Finding home (the long version)

Life changed suddenly after my colleagues escorted me to the airport. The trip itself was a new experience. By going through Qatar, I managed to have 25 flying hours. Yes, this is the long way home! The first flight was great; almost no one is leaving Hong Kong unless they are leaving for good. No one wants the long quarantine upon return. After a 9-hour deserted flight to Doha, Qatar, things became more familiar, and not in a good way. This 15-hour flight to Chicago was jammed. The plane was older and very uncomfortable. What happened to social distancing? I got a little panicky, but I survived. An easy one-hour flight and I was in Iowa. How many people have a luggage tag from Hong Kong to Doha, to Chicago, and to Cedar Rapids?

How great to land in Cedar Rapids/Iowa City and be greeted by Al and Donna! It was good to see longtime friends and the familiar landscape of corn and soybeans.

I have a theory about beauty (which you are free to skip). Yes, Hong Kong is more beautiful than the Midwest by many measures: mountains, the ocean, forests, and architecture create a spot second-to-none. But is anything more beautiful than home? Where you grow up is how things are supposed to look!

Sunset at John and Debbie’s
Stolen from mapio.net

Speed it up, Matt.

It’s red!

After some jet lag recovery, Al and I went in search of a car. A car had to be my first purchase. There were very few to choose from, but we found this VW Jetta nearby and I bought it.

Then a whirlwind tour of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota! I had some work to do, but mostly I wanted to see friends.

Why stop now?

The pastor ruse continues. I was invited to lead the services at Elim Lutheran in Marshalltown, which I was happy to do. I was warmly welcomed, and a few people addressed me as “pastor.” (Not the people who remember me from before!)

Kristy and Bob invited me to their beautiful lake home near Hayward, Wisconsin.
Whitecaps on Lake Superior near Duluth, Minnesota.
Lake Herman, near Madison, South Dakota.

Two bigger jobs loomed over me: final preparations for my mother’s burial and service of thanksgiving, and finding an apartment in Rochester.

We had a great day remembering Mom and giving thanks for her life. Our small family gathered with a few close friends at the cemetery, followed by a church service at St. Paul’s Episcopal in Marshalltown, where she played the organ for 37 years. Many friends joined us to sing hymns, listen to inspiring readings, and hear the homily of Mary Jane Oakland, who served as rector at St. Paul’s for many years. We had a great lunch at the Tremont, and then all was done. A great day, and profoundly sad.

I’m wrapping up! I found an apartment in Rochester and have begun moving things in. I will return to my music job at the community college here. I hope this is just a short stop. I think I will be ready for something new after a year or so. Ideas accepted.

I think one more short post is coming. Stand by.

Final farewell

I knew it would be difficult, but I underestimated the emotions and work of leaving.

Most important were the incredible highs. I was treated to many meals and events, which was great. It was important to have time to speak with many different people during the last week or so.

As usual, the students were the stars! A group of Myanmar students came down to my apartment the day before I left. They wanted to help me pack and clean. And I did need some help, but…

My crew

…six students came! I didn’t know what they all would do. It seemed like a very large group to get one person packed.

But they did much more. In two hours they had that apartment cleaner than it has ever been! I had already put some clothes in my two suitcases, but they started over. Everything came out, got ironed (!), folded and neatly packed. Socks were paired up (a continual problem for me) and placed in a mesh bag. Somehow, everything fit!

Harvey, the crew leader, had assured me that two suitcases were enough, and he was right. I didn’t have a scale, but he was also sure they were each less than the 23-kg weight limit. (At the airport later, they weighed in at about 21.5 kg each. How did he do that?

Prayer

They wanted to pray for my journey before they left. I wasn’t expecting that. Each one gave thanks for me and asked for a safe journey and for joy in my return home. It was too much for me. I cried. It seemed that the reverse should be happening. I’m so thankful for each of them and I worry about their safety and the safety of their families in a country in the grips of a brutal war. I’m thankful for their dedication to improving their English and for accepting me as their teacher. But when the circle got around to me, I couldn’t speak.

On the last day, I went up to school to turn in my grades and to take everything I needed off my computer. So many loose ends, and some of them still need attention. I said goodbye to those I met and headed down to my apartment.

At 3:15, colleagues Kenneth and Solomon picked me up to drive me to the airport. Kenneth made a short phone call in Cantonese and then said we would swing by LTS. Why, I wondered. It’s a long drive to the airport and I wanted to have plenty of time.

The summer school classes all took a pause to come out and wish me well. All of them! Again, what to say?

Solomon and Kenneth took me to the airport, carried all my bags and waited for me to fill out all the forms and present my documents. Then they went with me to security and watched from a distance to make certain I cleared this final hurdle.

Last moments at the airport with Kenneth and Solomon.

With that, my charmed experience ended. I went back to being a normal guy; just one more body in a seat. I am so honored for all the amazing kindnesses shown me over these two years. Yes, there were some rough times and days when I felt that I was in the wrong place. But during my last few days, I basked in this love being shared with me and pondered what it all meant.

I thank God, the people at LTS, and all of you! I have had so much encouragement from home throughout my stay, and especially during the days surrounding my mother’s death. Perhaps your words seemed small to you, but they sustained me, and I won’t forget any of them.

I still need time to sort it all out. (That probably means another blog post or two!) Now that I am home, I can begin to think about why I went to Hong Kong, why I decided to come home, and what is next for me. I can’t help but weigh the positives and negatives and take stock of all that I have learned. Even with mistakes and challenges, I am so grateful for this incredible opportunity to teach and learn.

Graduation!

Yes! It was a grand ending to the school year. On Sunday, June 6th, over a hundred graduates and their families gathered at the Chinese Rhenish Church in Kowloon.

I had the chance to pose with a few of the graduates. It was especially exciting to see my thesis and dissertation students finish! They worked so hard, and it was great to be a part of their creations.

The next night was the graduation banquet. In normal times, it would have been a fancy affair at a fine restaurant. Instead, we had a smaller, safer event at school. It was fun to celebrate together and enjoy a meal and some entertainment.

Wednesday night, the Intercultural Christian Fellowship (the overseas students) hosted a spicy dinner and invited faculty who had participated with them during the past year. I should have known that we would each have to speak. Two years were not enough to learn some lessons!

Try as I might. I can’t hold everyone’s attention! The student on my right had other things going on! 😀

Friday night was another celebration! Nicholas Tai, our vice president, retired after many decades of service. More food, more music, more pictures. It was a whole week of celebration and thanksgiving!

Another post is coming soon. As I write this one, I am on my first leg of a very long journey home! I had an amazing send off! Watch this space! More pictures and perhaps a sentimental reflection on the completion of a great mission experience for me!

It’s serious now. No more pigeon posts.

My two-year mission trip to Hong Kong is ending. Just 10 days left and every day counts—it’s a deadline for something or my last chance to do something or see someone. It’s intense and bittersweet.

Like most trips, the time seems short and long. It feels like several years ago when I boarded the shuttle to the Minneapolis airport to begin a long pair of flights to Hong Kong. So many students, lessons, events, and new experiences. Months of protests, isolation, a long, sad trip to the U.S., and so much learning and joy.

But in other ways, it seems like I just started a few months ago. Two years seemed daunting when I first walked into my apartment and imagined all that was ahead.

My apartment was welcoming!

There was a great farewell dinner for the three of us who are leaving LTS. I loved this comical projected slide that greeted us:

The first “last” event!
President Simon Chow presenting me with a gift from the seminary. There were also gifts from student groups and the alumni association.

Not only gifts, but we ate Western food with knives and forks. A cold lettuce salad! Such simple things, but I have missed them. And how great is the fork?

Students! The best reason to be here!

I knew I would have to give a short speech. Since I also knew I would be in many pictures, I thought I should get my hair cut. But we had a misunderstanding about how short. As you can see, quite short. So, before I started the sentimental speech, I explained the hair. (People had been asking). I said it was my punishment for not learning Cantonese! A few days later, a student said she thought it was already getting longer. They’re kind to a fault.

Oh, wait. I said this was a serious post!

Two guys with whom I worked quite closely (editing their doctoral dissertations) are back in Myanmar. They’ve sent alarming messages of food shortages, banks and ATMs closed and bombing. I’m so glad when they write, but it’s very hard to hear and see.

One bombed school.

Worse, five new LTS graduates are due to return there this month. I don’t want them to go! Nothing to do but pray.

I know they are scared, too, but they still manage to finish their work and have moments of fun. I hosted the international students on my rooftop last week and we enjoyed it. We just had simple food, but they were quite interested in the baguettes with real butter. Lots of talk about the butter.

We ate dinner and then ate the cake that they brought. Someone smeared a little frosting on someone else and, before I knew it, we all had frosting somewhere. Surprising child-like moments amidst such serious life events.

Children!

One student brought a guitar and I had a borrowed keyboard, so we sang lots of songs I didn’t know. I took one turn at the keyboard:

Mom denied it, but I’m pretty sure she said, “Matt, please don’t play the piano in public.”

More events this week. Watch this space! Then Iowa on June 17th!

Pigeon!

I think I deserve an award. I’ve eaten chicken feet, cow stomach, snake soup, and now pigeon.

Yes, that’s the head and neck of a pigeon, as found on my plate. Zoom in on that face. No, not mine.

Some students wanted to take me to dinner and of course I said, “yes!” As usual, the menu was quite extensive and I let them choose.

Looks harmless enough.

They actually said, “It tastes like chicken!” They asked if I had eaten it in the US. I don’t think it’s ever been offered to me before. Please don’t offer it to me again. I ate it.

I’ve gotten used to fish heads on my plate, but the head and neck of a pigeon is too much! It seemed to be smiling at me. Why?

Grateful for an evening with students!

Today was the final deadline for submission of the masters theses! I helped with three of them. It is a big relief to them and to me. Now just regular grading for me. The end is nearing.

Last classes!

English Reading and Writing II
Thesis and Dissertation Writing II
Advanced Theological Reading and Writing

My three classes have ended! Our work is not done, but these were our last meetings. I begged them to take the pictures inside. The heat index has been over 100 all week. They trust my English judgment, but overruled my photography suggestion.

I’m so happy to have been the teacher of these students this semester. They were willing to try whatever I asked them to do, they never missed class, and there were a few cases of dramatic improvement!

I learned a lot, too. The Thesis and Dissertation class was difficult to teach in some ways: each student has his or her own topic. But almost all the topics were new to me, so I learned a great deal from them.

In the Theological Reading and Writing course we read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. The whole thing! It’s not a huge book, but it felt satisfying to me to complete something. It was so fitting for a group of students and teachers living in community! A colleague suggested it and it turned out to be a very good experience.

All is not well, I’m sorry to say. Five of our graduates should be returning to Myanmar, but it is not possible to travel there now. Their student visas will expire soon. I’m not sure what the solution is. Even more troubling, the family of one student has had two visits from the police there, who tore apart their place looking for something subversive, perhaps. We have many frightened and unsettled brothers and sisters among us.

I gave my last chapel talk this past week. Psalm 1 was the appointed text, so I called on my student Harvey to read the lesson. He is studying some psalms in his doctoral dissertation and he did a fine job reading.

It was a good text for me. Beautiful images of those who delight in the law and meditate on it being like trees planted by streams, while others are like chaff that the wind separates from the wheat and scatters. As usual, I mostly asked questions: what does it mean to meditate on the law? What part of the law? Who are these “trees?” Am I one? What about these other trees that look, act, and believe differently from me? Again, if you ask a trombone player to preach, there are bound to be more questions than answers—but good things for me to think about.

Travelogue only!

Not a lot of Matt talk—just some pictures of this fascinating place.

Well, first some Matt talk. I’ve been helping a student with a special project, and he took a few of us sailing. I showed you that. Now he’s taken me a couple other places—where the locals go!

Dim sum! Potstickers on the upper right; dai bau, the star of the day, on the lower left: a huge bun filled with beef.

Food is a good place to start. We went to a local dim sum restaurant (a kind of smorgasbord for us) with many dishes. This place was impossible without Cantonese skills, so I felt lucky. The colorful dishes just kept coming!

Dragon boats

After a short bus ride, we were off to Sai Kung, a fishing village I had seen just briefly before.

Fresh
Bubbling cases of unknown creatures!
Rustic shopping. It’s not Hy-Vee!
Temple to the goddess said to protect fishermen

Small temples are found throughout Hong Kong. There’s a sweet smell of incense, and every color imaginable!

Guan, guarding the entrance

The last outing was to Stanley, a popular beach and shopping area for expats. It was a cloudy day, but it’s still the ocean and a pretty great place.

Most of the locals thought it a bit cold for swimming, but I jumped in with enthusiasm! (No pictures. You’ll have to trust me!)

Some great trips. Still much of Hong Kong to see and do. Only two barriers: work and the summer heat!

Freedom

Now that I’m free, time is racing. Easter is almost here, and there are only about 6 weeks left of school.

This last bit of news caught me off guard. I saw that a “picture taking” day was coming up, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant.

Graduating students, already outfitted with caps and gowns, joined faculty members for a hot morning in the sun. After our group photos were finished, I posed with a few graduating students of mine, snd we each took a new photo for the website. Yes, the weeks are flying now!

Chapel talk

Yes, I am still taking a turn now and then at morning prayer. Last week I spoke about isolation, something I had just experienced in an intense way! I think there’s still one more sermon to give.

Three former students have been working on their theses with me. We work one-on-one, looking for grammar errors, repetition, organization, and formatting. It’s a slow process. For these young men, English is their third language so, even though they are doing well, there are many details that need attention. And, like many of us, they had a deadline that was too soon. (I didn’t say they procrastinated. The deadline was too soon). Only one of them finished on time; the other two received modest extensions, and we are working daily to get them ready.

I’m learning a lot, of course. Two of the papers relate to Myanmar, so I am taking in a lot of new information. The third is an interesting study of Exodus through the lens of modern trauma theory. The student suggests that God could have led the Israelites to the promised land much more quickly, but that those 40 years were needed for healing. Another new thing for me to ponder.

One day this week, a local student took some Myanmar students and me for a sailing trip! He has access to a 32-foot boat that is moored on the east end of Hong Kong. It was an all-day trip that included good food, swimming, and a little instruction

Our host takes a selfie.
Yes, it’s really the ocean!
It’s a big boat!
Hong Kong is so beautiful!

Mountains, beaches, skyscrapers, forests, ocean—Hong Kong has it all. What a privilege to work here! It’s great to get to know students and colleagues away from campus now and then.

It’s great, too, to be stretched a bit. I have never edited masters theses before, never given regular sermons, and never lived amidst a city undergoing so many changes. I wonder what else may lie ahead!

This summer I will return to Iowa to plan and attend a service of celebration for my mother. I think it will be hard in some ways, but I look forward to good music and time with family and friends. But much to do here before all that!

Quarantine. Just 21 Days.

I like some alone time, but this is too much! No other complaints.* The room is nice, they deliver three meals per day, and friends have brought by special treats to spoil me.

Office/classroom on the right; kitchen on the left.
Clever coffee filters

I don’t consider myself a “foodie” or a snob, but I was concerned about three weeks of Nescafé. Friends Tim and Mandy brought me these cool paper filters that unfold to hold real coffee. They also, of course, provided coffee from Vietnam and a second bag from IKEA (and fruit and bread and…)

Not to be outdone, my college friend Jon supplied me with a terrific flash drive of music. For each of the 21 days, there was a 10-hour playlist. The first day featured music from 1960, our birth year. Next was 1964, and on it goes. I feel the progression of time by the music I hear. I’m happy to report that I am now in this century. Only 5 more days! What a great and creative gift.

*Yes, I do have one more complaint. Nothing except trash can leave my room, which means that I must wash my clothes in the small bathroom sink and hang them up to dry. My mom’s friend Audrey, hereafter Audrey 2, sent some detergent and hangers with me. (After Mom died, Audrey 2 and her family hosted me in Atlanta and took great care of me). She also sent along a book of crossword puzzles and other necessary items.

If you were a fan of “I Love Lucy,” then you can get a good visual image of me trying to get the clean duvet cover over my duvet. It’s not a skill I have ever needed. Due to the virus, no one can enter the room, so all housekeeping is left to me. After about one episode’s worth of struggle, I used the cover as my tip sheet and the duvet as a blanket. (Did we even have duvets when I was growing up?)

My views from the 16th floor.

The quarantine is surreal. I feel like I have been in this room for a month or more. The walls are getting a bit closer together. I’m glad to have classes and regular interaction over zoom with friends.

So, there are some challenges. But I am grateful for all the help and encouragement I have had on this 11-week trip. Meals, lodging, cars, rides, and most importantly, love and encouragement after my mom’s passing. It has been a long, difficult journey, filled with acts of love. Thank you!

The long journey back to Hong Kong

It is a bittersweet day. I am high above the US on my second flight back to Hong Kong. I left Minneapolis on Wednesday, after a couple of weeks visiting friends and grieving the loss of my mother. I’m so grateful to everyone who welcomed me home, especially my many hosts. I couldn’t have done it without the generosity of many friends.

Highs below zero!
Meeting a president in South Dakota.
Dinner with South Dakota bishop Constanze Hagmaier and Pastor Dirk Hagmaier, who is pastor at one of my sponsoring congregations, Trinity Lutheran, Madison, SD.
A cold walk in frozen South Dakota with friend Panda.

After a day back in Atlanta for my covid test, I just boarded the long trip to Seoul. When I arrived in Atlanta, I had a new wave of grief. I was back in the neighborhood where my mother died. The images and sounds of those last two weeks became much more real, and when we took off from Atlanta, I felt as if I were leaving her again.

Not too busy at the Atlanta airport!

But it feels good to head back to Hong Kong. I’ve enjoyed teaching my students from abroad, but I am looking forward to rejoining the seminary community. I miss my colleagues and students, the beauty of our mountain, and my daily routine.

There’s just one more large hurdle I need to jump before my normal life can return: a three-week quarantine in a Hong Kong hotel. I must not leave the room for 21 days. I look forward to your calls, texts, and pictures. This seems quite difficult, so please accept my not-so-subtle plea for communication!

Police bracelet. I can’t leave my room!
My hotel desk.

So I am ready to continue my mission in person. The rest of the semester will go by quickly and we have much to do. I am excited for the June graduation and to see our graduates go out to begin or continue their service to God’s people around the world!

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