Chinese universities often plan trips for their foreign students and teachers. These were wonderful learning opportunities for us because we traveled by car and bus into rural areas, stayed in Chinese hotels, and ate in Chinese hotel dining rooms in rural areas. Riding with a Chinese driver increased my appreciation for life in a more orderly society. I learned to take a book and keep my eyes on it while traveling, or ride in the back so I could look at the countryside without watching the road. Many times after getting back to our school we teachers would escape to our respective apartments for the evening. Eventually we confessed to each other that the poor conditions of the rural areas broke our hearts and we were hurrying away to weep.
One of my favorite places to visit was Mount Taishan. One fall there was an international mountain climbing race halfway up the mountain. My university entered me without my knowledge then proceeded to twist my arm to take part. At last I agreed and found it to be less strenuous than I expected. There was another foreign woman who was physically unable, her university having also coerced her. The Chinese were giving her oxygen and half carrying her up the mountain steps. She won the race! Later this race was publicized in the China Daily, international English language newspaper, as an “international event attracting participants from around the world”.
Another time the university Foreign Affairs Office took their foreign teachers and foreign students on a short tour of Inner Mongolia led by one of many tour agencies. In a large northern town we met a German girl traveling alone who asked if she could join us. We made her welcome but the FAO refused to allow her to join us. She didn’t speak any Mandarin and we were quite sympathetic, so several of us pooled our money to help her rent hotel rooms with us and buy train tickets. It was impossible to buy an extra ticket on the train to return to Beijing, however, so I gave her my ticket and said I would stay behind until tickets became available. Our FAO was livid because this reflected on their ability to care for their foreign guests, so two of them grabbed my arms and conducted me aboard the train.
To my surprise the entire group of Japanese and Korean students studying Mandarin at our university sought me out to express admiration for my courage in helping the stranger. But I knew from my first months in China how terrified I would have been and vulnerable to cheats had I been in this girl’s situation. While my language skill level was low, my knowledge of the culture wasn’t bad and even though I wasn’t as brave as it seemed, I was more able to take care of myself than she was. How could I do otherwise but help her? The outcome was that someone was able to buy an additional ticket and I also had a bed to sleep on that night.
Meeting the People
One of my favorite memories while traveling happened in Xian. I had been walking several hours and was quite weary, so I sat down to rest on a building ledge where some elderly people were soaking up the winter sun.
To my surprise one of the old ladies scooted over and whispered, “Hello,” in perfectly good English.
“Hello!” I echoed. “How is it you speak English without an accent?”
She whispered her story of growing up in Shanghai and attending a missionary school where the language was English. During the Great Cultural Revolution her family, being educated and able to speak English, was forced to the countryside near Xian. This revelation seemed to revive the fear she felt, so she cut the conversation short and moved away. I can still feel the surprise of hearing her soft greeting.
In another more tragic case, I met a concert pianist trained in a major city, who also spoke flawless English, having been educated in a missionary school. He and his family were sent to work in the countryside. After the Great Cultural Revolution he was put in charge of teaching music to peasant elementary school teachers in a closed area. This “rehabilitation” seemed totally inadequate to me, but I realize that totalitarian leaders fear intellectuals.
At the close of my fourth semester I was told that foreign teachers could only stay two years, so one of my Chinese colleagues graciously found another university for me. I didn’t have to search for a position again in all my years in China because the Chinese system of connections works well. If people know someone is looking for a job, they will offer information about openings and there will be plenty of references.
This works equally efficiently in reverse. For example, the father of a student had offended an official. In retaliation the official prevented my student’s father from finding any other work in his local area. The student, a girl, was then responsible for the welfare of her whole family. As you might imagine, one should be careful not to offend another because of the system of connections. If the net is damaged even slightly, the tear can unravel until relationships are strained and may eventually turn hurtful.
Displaced Land Owners
During the Communist takeover in 1949 landowners were dispossessed. One of my students was the grandson of a landowner. He related how his grandfather had made him promise to recover the family lands and possessions if there were ever an opportunity. My student was merciless in the execution of his “business” as a gang leader, selling protection much as Al Capone did during the 1940s in America. Possibly this young man needed a mother-confessor because he often told me about his extracurricular activities and my stomach turned. When I presented Jesus’ claims on his life he was deeply touched and I could see the longing in his eyes, but he said there would be no place to hide if he became a believer. Even abroad, the Chinese mafia has an extensive network and he would be hunted down if he left the gang. I respected his need to think through Jesus’ claims and make his own decision, for if he chose the Lord he would need the strength of personal conviction when former friends became enemies.
In another case, a student began noticeably to lose weight and I inquired after his health. He told me that he was the grandson of a former landowner and was tormented in his thoughts and dreams at night. He asked me to make him a tape of my voice speaking to him that he could play at night when he was so restless. When I explained the Source of peace in my voice he harshly refused to accept a tape of such ideas as there being a Creator of the universe or His personal concern for individuals. So I honored his wishes and spoke only of peace to him on the tape, convinced that the Word would accomplish its purpose whether or not it was recorded on a cassette. In God’s own time and His own gracious way He brought this troubled young man to the loving One who brings peace several years after he graduated from school.
Earning the Right to Speak
Many Chinese tend to trust foreigners with secret feelings that they cannot share with other Chinese. Thus, it is a privilege to listen quietly and respectfully. I wait for them to give me permission to speak of the One who gives peace through forgiveness of immorality and bitterness. (There is no word in Chinese that can be directly translated “sin”) It is critical that the foreign visitor earn the right to speak into the Chinese heart, however. Mere words will not make the impact necessary for deep, lasting change. Only Love and respect can make a place for trust in friendships. It is important to delete religious jargon and learn to use common words when speaking to those whose English is their second language.
If the foreigner shows any compassion and sympathy at all, he will receive God-given opportunities to listen and respond with Christian integrity. One time on a train a Chinese man sat down opposite me in the dining car and offered to buy my lunch. He then proceeded to unburden his heart concerning the moral decay with which China is wrestling. Communism, Buddhism or Daoism are inadequate philosophies to undergird a nation because there are no absolutes. A society that subscribes to the philosophy that life evolved from lower forms creates gods with man’s fallen, cruel nature. Such supernatural creatures are inadequate to provide the moral leadership for a peaceful, orderly society.
The man continued to explain that law in Chinese culture is based on the decrees of the political leader, who is above the law. Everyone, then, aspires to be above the law. Chinese leaders hold up folk heroes in a continuous search for role models, but in the absence of absolute doctrines, society is unstable. Western culture and law, on the other hand, have been traditionally based on biblical absolutes that give structure to society. (Certainly that is failing now, globally.)
Building on his comments about social stability in America, I responded. Christianity provides a foundation upon which to build a person, a family, a nation because there is a Creator-God who is absolutely good and His character is the moral absolute of the universe. Nor is He aloof from human affairs. In preparation for the coming of God’s son, Jesus, He prompted scribes through man’s early history to write about Himself and His character so that we could know Him. One part of this writing was the Ten Commandments upon which western law systems are built. Christianity need not search for role models. Jesus Christ, God’s only son, came at great sacrifice to take the punishment fallen man deserves in order to restore us to fellowship with Himself.
When the man on the train finished his meal he thanked me for listening and giving intelligent responses and handed me his business card. A Deputy Communist Party Secretary of a major city in China! It has been my privilege to meet national personalities as well as those known only to the Father on trains, along the streets, in their homes and listen to their dreams, their heartaches and disappointments. It has been a privilege to offer a precious Solution, in the person of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ to the many hurting and disappointed hearts I’ve met.
My first year in China was meant by the enemy to so wound and disable my spirit that I would be incapable of listening with love and compassion as a representative of the One who sent me. That struggle never abated, but the enemy could not win because greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world. It is not by might nor power but by His sweet Holy Spirit that anything is accomplished for the kingdom.