Monday, May 30, 2011

The family in Asia

My brother and I wove our way down narrow, dirty Asian streets on which neither of us had been before, hoping almost against hope that we were following the vague directions correctly. Finally we made our best bet as to the correct side ally out of the furniture market, hung a right, and began up the hill, unable to see beyond a couple buildings ahead of us.

And suddenly, there it was: a small building tucked in the ally with a makeshift wire cross on top. No wonder our taxi driver had been unaware of the building’s whereabouts; had we not known exactly where to look, we would have never found the tiny Catholic church.

At 8:15, the room was not yet too crowded, and my brother and I managed to find a seat in which the altar was partially blocked by a large pillar. In many ways, the room felt familiar, as if I had been there before in America or Canada or Ireland or Italy: there was the same holy water by the door, the same kneelers on the pews, the same altar in front, the same statues of Mary and Joseph on either side, the same crucifix in the middle, and the same silently praying parishioners as the congregation gathered. Yet there were other indications that I was most definitely “not in Kansas anymore”—the flashing lights around the crucifix, the florescent, cheap plastic flowers that decorated the corners of the arches in place of marble carvings, the bright red paper Asian characters that adorned various prominent places on the stucco walls.

An old Asian woman on our pew got up and retrieved some prayer books from the back of the room, handing the useless items to us with good-natured hospitality. I smiled and whispered my thanks, one of the few words I knew of her language, and made a mental note to follow along in the completely unintelligible characters in order to be a gracious guest. The Asians made it clear that this pair of light-skinned Westerners were more than welcome in the parish, and their hospitality transcended the language boundary.

When the service began everyone knelt and remained in that posture for the next hour, chanting in the bouncing strains of their tonal language. It could have been a pagan rite for all I knew; it certainly sounded like the ritual of a foreign religion. Of course, it was not, and as the minutes wore on I eventually identified from the particular patterns of repetitions that they were chanting the rosary. After that they moved on to a litany as the room filled up, the old women from the beginning making room for the families that were gathering. Finally, when mine and my brother’s knees were crying out for relief while the old women around us were seemingly unaffected, the congregation sat down.

Rather than a service, the congregation moved on to readings that my brother identified from his rudimentary knowledge of the language were from Luke. They read straight through a lengthy passage, alternating between readers and gaudy recorded renditions with background music, and it became clear to me that there would be no mass at this parish. The reading continued for nearly half an hour before we had to leave to get to my brother’s team meeting, both a little disappointed that we would not have the chance to speak with the parishioners who had exchanged many friendly words and glances with the pair of visiting Westerners.

“She told us, ‘You are family,’” my brother had translated after the first old lady had greeting us in our pews. And I left knowing she was right, that we were family members in this strange mixture of foreignness and familiarity, in that intersection of the West and the East where we could share in their prayers for nearly two hours without knowing the words, underneath a spread of plastic neon flowers and Asian characters and Western statues, in a culture of religious persecution that stripped away any need to distinguish between Catholics and Protestants (considered different religions in that part of Asia) and varying levels of communion with the Vatican and language barriers since there was apparently no priest to celebrate mass anyway. In that small, crowded room that morning, as we knelt on aching knees and listened to prayers we could not utter, we were simply family.

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