Another student whom I got acquainted with and came to trust was Alvin. He had a flexibility that many Chinese seem to lack in accepting ways different from his own – different foods and menus, different attitudes toward privacy. His English was excellent and he enjoyed shopping, so I took him with me when I went into town. He enjoyed bargaining, too, so I would often come home with treasures I hadn’t intended to buy. Having carefully saved my Chinese money, I asked Alvin if he would be interested in traveling with me as my interpreter during the winter holiday. I would pay everything except whatever gifts he might wish to buy. Yes, all the travel and hotel costs and regular meals. The only problem was that his parents didn’t want to give him up during their high festival, Chinese New Year. We negotiated an acceptable time and Alvin went home while I followed later on the train. It was a long ride but I couldn’t get lost. The car stewardess would watch over me.
Adventure on the Train
That train ride was a most memorable experience. It just happened that a man and his wife who formerly worked for the State Tourism Bureau were in my car and their English was pretty good. We talked and I enjoyed them most of the time, although the man seemed to be suspicious and looking for reasons to hate me. At last he seemed to have found evidence to satisfy himself and when I went to the squat toilet he followed me. When I closed the door, to my horror he kicked it several times and I was terrified that he might kick it in. When I returned to my hard berth he was in bed all covered up, apparently asleep. And he stayed that way the remainder of the 20-some hour journey. My mind flashed back to the Foreign Affairs Director of that first university and her psychological discontinuity. Adults who had gone through the Great Cultural Revolution were still in positions of responsibility and betrayed the deep influence of political propaganda that had preached hate and distrust of foreigners. Nor were my experiences unique.
At one of the stops on my journey two peasant girls entered the car I was in, although their tickets indicated a different car. The railway police tried to persuade the girls to leave the car and a battle ensued complete with bashing one another with beer bottles. One of the girls was subdued but the other stayed, especially when she saw me, a foreigner, for she was curious. She was supplied with plenty of liquor, the idea being that she would get sleepy and could be overpowered and transferred to another car. I moved close to her and as we talked I noticed bloodless carvings deep in the back of her hand so I asked what they were. About that time a drunk male passenger slipped up to bash her over the head from behind with a bottle, but she caught sight of him and leaped on him like a tigress. It was then that I realized that she was probably demonized. (During festivals when food is offered to ancestors and idols in homes and temples, demon activity increases.) Someone quickly came to pull me to a safe distance and I watched as the peasant girl exerted superhuman strength against the men attempting to restrain her.
If you tell….
Finally at our destination, after all the passengers exited the train, the two girls were dragged through the car aisle on their backs. They had been handcuffed behind their backs and the police used the cuffs to drag one girl. The other girl was pulled through the car on her back by her hair. I was detained on the train and a group of policemen demanded that I write what I saw. I refused. Then they demanded that I sign a statement if the former tour guide, who had stuck around to translate, wrote it out. Again I refused – I couldn’t read what he wrote. Exasperated, they threatened that if I told anyone what I saw they would deport me, fear being a common method of control in China. I figured the best defense against fear was to meet the challenge. Alvin got on the train dressed in a black Western suit and tie, black hat, and shiny black dress shoes, so the police dropped back and deferred to him because money and appearance supersede position without money. I immediately told Alvin what I had witnessed and as soon as I returned to my university two weeks later I told the other American teachers.
Meantime, Alvin had reserved a room in a luxury hotel with two double beds so we could stay in the same room to save money. I explained if he did that a couple more times we would be having a shorter vacation than I had hoped. He immediately went to see the manager to negotiate a room for himself and try to get the price of mine reduced. And that problem didn’t come up again.
Sleeping on a kang
Alvin’s parents were lovely and very tolerant of me even when I brought a book and preferred to read while Alvin’s mother and sister made the various holiday foods. I noticed a chicken in a cage in the entry but the cage and hen were clean. The rooms were small and crowded but orderly, and there were kangs to sleep on. I had read about the brick platforms built over the stove exhaust pipes to make sleeping comfortable in the bitter cold. The morning Alvin and I were to rise about 3am to catch a train I was surprised to count more than a dozen people rolled up like sausages, each in his/her own quilt on the women’s kang. (There were two kangs in their home: one for the men and one for the women.) His extended family wanted to see us off on our travels.
On the train when there was more opportunity to talk uninterrupted, I commented on Alvin’s parents being unusually gracious and not at all coercive. He explained that his family was of the Man minority, originating from the Manchu rulers and that their attitudes and some of their customs were different from the Han Chinese majority. In the two weeks we traveled together I came to highly respect Alvin’s ethnic background. He was extremely knowledgeable about the Terracotta Warriors in Xian and eager to be an informative guide. At the Xian Stele Museum he was full of stories about ancient warriors, rulers and heroes. He read the ancient writings on the stone tablets to me and explained historic customs. If he didn’t know something, he didn’t try to gloss it over.
Alvin negotiated for stone rubbings that were rather expensive, and whatever else I might be interested in buying. At a jade shop the owner greeted him with an offer to split the profit if I could be persuaded to buy a piece. Alvin was embarrassed and hissed, “Be quiet! She understands you.” The seller didn’t believe him until I began to bargain for some ornate paper cuts. Of course, I bought no jade in that shop.
A seed sown
As a student Alvin was not very academic. He was, however, a charismatic personality and a student leader. He chose not to pursue an advanced degree, preferring to work at an American joint venture company when he graduated. After several years with the same company he was included in a group to tour the company facilities in America and ended up staying in the States. Although he has not made a commitment to Jesus, I know his heart is hungry from conversations we have had. The Word sown in his heart will not return void so I trust the Giver of the Word to see to its eventual harvest. Some sow, some water, some tend the new plants. It has been my privilege to be a sower where seed had not yet been scattered.