“…by being in that relationship, it taught me how to forgive, how to start to wake myself up to a presence outside of myself, how to reconnect to my own spirit, and it was really a catalyst for me to figure out how to gain more self-esteem and self-love.”
Fiction. Based on a True Visit to The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
by Mingjie Zhai
This journal entry is inspired by true events. Some of the characters, names, businesses, incidents, and certain locations and events have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Any similarity to the name, character or history of any person is entirely coincidental and unintentional.
Trigger Warning: our program often motivates people to discuss their trauma. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, please, take a step back to address emotional flashbacks and trauma before continuing to push yourself. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or the National Suicide Hotline at (1-800) 273-8255.
You walk through Beit Sahour, the Good Shepherd’s road, to the church of the Nativity where the Virgin Mary birthed Jesus Christ under the Bethlehem stars. You went to the exact spot where Jesus was born. A place that was once a barn, now a church. The Good Shepherds came to visit, en route was where you are staying now, to witness the birth of the prophet and the fulfillment of God’s promise.
You are almost there when a poor boy asked you for change. You say no. You were surprised but more offended that he would target you. And you are a target here. You stand out. The only Asian single woman walking around in this city makes you perceived not only as a tourist but as a vulnerable woman to the locals. Your instinct is to shoo him away. As you proceed to leave, he keeps begging. It is the same gesture as what you saw of the boy begging in Mostar, the hand to mouth gesture. But you said “no” once more and look him in the eye this time. With a serious face, you say no. Behind him is his little brother, who is probably hungry. But the little brother looks resentful, perhaps bitter, because he could clearly see that you are holding an Apple iPhone. You are most likely way more well off than his entire family, yet you can’t spare some change for their growling stomachs. They see your chubby cheeks with your selfie stick and you feel exposed in your wealth.
Well, comparative wealth.
You proceed towards the Church of the Nativity. You hunch down to go inside, but something gnaws at you. You feel shame that you had said no to two boys who needed your help. Before you could go in to meet Jesus where he was born, you went back outside. Placed a few coins in your right hand and a few coins in your left hand. You approached the boys who were perched on the steps. You closed your fist and asked the bigger brother to choose. He chooses your right hand and you dropped a few coins in his palm. Then you gave what’s left in your left hand to the little brother. Then you turned around and headed for the church. You do not look back.
Once inside the manger, you notice it is warm. An Asian girl is crying on the left, moved that she is finally here, the very physical place where Jesus was born. To your right are people taking pictures of the place. You think to withhold from photos. The families leave, and the Asian family goes up to the star and kisses the hole where the waxes are—the place where Jesus was born. She bows and kisses the wax. After they leave, another family, a mother and her son, arrives and they too bow at the front and kiss the star. Next, another mother and her daughter arrive. You observe three families with their children arrive before there was a moment where you are finally alone. You take out your phone and film the candles and the star. You do not bow, but you do put your hand to the bottom of the star and feel the wax.
When you leave, a man who passes you by looks at you and leans in. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“No,” you say.
“Where are you from?”
“Take me with you. I need to leave this place.”
The security guard chimes in.
“Sneak him in your suitcase.”
You think of the Italian men who had told you the same thing in Rome.
“Trust me, you don’t want to be in California right now.”
Then you leave.
Perhaps, you are disingenuous.
Rylie is in California.
So are your parents and your sister.
So is your potential community that you started producing the showcases but then stopped.
Your company had gotten this far because you are in California.
You are welcomed to start your business, to do the things you want to do, to innovate, to be provided with resources because you are from California.
You cross the street towards the bazaar towards the ATM machines that surround the Church. A 19 year old boy observes you while you were about to pull out cash.
“This machine only gives Jordan,” he says, “If you want Shekels, you must go to the other machine.” He points at an ATM that has bright neon pink glowing around it.
“Thanks,” you say. “I can show you how to pull out cash,” he says.
“No thanks, I can do just fine.” He still follows you as you head towards the machine.
“My family owns a shop here,” he points to the store behind him, “We sell clothes, leather bags, and such. Please come when you are finished.”
“Okay,” you say feeling somewhat obligated and pressured.
When you arrive, he asks his friend who manages a coffee shop he calls, “Starbucks Bethlehem,” next door. You realize that this is completely bootlegged. The guy just took Starbucks’ logo and added “Bethlehem” to it. You are amused. He comes with mint tea.
“It’s free,” the 19 year old boy says.
You instinctively suspect that it maybe spiked, so when you hold the drink, you don’t drink it. You’re holding it hesitantly. You are feeling awkward and suspicious. They ask you how long you’ll be staying, where you’ll be staying, and who you’re staying with. You are dodgy with your answers. It’s too much personal information to give to a stranger you just met.
He puts a scarf over you and then wraps it around your head. “It’s how the Bedouin wears it,” he tells you. He says it would be great to wear it like this when you head to Old Jerusalem. You thank him but you tell him that it’s a bit hot.
He then asks you to sit on the couch. You reluctantly oblige. You want to leave but don’t know how to leave without offending his hospitality. He then sits next to you on the couch and shows you pictures of his family’s view that over looks the Nativity church on his phone. “You can come to our home and I will show you this view in person.” You start to leave and he thinks you are saying yes. He leads but then notices that you stop following him. You stop at the “Starbucks” shop of his friend who is playing video games on his phone. As he starts waving you over to follow him, you tell him that you are tired and that you would rather sit here at the coffee shop where his friend made you free tea. He then takes this as a clear rejection so he moves on to talk to the next girl who is with her mom and shows them a flag. The coffee shop owner begins playing games on his phone when he realizes that you are not there to order anything. Right when he is busy playing the games, you thought this would be the perfect time to flee. You head out without saying bye to the teenager who is now focused on selling two women some things inside his family’s shop.
Then a taxi cab driver smiles at you and hopes you will use his service. You say no thanks and begin walking back to your host family airbnb.
While halfway there, a car of men heckles you, “China! China! China!” and you are annoyed, but it occurs to you that you stand out like a sore thumb. First, a single woman; next a single woman with a backpack and Chinese. You are a bit worried. You continue to stop at a hotel where your phone is buzzing. It’s your mother. You call her back. “Have you been calling me?” mom asks.
“No,” you say.
“Oh, I got worried,” she says, “cause you kept calling me.”
Yet, probably a sign that you should call a cab and not walk the whole way back.
You are not naive. In fact, you hardly see any women around these streets. They are mostly men. And most likely men who are horny because women seem so scarce. Fifty percent of the population here are Muslim men and you are not sure what the rules are if there is an assault. You doubt anything bad would happen to the man if you were assaulted but if you were able to effectively incapacitate a man, perhaps even stab him with a knife to his throat and kill him, you would probably get the death penalty here—even if it was in self-defense. You doubt you have any rights as a woman here.
You’d rather avoid this entire scenario, so you wait for a taxi cab. After a few minutes of no cabs passing, you change your mind and continue walking. It wasn’t until a jeep with the label, “I’ll show you a good time,” on its front banner passes you by and honks its horn at you, flashing you with their headlights, and then stops in the middle of the road to stare at you, that you turn 180 about face back to the nearest lit up store where you flag a taxi.
The first cab asks you where you are going.
“To Beit Sahour,” you say.
You close the door and he leaves.
The second cab you flag tells you, “We are at Beit Sahour.”
“Yes, but I don’t want to walk alone anymore.”
He understands and you are 13 minutes away from your home.
When he drops you off, you give him 50 shekels to break change cause the cost was 15 shekels. He gives you a 70 shekels in return. You told him it’s too much.
He is embarrassed.
He says he is tired.
You say it’s okay and that you understand.
You are safely home. That’s what matters.
Your first day in Palestine. You don’t know what to make of it other than you are a walking target and you haven’t felt this much of a prey since Aaron looked at you the second time you two met.
When you get home, you cook the last of the pre-marinated chicken you bought from a store a few blocks down, where the man who runs the store offered to accompany you to Jordan.
You wonder why Sahim was so eager to take you to the pet store. It seems there is some kind of unspoken rule that you should be accompanied by a male figure. That perhaps is the only way the target is off your back.
The Second Teatime
Granny shows you a picture of all three men—”he died,” and “he died,” and “he died.”
“Cancer,” she tells you.
And then it hits you how finite your time here really is.
She spends the entire time telling you of her family—the details of who married whom and what they do for a living. You can tell that this is her pride and her purpose. She loves the idea of a bigger family, more grandkids, and growing wealth and success. You can tell that she is not too different from your grandmother and your mother. You, on the other hand, find big families to be dense. Many obligations, responsibilities, and image-bearing appearances to uphold. Your actions no longer are just tied to your own but to the brand name of the family reputation. You find your small family size just right…if you can just get used to the loneliness and build a stronger connection with your faith in God. But there is something in Granny’s share that inspires you to want to build a big family.
The Candles of Prayer inside the Nativity
You make a prayer with a candle, reflecting a small hope. But before you finished filming the candles after your prayer, an orthodox man takes your candle and throws it away. You come back and relight another candle, this time with another prayer. A few moments later, another monk comes and grabs that candle and throws it away. When he’s not looking again, you light another candle. It’s going up no matter what. As long as you are alive and present, the candle of your hope is not going out no matter who decides to seize it.
You’re not angry with the Orthodox man. You are just more stubborn when it comes to your hope.
It’s the hope that only Mary knows in her heart of hearts how long, how strong, and how much it will endure.