Preparing for China
Among my aunts and uncles there were missionaries, pastors, district superintendents and schoolteachers, both men and women. My maternal grandpa was a man who lived before his time, encouraging his six daughters to get a college education when this was not common. How fortunate I was to not know gender prejudice until I was at university where the chemistry and other science professors were sure they were the superior race.
My first high school principal helped me get an excellent position near home after I graduated from college and I immersed myself in teaching. Soon gaining the confidence of my colleagues and superiors, I asked for additional responsibility and was allowed to mentor and informally evaluate new teachers, and direct the district gifted child program for which I wrote grants and disbursed money. Teaching is a horizontal profession, however. That is, one may move to another classroom, another assignment, but there is little opportunity to move vertically, so I returned to university for a degree in K-12 Educational Administration. About this time China was slowly opening to the West and my dream was becoming a possibility. I had a satisfying career and realized I would quickly become academically obsolete if I left to go to China. Yet this deep desire kept playing itself out in my mind over the next several years.
I approached several organizations about teaching in China but the sending groups all wanted considerable money to place me while they still required the recruit to buy a round trip airfare as well as to pay visa and green card fees. I had no idea of how to proceed. At last I wrote to the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. to ask for information. That was in January. My degree program was completed in June and in September I was on my way to China after I returned all the required forms. The Chinese assigned me to a university and provided a plane ticket!
Although I had done a lot of reading I was only somewhat prepared for this major step in life. Before landing at the Beijing airport we could see no lights from the air as in large cities in America. The next three days the university to which I was assigned sent a guide to take me to various tourist sites and I was impressed with the grand scale of the Great Wall, Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. That is, I was impressed with the amount of slave labor required to construct such huge monuments in the name of one emperor or another. (Historically, the Great Wall never did prove to be the great defense it is claimed to have been.) I would go back to my hotel room and weep for lives spent to build such costly shrines, souls who were most probably in hell because they didn’t know Jesus died for them. My strong feelings of aversion to the national historical sites eventually became strong feelings of identification with the people as I began to understand the abject poverty and suffering of generations of peasants.
The first semester at the university went by quickly as I became immersed in a very different way of life. Students were a challenge in the classroom. When I called on them to speak they would write out their responses and then read them to me after asking nearby classmates to check their English grammar and sentence structure. It was a time-consuming process so I refused to allow it. They tearfully explained their fear of making mistakes; thus, they needed a lot of encouragement.
I attempted to get to know my students better by inviting them to my apartment and offering them tea as the books I’d read suggested, but they always refused to accept my tea. I couldn’t understand why until one day a student accepted tea the first time I asked him. I was surprised. He graciously explained that since I only offered tea one time, he thought he had better accept because he was thirsty. I was supposed to ask three times before he could courteously accept. He could see that I didn’t realize that I was being impolite so he thought he had better explain. Then we burst into laughter.
Wanting very much to learn the language I turned on the television every night to watch children’s programs with a dictionary and a note pad nearby. At the time I didn’t realize that this was an excellent strategy because, developmentally, listening comes before speaking. This made me more sensitive to what I heard in the streets and classrooms. Later, I practiced before falling asleep and again upon waking when my mind was most receptive, so I learned the language rather easily. A gift, I came to realize.
At the end of the first semester there was a six week break for the Chinese New Year. I made arrangements with a young Chinese teacher of English to visit her home during the semester vacation. Then I went off to explore Hong Kong for two weeks although I didn’t know anyone there. Near my hotel there was a Chinese church that I attended every time the doors were open. The people were courteous but not hospitable, yet I persisted, singing in English when they sang in Cantonese. When I returned to Hong Kong and that church the second year they were friendlier and actually included me in their Spring Festival celebrations. (Spring Festival is also known as the Chinese New Year, a lunar holiday.) Because the congregation was made up primarily of business people and they were well educated, they were able to explain various customs when I asked questions, thus I learned a lot from a Chinese Christian perspective.
One incident has stayed with me all these years. I had been in mainland China four months where there were no blinking signs, no advertising and limited electricity. As I explored the streets of Hong Kong, overstimulation of sights and sounds exhausted me. One early afternoon I decided to sit down at a McDonalds to rest. It was a crowded two-story business and I carried my tray to the second floor intending to sit in front of a window. The view was blocked by a huge signboard but wearily I sat facing the window because there were no other available seats. An American man on my right sat watching me closely but I ignored him as I bowed my head to say a silent blessing on the food.
When I raised my head he slid closer to me and asked in a stage whisper if I were a believer. Although I am a strong believer I dislike being so aggressively accosted so I ignored him. At last he was nearly in my face so I ungraciously answered in the affirmative. He was overjoyed and commented that I looked tired and my hair didn’t look very stylish. I restrained a retort and explained that as a teacher in rural China I didn’t have access to a beauty shop and, yes, I was tired having come to Hong Kong for a breath of free air and access to some churches and Christian bookstores.
The man said he had gotten separated from his group but he felt that it was so he could meet me. Would I allow him to pray for me? Although I had been less than courteous I realized the need for a refreshing divine touch so I agreed. He asked me to stand in the middle of that busy McDonalds and began to pray at the top of his voice, or so it seemed. I willed myself to relax and allowed the sweet Holy Spirit to come and envelop me. As soon as the man finished praying he disappeared down the steps and I returned to my meal, gently trembling all over. Later, this encounter came to mean much to me. God knew my address and phone number, and even where I happened to be on the street at any time!
An Unpleasant Surprise
After returning from Hong Kong that first winter, I arrived in Shanghai expecting to be met my Chinese colleague, Mary. The university Foreign Affairs Director met me instead and took me to a hotel at the western edge of the huge city without any explanation. Mary called to confirm where I was staying and then came to see me. The university Foreign Affairs Director had called Mary to her office before the holiday and interrogated her for two hours about our conversations. Mary explained that Foreign Affairs officers are an extension of the Public Security Bureau and are feared by the general population. This official in particular was nicknamed “The Black Dragon” for her capricious granting or refusing passport applications and other travel documents for academic Chinese teachers and scientists. Even in-country travel had to go through the Foreign Affairs Office at that time.
The Black Dragon
The Black Dragon was a relatively uneducated woman who held the highly responsible position of Director of Foreign Affairs as a reward for her political fanaticism during the Cultural Revolution. She didn’t understand why I was so interested in Chinese history and philosophy because such things didn’t exist in Communist China, so she thought I must be an enemy of the people.
Mary was kind but fearful and explained that she would have no further contact with me for her own safety. I quickly agreed with her concern for her own welfare but felt desperately isolated. I had not expected to be alone and was bored with nothing to do and nothing to read for two weeks in the city. Also, I was quite fearful of the Black Dragon after learning of Mary’s interrogation. I got a taxi to take me to Xin Hua, the government-owned bookstore, to buy something to read. The selection was as exciting and varied as cooked oatmeal but I chose a book and returned to the hotel. That was a long week with many tears as I imagined what the interrogation must have been like for Mary and the possible implications for me during second semester.
The Black Dragon accompanied me by train to the university for the beginning of second semester classes. Students were suddenly too busy to visit me. There were three other American teachers, two of them belonging to an American sending organization that emphasized a team approach. The third American was from New York City and accustomed to minding her own business. Thus, I was effectively isolated and desperately lonely. Letters from home which had come weekly during the first semester suddenly stopped and my phone service was cut off. I wept almost continuously and memorized whole chapters of Psalms to guard my mind in the long empty hours every day. Once I got a cassette tape-letter from home, smashed to bits. I carefully removed it from the broken case, placed it in another, and was able to hear Mom’s voice. Sometimes letters were delivered with no stamps and I was required to buy Chinese stamps to replace the stolen American ones. (American stamps were highly collectible.)
My fears were intensified because I had read before coming to China about the process of brain washing and could see the steps unfolding before me. Isolation in a foreign culture is an incredibly painful experience and only my day-by-day relationship with Jesus kept me steady. Some of the Scriptures that took on new meaning for me were:
“God deliberately chose what in the world is lowborn and insignificant,
and branded and treated with contempt,
even the things that are nothing,
that He might depose and bring to nothing things that are
so that no mortal man should have pretense for glorying
and boast in the presence of God
(I Cor. 1”28-29 AMP).”
“But He said to me, My favor and loving-kindness
and mercy are sufficient against any danger
and to enable you to bear the trouble manfully;
for My strength and power are made perfect –
fulfilled and completed and show themselves most effective –
in [your] weakness (II Cor.12: 9a AMP).
“You shall establish yourself on righteousness….
you shall be far even from the thought of oppression or destruction,
for you shall not fear; and from terror,
for it shall not come near you.
“Behold, they may gather together and stir up strife,
but it is not from Me.
Whoever stirs up strife against you shall fall away to you.
“No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper
and every tongue that shall rise against you in judgment
you shall show to be in the wrong.
This triumph over opposition
is the heritage of the servants of the Lord.
This is the vindication which I impart to them
as their justification says the Lord
(Isaiah 54:14-15, 17 AMP).”
“Let the weak say I am strong (Joel 3:10b)!”