Outside, it was a bitterly cold and dismally grey northern Chinese winter evening. Inside my apartment, it was warm, bright, colourful, and a fragrant hub of activity. My friends and I squeezed into the narrow kitchen, chattering away while the huge Chinese cleaver chopped, the pot boiled and cooking utensils were washed ‘Chinese style’.
As a foreigner in China, my friends have shown me incredible hospitality, welcoming me, an ‘outsider’, to their country. I should be appreciative, but I love China and long to be an ‘insider’. However, with white skin, blue eyes and a nose big enough to see if I lower my eyes, I’ll always be an outsider, albeit one who is loved and welcomed. As a foreign Christian, friends like to ‘fellowship’ with me because I’m outside the strict Chinese social system and so a ‘safe’ person in whom to confide. This has advantages, but I am firmly convinced of the importance of local people reaching out to and building up other local people. What could I do to facilitate this?
Finally, the obvious answer dawned on me! Many Chinese friends are fascinated with anything western, and, strangely enough, all want to cook western food. I can make the most of my big nose and all that comes in this ‘foreign package’. I can help my Chinese friends experience genuine fellowship with one another! I passed the word around – every Monday night, I would teach ONE western dish to any friend who is a Chinese Christian woman.
The aim of the evening was for women to share what God was teaching them, to support one another and to pray. The aim was not to eat, although we certainly consumed what we cooked and more besides. Being a typical westerner, the aim was clearly stated and my friends obliged me yet again. Still striving to give ownership to my Chinese friends, I asked a Chinese colleague to provide printed translations of the recipes. Another dear sister coordinated the ‘Prayer and Share’ section of the evening.
In that city today, you can find Chinese people enjoying pancakes or pumpkin soup – they were the firm favourites out of a wide variety of cakes, spaghetti, hamburgers and much more. My friends tell me that condensed milk should be swirled on pumpkin soup to improve it yet further.
There have also been utter disasters. One week the gas bottle ran out when the pork chops with apple were only half cooked. Although I had another gas cylinder ready, none of us were strong enough to detach the first one. The neighbours were out and the gas man couldn’t come until later. Eventually a male friend came over with his strong hands, making it look so easy. The ‘chewy chops disaster’ was not quite as embarrassing as the ‘fish patties episode’. I’d had great success in the trial run a few days earlier, using tuna in spring water. On the day, however, I could only buy very oily fish. One of the group should not have tempted fate, having just recovered from a bad case of food poisoning, but she couldn’t resist.... At least she didn’t end up in hospital, like my friend’s son who had an allergic reaction to something in our granola.
The highlight each week was the ‘Prayer and Share’ time we enjoyed together. Tears flowed, love radiated from the ladies, and they experienced real fellowship, also holding one another accountable when needed. My friend of the ‘oily fish saga’ and her little girl became believers during a stage when they lived in America. In China, however, they rarely go to church for a number of reasons. For women like her, these sharing nights were a lifeline.
Upon leaving that city, I urged my friends to continue practising genuine fellowship with others. Some are doing well, although, sadly, not all. The hospitality I offered in that place can never come near that which I’ve been blessed to receive. I feel exceptionally privileged to have offered something of real value nonetheless. Gan xie Zhu (Thanks be to God).