Early in my experience in China I noticed a student who was always in the classroom studying – during the afternoon play time, during meal times, even late in the evenings. Sometimes I would sit and want to chat briefly but he refused because he was so busy studying for this or that exam. I had a bad feeling about his poor health habits and invited him to go shopping with me one weekend morning. To my surprise he accepted. About lunch time I suggested that we get some vegetable-filled steamed buns, a common hot meal available on the street. Xiao refused so adamantly that I was puzzled. After several requests for help to get something to eat, I gave up and went to a seller to ask for myself. Xiao just let me struggle with the language barrier but at last I made myself understood and got some buns.
Then he didn’t want me to sit down long enough to eat the buns, but by this time I was disgusted with his strange behavior and sat down to enjoy my food. Just let him stand and watch me eat! When he realized that he had misunderstood my intent, he hesitantly accepted one single bun and began to explain himself. It seemed that he was always in the classroom studying because his grades were dropping (this was not true). He didn’t eat meals because he didn’t have enough money to buy food and books. And he could never accept help from a foreigner!
During a holiday Xiao invited me to the countryside to meet his parents and extended family. He was from a closed area so I could not get permission from the university authorities, but his village Party Secretary was delighted to take care of the paperwork and I subsequently visited that village three or four times. That first time I was intimidated by the crush of people pushing and shoving to board trains and buses. People, people everywhere! Pushing and fighting to get in front of each other, impeding the flow of movement. At last we boarded a minibus and went hurtling down the bumpy road like the devil was after us. I was frightened, so began to sing in my prayer language. Xiao slumped over, leaning on my shoulder, listening to my song. When I stopped he asked me to sing some more, so I did. I asked why he liked my singing so much and he said I was singing about a boy whom I loved. He declared that I was far too modest in saying I couldn’t speak much Chinese. O really?!
We ate supper with Xiao’s family around 7pm, a huge meal. “Eat more! Eat more!” while they watched me carefully. Not a relaxing situation. At last I was permitted privacy for a sponge bath and around 11pm fell into bed dog-tired. There was only a candle to read by so I didn’t read my Bible. The next morning I rose at 6:30am but didn’t feel well because of the huge evening meal. Late in the morning after a heavy breakfast of millet and eggs plus last night’s leftovers, Xiao took me on a tour of his village. We met his little maternal grandmother carrying a bundle of straw on her back. Xiao said when his grandfather married his grandmother, he had to beat her because she wouldn’t work. (No wonder, I thought. I noticed that she came from a noble family because her feet were bound.) But now she is a good worker, he added.
I well remember sitting on the cold damp ground with Xiao and an uncle who was raising white asparagus and seedless watermelons. Both these items were for export; then he bought an apple orchard for local consumption. I was impressed with his thought-out plan, and we talked for some time about the farmers’ situation in China and how it differed from the American family farmer. I certainly gained a respect for Chinese peasants from that encounter.
Xiao’s uncle asked about his nephew’s grades so I took the opportunity to point out that studying too hard and having a nervous breakdown was no different from destroying one’s health through overwork. It was far too common in China that the stressed and broken student would commit suicide. I wasn’t prepared to hear Xiao say in a whispered aside that this was his present condition. This revelation explained why Xiao was drawn by my prayer language song! Later as we walked back to his home for lunch I told him about my grandfather’s death, my failure to graduate, and the expiration of my scholarship. I urged him to take better care of himself, body and soul, and could feel my loving concern soaking into a dry, hungry heart.
Xiao was his parents’ only son, although there were two younger daughters, so he was vital to their economic security in their old age. If he failed to pass his courses he would lose face and cause his parents to lose face, too. His idea of a solution to the problem was to take his life so that no one would be embarrassed.
“What about the loss of a son?” I asked. “Wouldn’t your parents rather have you whether or not you were a university graduate?”
“Yes,” he supposed so. “But how can I solve the problem of failing my classes?”
So I suggested that he begin by eating three meals a day. Secondly, he needed to play with his classmates during the afternoon time for exercise. Get hot and sweaty. Thirdly, he needed to find a faith in Someone higher than himself who could guide his affairs with love and compassion and give him emotional stability.
After lunch there was no rest for this weary, food-laden foreign teacher. We visited the wife of another uncle, the Party Secretary of Xiao’s village. More visits and to bed at 11:30pm again. The next morning we visited the senior middle school teachers of English. They were delighted to have a native English speaker to converse with and arranged classes so that they could accompany me to the local market. I borrowed money to buy a nylon jacket against the chilly country air and slowly they blossomed as we laughed and talked. That evening students came into Xiao’s family courtyard to stare at the American and ask Xiao questions. Everything about me was observed – my clothing, my shoes, my hair, my voice, the shape of my hands and face. At last it was time to return to the university to collapse with weariness and a distended belly.
One of those times I came to visit Xiao, he got confused and went to the wrong train station. I stepped off the train with nobody to meet me. Fortunately, a young man noticed me looking about in confusion and asked if he could help. I couldn’t understand much of his dialect but he was knowledgeable concerning available long distance buses and took me to the bus station. He explained my plight to the driver who knew where I wanted to go since I had Xiao’s address written on a piece of paper in characters. Very soon the bus stopped at a crossroads and the driver indicated that I was to walk about 30 minutes straight south. With a glance at my watch I started walking but 30 minutes later I saw nothing like a village. Oh dear.
Then I saw a man and his wife and three children so I showed the man the address I was seeking and he assured me the village was near. When I seemed hesitant, he asked his little son to go with me but the child was very afraid of me, a foreign devil with a big nose. (Particularly in the countryside this was still a prevailing view of foreigners) As we walked other children joined us and eventually lost their fear as I told them how pretty they were and thanked them for their help. I had come into Xiao’s village from a different direction but soon recognized the Party Secretary’s courtyard.
Xiao’s courtyard was locked so I went to the Party Secretary’s home where I was warmly greeted and made comfortable with some hot tea. Being a writing teacher, I carried student papers with me everywhere to keep up with grading as I had time, so I put the time to good use. Meantime, the Party Secretary’s elderly father-in-law, not realizing a big nose was in the courtyard, came shuffling out of the house and sat down heavily. I picked up my bag to get my camera and the old man tried to escape. My “black box” could very well trap his soul inside. His daughter saw me with the camera and quickly pushed the old man down into his chair again so I could get a couple of lovely photos. Those pictures were a treasure for her and her family after her father’s death.
Toward evening Xiao returned from his fruitless search for me. We walked in the fields and talked away many wonderful hours about who God is and why He would care about each of us so intimately. Near the village was a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) shack with two young boys assigned to guard a local dam. They were quite suspicious of me but after observing that Xiao and I were friends and that I treated him with respect, they warmed up. What wonderful opportunities to show love and respect to a people for whom God sent his Son to die. And to speak of Jesus openly without fear of secreted “bugs”.
Over a period of time Xiao and I became close. After graduation he got a good job, eventually taking a position with an American joint venture company. After several years he was able to save the required amount of money to immigrate to Canada with his wife and little son. In a strange environment he was painfully lonely and found cultural adjustment to be more of a challenge than he had imagined, so I suggested that he find a local Chinese church. The people graciously took him and his family in and at last Xiao gave his heart to Jesus. In one of our recent phone conversations he commented that he was learning what it was to tell a lie. In his culture where connections are important and promises have little meaning because saving face is a priority, lying is considered a necessity; so this lesson was no small gain. The last I heard from Xiao he was teaching a Bible class. Yeah!