Each morning my husband and I were awoken by the chants of schoolchildren, twenty-four stories below us, doing their morning exercises. I would look down at their tiny blue-and-white uniformed bodies, stretching and twisting and jumping in the stifling humidity, and wonder how they felt about the industrial city we all lived in. Did it feel like home to them?
I had certainly never felt less at home. My face and body resembled the faces and bodies around me—the first time I had ever lived in a place where I was part of the ethnic majority. Yet everything else about me stood out, in a culture and society in which standing out is one of the worst things one can do.
My daily commutes with my husband—walking from our apartment building to the subway station, cramming our bodies with the rest of the masses on the subway cars, then walking again to the office building—became exercises in anxiety. Who would yell at me next? Which of these people would resent me if they knew how Western I really was on the inside?
Nowhere in Shenzhen felt safe for me—except our starkly white, cement-tiled two-bedroom flat.
The place came with its own colorful history. Its previous occupant was the mistress of the Hong Kong-based owner, his "second wife" who was about forty years his junior. When she moved out, she left enough food to feed an entire infantry of cockroaches. They eagerly welcomed us from every room the day we moved in.
When the complex social dynamics of living in China became too overwhelming for me, I escaped to this flat. I burrowed into the gray-and-white houndstooth sectional sofa, watching bootlegged versions of American movies and TV shows. I jerry-rigged American meals—scrambled eggs and toast, spaghetti, garlic bread, burgers—with the ingredients I could find. I listened to MP3s of U2 and Coldplay with full-throated nostalgia, dancing across the cold tiles with abandon, the air conditioner blowing on full blast.
In this flat, my true ethnic identity—as a second-generation Chinese American—was on full display. I felt safe and free within that one thousand square feet, floating a couple hundred meters above the ground.
Yet, even then, the concrete walls of the high-rise building strained against the pressures of life in a totalitarian state. Everyone took it as fact that our phone lines and email communications were regularly monitored. I heard rumors that the central government tended to bug apartment buildings just like ours. I worried that the Christian locals I was discipling would suffer because of their association with me.
Eventually, I buckled under that pressure. I refused to leave our apartment for days at a time, unable to face the oppressive environment outside. I grumbled and lamented and wept before God, asking what he was doing in the midst of my misery.
Only three things kept me from becoming unmoored during that time: my faith, my husband, and the flat that was the closest thing to home I had available.
I didn’t know it at the time, but God was breaking the stranglehold that my compulsive needs to people-please, to achieve, and to be perfect had on me. Like Eustace, the surly and prideful character in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I needed God to reveal the depth and hardness of my dragon skin—and I needed God to tear that skin off, even though it hurt my very soul to do so.
About a year into our stay in China, two friends visited us from California. They listened to my anguish; they counseled me; they prayed over me. And that concrete, barren apartment became holy ground.
My healing journey, which eventually took years, began as I wept in that twenty-fourth story flat in China, confessing my weakness and desperate need for God. Only then could he tear down the smaller life I had been stubbornly pursuing. Only then could he make space for something grander and far more beautiful.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer and editor. She is a columnist for Inc.com and a regular contributor to Christianity Today, The Well, and Asian American Women on Leadership. Her book on marriage and entrepreneurship is forthcoming from Hachette Center Street in fall 2017. After living in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Kenya, she is now residing in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and adorable hapa son. Visit her at http://www.chengtozun.com or follow her on Twitter.