The Day We Met
The Cobblestone of Old Town
June 22, 2001…
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.
‘B’ and Me on the way to see the Glacier
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, 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.”
I tried not to take note that we had the same Chinese surname.
Once Jeff signed off for his two white-girl guests, we were off again, this time in a gondola, riding up to the base of the glacier.
I actually don’t remember much of the ride, except trying to pay more attention to what I was seeing outside the gondola, instead of sneaking peeks at someone inside the gondola.
At some point during the bus ride and the gondola ride, we learned that Jeff was a backpacker. His role on the team consisted of a lot of hiking on long trips, and searching things out. He learned that both us girls had a heart for missions, and that I particularly felt drawn to this town – this people group, whereas Latin America was more B’s style.
Once we were out of the gondola, at the base of the glacier, Jeff cautioned us to take it slowly. The air was thinner up here, and we still had a good way to travel by foot – uphill on wooden steps – to get a close, and breathtaking view.
B took off in a fury, as she is want to do most anything in life. She just tackles it. I took a bit more time. After all, our lungs were used to thick and muggy New Orleans air, below sea level. I’m surprised we didn’t pass out from altitude sickness.
We meandered our way to the top, weaving past Chinese tour groups, all dressed in matching yellow t-shirts, sporting matching yellow umbrellas- until we made it to the top to see the breathtaking view.
Only, there wasn’t one.
It was so foggy that day, the glacier was completely hidden. I’d seen close-up pictures of the glacier before, and here was our handsome tour guide pointing to where it was, right there in front of us, but all we could see was a wall of thick fog… It was a little eery to think that something that huge and beautiful and majestic was just a few yards from our faces and we couldn’t even see it.
Taken the day we met… wearing the coolest hat I’d ever seen…
Jeff apologized that we had come that far, and maybe he thought we were disappointed, but we weren’t. We all stood to rest for a few minutes on a large, wooden platform. Maybe Jeff thought if we waited a bit the fog would clear. No matter. I was happy to be there.
Once again, he pulled off his backpack and unzipped it, pulling out more treasures. Mini cans of Pringles, and a few snickers bars. (Some of the few ‘Western’ treats you can buy in that Chinese town.)
“I thought you might be hungry when we reached the top, and you’ve used up a lot of energy walking up in this altitude, so you need to replenish,” he said.
He had thought of bringing provisions for us? This time I purposefully took note of the thoughtful gesture… And the hint of leadership in his character…
We happily ate our snacks in peace and began to make our way back down the wooden steps, careful not to slip.
Somehow the ride down was a blurr – the day was going by too quickly. I wondered if Jeff would leave us at the end of the bus-ride back to town and head back to his rugged, back-packer life.
We crowded onto the bus, B and I sharing a bench seat with a few Chinese tourists, and Jeff positioning himself sideways so he could talk with us a bit more. He dug a little deeper into the conversation, asking questions about where we came from, and what we see ourselves doing in the future. I knew well enough that he was partially debriefing us, for we were at the end of our trip to that region. But it seemed he was personally and genuinely interested as well.
We had to be careful in conversation, since it was probable that many folks sitting around us could understand English. And well, if we went off spatting about how we wanted to spread the Gospel and see many converts for Jesus, … Well, things may not end well. So, much of our conversation was sprinkled with ‘code’ words.
Soon, the rowdy back row of Chinese guys and gals pushed forward in their seat and wanted to practice their English with us. It took about 2 seconds for us all to realize one of the guys was flirting, and then he asked if B or I were married or had a boyfriend. I think B said she didn’t need a boyfriend… And I – hating this kind of attention – stated that I had a boyfriend already, hoping they would leave us alone and my face could turn back to it’s normal shade.
As soon as “I have a boyfriend,” left my lips, my immediate string of thoughts went something like, Oh no, now he thinks I have a boyfriend…. Like it matters… What am I crazy? Who cares? No, I can’t leave him thinking I have a boyfriend.
So just in case, I quickly added, loud enough for Jeff to hear, “Yeah, my boyfriend’s initials are JC.”
Lame, I know.
I felt pretty dumb.
But there was no back-paddling at that point. And the message was there, and I was pretty sure Jeff was smart enough to pick it up.
The bus raced on down the bumpy road and the rowdy back seat turned back to themselves. And our conversation picked back up again. Jeff explained that we were headed to the university on the outskirts of town, where he and some of the other team members lived and studied Mandarin – he thought we might like to see the school.
I was very interested to see the school, since I had been asked before by the team supervisor if I wanted to move there and join the team. And I was happy to know that our time with our friendly, inquisitive tour guide wasn’t ending just yet.
“And K & S (team leaders) made spaghetti for lunch for us,” he added.
We hopped off the bus and begin to make our way to the school, walking through a tall gate, and meandering down a walkway, around a few buildings, to the foreign students’ dormitory.
K and his wife S were already dear to my heart. At this time, they had no children (they now have five) and they always have been a shining example of Godliness during every moment I have spent with them.
B and I helped fix plates and we all sat down at the round table that took up most of the space in K & S’s small, semi-outdoor kitchen. (Kitchens were separate from dorm rooms & suites.) The air was perfect, though flies buzzed all around. (I soon learned this was fly season.) A strip of sticky tape hung from the ceiling in the corner of the room, and at least 50 flies were stuck to the tape.
I admired the meal that S had prepared for us. Delicious spaghetti with bread and butter and salad. At that time I knew little of what kind of hard work it took to make an American meal like that, but I still admired it.
The meal was lovely and I was happy that K & S took over most of the conversation, so that I wouldn’t have to fight off blushing and squirming every time Jeff looked my direction. Soon, lunch was finished and Jeff announced that we were off on another adventure. But first, he had to retrieve something from his dorm room, which was a few yards from the kitchen. He invited B and me to follow.
Jeff pushed back the fly-netting, which I then noticed was in front of every room door, and turned the key in the lock. We followed him in, leaving the door open, but letting the fly netting fall back into place. He went over to the laptop on the desk and began telling us about the newsletter that he would regularly write and email back home to friends and family.
“Do you girls want to be on the mailing list?”
Of course we did!
He wrote down each of our email addresses. I tried not to smile too much when I told him my email address: “write_mulan@…”
I tried not to wonder if this were his was him finding a way to stay in contact with us…
Then it was time for the next adventure.
“Okay, I want to take you to play my favorite game here in town,” he said. “We call it Road Rage.”
We both gave him inquisitive looks.
He walked over to a built-in closet and opened the door.
“But first we need these,” he said
B and I peered into the closet and watched as he pulled out…. a gun?
“Okay, I want to take you to play my favorite game here in town,” he said. “We call it Road Rage,” Jeff grinned.
We both gave him inquisitive looks.
He walked over to a built-in closet and opened the door.
“But first we need these,” he said
B and I peered into the closet and watched as he pulled out…. a gun?
Sure enough, along with the clothes, shoes, and backpacking paraphernalia, were several guns of various sizes. It reminded me of my Daddy’s gun cabinet back home in south Louisiana – only these were plastic air guns.
“Some of the other guys and I found these in the market,” he explained, picking out two pistols and stuffing them in his backpack. “They work great for warding off rats in the dorm,” he continued. “But they’re also great for playing Road Rage… do you like go-karts?”
Are you kidding me?
I, for the record, love go-karts. (I even drove one when I was pregnant with Carson – shh, don’t tell.)
I tried not to act too giddy.
We followed him out of his room, and out the dormitory gate, and meandered back to the school entrance where we were happy to find a small red cab, waiting for passengers. Following Jeff’s lead, we piled inside the dusty backseat of the cab.
Without turning around, the driver inquired in a gravely voice, “shemma?”
Jeff rattled off something in Mandarin, and we were off, racing down the dirt road that lead from the university back to the newer, busier part of town.
There are no seat-belts in Chinese cabs. And sometimes there seem to be no traffic rules, either, as drivers speed, and then stop fast, or whip around another car or pedestrian – and everyone honks. Constantly. But even this early in my China-season, I was accustomed to public transportation, and just held on for the ride.
We soon stopped and jumped back out of the cab while Jeff paid the driver. The establishment looked nothing like Celebration Station, or any other similar place in the States. It was just a concrete lot with some beat-up go-karts and some tires and concrete blockades. I was pretty sure it was not at all safe, and I was anxious to get behind the wheel.
Jeff explained the rules of the game, which were ridiculously simple:
Aim at your opponent.
Oh, and try not to wreck the go-kart.
If memory serves me right, I believe Jeff offered to let us ladies go first. Then it was B vs. the Tall Tour Guide. Then I was up again. Jeff was in one kart, and I was in another… since it wasn’t exactly a race to the finish, we put some distance between us and then Jeff started shooting pellets my direction. I was laughing so hard I could barely keep the steering steady, but I held tight and shot a few pellets in his direction, fairly certain that one of them hit him. Then he reeled around and shot me right in the leg!
By the end I just couldn’t contain my laughter. If this guy’s assignment had been to help us have a good day and some stress relief, he had certainly met his goal.
We decided to park the go-karts and head off by foot to the older part of town. My face hurt from laughing so hard.
“I want to take you to my favorite restaurant in Old Town,” he said. “They have the best chicken schnitzel and they even have chocolate banana milkshakes.”
Well, count me in!
It would take a while to walk into Old Town, and Jeff started up conversation again, somehow getting B and me to tell him stories of our life in New Orleans,… how we had become friends,… what the seminary was like… what we liked to do in our free time. I talked more than I did earlier in the day, but still let B take the lead, since she is so funny, and much more entertaining. Jeff laughed at our stories and asked more questions as we weaved around hundreds of locals, cut through alleys, and crossed streets.
We followed him across a major intersection to get to the large sidewalk leading to the entrance of Old Town. We kept walking and talking. We passed the giant water wheel and along with the sound of rushing water, I began to hear the melody of the flute-like folk music coming from Old Town shops. The concrete beneath our feet became cobblestone as we left the busy-ness of New Town. One of the things I love about Old Town is that everyone is on foot. It’s a rule. You cannot drive a car or ride a bike in Old Town; you must walk.
And walk we did, but not much farther.
A few minutes after hitting cobblestone, we slowed our pace, and Jeff came to a stop, proudly extending his arm towards the place, to show we had arrived.
“This is my favorite restaurant in Old Town,” he said with a grin. Like every place around it, Jeff’s favorite restaurant was a small, rugged, split-level wooden structure. It was old and quaint. A small stream separated the building from the street, and we walked across a small wooden walkway, into the restaurant.
Jeff said something to the smiling waiter, (he was probably the cook and the owner as well) and then headed up the steep wooden steps to the upper level. B and I followed, and then sat with him at table on the balcony, overlooking the stream below.
B smiled at me and looked happy to be there and I silently agreed. I loved the setting, and thought I couldn’t be in a happier place.
I had no idea how the conversation about to take place would change my life forever.
Part 4 (Finale’)
We had only been seated a few seconds when a sweet local girl walked up to take our order. Jeff suggested that we needed to try the chicken schnitzel and of course, we all needed a chocolate banana milkshake. Off she went to put in our order, and we were alone again at our table. B was sitting close to the balcony railing, admiring the view, and Jeff was directly across from me.
|Me sitting at the same restaurant two years later…
With a Chocolate Banana Milkshake
A small bowl of sunflower seeds was on the table – the rugged-China version of chips and salsa, or basket of bread. We took turns grabbing seeds from the bowl as we chatted, and Jeff nonchalantly spit his shells on the floor from time-to-time, as is the custom. Each of us had our own bottled beverage we had picked up at a small shop along our walk. The drinks weren’t cold, since cold beverages are such a foreign concept (and considered unhealthy) in many Asian and European countries, but it didn’t matter. I found everything about that dinner refreshing.
Soon our food appeared, and we dug into our chicken schnitzel. And as promised, it was delicious. The milkshakes were very different than what is served in the States, but surprisingly yummy. Jeff finished his meal and sat back in his chair, with a determined air about him.
It was time for some serious debriefing.
Turning to B, he asked her to sum-up her trip and share what she was planning to do in the near future. She shared with him her difficulties with culture shock upon arriving in Asia, which is so vastly different than anything she had experienced in Brazil. And she said that while she was certainly glad God had brought her on this trip, she definitely thought she’d be doing work long-term in Brazil, where she was fluent in the language, and already had established contacts with the people. (Note: I don’t know if B ever went back to Brazil. She’s been serving in Asia longer now than all the time I spent there combined. God is funny that way.)
I listened, sipping on my runny milkshake.
Jeff turned my direction and smiled. My turn.
“Now let me ask you something,” he started. “I hear you tell me that Father has called you into this work…”
“Right,” I answered.
“And I hear you tell me that you’ve come to this country several times, and this is your 2nd time in this region…” he said.
“Yes, ” I answered.
“And I hear you tell me you love this people group, and your heart is here…” he continued.
“Right,” I said.
I tried not to take note that he’d been listening so well all day.
“And so… why aren’t you here full time?” he asked.
I paused nervously, and looked down towards the cobblestone street.
I didn’t want to tell him what my struggle really was. If I did, he would surely think I was weak. B knew. And she didn’t understand. She was stronger, more independent. She knew the burden on my heart, and I sensed that she was impatient with me for it.
I opened my mouth, fully prepared to lie to Jeff and give him an answer that would satisfy his curiosity and close the door on that conversation.
But before I could get a word out, I heard the Lord clearly say to my spirit, Tell him the truth.
And then I looked him straight in the eye and the truth came spilling out…
“Honestly, I don’t want to do it alone,” I said.
He put his chair back on all four legs and leaned in on the table to listen.
“Yes, I do feel like Father has called me to do this work, but I struggle with this,” I continued. “Because I don’t feel like he’s called me to do it alone.”
“I see,” he said, waiting for me to say more.
“I believe he’s called me to work alongside a husband, for our family to do the work together… but here I am as a single woman, and Father hasn’t brought a husband into my life yet… so while I don’t feel that it’s Father’s will for me to do this work as a single woman, that’s precisely where I find myself. So that’s a struggle for me… I know that may sound weak, but that’s my answer to your question,” I finished.
Jeff smiled, “I don’t think that’s weak at all,” he said.
There were no speeches about being a strong woman and not needing a man.
No sermons about God calling some people to be single.
No jokes about going to seminary just to get my “Mrs” degree.
Instead this rugged, backpacking missionary encouraged me to keep seeking the Lord’s will and said he would pray for God to give me guidance.
I silently breathed a sigh of relief, happy that I had told him the truth. But I could still feel myself blushing as I had been briefly put in the spotlight.
By then the meal was finished, and we gathered ourselves up to leave. Back down the steep staircase we went, B and I practicing our “xie xie” (thank you) towards the kind staff members. Back across the little bridge and onto the cobblestone street. The three of us chatted as we walked back towards the entrance of Old Town. We came to the place where we would part ways, and B and I thanked our new friend for spending the day with us. He told us how happy he was to meet us, shook our hands, and urged us to be safe in our travels.
And then, just like that, he was walking away. B and I turned to walk the opposite direction towards our guesthouse. It was time to start packing for our trip home the following day. I turned once to look back at him, feeling slightly sad that I’d probably never see him again.
Chiding myself and feeling silly, I turned back around and matched my step with B, not wanting her to notice that I’d given him a 2nd glance.
But inside I prayed that the Lord would send someone like him into my life…