This past summer, I marked 30 years since leaving my engineering career. It’s not been a “straight shot” at all, but like the path of the Exodus from Egypt, it’s been quite the zigzag. I intend to write several posts to mark this “anniversary.” This journey all began when I left my engineering career.
By 1992, I was deeply ensconced in my engineering career and enjoying many of its perks. I got up early in the morning to participate in gym class; we had a whole catalog of in-house gym and swimming classes we could take. For lunch, we often played basketball or football. And on Fridays, we had beer busts. But we worked hard too. It wasn’t uncommmon for me to burn the midnight oil at work. But I was young and single and had very little responsibility. Life as I knew it was about to change.
A zigzag faith journey was about to disrupt my life forever. The journey began with a question I really wrestled with, and that’s this: Who does God call to serve Him on the mission field? My Christian culture at the time seemed to suggest ministers and missionaries had a “higher calling;” that was certainly the sentiment of staff people I talked to at Cru AND it was the sentiment of church people I talked with…as in, people bring their friends to church and the pastor was the “professional” expected to “reel them in” through Gospel messages and alter calls. Fortunately at work, among my colleagues were Christians who modeled the fact that there is indeed no “caste” system in Christian vocation. Faithfulness in the Christian life is not defined by vocation. It comes down to following Jesus…or asking, how would Jesus perform my job as if God were my boss?
On one level as someone fairly new to living out the Christian faith on the job, I was really wrestling with what differences there were for Christians to serve vocationally vs. in a secular job as I was. For example, I was drawn to stories of how churches grew overseas, especially in places where faith was persecuted. And I wondered, WHO does God call to serve in THOSE spaces? Is there any pecking order to Christians who serve in those spaces verses the cushy job I had (Christian culture at the time seemed to suggest ministers and missionaries had a “higher calling”)? Through other Christians at the job, I learned there was indeed no Christian vocational “caste” system. What WAS important was stewarding what God gave me and learning to worship God AS an engineer.
The idea that God could be just as pleased with my engineering job and that I did not need to do missionary work “to be a better Christian” was revolutionary. My aim now was stewarding what God gave me at work for the Kingdom. I started supporting missionaries and I set a course to be the best engineer I could…and not to see it as a distraction to “Christian activity” outside of work. Like some high-tech companies, higher-education was offered, so I took advantage of that. The classroom was on-site via closed-circuit TV. I communicated to the prof and classmates via an archaic version of FaceTime. But I still went on campus to take tests. In the days before email attachments, a “courier” service actually delivered homework to campus. By supporting people on the field and by aiming to be the best engineer I could by investing in continued education, I felt like I was stewarding my job the best I could and learning to worship God by integrating my Christian life into my work.
Even though I was doing all I could at work to live out my Christian faith, I still had this gnawing feeling beckoning me to the mission field. Little did I know, God had a deeper agenda, to slowly transform my heart, strengthen my soul, so that I would not be as beholden to the opinion of others, and ultimately to experience Jesus’ empathy for the huge shame I grew up with. As I would later learn, I could change my vocation, from engineer to ministry, but that would not change my heart. If anything, my deep habits stayed the same. But for the time being, I was only looking on the vocational level. Yet, leaving engineering would prove to be the launching point to the most special of journeys. that would be the portal for huge changes in the deepest parts of me. By mid-1993, I gave notice at work; they called me in for one last meeting, and showed me a spreadsheet of how much my already comfortable salary would grow if I changed my mind. I thanked them, and so began the zigzag faith journey of the next 30 years.
The hardest part of this decision was the fear of how my parents would react. The expectations on me were high…and it seemed I had arrived at the dream; I was fulfilling the Model Minority Dream to be specific. My father in particular saw Christian as “those” missionaries who came in to brainwash the Chinese. Now looking back, I’d have to agree at some aspects of that narrative. Well meaning Christians have indeed colonized other lands. The tension I felt is fairly well portrayed in recent movies. (e.g. The Farewell, Crazy Rich Asians) where the 2nd generation Asian-American is following their heart, always at the disapproval of the 1st generation parent. In 1993, we had no such movies…the last prominent movie that featured an AAPI character was “16 Candles.” If you’re familiar with the AAPI portrayal there, you’d be sickened too. Apart from movies, there was a scarcity of voices to help me navigate this threat of bringing shame to my parents. If anything, the voices of the “missionary and ministry” force encouraged me to disregard my parent’s concerns…that I was an adult and that I could make my own decisions. That did not sit right with me. This video tells the story of how I learned to honor my parents in spite of making a choice they did not agree with.
What my parents thought was a BIG deal because honor in my culture was a big deal. Where I worked, how much I was making, and where my job sent me for school provided huge honor for my parents. Teh hardships they endured growing up in war-torn, rural China, working multiple jobs here in teh States, it was all paying off. I felt I was threatening all they worked for by leaving engineering. If I left engineering, I would be bringing shame to the family. What would they tell their friends?
I can’t describe how things played out in detail here. Let’s just say 1) making that decision was a huge move for me to grow into adulthood 2) I had a very disruptive, depressing summer as I entered into missionary, biblical training in Fort Collins, CO, a place where missionary kids would ask “hey, are you American? You don’t look like one. 3) my relationship with my parents entered into a new stage, a new chapter where I had to reimagine what honoring them looked like, since it was no longer tied to my high tech job and ivy-league education program…which I dropped out of. Releasing myself from my parent’s dreams of me, while learning how to honor them in new ways…that was a HUGE deal, and taught me a template that would play out in numerous ways in the decades to come.
This is just the initial chapter of this zigzag journey. But like the book of Genesis, what happened here would play out in decades to come with the end aim similar to God’s aim for the Israelites zigzag path in the desert, and that is to replace the system of Egypt in their hearts, hearts of stone, with transformed hearts of flesh. Though I had already lived a quarter century at the time I really began wrestling with this vocational shift, I really was an infant in the process.
In the next post, I want to explain why I felt more at home serving overseas vs here in the States, and how that gave me a vision to imagine spaces that inform what Kingdom Rice is today.