I met the Canadian writer Amber Scorah at a party last winter. She was introduced by a mutual friend as the author of an upcoming memoir, Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life. I tried but failed to bite my tongue (a frequent failure), and asked, “What terrible thing happened to you?” Scorah, it turned out, was a former Jehovah’s Witness who’d escaped the church while working as a missionary in China. Fortunately, she had a sense of humor.
The hard-knocks memoir is nothing new, but Scorah’s struck me as a story relevant to today’s cultural moment, and to my mission as the Eat Your Words columnist for The Paris Review, where I re-create meals from the pages of books, not just for fun (though it is fun) but because approaching a beloved book through its food is an estranging and fertile way to connect to the story.
What field of human endeavor is more estranging than being a missionary? You go, bearing the ultimate truth (as you see it), to a place where you know nothing, to a people you know nothing about, where you are a stranger and everything is strange to you. You’re there to teach, not to learn; to talk, not to listen; to show, not to see. Many people in this position gird themselves with disdain for those they’ve come to convert—it helps to keep up the conviction that you are right and everyone else is wrong. But for those who approach their potential converts with respect, the way Scorah did despite her training, the missionary relationship can become inverted. Of learning Chinese, Scorah writes, “It was a different way of being in the world. I was in a mild state of disorientation for a number of years, and one of the unexpected effects was that I was slowly made a little less sure that the world was in fact as I had always seen it.”
I’ve always been attracted to learning from experience. You sit down, you share food, if you’re paying attention, you’ll learn something. Being a missionary in a foreign country is all unfamiliar foods and new dining companions. And while the history of religious expansionism is littered with human tragedy, there are many inspiring individual stories. Shortly before meeting Scorah, I’d written a column on Pearl S. Buck, the author of a thirties U.S. best seller set in China, The Good Earth. Buck was a daughter of missionaries to China. Like Scorah, she renounced her church after gaining perspective from her contact with Chinese culture. And though her legacy is tarnished with accusations of racism (a 1937 movie version of The Good Earth in which the Chinese characters were portrayed by white actors is partially responsible), in her own time she was responsible for the first realistic depiction of the everyman Chinese farmer in either Chinese or American literature.
Scorah and I talked about Leaving the Witness, the parallels between her life and Buck’s, and of course, Chinese food.
Where did this story begin? How did you become a Jehovah’s Witness?
I was born on the prairies of Canada as a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness on both sides. From a young age, I heard what was preached from the platform at our meetings, and internalized its message of apocalypse and destruction in a deep way. When you’re a young girl from a family that has some problems, and you are offered clear guidelines about how to protect yourself from a violent end, you listen.
Our children’s books from the organization couldn’t have helped—they depicted children in the paradise God had promised would come after Armageddon, but also had graphic illustrations of the world’s end, with fire raining down on children from the sky, destroying them. It was a strong motivator. Plus, the people in the congregation were so kind and nice to me, it felt like a safe place to be. I’ve since come to understand that this is one tactic that groups like this use to control people: creating unresolvable fear and balancing it out with generous doses of love. The love, however, is conditional on your staying in the group.
When I was entering secondary school, my family moved to Vancouver. After I graduated from high school, I ended up becoming a “pioneer,” which is a Jehovah’s Witness who commits to at least seventy hours per month preaching, a missionary of sorts, except that we support ourselves in the work. It was in Vancouver that I first encountered Chinese people in my preaching work.
You’ve told me that for a smart, ambitious person, being a Jehovah’s Witness was boring, and your solution to that was to go to China. Is that right?
Yes, especially as a woman. Women are not allowed to teach in the congregation, or to have positions of authority in the organization. Careers are forbidden, education is off limits, even getting too into any kind of hobby or sport is discouraged—because they are all a distraction. For a woman who liked to do things, there was only one acceptable place to focus her energies: preaching.
Of course, after years of doing this preaching work, I was getting little to no traction in my home city. I drove around in cars with my friends, working our preaching territory, but no one was converting, or even listening to me. Most people in the Western world aren’t willing to listen to what Jehovah’s Witnesses have to say. It was rare that a door would open.
My first nudge to China came because one part of my territory had a large university. I started to encounter Chinese people, and I noticed that they were much more willing to speak to me than the average Canadian. It may have been that they were new to the country and wanted to meet people. Or, as a few confessed to me, they just wanted to improve their English. Regardless, after seven-hour days spent talking to very few people, having a warm, welcoming person invite you into their home to sit down and study your publications was a welcome change.
In time, I realized that at least a few of the billion people in China might be willing to talk to me, if I went there. Our religion was illegal in China, as was preaching, but that didn’t scare me—it made it even more appealing.
Do you see parallels between your life and Pearl Buck’s?
Of course my experience was marginal compared with Pearl’s—she was born and raised in China, went to school there, was so formed by this second culture that in some ways it almost became her first culture. But what I did relate to was the clarity with which she saw her father’s mission. She spoke about the “supernatural imperative” that consumed her father. How when he had succeeded in getting some converts, it was as if it emotionally transfigured him. I thought about this feeling, and related to it deeply. There was something about having someone actually listen to me, to see the truths I held so deeply, that was addictive. It was like a high. It was like winning an argument on an existential level. My whole life, people had scoffed at me and my preaching—Jehovah’s Witnesses were the butt of jokes in the Western world. But here in China, they didn’t know a Jehovah’s Witness from any other Christian—and Christianity was something new and cool. There were times where I, too, remember feeling the same “fever” her father felt.
But that was at the beginning. In time, China started to change me, rather than the reverse. And in time, I began to relate to Pearl Buck more than to her father. Buck wrote, “The effrontery of it all still makes my soul shrink.” The idea that here I was, journeyed to this country with thousands of years of wisdom and history, telling the people I met to throw all that away for my hundred-or-so-year-old new American religion, began to feel absurd. It was one of the major factors that made me lose my faith in the things I had come to teach them.
Another unexpected parallel for me was that Buck’s mother lost a number of children while living in China. Pearl alludes to this being a challenge to her mother’s faith, and her own. I, too, lost a child, though it was years after I left China and had left my religion, but those parts in the biography touched me so deeply. Pearl recalls a scene where her mother screamed as they took yet another child’s coffin from their home, and the others around her urged her to let go, to not worry about the child’s body, because his soul was in heaven. Her mother’s response was to scream, “But his body is precious! I gave it birth. I tended it and loved it … They are taking his body away, and it is all I have.” I have never read a description of child loss that better encapsulated the anguish I felt when my own child’s body was taken from me. And also the hinted-at loss of faith in a God that could allow such a thing to happen.
Pearl Buck wrote about food in The Good Earth, and you did in your book as well. Why was that?
Before I could discuss the Bible with the people I met, I first had to vet them, to make sure they didn’t have ties to the Communist party or the government—so there was no risk of them turning me in. Eating out was cheap in Shanghai, going for a meal was cheaper than having a coffee at Starbucks, so I spent many meals with potentials before I ever brought in the Bible. I am grateful to these shared meals for creating the space for deeper friendships. Eventually, these friendships became the first “worldly” friendships I had ever had. At home, hanging out with non-JWs in this way would be strongly censured. Having a chance to learn that people on the outside were just as kind and good as people inside my religion was revelatory. I just had never had the chance to sit and eat with worldly people much before this!
In the mid-nineties I lived in the Dumbo neighborhood in Brooklyn, which was right by the Watchtower, the worldwide headquarters for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We used to laugh because that was a geek-chic era, and the young Jehovah’s Witnesses almost looked like indie-rock boys in their short-sleeved button-downs and dorky slacks. You could identify them, though, because they’d be carrying a brown paper bag with their lunch in it. And also they went straight into the Watchtower and never seemed to come out. Do you know what food was in the paper bag? Was there a rule that you had to bring your own lunch and couldn’t visit local stores?
Ha, this is funny! The weird thing is, they ate all their meals in the cafeteria inside those buildings. So I’m guessing that it was their Bibles or literature in the lunch bags! I do know there was a store in the underground tunnels though.
How was the church food of your youth?
I wouldn’t say there was a particular church food, but most Jehovah’s Witnesses, because of the edict that you shouldn’t go to college or have a career, aren’t well off. My family always ate homemade food. Each year at the annual conventions, which are three to four days of interminable talks about Armageddon, et cetera, volunteers would make meals, and at the lunch break you could use these books of food tickets they sold to buy your hamburgers, chips, pudding, or a bag of grapes. The tickets were ten cents each, and grapes came in high at ten meal tickets. I can still smell and taste the hamburgers—for a child, they were delicious. And sodas, as well, which was a great treat. The puddings were always frozen, for some reason.
Years later, they did away with that food service and told people to bring their own lunches, because it was causing too many people to miss the program. While food was essential to life, it was “spiritual food” that was constantly harped on as of the utmost importance for God’s people. Spiritual food was the literature the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses dispensed to us through the meetings and conventions and Watchtower magazines.
In Taiwan, only Mandarin-language meetings were available, therefore as a beginning language student for a long time I understood very little of what was said. Later I realized that the constant barrage of “spiritual food” (also known to me now as indoctrination and fearmongering) is important to keeping a person believing in a group like this. Because I couldn’t understand the sermons, I was on a mental fast from “spiritual food,” and this played some part in my “demise.”
Are you concerned about the response of the JW church to your book? When Pearl Buck eventually came to America, she tried to reform the Presbyterian Mission from within, speaking out against the racism, cultural imperialism, and “smugness and mediocrity” of even well-meaning missionaries. People didn’t like it and she eventually had to resign from the church.
I don’t have any hopes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reforming, that’s for sure. And even less so when it’s a woman speaking out, given their patriarchal culture.
Before publication, I had some anxiety because I imagined angry backlash from people who know me. But I was overlooking how the members of the church view me. To them, I am a terrifying, manipulative apostate bent on destroying their faith. So even a lighthearted appearance in a Paris Review food blog will seem to them to be something from Satan, insidious, evil. No one has contacted me because they’re too afraid to talk to me, even in order to get angry at me. I have received letters only from Witnesses I used to know who saw my book’s publication as an opportunity to tell me they, too, have left the church or lost their faith. I can’t tell you what a delight that was for me. When you’ve lost your entire history, so many people you’ve loved and known, to suddenly be reconnected again is wonderful. It’s like some missing part of your heart has been put back together.
Now you live in New York City, and you and your partner are raising your child outside the church. Are there lingering ways your upbringing as a Witness makes you feel you don’t fit in?
I never quite feel like I can get to the place I would have been had I not spent the first thirty-three years of my life in a cult, thinking this life wasn’t the real life, sure that this world was about to end. I have a lot of energy and curiosity and interest in things, and that helped me to learn a lot quickly. I think I was always destined to be a “worldly” person, as Witnesses call them, because it turns out, I really like the real world!
I’d like to end with a recipe. Not to be coy but because sharing food, like reading books, is a wonderful way to learn things you don’t expect. As you discovered in China, you never know where a meal will lead.
This is a really simple egg dish you see everywhere in Shanghai and Taiwan, compliments of my friend Jean. She was the very first Bible student I had, and invited me over for lunch after we had met only once. She was an excellent cook, from Jiangsu Province, and we had the same taste in food: salty and spicy. I was amazed at the dishes she could create given the circumstances of her shared kitchen: only a gas hot plate at the end of an open-air hallway (used even in the dead of winter). For the most authentic taste for this recipe, you’ll need a wok.
fānqié chǎo dàn
(scrambled eggs with tomato)
1 lb tomatos (3 medium)
½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp sugar
chives, minced, to taste
5 tbsp neutral cooking oil
—Cut the tomatoes into pieces, ¾ inch thick.
—Crack the egg in a bowl and add 1/8 tsp salt, then stir well.
—Heat the wok. Add 2 tbsp cooking oil and heat. Add the eggs and scramble. Remove and set aside.
—Add 3 more tbsp of cooking oil in the same wok and heat. Add the tomatoes and stir-fry for 3–4 minutes. Add remaining 3/8 tsp salt, the sugar, and the scrambled eggs, and mix well. When the soup thickens, take out and spread some chopped chives on the top.
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.