Group Update from China
We came to China for many reasons: to learn or perfect our Mandarin, to challenge ourselves, to be immersed in a new culture, to learn more about Chinese traditions, to commit ourselves to service, and more. Over the past five months we’ve learned so much, but perhaps the most important lessons have come, not in the form of a Chinese class, or a report written for an NGO, or even a celebration of a Chinese holiday, but rather from the relationships we’ve developed with those around us, whether they be with a host mom, a co-worker, an art teacher, or even a taxi driver. China can seem worlds away from our homes in the West, but when an NGO becomes a family, a village child becomes a little sister, or a taxi driver becomes a friend, we are reminded that even in a country half-way around the Earth, empathy, friendship, and family overcome cultural differences, language barriers, and country borders.
The first time I took a taxi in Kunming, the driver couldn’t understand a word I was saying. I had to call my host mom and ask her to please explain to him where we lived before he finally repeated the address I’d been saying, using different tones, then nodded and proceeded to drive me to our apartment building, cheerfully informing me as I sat slumped in my seat that next time I should have the address written down so Chinese people could understand me.
The next few times were marginally better. I became much more adept at pronouncing our home address, and taxi drivers would usually understand the second or third time I said it. Now, assuming a certain level of fluency on my part, drivers began asking me questions. The standard operating conversational procedure usually started with, “What country are you from?” to “You’re here studying?” and “How long have you been in China?” The first few taxi rides I maybe made it through the first two questions, provided the accent of the driver wasn’t too thick and I was relatively alert. After that, though, I blazed through them, nodding knowledgeably when they inquired whether I was studying, and expounding as best I could on my work at my NGO. Those taxi rides were always nice because the drivers were usually patient and smiling, laughed when I stumbled over words, and wished me a good stay in China when I left.
But it was in the beginning of November that I had my first real conversation with a taxi driver. I was late to work one morning and managed to hail a cab. In the first five or so minutes the driver had gone through the traditional conversational cue-cards, and I had done the same. So I settled into my seat and stared at the passing buildings and the construction on the new underground subway, flinching only slightly as we passed inches from the mammoth green sides of a public bus.
But then, the driver kept talking.
“What’s America like?” he wondered. “How are children taught in schools? We have lots of problems with our education here, you know. It’s not as good as it is in America.”
I was surprised and struggled to adequately answer his question. I wanted to convey that yes, American teaching philosophy was different, but we also had plenty of problems with our education system. This sentence took me three full minutes to explain, and I didn’t really do it justice. But he nodded seriously and thought about what I said. Then he began explaining to me his thoughts on China: how the Chinese were “falling behind” other world powers, how Americans were industrious and a little frightening, how we were such a big world power and how hard-working and smart our children were. I laughed a little after he said all this. I then explained that I heard these exact same sorts of sentences back home – only they were usually said by Americans about China.
“We feel the same way,” I said. “Only opposite.”
The next few months brought different taxi drivers, with different thoughts and opinions and accents. Most drivers told me about their children, about how proud they were but how they hated how much their child had to study. My first female taxi driver (into whose cab I stumbled after tripping and falling spectacularly in the middle of the street) even told me how I reminded her of her daughter. The taxi driver I met the day after Christmas ate some of my Christmas butter cookies and asked me for the recipe because she had never tasted anything like them before. When I visited Chengdu, a city in the neighboring province of Sichuan, the taxi driver who drove me to the panda zoo on the outskirts of the city explained to me his thoughts on Xi Jinping, China’s new president, while the driver who drove me back into Chengdu boasted about how Chengdu has the most beautiful women in all of China and how Sichuan in general has the best food. Just the other day I took a taxi with a driver who sang opera the entire time, showing me his lyric sheet between songs and telling me that it was only now, in old age, that he had discovered the pleasures of singing.
The most memorable driver I have met yet, however, was the one who drove me on Christmas Eve. I made the mistake of assuming that because Christmas isn’t a traditional Chinese holiday, I would be able to make it out to my supervisor’s house for his Christmas party and then back to our Program House to celebrate with my Bridge Year mates.
I seriously underestimated the traffic: that night, all of Kunming was out on the streets. The best way I can put it is that it was a Christmas Eve I will never forget. I spent the majority of the evening – over four hours – with my driver trying to make it across town. While we sat stalled on the highway, he told me about his son, his wife, and his general life philosophy. We also talked about his job, how he liked it, and he said it wasn’t a question of liking it so much as providing for his family. He said he would wait for me outside my supervisor’s house, even if I took an hour.
Unfortunately, we never made it across town. The traffic was so bad and it got so late (we became pretty seriously lost, as well) that we eventually turned around and headed back. It was hard, sitting in the cab and thinking about both parties I was missing, and wondering how I had made the mistake of ending up out on the road on Christmas Eve with hours to go until I got back home. But then I thought that, maybe, I was meant to be out on Christmas Eve with this cab driver. Maybe I was meant to know him. And while it felt like a pretty heavy-handed attempt at someone teaching me a“the meaning of Christmas is…” lesson, I stopped thinking about the food I was missing and started being thankful for having the opportunity to get to know this man at all.
We made it to the Program House eventually (after enlisting the help of his wife), at which point I decided, what the heck, it was Christmas Eve, and gave the man who had just spent four hours with me all the money I had in my wallet. It was only about 200 kuai (roughly $30), but it meant a lot to me, how kind he had been to a foreign girl on Christmas Eve.
I have since met that same cab driver three times. The last time we saw each other, he told me that he and his wife were heading out to vacation in Dali. I told him I had never been to Dali, and he said that if I ever wanted to go, he would be more than willing to drive me. I have a feeling I’ll be seeing him again.
I’ve met a lot of people in China. And it’s funny, but some of the people I feel like I know best, I don’t even know their names. Many of them I’ve only spent half an hour with, and the most they’ll probably remember of me is the American girl who wanted to go all the way across town at a busy time of day. But I’ll remember them – as the opera-singer and the woman who wanted the recipe and the driver who spent Christmas Eve with me, the man who was worried about his children or who boasted about his city or who wanted to know my opinion on Chinese culture. All of them are cab drivers. All of them are different. And it is in all of them that I have seen that humanity is cross-cultural. Even in the congestion of traffic and construction and a cramped and crowded city, their kindness is a lesson I can never forget.
The Friday before Christmas, my NGO, Jiaxin Children’s Assistance Center, which aids homeless children in Kunming, had a caroling event in which the kids and staff went to various parts in downtown to sing Christmas carols. Songs included Joy to the World, Silent Night, Amazing Grace, along with some Chinese hymns. That Friday afternoon, the kids were practicing for the event, which would occur during the evening from 6-9pm. One of the teachers, teacher “Yi,” who is from Holland, has been in China on and off for about 20 years. One of the most sympathetic and empathetic persons I know, Teacher Yi has a huge heart for the destitute in the city, and that afternoon, he invited a homeless man to the rehearsal.
The man Teacher Yi brought was 20 years old and was from Gui Zhou Province, the poorest province in China. The young man ran away from his home a couple months ago and has been wandering in Kunming, sleeping in a nearby Carrefour, an enormous department store similar to Walmart. When I saw him, I had the impression that he had been on the streets for a while: his dark gray coat was ripped in several places; his black jeans had dark brown and grey stains from his time living outside in the bitter December cold; his hair was disheveled and his face had splotches of dirt and mud on it. He wasn’t the most pleasant man, but when I soon realized that he was only two years older than me, I asked myself, “How can someone who is so young have been through so much pain and now be homeless?” After Teacher Yi introduced him to me, Teacher Yi told me that he had to run off and do an errand and that he wanted me to continue talking to this person, to build a relationship and make sure he didn’t feel lonely among the crowd of adults and children practicing for our caroling event. Before Teacher Yi left, he gave this man a huge hug, a hearty pat on the back, and a warm look that said, “You are precious.”
Teacher Yi treated this homeless man like he was the most important person in the world–with dignity, respect, and care. His kindness for this homeless man touched me, and I reflected, do I treat and value the outcasts of society with such respect, empathy, and compassion? Or, do I just pretend that they’re not there and go on with my life? Teacher Yi is an inspiration to me because he seems to know what unconditional love is: giving charitably and selflessly without expecting anything in return. Although he is already in his 40s and has not married, he has devoted his life serving and ministering to those with the least in this world. The thing that strikes me particularly is his sincere and wholehearted love for people–especially for the most neglected of society. When he sees individuals, he sees them not for who they were or are but who they can be. He told me that he feels like helping the homeless in China is his calling, and that if he didn’t heed it, he couldn’t live with himself. When I heard that, I asked myself: What is my calling? Although I do not know it exactly in all its fine detail, I know that I want to build it on some fundamental virtues—service, compassion, and humility. Teacher Yi’s humility and largess challenge me to live a life not putting my hope and treasures in the temporary pleasures of this world, but instead on things that are of permanent value—improving peoples’ lives.
At the end of the event, I think many lives were touched, and the caroling event was a success: the kids had a tremendous amount of fun singing and laughing in their bright red Santa hats; people on the streets who saw us learned about our work of helping homeless youth and what to do if they spot a homeless child; the Christmas spirit in all its warmth and beauty radiated from the kids to countless others in the city. What I remember the most, though, from that night, was Teacher’s Yi compassion. I want to imitate his selflessness and magnanimity and make the most of my remaining time in China and beyond, building relationships and lives, one at a time.
Stories have lived on since the beginning of time. They often revolve around a central theme or point and keep evolving; sometimes they get lost in translation. In the heat of the moment the verbs can be misinterpreted for nouns--as they often are in Chinese--and the story can quickly turn from meaning one thing to another.
I remember my first day in the House of Zhang. My host uncle, or “shu shu”, who I would be staying with for the next five months, gladly helped me carry my luggage up the flights of stairs. Eventually we reached the large door that was adorned with an upside down character that was meant to attract good luck and happiness, like—for the Harry Potter fans out there--a full Patronus in Little Whinging. The introduction was brief. With the usual, “This is where you’ll be staying. We wear slippers in here and in your room you don’t. This is how to turn on the light. The water from this tap is okay to drink…” It was a nice afternoon, but the learning experience had just begun as my shu shu walked me through the kitchen and explained the house and its rules.
This house, or rather apartment because it’s rare that people own houses in the city, is a wonderful place to be. It is especially wonderful during dinnertime when the small six wooden seats become a haven for discussion and complements to the chef and his creations. The beef is cooked to an even sear until it’s called to dance among sprigs of sweet bell pepper and Sichuan peppercorns for a moment in the Wok. Always waiting for the beloved spicy peppers to enter the scene, yet, she never attends this course. Then there is the bowl of rice in its container just removed from the plug on the wall, the insides still bellowing steam like an invention of Mr. James Watt’s, powering not mechanical motion, but soon to be cellular energy. This whole affair is not complete without the two long sticks that fit nicely in hand to help pick and choose the cuts of meat and portions of rice I put into my mouth. I have to remember to thank these two friends because a fork is nowhere to be found and spoons in the house, it would seem, are insulted if used for anything other than soup. After my host mother sets the soup down on the table I pray and then we eat. Usually the meal proceeds with pick after pick of the bounties of the kitchen mixed in with the news of the day and concern about homework or the next day’s schedule but I like the days when history comes to life and my host uncle tells a story. These occasions have been more frequent lately and I’ve taken pleasure in consuming new bits of Chinese culture while enjoying the culinary delights. I remember the first story that my shu shu shared was the tale of a bowl of erquai, a type of rice cake popular in Yunnan.
The story goes, if memory serves me right, that a young Ming emperor has just crossed the lower reaches of the Yangtze river into the area known only as “South of the Clouds” or “Yunnan” in Chinese. He travels in this distant land where the soil is red and the trees thick for many days. The Emperor is very picky about his food and for many days he doesn’t eat the grand meals he is used to in Nanjing, his home. Then one day this Ming emperor crosses into a valley near present day Baoshan in western Yunnan. Word quickly gets around that the Emperor is in the midst of the village and people come in from all around to pay respects to this man who is their ultimate connection to the Heavens. Meanwhile a man in the village is making his breakfast or lunch, at this point you can pick, and it is a bowl of erquai. It has all manners of vegetables and meat and a peculiar sauce that words cannot describe: simple, yet, rich. The smell of this creation fills the air and the Emperor’s famished stomach and mind linger on it until he can stand it no longer, something, given the quality of my host father’s cooking, that I can relate to. The Emperor summons his advisor to fetch a bowl of this most pleasant smelling dish. Minutes go by until the advisor returns with a bowl of this erquai not known in Nanjing and he uses his chopsticks and eats. He eats the whole bowl in under a minute. Surprised, his advisor becomes relieved that the Emperor finally found something suitable to eat that he favored. The name of the Emperor, I can’t remember, but the dish is called “Da jiang jia” and is literally named for the Emperor and his sojourn in Yunnan those many years ago.
This story and many others pass the dinner table. I’m glad I can come to the table with an empty stomach and an inquisitive brain and leave with a body full of thoughts and, especially, tasty food. If I happened to make a mistake in retelling the story, let me just say even the best horse sometimes takes a wrong step. This is something my host uncle says if I drop some food on the table or his son doesn’t do his homework. Fortunately he doesn’t have to say this often. This is a family.
My boss said it first. It was just a loose combination of words I could not make sense of. Ren Shan Ren Hai. People. Mountain. People. Sea. I was facing a crowd of patients at a hospital; I assumed it was just his sense of humor; I didn’t quite understand him nor did I have a lot of time to think about it. And then, a month later, I heard it again when I was passing a crowded market. Suddenly I got it, with a silly enthusiasm of a child making a discovery I realized it was a Chinese expression, a way of naming something so present in China in simple words. People mountain people sea. That’s what China is like, with its enormous population, that’s what Yunnan is like with its 26 ethnic minorities, that’s what every day is like when I try to make my way biking among people. In a city as big as Kunming they all seem to be anonymous: “a man on a red motorcycle”, “a child by the door”, “a woman selling jiaozi,” rather than individuals going somewhere for a particular reason, or cutting me in line because they are hurrying to get somewhere, I don’t know where. But they all are individuals, and those few I know better and better every day help me make the most valuable memories.
Coco comes every day. She takes her place in my room and helps me peel the apples if I come home too late to finish before she comes. We start laughing because of some story I tell her, or we look through pictures we took together on the weekend. And then, a few minutes later, we start the class. Because Coco is my Chinese teacher. I like this kind of relationship; I like when she comes on the weekends even though she doesn’t have to, when she stays for lunch or asks me, “do you want to go to a wedding?” and gives me 5 minutes to get ready. When I panic that I am not invited, she says calmly: “You are invited, you are my friend.” And that’s how China seems to work. If you are a friend’s friend you are everybody’s friend.
Twice a week Li Laoshi opens the door of her house at 8 in the evening and pours tea for me while we decide what kind of Chinese painting we would try to paint that day. From the very first hesitant, awkward stroke to my poorly signed name in Chinese characters, we work together. We share. Share our opinion on painting, share details about our week, share our problems, and share our very different lives. We speak Chinglish, and laughter is a language we both know. She teaches me Chinese painting, and all she wants in exchange is to practice English with me. She is happy when I invite her to our Christmas dinner, show her pictures of my home country, or prepare a Western lunch. I feel I will never be able to express my gratitude for everything she does for me. It took me a while to realize she does not expect anything. China is a giving culture and she likes to see me happy when I paint.
Through these interactions I came to understand that the Chinese phrase “People mountain people sea” doesn’t just stand for the vast number of people in China, but also for the vast variety. I like to stop for a minute, to talk to a person on the street, to answer the question “how many years have you lived in China?” and say “4 months”. I like to see the smiles of people who enjoy my Chinese, with its poor tones and grammatical mistakes; to just say ni hao- hello- and get exactly what I want for lunch, because the lady across the street from my office knows what my favorite food is. I like them all. Those anonymous bike repair men and old ladies who sell fruit at the market, as well as those who are teachers and close friends. I like them for how they introduce China to me, in their own way, through their eyes.
我们是一个家庭: We Are A Family
It's become something of a habit that every time I introduce myself at my job, I instinctively say "我叫丽莎妹妹": I am Lesa Little Sister. It started off as a way to distinguish me from my boss, whose name is also Lisa. We all call her Lisa Mama. Xiao Bao, another co-worker, we call Auntie as she always brings a plethora of food to the office and won't rest until everyone has eaten. Yang Ya is the undisputed older sister, selflessly caring for all of the girls in and out of Eden's shelters. And even though I'm a good year or two older than them, the girls still call me Little Sister.
Eden serves to restore freedom for the captives of Asia's red light districts through holistic programs- transforming body, mind and spirit. Using our international jewelry business as a platform, we provide career and skill training- empowering women for a new life and future. “我们的公司是一个家庭”, my boss often explains: Our company is a family. It's not like most jobs, who say that friendly environment, the harmonious work ethic and everyone working towards the same goal makes the company like a family. No, Eden is actually a family. The girls live like a family: they stay in the shelter together, take every meal together, go to work together, go to church together. They argue like a family-- So-and-so took too long of a shower this morning. Who left dirty dishes in the sink? Why did you take my shoes again? Could you take that phone call outside, my favorite show is on. But most importantly, they love like a family. Every girl who enters our office has a story, a family, a tragedy. Every girl has baggage that she brings and, like a family, we help her with that baggage, whether it be emptying it, repacking it, or just bearing it.
The first month I got here, a co-worker’s father had just been diagnosed with a serious brain infection. I was new and didn’t know much, but I could tell that she was struggling. As I learned the ropes, I learned that this particular co-worker was an essential part of our company. She not only sourced all of our jewelry, but she also helped run our shelters. She dedicated all of her time and energy to Eden and as her father’s sickness grew worse, she found herself needing to spend more time with him and less time with us. Now, in my experience, when situations like these happen, a company can’t function. No one knows how to fill the void and so things fall apart. But Eden is a family and not a company. Everyone stepped up to help. Some put in more hours. Some brought her food as she waited with her dad in the hospital. Staff meetings were dedicated to praying for his recovery and for her strength. Not a single complaint was raised, and the girls did as much they could to support her and Eden. Her absence left a slack in the rope, but things carried on. “我们需要做什么就做什么—这是一个家”: We will do what we need to do—this is a family.
I see in Eden what I see in my own family: unconditional love, a support system that does not buckle when one person leaves, nor disintegrates when a mistake is made. Many people are fascinated that such a company has functioned for nine years. Given the lack of business knowledge, lack of accounting skills, and general disarray, Eden’s success is a mystery to many. However, as I have come to understand, the family it has created has enabled it to stand where others would surely fall. I am truly blessed to witness such an organization, and even more so to be part of such a family.
Spring represents a myriad of things, rebirth, renewal, revitalization. But in China perhaps the most prevalent of meanings is family. On the first day, of the first lunar month of every year the people of China take part in a tradition that stretches back to the first hieroglyphs sculpted into the Chinese mountainsides.
It would be an oversimplification to say that Chūn Jié or Spring Festival is the equivalent to Christmas in the western world but it is the closet comparison. It is the single most significant period of celebration in all of China. It marks the true new year for many of China's people. It is a time when families reunite once more, laughs are shared, and neither hail storms nor high waters can pry loved ones from the grasps of one another. Most return to their hometown, and my host family is no exception. As we returned to Chongqing, Wanshengqu, my host father's laojia, or native home, I could see the excitement etched onto the faces surrounding me. With each mile closer the more defined expressions became.
As we arrived, it was as if being enveloped in a warmth and belonging that only true family can bring. We started the night eating dinner with family and friends and as I was welcomed, by family member after family member, into this place of love and kindness, I knew it was home here. I knew, if not when my baby brother cried for me to hold him, then when my father introduced me as his son. If not when my grandmother gripped my arm with every ounce of strength she could muster as we walked together, then when a young cousin insisted on calling me older brother upon first meeting. There is love here. And it is good.
Recently I've been in a particularly good place. Content with what is now and excited for what is to come. Excited to go to work everyday while still in eager anticipation of classes back at Princeton. Thrilled to go to each mixed martial arts class here while still too dazed at the thought of enrolling in Shaolin classes back in New York. I love my family here, and I can't wait to see my family back home.
Family is something important to me. It goes beyond words. Nothing could replace the family I have back home. So with these two families both Chinese and American I dare not compare. But one similarity that's stands more true and more right than any is love. Love is something that exists in abundance. Both here and at home. And that is something to be grateful for.
The night before I went to Shiliqing village, I tossed and turned in bed, fretting over all the things that could go wrong during the English lesson I planned to teach. Not only was I unsure of how many students there would be, but I also had practically no idea how much English the children had already studied. I didn’t know their ages, and I was sure they would be more than unwilling to sit still on a Saturday afternoon to suffer through my inept teaching. Over and over in my head, I went through all the lessons I’d arranged: we’ll start with the alphabet song, in case they haven’t learned that yet, and maybe move on to alphabet bingo and spelling games. But what if they’re already reading English books? Or what if they can’t even recognize ABC? And more importantly, what if I’m actually the worst English teacher ever!?
The next morning, I sat in the car with my co-workers, my dread building with every kilometer we drove. By the time we arrived in the tiny mountain-top village, there was a huge knot in my stomach—okay, maybe that was just because of the winding mountain roads—and my palms were sweaty against my notebook. Hopping out of the car, I reluctantly entered the house where the children had gathered for my lesson. To my surprise, they were already seated around a small table in the courtyard, notebooks opened, pencils sharpened, and eager gazes fixed on me. I smiled and awkwardly introduced myself in Chinese.
The lesson was wonderful, beyond what I could have hoped. After the bingo game, which induced much candy-eating and general hilarity, I started to teach them new words. We drew pictures of animals and laughed. Their curiosity delighted me: our animals progressed from “dog,” “cat,” and “chicken” to “octopus,” “worm,” and, my favorite, “sea cucumber.” We practiced phrases and greetings, writing and reading, all punctuated with giggles. One girl in particular impressed me; she was about twelve years old, with sun-burned red cheeks and a very shy smile. At the beginning of the lesson, she hardly opened her mouth, but by the end, she was teaching other children how to spell difficult words. I could see her silently mouthing the answer to every one of my questions, as the others struggled to answer.
These children took such joy in learning. Even with a nineteen year old who can’t even speak passable Mandarin for a teacher, they relished the opportunity to learn. When I looked into their bright eyes, I felt a connection that I haven’t felt with anyone else thus far in China. At the beginning of the class they all shyly called me Li laoshi (teacher Li), but by the end, I was Yun-Yun jie jie (Yun-Yun older sister). I had a crowd of little sisters, playing and laughing with me.
On the car ride back, after a farewell and promises to return, one of my coworkers gave me a reality check. She told me that in all likelihood few of these children will make it past middle school, and none will even attempt to take the formidable college entrance exam. They are destined to lead the same lives as their parents and grandparents, working in the fields, increasingly at the mercy of companies hungry for their land. She said she asked the shy girl once, what are your dreams for the future? The girl replied that she hoped to be like her auntie, who works in a neighboring town for the local government, though it seems unlikely. At nine years old I dreamed of being a ballerina. At twelve I declared that I would be the president of the USA. To my little sister with the sun-burned cheeks, leaving her village seems more unattainable to her than becoming president did to me.
And yet, despite the language barrier, the cultural barrier, and our unimaginably different lives, we were able to connect. Human beings’ capacity to empathize always amazes me.