I’ve traveled enough and met enough people from different countries to know not to set too much stock by American ethnic stereotypes; even when the stereotypes aren’t unkind, they are usually smaller than the real thing. China was no exception. Sure, some of the stereotypes are accurate to an extent: Chinese people are reserved (at first, and even when they get comfortable it’s not as loud and chaotic as American comfort can be.) for example. The differences between the cultures of the East and the West are real and endlessly fascinating; they were particularly noticeable to me as a teacher.
But the people of China are just lovely. We don’t do generosity and hospitality the same way they do, and the nature of their kindness is just different from ours. Steadier and quieter, somehow. There was a core group of three postgrads who constantly moved me by the depth of their kindness, humility, and affection: Kaiyuan and his girlfriend CC, and Craby (who also has a darling girlfriend who was absolutely swamped with her nursing school program).
I met Craby first. We were connected through one of my students, and he messaged me to ask if we could meet to practice his English. I admit, the first time I met this good-natured and smiling man I had no idea what a dear friend he would become to me. He later brought Kaiyuan to a class I was teaching, and Kaiyuan later introduced me to CC. I then introduced them to Anna (the only other woman foreign English teacher and a wonderful sister in the Lord) and her boyfriend Godfrey, and together we did a lot! I have probably thousands of pictures on FB documenting nearly every moment.
What follows are some of my favorite memories of our times together.
Kaiyuan, CC, and Craby take me to a Chinese barbeque restaurant at the mall. Afterwards, Craby buys me a mango drink and then the three of them corner me.
Kaiyuan: Mary, can I ask you a private question? Maybe you will not want to answer.
Me (expecting a question about any boyfriends I have, or salary): Sure, I trust you guys. What’s up?
Kaiyuan: Does Anna have a boyfriend?
Me (amused, but uncertain if it’s my place to say): … Ye-es. Why do you ask?
Kaiyuan: Is it Geff? (pronounced phonetically: G as in grand!)
Me: How do you know??
Craby: Because we saw Anna driving his e-bike very fast, and he was sitting behind her like this! (Mimes Geff with his arms wrapped around Anna’s back and his face down)
Me, giggling, caught: yes, he is!
More laughter and excitement. After more discussion:
Kaiyuan: but Mary, we think Anna has betrayed you!
Me, confused: betrayed me?
Kaiyuan: yes, because you used to go together to places all the time, and now they go together!
Me: wait, but that’s not a betrayal – I like Godfrey and Anna together, he is very nice—
Craby: Don’t worry, we will take care of you now.
Me, suppressing laughter: Awww you guys! Thank you!!
Kaiyuan and CC, Craby, Anna and Godfrey and I hung out a lot in the weeks before I left. Anna and I both had everyone over on separate occasions and made American food (enchiladas, salsa, banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, frittatas, and more) for them and played games. Godfrey, an excellent cook, also made delicious Filipino foods: lechon, a purple pudding that was both lovely and delicious, and some other foods whose name I forget.
CC: Mary, before we met you and Anna, I thought Americans only ate pizza and hamburgers!
When we were at Anna’s house, we played a game where everyone started out a handful of paper. For the first round, everyone writes an idea down on their paper (like, say, let’s go fly a kite!). Then, for the second round, you hand your stack of paper over to the next person. They will read what you wrote, and then draw it on the fresh sheet behind it. You keep alternating until your original stack comes back to you, and you get to see where your original idea went.
We played several rounds, and quickly descended into hilarity: giggles at failed sketching attempts, apologies to those who were going to receive our failed attempts, tongues stuck out in concentration, and adorable CC, falling over into me with laughter at the results. She would alternate uncontrollable laughter with practicing her English pronunciation with me: frittata! Rhinoceros! (we’d gone to the Beijing zoo not long before). Hippopotamus!
Baiyangdian was another special memory with the gang. It’s a lotus lake in the wetlands, and it is breathtaking, one of my favorite places in China. Here are some pictures.
The tour we took included transportation to the lake plus boat transportation to two islands: one that featured dozens of kinds of lotuses and one that was a sort of amusement park.
The second one was a bit bizarre. It had a theatrical performance that we were told was about Chinese and Japanese battles in World War II. We sat down in the amphitheater for what turned out to be a bizarre variety show featuring fireworks, gun shots, jokes and laughter, people dancing on one end of the stage and dying on the other. We couldn’t stomach being jerked from one extreme to the other, struck by the inappropriateness of it all. Anna later said, “It felt like whiplash!”
So we had time to kill before the show ended and our tour guide was ready to take us back. We ended up standing outside by the gate and teaching Kaiyuan, CC, and Craby the Chicken Dance and the Macarena.
We felt quite proud about bringing American culture to China 😛
On our way back on the boat we played musical chairs. Not on purpose – we just didn’t want Anna to turn any redder from the sun, and because the guys were all gentlemen. Then, this happened:
One of the most impressive things I saw in China was actually thanks to Craby on our way back from Baiyangdian. We had gotten back into our tour bus and sat down together, but the tour guides (who were a couple of girls still in college) had permitted tourists who had not originally come with us to return on our bus, and these new girls kicked up a gigantic fuss about not sitting together – to the point of stopping the bus, yelling, glaring, and making a bus-full of around 40 people uncomfortable. We foreigners had no clue what was going on, but Craby (who is Chinese) stood up, spoke to both the tour guides and the girls in an effort to resolve things and calm things down. Eventually, they did and we were able to continue back, but poor Craby gave up his seat and ended up being the sole person reduced to standing up for the approximately two hours back. He did it without complaining and went out of his way to make excuses for the girls with the gentlest, sweetest demeanor ever. That is the type of person I would like to be.
After we got back from Baiyangdian, we ate dinner together at a bbq place. One of the things we ordered was grilled enoki mushrooms (they are the small stringy mushrooms that grow together in a bunch.)
Kaiyuan, deadpan: You know, in Chinese, the name translates to “see you tomorrow.”
Me: What? Why?
Kaiyuan, mildly embarrassed: Well, because you see them again the next day.
Me: I don’t get it.
Kaiyuan: in the toilet! They’re indigestible!
I am usually pretty good about keeping it together with language differences, but I laughed until I cried, and giggled the rest of the night. I hadn’t come across any sort of humor like that in China, and hadn’t expected to: they are so polite and unflappable, and this completely broke my paradigm.
Then, Godfrey pipes up: It’s the same in the Philippines (he’s Filipino.) We call it, “I’ll be back.” You know what Macarthur said when he left the Philippines, right? “I’ll be back?”
Me, giggling: So does that say something about what people think of him?
Godfrey, good humor glinting in his eyes: Weeeeeelll……
Before I left, I wanted to figure out some way of expressing my thanks to Kaiyuan and Craby for the countless ways in which they had helped me and made my time in China so pleasant. Besides cooking “American” food for them, I settled on giving them Bibles. I took the time to write each of them letters outlining Scriptures and to put in sticky notes at key and favorite Scriptures.
And they had expressed interest in the Bible in one of our earliest times together – Kaiyuan asking me about the Bible, telling me he had bought one online, asking me what it’s all about, Craby listening attentively and commenting now and again. Later, Kaiyuan showed me his “Bible:” a beautiful DQ illustrated coffee table book with historical and archaeological background to the Bible.
Once I gave it to them and explained, Craby said, in his dear and accented way: Wow! I will save this letter to read later because if I read it now, I am afraid I will not be able to contain my emotions!
(I nearly cried then.)
Later, when I left China, he came to see me off a little earlier than everyone else, a little shy. “Mary,” he said. “I wrote a letter for you that I want to hide in your luggage for you to read later!”
It turned out to be a lovely, warm-hearted letter that I will cherish as a symbol of friendship for the rest of my life.
Oliver is Anna’s cat. She rescued him her first year as an itty bitty kitten. Now, he is a fat and feisty orange furball who is just as happy to bite you as to cuddle with you (and if he wants to cuddle and you don’t, he’ll bite you.) CC and Kaiyuan adore him, coming regularly to visit him and bring him “pudding.” Anna and I were relieved to discover that cat pudding is individual sealed plastic cups full of cat food.
Oliver usually can be found lounging around outside the Teachers’ Flat.
CC: Mary, Mary! Did you know Oliver has a girlfriend?
I got the news not long after a new teensy orange kitten appeared on the scene. He frolicked with Oliver every chance he got. CC, noticing how Oliver allowed the kitten to roughhouse with him, christened him Little Oliver. (They chortled to discover that Oliver had had a special “surgery” that made it highly unlikely Little Oliver was actually his progeny.)
Me: Oh really? No, I haven’t noticed any new cats?
CC points out a pregnant calico cat lurking in the distance. “Do you know what her name is?”
Me: No, what?
Oliver, little Oliver, and Jimmy. What a family.