It was summertime in China. I woke up to a drizzle outside. I would learn later that it was rainy season in this rugged and beautiful Chinese town. I loved this town. Parts were old, with winding cobblestone walkways and a meandering little creek, and parts were new, with modern buildings and busy streets. I loved the dark faces. I loved the older grandmas, wearing the traditional garb of the ancient people group. I loved the sounds of the Chinese folk music coming from shops. I loved the clean air and the mountain in the distance. It was nearing the end of my 2nd trip to this region.
My love of the ‘Big Country’ had started two years earlier on my first trip, after I graduated college in 1999. That trip lasted 6 weeks. I was hooked. The following summer I joined up with a group from seminary taking a 2 week trip to this beautiful region, and then again – during this particular summer, in 2001, here I was.
This time with no group. Just my friend B. (I won’t mention her name, so I can protect her innocence, or her guilt, whatever may be the case!) Actually, B now works full-time in a different area of SE Asia, so that’s why I won’t mention her real name.
Anyway, just me and B. What a ride it had been. Two young single seminary students traipsing halfway across the world. B was bold and energetic, and used to doing crazy things like preaching from the rooftops in Brazil, where she usually spent her summers. But for some reason, this summer God had laid it upon her heart to journey with me to the southwest region of China. As for me, I had known God wanted me back in that town that summer. So I was going, even if I was alone. But I wasn’t. I had B.
Even though I wasn’t alone, I felt pretty alone that trip. There was something heavy going on in my heart. I thought about this as B and I waited that morning, standing in the square in the middle of the new part of town. We’d had an adventurous few weeks, and some of our plans for helping the team living there had been squashed, since we both came down with the giardia parasite.
So on this next-to-last day in town, my friend K, the team leader, arranged for a guy on the team to show us around town, take us to the nearby glacier, and de-brief us. Just a fun day. When we talked to K the previous day, he told us to go to the square the following morning, where the big statue of Mao stood, and look for a tall guy named Jeff.
He’d be hard to miss, for sure. A tall white guy in a sea of shorter black-headed people.
So there we were, B and me. Standing in the drizzle at Mao Square, each of us lost in our own thoughts. The rain had made me more melancholy, but I hoped the day would distract me from my burden.
B spotted Jeff before I did. I turned to see a tall, good-looking guy, wearing the coolest hat I’d ever seen, heading straight for us.
It’s a shame I don’t remember the first words ever spoken between us. All I actually remember is thinking something akin to gracious, he’s good-looking… Just act normal and for goodness sakes, don’t stare at him!
I’m sure we must have introduced ourselves. Then we quickly made our way to a bus, and before I knew it we were seated and on our way to the outskirts of town. Jeff whipped a clear plastic bag out of his backpack and produced a half-dozen small bao zi (steamed buns with a seasoned mushroom mixture inside.) He was already speaking my love language. Mo gu bao zi are my favorite!
“I didn’t know if you’d had breakfast,” he said.
I tried not to take note of how thoughtful the gesture was.
Small talk ensued, as this guy made light work of getting to know our stories. I let B do most of the talking. Partly because I didn’t want to say anything to look dumb in front of our new tour guide, and partly because I was trying to settle my melancholy thoughts so I could enjoy the day. And partly because B is talkative and lively and a joy to be around. She can talk to anyone with ease, so it was just natural to let her take center stage – a place I rarely like to be.
Soon we stopped at a station where we were to rent jackets for the next part of the trip up to see the glacier. Jeff rambled off enough Mandarin to rent our jackets, and he had to sign his Chinese name. As I stood beside him at the counter, I leaned in closer to interested to see how well he could write Chinese characters.
I was surprised to see that I recognized the first character he wrote. I knew it because two years earlier I had learned to write my chinese name, Mu Lan, in characters. I most definitely recognized the character ‘Mu’ and was so surprised to see him write it, that I blurted out, “Mu”. He looked at me bewildered. “When I taught English to students in xing jiang, they gave me the name Mu Lan,” I explained. “They gave me a name that was easy to write.” He smiled.
I tried not to take note that we had the same Chinese surname.
… to be continued…