Searching for Significance – A Reflection on Conversations with Ayi

Lydia currently lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, where she and her husband, Nick, serve full-time with China Outreach Ministries, reaching Chinese international students at Purdue University. Lydia is a Wheatie for life (Wheaton College) and an enthusiast of Christian Classical education. In her spare time, Lydia enjoys being with kids (Nathaniel, Ethan, and Abigail in particular), doing calligraphy, teaching piano, running, and being active.
For more of this series check out: The Hostess with the Mostess – A Pre-Arrival Reflection and Adventure and Inconvenience – A Reflection One Week In.

It’s hard to realize that Ayi has been with us for one month already. As cliche as it sounds, the time has just flown by! Since my last post, a lot has happened. Our family went on a one-week vacation and we have started organizing August’s new student welcome activities. Another year begins, and the ebb and flow of college ministry continues.

I’ve realized that Ayi often assumes that our family’s views and values are representative of American culture as a whole. She has commented, “Oh, I think it’s great that all Americans can jar their own garden vegetables,” and “The American way of raising children is much better than the Chinese way!” I find myself often trying to make the distinction that not every American family is like our family and not every American has the opinions I have. More often than not the values Ayi notices are those that are distinctively Christian, not American. As she and I talk, we realize that American and Chinese modern society are similar, and it is the Christian worldview that is countercultural in both societies.

One afternoon Ayi and I were washing dishes. As usual, Ayi and I were chatting about everything under the sun. Somehow we ended up talking about marriage, divorce rates in America and China, and the like. Ayi shared a lot about her own views on marriage, the importance of being self-reliant, and some other trends among women her age. I’m not sure if being one of six sisters was formative, but many of Ayi’s ideas stem from the underlying idea that women need to be independent, proactive in protecting themselves, and free from relying on others.

A person’s worldview and personal life mandates are deeply influenced by the environment and circumstances surrounding her childhood. Ayi grew up in poverty during an era of Chinese history filled with social upheaval – the years of the Cultural Revolution. The overall morale of the culture was one of distrust, and people were focused on getting food into starving mouths. Perhaps it was during these years that she inherited a distrust of people. Or perhaps it was during this time that she experienced having to prove herself in order to be respected. Maybe this was when she developed a fear of betrayal. I have heard her say, “What if my husband finds me unattractive one day and leaves me? I have to work so that in case that happens, I can survive on my own.”

For Ayi, higher education was the chance out of hunger and poverty. Even today in China, education is the salvation for those stuck under the hand of poverty. She told me that when she and her husband got married, they couldn’t afford a bridal gown; instead, she went out to buy herself a new wedding sweater, and that is what she wore to her wedding at the department of justice. There was no party, no banquet, no wedding cake. Thus, Ayi and her husband started a new life together.

Having recently graduated, they started working, bringing in a meager salary and slowly working up the totem pole. Helping their parents financially was an important priority, so they lived frugally and gave money each month to their parents. Ayi has worked at the same company for thirty five years, has good standing with her boss, and will be taking retirement soon. She has the money to travel anywhere in the world, buy anything she wants, eat anything she wants, and pay for her daughter’s college education. Considering the conditions into which she was born, this is surely a huge accomplishment! She has definitely proven herself worthy of respect.

Having a daughter of her own, I can see how Ayi thinks it important to pass down the life lessons she has learned as a woman, teaching and equipping the next generation for success, security and significance. Ayi shared with me that she will always encourage M to pursue as much education as she wants. The more, the better. After all, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to find success, albeit, worldly success that is finite and temporal.

Judging from Ayi’s experience and sharing, perhaps security can be found in money; the more money you have the more secure you will be. With money, you can pay for medical treatment, go where you need to go, buy a comfortable house, etc. On the parental front, money can help with an aging parent’s needs and can give the next generation a solid education and comfortable lifestyle. According to Ayi, money can also earn you respect. When asked about her decision to continue working instead of becoming a stay-at-home mom when M was born, she said, “I thought that I should have a job so that I could have my own money and my husband could have his own money and we could spend it on our individual lives. Then he would also respect me more.” Though it may not be true that Ayi’s husband would not respect her if she didn’t have a salaried job, her own beliefs include an inherent fear that she wouldn’t be respected if she did not make money.

But how then can one attain significance in life? It seems that Ayi would encourage M to find significance through her career, working up to management one day and being needed by the company. “M shouldn’t get married too early. She needs to find a stable job first, become financially independent, get settled on her own, and then think about marriage.” If you are financially independent, you can also send money to your family and fulfill your filial duty, gaining significance in that way. My speculation is that to Ayi, a big part of a person’s significance is found through career accomplishments and being a loyal daughter.

Thus far self-preservation, self-reliance, and independence are secular values that have led to success, security, and significance for Ayi’s life. It is no wonder that these traits are ones that she deems most important to pass on to her daughter. Although these secular (American, Chinese, or any other country) values have led to temporal success, security, and significance for Ayi’s life, they are also just a human-centered response to the lies generated by the great deceiver. “You are not worthy.” “No one is trustworthy.” “No one will love you unless...” “Only you can save yourself, no one else cares.” For a Christian, preservation, reliance, and dependence on the self are redeemed and given new eternal meaning. My life is preserved by God, given worth just because I am fearfully and wonderfully made by the Creator of the Universe. I can rely on God wholeheartedly; relying on anything else leads to disappointment and pain. I depend on God because he is strong when I am weak. Christianity is a culture of its own; it redeems facets of all cultures that have been tainted with man’s self-serving desires.

Let us pray that that Ayi realizes that a Christ-centered culture gets noticed because it is so different than anything within American or Chinese culture! May Ayi’s life be given new, eternal purpose, and mat her success, security, and significance be founded on the Rock of Ages, her Creator and her Abba, the Father who loves her.