Back In China Day 4 Saturday, July 2, 2011
Liu Fang/Papa John’s/Catholic Church
This was our day to meet Liu Fang, our former housekeeper and more importantly, good friend. A housekeeper is called a bao mu, but in our community they were also referred to as Ayi, which actually means Aunty and in our understanding was a term of endearment I tried to call her Liu Fang, but often find myself saying “Ayi, what is that man doing?” It’s a hard habit to break and she is a good sport about it. She likes to give it right back to me and call me Aunty Liz, which I love. In truth we are about ten years apart, and are more like a jie jie and mei mei (older and younger sister). She took care of our family for seven years until the school requested her service, and I reluctantly gave her up. There she would have benefits and we both knew it was a better deal. This close connection is why we bought her a ticket to America for Jack’s wedding last year, and why my sons refer to her as Ayi Mama, which she loves. Liu Fang knows us better than anyone else in China. Happily for both of us, this turned out to be a good thing.
I still remember when she came to our home to be interviewed for the housekeeper job. I was as nervous as she was; I had never had a housekeeper before, and she had never been one. We were the first Americans that she had ever known. We both laugh now at how scared we were and how we clicked as we worked together. Liu Fang is the only person who can cook with me and we do not need to say “Hand me this” to each other. It is as if we are one unit when you get us in the kitchen. And usually there was quite a lot of sharing about our lives and laughing about funny things that happened that day. Happy times indeed. So today was a day to just hang out with our beloved Ayi.
Both parties took buses to meet at Ji Li Da Sha/The Exchange/Bing Jiang Dao. The area has three huge department stores, and a shopping street that stretches for miles. When we lived here the vendors were all in makeshift stores that could be folded up into a three wheel bicycle at the end of the day. It was dirty, crowded, chaotic, and made for a fun afternoon of people watching and bargain hunting. Now it has been redeveloped, and consists of small white tile shops, one after another in a long building on both sides of the street. We didn’t even bother to walk down the street, as it was raining, and we knew the kitschiness of the old days would be gone.
Instead we went to an old Catholic church, which was still operating, and on the historical registry, so it was open for free tours. I wondered what the young Chinese thought about this place. It had paintings of the Stations of the Cross, statues of Mary, Jesus and various saints, an elaborate altar, and pews with kneelers. I recalled the many hours spent in St. Patrick’s Church in my home town of Canonsburg, and thought of the hours of services, procession practice, confessions, communions, and of course the People of God candy eating in the back of the church that was part of my elementary school life. I thought of the nuns whose job was to train us in the ways of God, and how they probably felt that in my case they had failed miserably since most of the time I was goofing off or daydreaming. Too bad they could not see that later on I came to appreciate the foundation I received as a youngster, and that my faith was important to me now. I walked around the tacky, dusty church and thought of those days, and again wondered how I had journeyed to such a far away, and strange, and wonderful place.
The church of course was very dusty and dirty; no place can escape the soot from the air pollution and from the lack of trees and grass that allows constant erosion of soil, although recent plantings have tried to slow this down. The ceiling was similar to the cathedral we toured at Christmas in Savannah, blue and gold, and geometrically perfect. Added to that were lots of red swags and large Chinese decorations, that in my mind, deterred from the original design, but obviously were considered to add beauty to the Chinese way of thinking. I asked Ayi why so many decorations? She said she didn’t know but that seemed to be the Chinese way. The outside of the building also had the white plastic pvc pipes holding the electric wiring. This was also perhaps seen as an improvement because in the old days hundreds of black wires would be hanging off the building. I suppose bundling these into white pvc pipe was considered less tacky, but…not sure about that. Aesthetics do not seem to be that important in China, as they are in America. If your outside screens are falling off and you have some green plastic string that you bought home from the bakery, it will do quite well to tie up the loose ends on the screens on the front of your home. Dental floss and duct tape also work well. To be fair, the Chinese often comment to me about our obsession to have everything look pretty. Is that more biblical? No, and it often requires a lot of time, money, and effort to keep things looking good. I know…good stewardship you say. Perhaps, but maybe more like good Stewartship (as in Martha). This is a good example of philosophical arguments I would have with myself and with team members about what is important in life.
Did I mention that we ate lunch at Papa John’s in the basement of the Japanese department store, Isetan? We could not resist the urge to “Come to Papa” while in China. Ayi was a good sport as always, and enjoyed her pizza while regaling us with stories about her life, and asking all about ours. Three good friends laughing and eating pizza is a great way to spend a rainy Saturday. I sort of forgot that we were just visitors..that this was not our home anymore, and when I came to my senses, it made me sad.
Chinese Staff Dinner/Chen
That night we were to eat dinner with the Chinese staff at the Sister’s restaurant. When we first moved to China we used to go out to the front gate on Sunday nights and watch a pair of sisters in their many padded layers of clothing cook delicious dishes in an outdoor makeshift kitchen set up on a three wheeled bicycle. We would order beef and chicken dishes for about 16 yuan each (two U.S. dollars at that time), and we enjoyed watching this live Chinese cooking show just as much as we enjoyed eating the results. It was great to see the owner at the front desk, and that she remembered us from her street food days; she had embodied the Chinese dream of rising up from rags to riches. Her always crowded two story restaurant had become one of the best places to eat in town, and we were lucky to get a reservation. This time however the delicious food was not center stage; instead the gathering of old friends was so sweet that we could have been eating moonpies and cokes and been just as happy. These folks were our drivers, repair men, our cook, and had served us and the China team on a daily basis. Our former school cook, Wu Ya Ping proceeded to take over the ordering, which was of course so nice for us. The rest of us got caught up and we shared family news and funny stories. They all asked us to think about coming back to Tianjin, and shared that they knew our hearts loved the Chinese people. Sadly some of the newer arrivals did not seem to care about Chinese, and this broke our hearts to hear. This is not a whiny bunch; in fact we had never before heard them complain about anything so we knew that they were troubled to mention it to us. What we do with such knowledge is beyond us at present. Mostly we pray about it.
We did not dwell on this sad topic but moved on to eat and catch up. As we discussed various food likes and dislikes, Guo De Hai shared about his grandparents catching rats, opening them up, sticking a sweet potato inside, and then roasting them. He did not remember what they tasted like, but we suggested that perhaps they tasted like chicken. We all laughed about that. I have never been so poor that I had to eat roasted rat with sweet potato stuffing (hope I have not ruined Thanksgiving for you). However I admire the human spirit in that it can find a way to survive even in the most desperate times. Sing along with me now “Just a small sweet potato makes the roasted rat go down, the roasted rat go down, roasted rat go down (apologies to the Sherman Brothers who wrote the Mary Poppins song). To me, that story is not about eating a rat, but about surviving and finding a way to help your family survive, and trying to make the most difficult things go easier. That’s what grandparents and parents have been doing since the beginning of time, is it not?
Our dear friend, Susan was there that night, along with her adopted daughter Chinese daughter Chen, who was expecting a baby any day now. These two women have overcome remarkable difficulties and through the Body of Christ their lives have now been linked.
We met Susan when we first arrived in China. Her husband Sam was a teacher, and a friend to so many Chinese. He died at the end of our first year in China, under somewhat suspicious circumstances that cannot be shared here. Widowed in her late 40s, with two teenage children was a terrible sorrow for her, but Susan has a deep and abiding faith that hardly ever lets her complain. This she had in common with Sam, who had preached unbeknownst to us at the time, his last sermon, on the topic of “Why Not Me?” He urged us not to ask why when difficulties come, but to thank God for all the difficulties He spares us from. Often we are not aware of God’s mercies, but we should thank Him for the known and unknown ones. I loved that sermon, and of course it stuck with me even more when I found out later that same week that Sam had died while on a trip out in the countryside.
Chen had a sick mom, dad, and grandmother, and no education. She spent her days taking care of her ailing family, and eventually lost all of them. As an only child with no family and no education, her future in China looked pretty grim. For one thing it would be difficult to get a good job, and for another, it would be hard to find someone who would marry her with such a family history. However an American family brought Chen back to life by loving her, helping her, and praying for her. When they had to leave China, they asked Susan who was now an empty nester, to be a friend to Chen. Susan of course agreed, and became more than a friend to this lovely young woman. The orphan and the widow now forged a special bond. Chen met and married John, an American teacher, and was about to deliver her first child. She will be permitted to have more than one due to marrying an American, and her life seems bright and happy. She has Susan as her Korean mom, an American mom, and Wu Ya Ping, our Chinese school cook, as her Chinese mom. That night at dinner, I felt such joy to see God’s provision to this once lonely young girl as she awaits the birth of her first child surrounded by her new family. I sat and watched her with a quiet smile and a feeling that all was right in this tiny part of the world.
We invited each of these dear friends to come and visit us in America, and they promised that when they retired and had time they would like to come. We took pictures and then we all piled in the van to be dropped off at our various locations. It was sad to leave our happy group, but we knew that we would all be together again one day.
I often wish I had two or three lives and could live one of them in China with these dear friends. I get a misty-eyed as I think of them, or find something in my Georgia home that they made, or gave to us. I try to chase away those blues by simply thanking God that we met at all. Sometimes that works, and sometimes I need to just sit and daydream about our life back there, now getting farther and farther away. I think of our friend Sam and try instead to ask why I was so fortunate to leave America and meet these wonderful folks. But you can feel lucky and sad at the same time; I arrived at home thinking that so much of life is bittersweet. I went to sleep that night longing for the day when the bitter is a pale memory, and only the sweet remains.