Learning to embrace awkwardness in China

By Lucas Nafziger

I departed for China Study-Service Term for fall semester of my sophomore year. I left Goshen (after doing all of my packing the night before) ready for a trip. I hadn’t comprehended what it would mean to be in a place so radically different from anything I’d experienced before. The moment when my lack of mental preparation finally hit home was when I was introduced to my first host family.

“Oh! You must be my Mom. Oh, you must be my brother. OH! Nice to meet you Dad!” After some very rudimentary conversation, a quick exchange of names, and some smiles, I was shown my bedroom. I immediately fell asleep on my yellow Snoopy sheets but not before feverishly thinking about how tense I felt living with my new family of strangers.

I woke up the next morning, got dressed and sat on my bed. Frankly, I was scared to leave my room. How am I supposed to get to know these people? “Maybe if I sit quietly in here they might forget that I’m here,” I thought.  That illusion lasted for maybe two minutes, before my ten-year-old host brother burst into my room, and eagerly pulled me downstairs. My whole family was dressed and waiting by the door. I asked my mother where we were going and I understood none of what she said to me.  So I smiled, nodded and followed them out the door.

We were going to a 1,000-year-old temple. No big deal.  Just like the ones back home, right?

Walking around this large park that surrounded the temple, I was doing my best to not let my nervousness of being in a new situation shine through. I don’t think my parents noticed and all my little brother cared about was showing me his new skateboard.

As we wandered, my mother directed me over to a group of four street musicians playing urheens. If you don’t know what an urheen is, I would say that it looked like a two stringed upright violin. The musicians were all playing a classical Chinese folk song and I was smiling and enjoying myself. I was enjoying both the music and the chance to have some attention shifted off of me. However, my smile was interpreted by my mother as saying, “He must want to try playing an urheen.”

The next thing I know, I’m seated at a table with these accomplished musicians, handed an urheen and I’m making a complete fool of myself. As everyone looked at me expectantly, I ran the bow across the strings and it made the most wretched sound imaginable. Nails on a chalkboard kind of wretched. The growing crowd of spectators (coming to see the white boy play) let out a howl of laughter. I quickly turned red. I took a big deep breath.

As quickly as all of these feelings of embarrassment and awkwardness arose, they disappeared. I embraced the hilarity of the experience, tried to follow the performer’s instructions, laughing at my own silly attempts, and had the most ridiculous grin plastered on my face. First lesson of China learned: “it is only awkward if you let it be awkward.” I went on to have dozens more slapstick adventures with my family, some of which I probably can’t repeat in decent company.

As the rest of S.S.T. went on, I grew comfortable with the newness of each day and the random circumstances that I was thrown into. After three months of these situations and adventures in China, I reluctantly returned to Goshen. My time in China has turned out to be one of the most influential parts of my life, crystallized in these stories that I still tell to this day. It is so strange to think that I haven’t been in China for over two years now. It’ll be exciting to send off the next China S.S.T. unit when they leave next fall. Hopefully, I can live vicariously through all of them and their soon-to-be hilarious, awkward, and beautiful experiences.

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