Wednesday, March 30, 2011

twin tongues

Age these kids by about 30 years, lengthen their hair, replace the diapers with more modest (and less chafing) clothing, and you have a typical conversation between me and my younger sister.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I was walking down the hallway this morning, joking around with one of my current students when, around the corner, appeared a young man who represents an entire class that I fell in love with about two semesters ago. They are called “elite,” here, which means that they tested in the top 1% of all the incoming students at this university. They're exceptionally gifted.

We – the 30 or so of them and I – connected instantly, and our semester together was all too short. I saw them several times after that, but their schedules became more occupied with classes and lab work, and I was busy with new courses and more new faces.

That was two years ago. I still miss them and smile every time I remember back to that classroom that we shared on the eighth floor.

I greeted that former student, both of us reciprocating smiles. Time wouldn't allow much more; he was going one direction and I was going the other, both of us having only a few minutes to spare.

Some time later, I was walking down that same hall and passed by a large classroom whose open door was too tempting. I paused during mid-stride and immediately recognized two faces from that very same elite class. Both boys looked up, broke into grins, and came charging out of the room (class had not yet started).

They looked more grown up and more confident. One of them is now wearing braces and has just returned from a semester spent studying in Taiwan. When I asked him if he still preferred Harbin to his former host city, he replied, “Oh, of course! Because Harbin has Meagan!” At that point, he leaned his tall frame down and wrapped his arms around my shoulders, practically burying me in his enthusiastic embrace. The three of us chatted for a few more minutes and then said goodbye and returned to our respective rooms.

A few minutes later, I received a text message from the first young man that I ran into, and it said, “We are in room 507. We miss you.”

I wrote back, “I miss you all, too.”

It is a cycle of giving and taking that dominates my year: the semesters end, the students leave and memories are strung together like rugged priceless pearls. How many people on this earth get to say that about their job?

It is a constant reminder that I am lovingly pierced, and I wouldn't trade my VOCATION or my LOCATION for any fewer painful goodbyes.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Friday's labors

Friday is my day off. And by “day off,” I mean that I’m off from teaching but not from working. The “to do” list is never empty. Instead, Fridays have become alternative work days, filled with overflow from whatever doesn’t get done throughout the week. That usually includes domestic things like cleaning, laundry and supermarket errands. Chores are divided by meals with friends or time with students. Some come over at my request and others invite themselves.

Yesterday seemed to have its fair share of guests. Andrew, a former student, has been practically begging me to give him something to do. He and I have been friends since my first year here (at which point I was his teacher), and he knows that he’s always welcome at my place. Though he’s enjoying a much lighter schedule this semester, he has discovered that there’s not enough healthy activity on campus to fill his down time. For the past two weeks, he has sent me detailed copies of his schedule with reminders that he can be of assistance at any time that he’s not in class. I finally turned his hint into an invitation to help me with some translations yesterday afternoon. He arrived an hour early.

The soldier was scheduled to meet me later in the afternoon. I needed help extracting some files from a portable hard drive, and his was the first number I dialed. His IT major isn’t the defining reason for my request; I try to integrate him into healthy social scenarios as often as possible. He spends an inordinate amount of time on the internet, particularly bound to an interactive online game called Crossfire (known as “CF” here). It’s very probable that the majority of times when I am bringing his name before the Father, he’s hunched over his desktop, engaged in a virtual battle. The sobering thought is that there is a simultaneous real battle just beyond his realm of perception.

He knocked on the door at 2:30. I just happened to be standing right beside it when he arrived, so I knocked back in the same rhythm. I heard him chuckle on the other side, and then he let himself in. I smiled as he stepped into the kitchen.

Some time later, after the hard drive had been accessed, the boys were talking about how they each met me. The soldier smiled as he said that our first encounter involved me ripping into him about being late. “I remember that day,” I responded, “because you walked into class like some kind of rock star, with your trail of cigarette smoke following you.” I stood up and did my best imitation of his entrance, and his eyes crinkled as he laughed.

The other boy asked, “How long have you been smoking?”

“About two years,” said the soldier.

I kept quiet, knowing that he started around the time that his mother died.

“Why do you smoke?” continued Andrew.

“Because it helps me relax and because it feels good.”

Andrew casually protested, “But you could do other things to relax, like run or walk or something.”

“But I don’t want to,” he exclaimed with smile.

At that point, I made unbreakable eye contact with the soldier and said, “You know, you say that now because you have youth and health on your side. But if you continue, it’s going to kill you.”

“Maybe not,” he retorted. “Do you know who Deng Xiao Ping is?” (DXP is former leader of the Party here in China and is most well known for his economic reforms.)

I did and nodded in my understanding.

The soldier continued, “He smoked every day and lived to be a very old man.”

I grinned like a poker player who holds a royal flush.

“Do you know what a risk is?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he answered cautiously. He knew my mind was circling him.

“Would you agree with me that being a soldier is taking a risk? I mean, you put your life on the line when you sign up for the military.”

“Yes, it’s a risk,” he agreed.

“So once you become a soldier, your life will be at greater risk than many people’s, right?”

Once again, he agreed.

“And now you are choosing to add risk on top of risk by not only being a soldier, but by being a smoking soldier. Do you honestly expect to live very long with that kind of multiplication?” I asked.

He had nothing to say.

At that moment, I was sitting in a chair not far from him. My eyes pleaded with him while I softly said, “You know I say this because I care about you, and I want you to grow into an old man who doesn’t spent his last years being connected to an oxygen machine.”

His playfulness disappeared and he looked back at me with a subtle shadow of appreciation. “I know. It’s not the first time you’ve said this to me.”

He remembered our conversation from months ago -- the same conversation that made the back page of a recent newsletter.

Andrew stepped into the kitchen for a drink refill, and while he was out of earshot, I delicately said to the soldier, “And I know your mom isn’t here anymore to tell you this, but I think she’d want me to speak for I am.”

He accepted it with a simple nod, and that’s how we ended that chapter of conversation. He soon departed for class (which he attended only under the threat of a possible quiz) and likely reached for his lighter the minute he walked out of the building.

Do I want him to quit smoking? Yes. I want him to live and live abundantly.
Do I want him to abandon the games and, instead, pursue real relationships with flesh and blood people? Without a doubt.

And there is a time and place (like yesterday) to remind him of the importance of those things. It shows that I care about his well-being. That is part of comprehensive Love.

But in my pleadings on his behalf, I ask not so much for what I want to disappear from his life, but for what I hope will one day emerge and shine far brighter than his worldly alliances.

Perish the day that I focus more on his symptoms and not on the cancer within.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


It was a text message composed of three strokes:


But it came from StoneCold, and that immediately lifted it from the ranks of “CHINESE CUTE” to “STOP AND CELEBRATE THIS MOMENT.”

He had responded to a reply that I had sent him after his original message of “Happy Birthday, Meagan 朋友 (friend).” I wrote him back saying thank you and that I hope to have him over soon for a hamburger reunion.

His reply was three strokes – not even a word.

I sat down in my chair and stared at it for a long time. I recounted how many steps our relationship has taken to this point, to a gesture so unimaginable two years ago. I wept, prayed, and then got up and walked into the kitchen to get started on a birthday cake.

Who would've thought that a wordless text message would be such an extraordinary testament?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

painfully accurate

Sunday morning, former student, Foster, and I sat down to wait for the others who usually go with us to service. We were ready early and had a few minutes to drift into conversation.

"Your prediction was right," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"About Japan."

I looked at him quizzically.

He continued. "About two or three weeks ago, you told me that you expected a massive earthquake to hit Japan any day. It looks like you were right."

I took no satisfaction in his observation. It would've been better to have been wrong, and the entire ravaged and broken island nation to our east would wholeheartedly agree with me.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tai O: a fishing village

There is a special pride in coming from a family that knows how to fish. My dad taught me; his dad taught him; my great-grandfather taught my grandfather.

In a world lunging forward, I found myself rebelling against the Hong Kong momentum by taking a day trip to the fishing village of Tai O, located on nearby Lantau Island. The village won't be there much longer, or at least, it will have to rely on memories to maintain its dignity. With its student population leaving for white collar pursuits, those left behind have grown old. They still ride their bikes to and from stilt-house to stilt-house; they still know one another by name and family stories; they still hang fresh catches out to dry and cure in the open air. But now, foreigners like me come to snap their photos with their fancy cameras, smiling as we pass through the narrow lanes of town.

Maybe they meet the demise of their village and the increase of flashbulbs with some resentment, but maybe one of them saw me pausing to take it all in and thought, "Perhaps she'd give just about anything to hop in that boat and cast out a line." And they'd be about right.

ABOVE: Getting to Lantau requires a subway ride and then a much more scenic seat on a skycar

ABOVE: The skycar terminus is near the Po Lin Buddhist Monastery, home to the world's largest sitting bronze buddha.

ABOVE and BELOW: Countless come and leave their most burning requests at the feet of one who can neither hear nor see them.

ABOVE: a vegetarian lunch at the monastery


ABOVE: I kept running into this lady throughout my Tai O walk. I guess it doesn't take long to know one's neighbors around those parts.

ABOVE: butterflied and set out to dry

ABOVE: Egg yolks are separated, sprinkled with coarse salt and set out to solidify underneath the sun. They are then sold as solid edibles. I wasn't brave enough...

ABOVE: There she is again.