Author: Stephen J. Zhang
Residing in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife Gracie and two children, Mr. Zhang is an Anglican church priest as well as a Christian writer.
Detour: “A long or roundabout route that is taken to avoid an obstacle…or replace a regular route.”
What an interesting word. It crossed my mind that life is often an endless series of detours. We end up taking one path after another, sometimes forgetting where we were going in the first place—or what our destination was—and find ourselves forever lost on a strange road…
Our generation, born in the 1970s in China, more or less believed in what we were trained to be, young pioneers preparing to fight for the ideal society for the rest of our lives.
It brings to mind the Children's Palace in Changning, Shanghai, a heritage mansion where celebrities lived decades ago. I remember in elementary school, we weren't allowed to play there unless it was Children’s Day or if the Palace was open for foreign guests. My friends and I loved "the Road the Brave,” a simple children's adventure ride. We pestered the teacher when we might go to welcome foreign guests—but we really wanted to enjoy Brave’s Road.
One day, we finally went. As I climbed the ropes in the final stretch of the Brave's Road, I slipped from the rockwork to the bunker and had to jump, nearly knocking over a blonde woman filming me with a camera. Time and time again, one or more of us children would fall into the bunker, and all the blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigners would aim cameras at us.
It occurred to me what it meant to welcome foreign guests; children were here for foreigners' amusement, to make them feel that we really had fun. That was when I first realized the world's absurdity and emptiness. My sadness is like a river passing through the desert of time, trickling, leaving traces of its passage.
Doubt and confrontation rose in an invisible riverbed at the bottom of my heart. In Shanghai, the changes of the 1990s propelled me to quit my job as a civil servant, borrow money from my parents, and pay thousands of yuan because I had breached my employment contract.
Everyone, including my parents, thought I had recklessly broken my "golden bowl." If there was anything worthwhile about my youth, it was a fragile sense of justice and resistance to the world after Utopia had fallen apart.
Although I was lucky enough to write and publish short stories and novels during university, I decided to give up my dream of literature. My voice was too weak to wake the people pretending to be asleep in a steel house.
I chose to immigrate to Australia and was lucky to pass the IELTS test and obtain a skilled immigrant visa. But I only stayed in Sydney for a year and then returned to the hot front of international business.
After years of hard work, I seized an opportunity in Germany. During the first month of traveling around Europe, I acquired a small distributor in Hamburg, Germany. Skipping the middlemen, I came to set up one of the few Chinese private exporters that employed German salespersons, directly selling medical and surgical disposables to German hospitals.
As soon as I turned around, a second opportunity showed up. I became the first to introduce technical know-how and support from Italy and founded a joint venture factory for surgical drapes with a 100,000-level clean room in mainland China. We took the lead in manufacturing pre-shipment sterile surgical kits and packs for European customers by integrating China production and European sales.
It took me only two years to recover the acquisition cost, and the products made in the joint venture became well-known in Germany and sold in Spain, France, and Northern Europe.
Sitting in a large and bright office in Pudong, Shanghai, facing the world map on the wall, I couldn’t stop fantasizing about placing red flags in every corner of the map. The future appeared to have been packed in a sturdy box.
However, the future often changes from an unexpected gust of wind; we don't know where it comes from, and once heard, it may never return...
An Italian client, an old friend, sent me an alert. He found that products were not being exported from my Shanghai headquarters; instead, they carried the label of my German company and appeared in the European market. At the same time, our German company showed huge losses.
My business empire began to shake and creak as I poured a lot of money into a German company trying to save its corporate finances.
My pride and ambition were so inflated that I ignored the knockoffs my China joint venture factory produced, which had overwhelmed the genuine products. All the orders of the fakes came from another new company with the same name and label as my German company. I was caught off guard by this invisible enemy.
To seize my company, the two German executives, including my former managing director, had already conspired to transfer the assets to their new company and dumped all the debts onto my original company, leaving it bankrupt. The plan was for their new company to legally take over the sales channels and my China joint venture supply company.
To make matters worse, my German employee, the marketing director, “another good friend of mine,” flew to mainland China and persuaded my JV partners to join hands with him. They kept me out of the new company through secret "legal" procedures.
I paid German lawyers vast amounts of money to file a lawsuit--not to take back my German company, but to destroy it. I remember preparing the legal papers on the train to Berlin. The Christmas snow fell gently outside the window, covering up footprints in barren fields across the German countryside; I feared my hair would turn just as white.
In the rhythmic vibration of the railway, I thought that the wind of God was so swift that I only spent four or five years going from being the Chinese pioneer of direct sales in German hospitals to being kicked out of this enormous market. I was betrayed not only by my old German friends but also by two Chinese partners of the JV factory and several suppliers in China.
Being doubtful about your life is a difficult circumstance. At the end of the day, as a thorough pragmatist and atheist, I had to deny the whole world, and I began to doubt myself. Was I as superficial as my former associates? It was easy to curse them, to deny their legitimacy—but should I also deny myself?
Sitting at my home in Melbourne on the other side of the world near the Antarctic, watching the ants crawling from the garden into the lounge, I remembered a small incident in Beijing.
I was on a business trip, and the former university class representative came late to dinner; we had already eaten. He sat there absent-minded, having no interest in eating or drinking; we asked him what the delay was. He said he had just spent three hours watching ants move their home from one end of his patio to the other. After watching them for a while, he bent down and blew lightly on the busy ants, and the ants all returned to their original home.
A few hours are equal to days, months, and years in an ant's life. It dawned on this man that he had spent more than the last ten years in Beijing; he married a beautiful woman, and they had a lovely daughter; he owned a good job, a decent apartment, and a new car. He came to realize he could lose all of them overnight. He felt like an ant in the universe, and he was unsure which gust of wind would knock him back to a humble life.
The university class representative's ant metaphor sounds like a depressive episode, but it's actually full of introspection—it was my metaphor too. The ants, far more numerous than humans, must have regarded his home and my home as their earth. Were we justified playing gods and blowing their futures away with our hot gusts of wind?
By this time, the German lawsuit has been going on for two years.
I couldn’t get the incident with my ants or the Class representative’s ants out of my head. Did we really believe what our eyes saw? What did the ants see?
The eyes of ants can't see humans, like humans can’t see God. They are mere animals fit for a two-dimensional world, three, if you add time. According to mathematicians' calculations, our world is at least ten-dimensional. We can't understand even one more dimension; what should we do with seven or eight more dimensions?
Psalm says, "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of, human beings that you care for? "
I came to believe the ant episodes that occurred were to set me on my journey to Christ. I thought this was my earth, but it was the garden of the Most High. Like the ants, I circled the world for a long time, and gusts of wind from a God I couldn’t see brought me to the words of the Bible.
Instead of avoiding the Almighty, I let the wind lead me to interesting personal discoveries. It is never easy to meet Jesus, and being a Christian is hard work that requires vigilance and faith that God is with you even if you can't see him. I knew I had to demolish the sinful buildings I had carefully constructed over the decades.
Totally dismantled, I dropped the German lawsuit.
2011 was the most depressing year of my life. Sitting in my study in Melbourne, I meditated on the verses of the Bible by myself. Imagine Moses taking me away to wander in the wilderness for 40 years; Joshua bringing me along to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, with milk and honey; Jesus carrying me up into the holy city on Palm Sunday. In my mind, those days and nights were confused, ambiguous, and tangled. I began to question myself… to doubt my purpose for existing...
Were all the things I had believed, pursued, and accomplished for decades wrong, sinful, or against God's will? Had I persistently held a false faith for decades or simply had no faith in my entire life?
These myriads of questions that wet my mind like icy raindrops made me sober. When I first started praying to God, doubt was the primary motive, yet God's faithfulness proved to me time and time again Jesus' power to move mountains and fill seas. Every true Christian ends up with something other than theological knowledge or the words of prayer. Everyone passes through the valley of the shadow of death and experiences the testimony of God, each prayer being a brick in the building of faith.
Three discoveries shattered my faith in reason, science, and atheism:
First, although people have rational pursuits, they are fundamentally irrational. Atheism has absolutely no evidence or experimental proof and is essentially a religion. No one is born an atheist; most people are theistic at all stages of human history. If not deliberately instilled in all aspects from childhood, a person is naturally born theistic or agnostic.
Second, science and religion are more balanced than they appear. There is much evidence that the origins of science are closely related to religion. The origins of significant human knowledge, such as art, music, literature, medicine, astronomy, chemistry, physics, etc., are all related to the inspiration of religion. Science is only 600 years old, but it has seized the absolute right to speak in almost every field, so some people exalted it to the status of a new religion. The more scientific discoveries there are, the more problems arise. Even though institutional religion has been marginalized in modern society, faith has never been marginalized; on the contrary, it is rapidly growing in developing countries, especially in Asia.
Third, God's providence has always been in my life, and I find the most challenging thing is not about believing or theology but gratitude. Many people take everything for granted, are accustomed to taking and taking, and finally fall into spiritual exhaustion. Regarding its cultural origins, the Chinese have never had the concept of spirituality and are afraid of various forms of knowledge indoctrination. However, they are anxious to send their children to various training classes to receive practical knowledge to avoid losing at the starting line. However, there has never been a voice that says: to nurture the spirituality of children. The tragedy of our times is that lies and brainwashing have cultivated people into shriveled spirituality.
Following all my self-examination, spiritual and philosophical introspection, and constant self-doubt, I was baptized into a new kind of human being called Christian ten months later.
On the day of the baptism, the number of attendants in the Melbourne Chinese Church exceeded 100 for the first time. The church minister excitedly asked me how I had so many friends, and I said more people probably wanted to see if the water had leaked into my head. They believe that in this crooked and rebellious world, a modern man--who only pursues wisdom and individual efforts--can't become a Christian. Such a transformation has to be a miracle.
I soon learned that, like new problems arising from scientific discoveries, problems also arise from spiritual rebirth. This new species of human I had become did not just live happily ever after but began to experience trials. Soon I established a bible study group at home and entered the missionary service while pursuing theology studies.
It takes courage to be an entrepreneur but even more courage to be a preacher who gives up business. The way of the brave has to be a detour, but such a detour must be an intelligent design of the Transcendent.
After detouring for half a lifetime, I thought I had wisely avoided the domination of the Transcendent behind history. Still, in surprise, the detoured distance was precisely the way of grace designed in advance by the ruler.
I accepted five years of seminary study as a special grace, which restored my imagination and creativity, giving me a scalpel to dissect sin and evil. I resumed creative writing, such as poetry and fiction, but this time as a Christian author, entirely different from my younger writing days. I have won consecutive poetry, prose, and story awards with its theological dialectics recognized in Australian and American Diaspora literary reviews.
More than a year after my ordination as an Anglican pastor, an unprecedented Pandemic swept quickly across the world. Coming to writing this article, the beeping of the Australian bushfires sounded in my right ear, together with the cry for help from the big city along the Yangtze River in the northern hemisphere.
Many people took their families to escape the plague city overnight, and some people took the opportunity to raise the price of PPE, such as face masks, dozens of times; within all of them, the fear and greed in human hearts.
In prayer, I wish: To confront the disaster of the Book of Revelation; faith is not only about the baptism of some ancient worldview but a collection of the testimony of our common ancestors of the sublime power and wisdom that transcends the world. A free gift for children and grandchildren to renew our spirituality and be reborn.
A soft and humble voice in the left ear says, “Don't be afraid; follow me!"
The world is still in God's control. Even if you take a detour afar or deny yourself, carrying your own cross and following Jesus; even if you detour in circles, spending decades, and facing a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe and depression.
Each detour can be a unique and amazing journey for a former atheist who believed man conquered the heavens. The trinity of a businessman, a preacher, and a writer deepens the experience of life to live out the true attitude of life of the vines.
Lingyi Wu, known as Stephen J. Zhang, was born in Shanghai and is the president of Australian Chinese Writers Inc. (ACW). His short-fictions, novellas, and poems have been published in various mainstream Chinese literary journals such as Lotus, Literary Harbor, Sichuan Literature, Anhui Literature, Genesis Poetry, City Literature, Kosmos, The East, South Bank, Rough Plains, etc.
His poems were compiled into Poetry Reference 2020 and Selected Chinese Poems 2020 (Flower City Edition). His first fiction collection Genesis: The Last Summer of the Water Spider, was published in Taiwan, receiving the Overseas Chinese Writing Award in 2020. In April 2021, Exodus: Riding the Fish Away was published as a critically acclaimed story collection. His short story The Mushroom Man won first place in short fiction at the Southern California Field Award in 2022.