on living in tension

In Hong Kong we classify schools as local or international. The former follow a state-set, local curriculum, and most of them conduct lessons in Chinese. The latter are a more mixed bag, following a dizzying array of international curricula, and many of them catering to particular expat groups: Singapore International School, Japanese International School, Chinese International School, and French International School just to name a few. International schools tend to enjoy a higher reputation, not least because they are status symbols, but also because of the general high quality of the education and teachers.

But for a while I had leaned toward sending my children (if I ever have any) to a local school.

I attended an international school, exposed to an excellent education and a worldview broader than most of my peers. But it did help mould me into someone who doesn’t quite fit any mould: I’m a banana — yellow on the inside, white on the inside, and the Cantonese equivalent, neither human nor ghost, is slightly less flattering — and technically illiterate in my native tongue; I think in English, count (and sometimes curse) in Cantonese, and speak some German as a party trick; as a Chinese boy I was uncommonly terrible at Math and Science, and warmed instead to ancient history, though not the history of my forefathers on the Yellow River, but the men of Persia, Greece, and Rome. Idiosyncratic and odd, maybe even enviable to some, but I never did find myself fitting in.

It was that sense of ill-fitting that made me warm to the idea of local schools. Sure, they might not get the best that international curricula have to offer, but students there might at least develop a surer sense of self, be able to put down roots, feel more at home among other people in their city.

I lived with that sense of ill-fitting, that resentment, for a long time. Hailing from two different worlds meant I belonged to neither. I could never feel at home anywhere I went, in anything I did. I could never deeply relate to anyone. Surely a sense of belonging must be better than this.

But I think cowboy movies have taught me something.

Or rather the genre made me think again about all this. Cowboy movies (Westerns) can subscribe to many different tropes, but the world of the Western is built on the hostility between the wilderness (where the Indians live) and ‘civilisation’ (where the townsfolk live). And the hero is often the one who treads the line between these two worlds, not quite fitting into town life, but not quite at home in the wilderness either; sometimes he mediates between these two worlds, other times he leaves the town for the wilderness to learn true virtue, sometimes bringing these newfound values back to reinvigorate decadent civilisation. The hero of the Western is a man who lives in tension, torn between two worlds and making his way in the world without being consumed by either.

Now the last time I touched a horse was almost 30 years ago, I don’t like six shooters, and I can’t actually recall the last Western I watched. But all this talk of a man who traverses across two worlds, trying to reconcile both, sounds awfully familiar. And I think the worldview of the Western might be built in part on this story, or whatever latent memory of it is still kicking around inside the western mind:

Jesus of Nazareth, of course.

His story is not quite the same — unlike the Western hero, Jesus knows exactly where his home is — but there is that same running theme of being in two worlds at once, and ultimately reconciling both: a King born in a manger, a rabbi who dines with crooks and hookers, on Good Friday a bleeding piece of meat and yet a triumphant victor, a Lion and a Lamb who has given himself to the world and yet will visit horrifying judgement upon it when he returns. But it doesn’t stop there: Abraham was the father of all nations yet found himself a wanderer; Moses grew up as a Prince of Egypt and yet spent most of the rest of his life in the wilderness; Peter and Paul both urge Christians to be sojourners, in the world but not of it, since our citizenship is of the otherworldly Kingdom of God. Christians are called to live among the world, obeying their Caesars and Kings, yet not giving their ultimate allegiance to any of these; to live in the overlap of the end times and the beginning of the age to come; we live in a state of sinfulness, yet also forgiven and waiting for the final deliverance.

The gospel worldview is one of living in constant tension, or as CS Lewis put it, feeling desires in this world that were clearly intended for another world.

Of course all the tension I’ve lived in has been of a more prosaic kind, and has moulded me into an oddball rather than a holy man, but maybe it’s not such a bad thing that I don’t feel at home here nor there: I grew up in both Canada and Hong Kong; as an Ancient History student I found myself living in 21st-century London but also ancient Rome (and Athens and Sparta and Persepolis); as a banana I find myself not quite a local Hong Konger but definitely not a westerner either; as a teacher I found myself trying to be friendly with the students yet keeping that distance; Sunday-morning church duties make me both a member of the congregation yet not quite; as a generally conservative person I am abnormally creative and open; and I tend toward political moderateness.

As I discovered these things piecemeal it often left me feeling isolated and resentful — why could I never find belonging and camaraderie in anything? — but as with Westerns, I’m now looking back at all these things and realising these point to a deeper, more basic truth: to live in this world as a Christian is to live in tension. Not so much neither-here-nor-there, but maybe more like not-yet-now-but-definitely-later. To give myself over to belonging in this world, or to live with my head in the clouds waiting for kingdom come, is to live with a counter-gospel worldview. It’s not how Jesus lived.

Growing up as an ill-fitting oddball didn’t make me Christlike, but it did lead me to the point where I could appreciate what it means to be a sojourner. And if I had wanted to send my hypothetical children to a local school just for the sake of them putting down roots in this temporary, fallen world, then maybe international exposure wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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