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Saturday, July 18, 2015

[From the Archives] Martha at the Coffee Shop

This article has been collecting dust on my hard-drive since fall 2011, when I undertook to write out a few short stories from my days in China.  I had just moved to a new city and was out for a meal with an American co-worker and one of her American friends, a businessman's wife who lived across town.  (Names have been changed.)

I had forgotten about this lunch, but when I found the story last week I was reminded of a quote that's been on my mind lately:  
"The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts." -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
There's no use thinking in terms of "good people" and "bad people."  The Bible teaches, quite truly, that we are all sinful but yet all made in God's image.  And we can all be redeemed through Christ. 

Here's the story:

Martha at the Coffee Shop

Martha talked loudly and deliberately, punctuating her conversation with laughs and frequently turning to place an emphasizing hand on Linda’s shoulder.  She talked about her cleaning help, her full-time Chinese-English interpreter, and her private driver.

She talked; we listened.  Other conversationalists were not needed; just a reasonably alert audience.  She was an unfiltered, un-inquisitive one-woman show.

Early in the conversation, Martha said three words that instantly soured my opinion of her.  Those words came in an account she gave about traveling from China to pick up some papers her husband had left behind at their California home.  Because their company wasn’t paying for the flight, she was stuck in coach (“in the back of the bus,” as she called it.)  She asserted that she was the only non-Chinese back there, and that she was nearly sickened by the surrounding belches, nose-picking, and bad breath. 

An aside:  I have made the same transpacific coach-class journey eight times.  There were Chinese people, and there were non-Chinese.  Each time I found a group of friendly and accommodating people.  I was not sickened, nor nearly sickened.

Back to Martha's story.  There she was, stuck in coach for the duration of the twelve hour flight back to America.  Worse, she was flying United Airlines.  Ah, what tragedy.  She knew we’d agree that American airlines are nothing like Asian airlines, where those “cute little Asian girls wait on you hand and foot.”  No, Western airlines are filled with ugly flight attendants.  The women are old and fat, and the men are gay.  “Fags and hags, you know!”  Hahaha!  And then it was off to another story.

We stayed at the coffee shop for another hour, eating expensively mediocre Western food, Martha’s treat.  At intervals, those carelessly spoken words, “fags and hags,” would jump to my mind, and I judged Martha.

Then I learned more about her.  She and her husband had lavishly hosted friends and colleagues for Thanksgiving and Christmas last year.  They were generous supporters of a Christian missionary friend in Romania.  At one point, Martha regaled us with tales of her daughter eating doggie biscuits as a young child.

“Makes me think twice about your parenting skills,” joked Linda. 

“Oh, I was a horrible parent!  Well, of course, my parents were horrible to me.  I had a horrible, horrible, childhood.“ (All this was said in the same joking, expansive style as the rest of our conversation.) 

Martha laughingly told us she had no idea how her daughter could be such a good mother when she herself had been such a bad mother.  “I was awful!  Well, until I got saved, and after that I was all right.”  And then it was off to another story.

Fags and hags.  Colonial snobbery.  Extravagant generosity.  A redeemed motherhood.

People are not caricatures.  Martha is not the good guy or the bad guy of the afternoon.  She’s Martha, and God loves her, and God loves the people she looks down on, and God loves me as I look down on her.  And may God save me from stuffing people into categories on the basis of three words and a lunch at an overpriced Chinese coffee shop.

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