these families are, even after generations abroad.  They drive SUVs, go to an American school, eat Western food, attend church on Sunday, and follow it up with a trip to the shopping mall.  The second and third generation missionaries are more often able to speak Thai or Karen, but, outside of that, they seem to me culturally interchangeable with their cousins back in the small towns of Indiana or the suburbs of Dallas or Atlanta.  A parent asked me once anxiously about possible services for MKs like theirs at American universities, kids “making such a major transition.”  Given that his kids attend an American school, play soccer, live in an air-conditioned house with a yard and a dog, and see American movies with their American friends, I could not muster up too much concern on their behalf.  There’s a great deal of conversation on the playground about raising “third culture kids”: when their passport country culture merges with the culture of the country they live in and results in this mysterious third culture.  This precious state of being a “third culture kid”–being part of both but belonging to neither–results in all kinds of special needs and psychological difficulties to which everybody must be sensitive.  All this parental helicoptering convinces me thoroughly that CMIS is more American than International.

But I digress.  It’s also a Christian school, and that results in one of its greatest challenges.  Most contemporary strains of evangelical Christianity, especially those that grew out of the second Great Awakening, don’t particularly value critical scholarship.  Neither do the Thais. It’s just not very fun, and the Thais prize fun above all.  This cultural combination means that, despite the intelligence and great potential of CMIS graduates, they too often head off to Bible colleges, described pejoratively by one (evangelical) teacher as “junior college with Scripture.”  One of my activities as this year’s “Visiting Scholar” at CMIS was to give some talks to parents and high school students about considering other colleges and universities besides Bible colleges, encouraging them to look at the handful of well-respected Christian institutions, and trying to wrap their minds around the idea of leading a Christian life at a secular institution.  The parental anxiety over sending their children out of the Christian bubble astounds me.  Aren’t they supposed to be able to walk amongst the unsaved eventually?

Despite all this, there’s not all that much Christianity in the curriculum after kindergarten, although creationism is taught as the “Christian version of evolution.” Ascher has “Virtues,” which assigns one perfectly benign value (“Gratitude,” for example) each month to be discussed in assembly.  Camilla, on the other hand, is getting a full dose of Christianity from Miss Janet in the preschool. If I were five, and had as my teacher the beautiful, sweet, patient, young Miss Janet, I, too, might consider being re-born.  Our darling Camilla comes home talking about how God made the world and created people, how God can do anything, how we need to pray to our God, and how God is everywhere.  Some of these reports from the divine I take as “teachable moments”: “Camilla, what makes you think God is a ‘He’?” “If God does everything for us, what are people supposed to do?”  Her reply: “No, God does everything everywhere.”  It is this, the complete lack of agency that perturbs me most of all.  God makes everything, God does everything for us, and, apparently, our job is merely to accept. Tell that to the Free Burma Rangers.

When I can step back from my own liberal, urban, Jewish apprehensions, I am better able to appreciate the remarkable theological stew in which she is currently living. The other day, she built a Buddhist-looking shrine above our bed, and “prayed to God like Miss Janet” next to it.  In October, Ken was watching the tail end of a Yankees game with the kids, and the camera panned over a woman with clasped hands, praying fervently that A-Rod would hit a home-run.  Camilla turned to Ken and asked, “Daddy, who is she wai-ing?”  At wats, Camilla bows down quite humbly to Buddha, and, despite my internal squelching about graven images, I admire her perfect form.

In one of these, Camilla is praying, and in the other, she is wai-ing. Congratulations to Heather Posner for being the first to spot the difference. On the left, Camilla is wai-ing, and on the right, she is praying.  Heather was recognized by a donation to Jews for Judaism (the largest organization countering evangelical missionary activities directed at Jews).

The theological conclusions she reaches are fantastic.  One morning, while lying on our bed, Camilla was preaching to us on the subject of how God is everywhere.  “God is in the air, God is in our bodies, but you cannot see him if you cut us open, God is in our thoughts”—and in a perfect triumph of logic as she rolled over onto her bunched-up blankie and thrust it into place—“God is between my legs.”

Ascher gets quite angry when Camilla sings “Jesus Loves Me” (which she can also perform in American Sign Language, for added effect). “Camilla, you are Jewish!” he sputters.We do not believe in Jesus!”  We thought that we could rely confidently on him to remain faithful to the skeptical, humanistic Judaism practiced by (most of) his ancestors.  But one night at dinner, he gave us a scare when he declared, “God is everywhere, and He sees everything, but nobody can see Him.”  Ken and I froze, since this sounds an awful like what Camilla brings home.  But then he continued: “No one can see God, except for the other gods, like the Greek Gods and the Egyptian Gods.  They can see God.” We still have one polytheist in the house, I thought.  Thank God.

To be continued.

%d bloggers like this: