The morning sun awoke me in my 17th floor Guangzhou hotel window. It was barely past dawn. I looked out the window to see a large city that was very quiet and still at the moment. I decided I should not waste the opportunity to get out and look around the city without the hustle and bustle of so many people.
As I walked a couple of blocks down a now quiet Beijing Street to my great delight I saw a McDonald’s! Yes, the one that had American coffee and a Sausage-McMuffin with Egg! I had always vowed that I would never eat at an American restaurant chain in another country because the opportunity to eat the local cuisine was too compelling to do otherwise. But the lure of the American coffee drew me closer. And, besides that, I never thought I would be away from home for so long as this trip dictated for me to do, so it didn’t bother me to break that promise. As I ate my ¥20 worth of breakfast, I recalled the business model of Ray Kroc when he started McDonald’s some 50 years ago or so, to use a production process to make a consistent product so that any customer could go to any location and know what to expect. That business model was paying dividends to me now, baby! It was then that I also realized that the business and production process in China, yea all over the world, was based much on the same principle. Make a good consistent product and the world will buy from you. WOW, China indeed now produces most of the worlds’ physical products.
When it seemed like a reasonable hour to do so I called another one of my Chinese Harding students, Cheng Peng, also known as Jessica, and texted Mia to let them know I was up and ready to meet them at their convenience for another day of the unknown in Guangzhou. I called Jessica because I thought she had to be up early to travel and meet me as we had planned. I texted Mia because I knew she would still be asleep! Hey, college kids are college kids all over the world!
We all agreed to meet in the lobby of the Hotel where I was staying, the Hotel Canton – Guangzhou. As I sat in the lobby I did one of my favorite activities – People Watching. It was fascinating to see the many groups and people come through, in and out, and the busyness of the day getting started. Then I saw Jessica! It was so fun to see her eyes light up when she saw me. She was so excited that her teacher from America was actually in China to visit with her. She had with her a tall young boy and I knew immediately it must be her brother. Sure enough, Nick was Jessica’s 13-year-old sibling who was going to spend the day with us. He was as friendly as he could be without speaking very much English. Jessica asked if it was OK to bring him so that he could hear me speak English. He had been studying English but had never met an American or spoke English with anybody for whom English is their first language. Jessica’s parents wanted him to maybe learn something from me. I tried to engage him in conversation all day and by the end of the day he was doing better. (There’s nothing like on-the-job-training)! I asked Jessica about the one child policy in China and she told me he was “illegal” (more about that later). He seemed to be a sweet boy that just adored his older sister. I went to check out of the Hotel and after doing so I reached for my shoulder bag to carry it throughout the day, but Nick had it! He insisted on carrying it for me. Jessica said it was part of their culture to let the young help the older adults. I reluctantly agreed and we went on. But, every time he put it down I picked it up. Then a few minutes later he was taking it from me. That went on all day!
Mia and her mother walked into the lobby and after a few minutes of greetings we were on our way. Mia’s father had their van waiting outside for us and he drove us to our first destination for the day, Chen’s Ancestral Hall of the Guangdong Folk Arts Museum. He dropped us off and was headed to his office for the day. I realized that I probably would not see Mia’s Dad again so I took a few moments to express, at least with body language, how much I appreciated his help and hospitality but more importantly getting to know his family. He seemed to reciprocate his appreciation for my relationship with his daughter. No comprehensible words were exchanged, but somehow we knew what we were saying to each other. After we entered the museum Mia’s mother decided she would sit on a wooden bench near the front entrance and have tea while we wandered about the museum for as long as we wanted.
The museum was fascinating! There was lots of history through displays of various arts and craft forms of the past that showed the intricate skills of a patient people. Among the many works of art, there were displays made from ceramics, embroideries and carvings of wood and ivory that were just stunning! Lots of the displays had informational signs in both Chinese and English about the work. So I put my teacher hat back on and had Mia, Jessica, and Nick read the English aloud, while I helped them through the words and meanings they did not understand. It was also good for them to have the words in Chinese on the side-by-side signs. At one point Jessica said to me, “This is why my Mom wanted Nick to come along today.”
Much of the inspiration of the artwork was based on the people’s belief in a higher being, regardless of what they were being taught otherwise. That also gave me the opportunity to tell them of the root of our faith as well. Jessica had become a sister and was washed last November. So I had a special bond with her that I did not have with Mia. Jessica winked and smiled at me a few times when she realized that I was trying to reach Mia with the good news. She would also comment with her native perspective of the discussion. I whispered to her at one point that we were, “partners in the faith.”
The museum was housed in a royal family’s old educational building for their children. Each of the display rooms had a wall that was opened to the weather even though they could be closed off for severe weather and security at closing time. Each room was also exposed to a garden courtyard with beautiful trees, plants and flowers. There were several such rooms and courtyards throughout the massive building structure. I was probably more intrigued by the architecture, the design, and the history of the building than the art itself. After as much viewing, oohing and aahing as we could handle, we headed toward the exit. Mia’s mother was going to leave and go on to her job and we were going to take the subway system across town to our lunch appointment. It was to be my last encounter with her and she knew that. I started to say goodbye when she reached out and hugged me. That is not done in China very often, but Mia explained that her mom was so happy that I came to see her and that her Mom got a chance to meet me. I told her some of the same things that I had expressed to her dad, that I would look after Mia in America. She was teary-eyed. It was a very sweet moment.
Since the industrial boom and the economic climate change of the worldview towards China this country has changed dramatically, especially in the last few decades. They have been building and remodeling almost everything in sight. They have a lot of money pouring into the economy and much of that is getting to the hands of the emerging middle class laborers. The subway system was large, high tech and seemingly new. It was very clean and efficient, and of course, CROWDED! As a native of this city Mia knew her way around. We purchased our fares from an ATM type dispenser and Nick, Jessica and I followed Mia. We wandered through long corridors, down escalators and around corners that felt like a maze, but we made it to our train with what seemed to be ease compared to the day before. We even made a couple of stops and car changes but soon arrived as close to our destination as we could. We made our way to the street level and hailed a taxi for the rest of the journey.
We arrived at another large multi-floored restaurant where West Ling from Harding University was waiting for us. He had pre-ordered our food and reserved a private dining room for us. I joked with him that even though we knew each other at Harding we had never had lunch together in America, but here we were now, having our second meal within a week in China. I wanted to pay for lunch but he would not hear of that. I relinquished when he agreed to let me buy lunch for him and his new wife when we got back to Searcy.
West is one of my favorite Harding staff members. He is a Chinese native that graduated from Harding a few years ago but kept returning to Harding to receive not one, but two Masters degrees. I think he did that so that he could hang around long enough to do two things; get Harding to hire him full time as the Associate Director of the Sino American Studies Institute, and to get a beautiful young Chinese girl to marry him. He accomplished both objectives this spring. West is in China for the summer recruiting more Chinese students. Unfortunately, his newly wedded wife, Yen, is still in Searcy and West will be here until mid-August. West is a wonderful young brother. Yen also recently had become a sister. I had often called upon West to help me meet with one of my Chinese students when they needed to be counseled about their class work. When that needed to happen, it was almost always a language barrier issue. I needed West to help communicate to the Chinese students what I could not seem to do. After we prayed together we enjoyed a typical Chinese restaurant meal, said our appropriate farewells, and West left. I then found out he had driven three hours just to meet me for lunch and now was returning to his recruiting route. What a great young man!
The rest of us crossed the street to visit a brand new Modern Art Museum. It had just been built as a part of a set of recreational facilities for the upcoming Asian Games to be hosted by the city of Guangzhou later this year. There were signs all over town counting down the days until the opening ceremonies. The day I was there the count stood at 168 days. Across the street from the museum was a sports stadium that was still under construction. It was a very rainy day but I took photos anyway. The line was long to get tickets to the museum and I was going to attempt to pay for everybody and Jessica had agreed to help me. But the price for admission wasn’t money; it was a photo ID card. I showed them my passport and they handed me a ticket. Jessica showed her ID and she got a ticket. But Nick and Mia had no photo ID on them – no ticket for them. They told us to go on and they would wait. I wouldn’t hear of that. I told them “we all go or we all don’t.” We agreed to leave together. I got to thinking, “If Nick was illegal could he even have a picture ID card?” I asked Jessica. What she explained told me that he wasn’t really illegal, but their parents had to pay a yearly fee to the government because they chose to keep him after he was born. He still had all the rights and services due him from his government. I then told Mia that I was about to turn parental on her! “What?” She asked. I proceeded to tell that if I were her father I would scold her for not carrying a proper ID card on her at all times. It was just too important not to do so. She nodded in agreement and seemed to take my advice, but somehow I think her reaction may have been the same as an American being told by her Dad about a similar scenario, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.” We walked about a bit in the rain outside the museum and Jessica said, “There’s a new store in town that I’ve wanted to go to.” I said, “Come on daughter, let’s go!” We went to what I now call the Museum of Household Products – IKEA! Yes, there is a new IKEA store in Guangzhou that we spent about an hour and a half perusing. I was able to explain a lot of the kitchen utensils that were on sale that simply were “foreign” to the normal Chinese kitchen. It was fun to do this. On our way out the door we stopped to buy Hot Dogs, and soft serve ice cream, a staple at every IKEA exit point! That was mainly for Nick, who was hungry by then, but we all got the same thing. Nick is a growing young teenaged boy.
It was time to head to the train station and travel to Jessica’s home in Dong Guan City. This was about a 40-minute ride on the high-speed train. The tickets were ¥50 (about $8.75). Jessica wanted to buy my ticket, but I gave her the money anyway and walked away. She reluctantly took my cash and purchased the rest of the tickets along with mine. It was a short ride but it gave me a little downtime to just sit and gaze out the window and see the countryside. A lot of villages and communities along the route were very intriguing to me. What were the lives of all those people like? How did they have a chance at a relationship with our Father? Those were questions that overwhelmed me. We arrived at the station and it was raining hard! Jessica called her Dad who was to meet us but he was stuck in traffic caused by the rain. “May-won-tee,” I said in my best Chinese, (no problem) “We’ll just wait here.” They laughed at my linguistic efforts. We walked to a nearby McDonald’s and bought drinks. It was the first soft drink I’ve had since we got here and it felt good to drink something carbonated. Nick also ordered French Fries. Did I mention he is a 13-year old growing boy?!
It was then that Jessica told me that even though she was very excited to have me come to her home and visit, her father was just “beyond excited” and so happy that I was coming. She said he had been waiting all week almost counting the days for me to arrive. When I first saw him he had the biggest smile on his face and shook my hand until my arm almost came off! He spoke NO English but talked constantly to me. Jessica tried to keep up with the translation but finally told me he wasn’t saying anything that she thought I needed to hear anyway. She said, “He talks a lot when he gets excited!” WOW – I never thought I was that exciting to anybody!
Jessica’s father’s name was Li. He explained that his wife was still out of town on a sales call for their family owned business and that we were all going to dinner at a nice Hotel that had a Chinese buffet, so that I could get what I wanted. This restaurant was no ordinary chain version of the China Buffett that we all know from America! This was as fancy a restaurant as I had ever been. The tables were elegant and the chairs were big and comfortable. They had lots of beautiful Chinese women to wait on us at seemingly every sip or bite. The restaurant had a separate section for the Sushi and appetizers. You selected what you wanted and it was cooked or made to order. Another section had the main meats and fishes, another for the soups, (I had Lobster Bisque), and another for each of the breads, fruits, and deserts. I knew that Chinese meals very rarely included desserts and that was when Li explained that it was a common place for Chinese businessmen to take their American business customers. Dong Guan City was a very industrial city with lots of factories and manufacturing facilities of all sorts. We had a great dinner. The dessert section had some very unusual flavors of Ice Cream. Without asking me, Jessica got up and went to get me some Ice Cream because she knew how much I loved it. The dish she returned with had scoops of ice cream flavors such as Mango and Green Tea ice cream. Both flavors were great! The live music being performed was a smooth sounding trio of one Asian man (playing a multiple computerized keyboard) and two beautiful young Asian women that sang most of their songs in English. They made a lot of music with so few instruments. They sang in English because of the American guests that usually fill the room. They had beautiful voices and it sounded so relaxing. I could have stayed and slept all night right in that chair.
We finally finished dinner and headed to Jessica’s house. It was in a gated community that had several freestanding houses and a number of larger apartment and other social service buildings. Jessica lived in a freestanding house that looked very nice. When we first opened the front door, a pleasant looking young woman that helped take our umbrellas and wet shoes met us. I was introduced to Luo. Jessica first introduced her as her Auntie. When I asked if she was a sister to her mom or her dad she said she wasn’t really related at all but was the hired help. Jessica went on to say that because her Mom and dad work so much that Luo was hired to cook their meals, clean the house and be a nanny to her and her brother. She was essentially a live-in servant. It wasn’t 10 seconds after I sat down that she was handing me some hot tea. She also took my shoes and cleaned them as she did for all of us. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Many of the Chinese Harding students come from wealthy families or they wouldn’t be there at all.
The house was not that big, but had a very elegant and distinctively Chinese décor. The living room had large wooden antique furniture pieces. Jessica’s dad, Li, owns a wood manufacturing company that manufactures in-laid wooden floors and custom made building products. The house had all wood floors and several other displays of his handiwork, such as stair rails, and other items of décor. I was shown the guest room for the night, which was actually Nick’s bedroom. Nick was going to sleep in the Luo’s room and I’m afraid Luo had to sleep on the floor. However, several days later I asked Jessica where Luo slept that night and she said she went to her nearby family’s home for the night and was back early the next morning.
I was tired and I wanted to go to bed, but I wanted to meet her mother more, so I waited up for her with Jessica and Li. About 10:00 p.m. Jessica’s Mother was finally getting home. I could see a lot of Jessica’s features in her mother and it was like we already knew each other. She seemed to be as happy that I was there as her husband had shown me. Again, no English but lots of communication with smiles and animation! She hollered out to the other room and Luo came with a fresh pot of tea. I said I had plenty, thank you, but Jessica told me this was the “go to bed” tea. It was a special blend of brewed tea to help you sleep. I wasn’t going to need much help with that, but I did not want to but unsocial and I wanted to experience the Chinese family rituals, so I had some “go-to-bed” tea. Her Mother kept calling Jessica something else that I thought was different, so I inquired with an inquisitive look with just a facial expression about that name. “Jing Jing” was her nickname! Jing Jing translates to big sister. She explained that she first had the nickname Jing Jing and that is where she derived her English name Jessica. I asked if I could call her Jing Jing and she said, “Oh yes, please do! Names like this are only for family and you are like family to me!” I finally indicated that I was going to bed. Breakfast was announced to be at 8:00 a.m.
The bed was the most unusual I had ever slept upon. They warned me that it was Chinese style and that it would be very hard. It was a single boxed spring pad with a sheet covering and then a layer of bamboo weave. They had earlier explained that the extra bamboo pad was for ventilation and it would keep me cooler. I was all for that as it was very hot and humid. There was a small air conditioning unit that they had turned on for me so I was fairly comfortable. But it was like sleeping on the dining room table with a tablecloth! And the pillow was even harder. They said it was good for my back and posture. I certainly did not complain and said, “I’m at your house; I want to sleep Chinese style tonight!” Jing Jing made sure I had everything I needed in my room as I closed my door. She was trying to remember the English term “night-night” but she could only remember “Bye-Bye.” I slept surprisingly well!
Steve Shaner, also known as Xie Yeye, is a professional story teller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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