When I think back on my first year in China, I can’t help but marvel at the parade of amazing people I met and became friends with in a single year. Even more amazing is how many of those people remain my friends a decade later! I know I would not have survived that first year without these people, let alone enjoyed it and COME BACK! I was blessed beyond belief with wonderful people who made my life in Beijing amazing. As I reflect on a decade in China, I want to introduce you to some of the heroes of my first year – the people who helped me not only survive, but thrive as I started my time in Beijing.
I was pretty deer-in-the-headlights when I first arrived. I was a mess that first week. I didn’t know how to do things, and I didn’t know how to ask for help. Thankfully I met the very sweet and wonderful Mel only a few days in, and she was a huge help. She was my best friend and source of all China wisdom for that first, often confusing, often overwhelming, semester in Beijing. I was in awe of her Mandarin language skills, and was startled years later upon realising that mine was nearing the same level. She moved back to Australia only a few months after we met, although she was back and forth between countries for a few years while she worked on her PhD. It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years – we were so little back then! I can hardly believe these 2004 photos of us. We’ve remained friends, and have hung out both in China and in Australia (she lives in the same city as my parents – which is convenient for catching up!)
Two weeks after arriving, I met the lovely Charles. We lived in the same building, and I have several sweet memories of fun we had that first semester. He gave me a hard time for not calling my mother more, and I gave him a hard time for not cooking for himself. It was a fun friendship. The very first time I met Charles he invited me to come to small group with him (I think it was actually that day, or perhaps the day after!) It was my first link to the community that would prove to be my lifeline for the next two years, and I’m still thankful to him for his naturally friendly attitude and invitation. I met several people that very first night who are still friends, ten years later.
Another important friend that first semester was Lusiana, my Indonesian big sister – I called her Cici Lusi, and she bossed me and cared for me just like a real big sister. We were in the same class and she took me under her wing pretty much instantly. I spent a lot of time that semester with her and a crowd of other Indonesians. When conversation flowed quickly around the lunch table, sometimes she or another classmate of mine would translate into Mandarin or English for me, but mostly I was content to let the Bahasa wash over me as I picked out the basic thread of conversation (that was the limit of my Bahasa skills!) I was the youngest of the group and all of them looked out for me. It was funny to be so much taller and bigger than everyone and yet clearly the baby of the group! I appreciated their care so much. Lusi was so sweet to me. She even found out I liked yellow roses and got me a bunch of 22 of them for my 22nd birthday! When Lusi left China suddenly during our second semester, she asked another friend to take over as my big sister and make sure I was looked after – even in the midst of a big transition she looked out for me.
Mel, Charles and Lusi all left Beijing within a few months of each other, but by then I’d become connected to the Christian small group of international students Charles had introduced me to. There were so many wonderful friends in that group, but three young men in particular stand out as having had a special influence – and all three have remained friends to this day. The first time I came to small group, I met David and Uche. I remember them both clearly from that first night. David led worship on a guitar and Uche closed in prayer with his deep, rich voice. Uche has been my Nigerian big brother for a decade now. For a few years we worked together at BICF, and even lived in the same compound. I have learned so much from him, not so much by what he says (although he has a lot of wise things to say – and a voice I could listen to all day) but by how he lives. He has shown me more about true humility, graciousness, and genuine care than I’ve ever learned from the words of others. Knowing him actually changed me. He never challenged me directly, but would occasionally make obervations or ask questions, and the huge gap between how he treated people and how I treated people made me see shortfalls in my own character – watching how he lived made me want to be better. We rarely see each other any more (he’s a busy pastor, married with three beautiful children!) but when we do he’s still a wonderful encouragement to me.
David was another person who encouraged through action. Somewhere during that first semester I saw the kitchen that he and his flatmates had. It wasn’t much, but it was a dream kitchen compared to my dorm room! David said I could use it any time – and I said not to tempt me! Somehow it led to my coming over to cook on Thursday nights, for an increasingly large crowd of boys (and a few girls). David even cut a spare key for me so I could let myself in and cook in the afternoons before he was home from work! The first time there were just four of us, and I cooked probably the worst meal of my life – but the three boys still ate everything I’d made, even fighting over the caramel sauce left in the pan. It was easily the worst caramel sauce I’d ever made but watching them enjoy it totally made my whole week. Later, David several times came home to a house full of people watching his TV while I (and perhaps another friend) cooked up a storm in the kitchen; he would take a deep breath, smelling the food, and say “I’m excited!” – which everyone else was, too, because when he got home it was time to eat!
It might seem like a small thing, but those cooking evenings really helped me feel like I belonged, that I had a place in that group of wonderful people. It’s what I appreciated most about David – he made people like me feel welcome, that he was excited to see each of us. He opened his home to all of us, to cook, eat, watch TV, play cards…whatever. And he was always gracious – even the time we used up all his electricity using the air conditioning one hot summer Sunday and he went to sleep on someone else’s couch because he couldn’t buy more til the banks opened the next morning. For a bunch of students, many of us short term and perhaps a little lost, it was a huge thing. So many of my best memories from that first year happened in the boys’ apartment – the cooking nights, games of risk, kitten races with my sisters, even my first China Christmas. Even now, on the rare occasions we run into each other, he’ll say my name in a singsong way that makes me smile and remember the gift it is to be noticed, and included. It’s something I try to emulate, especially when I meet people new to Beijing.
One of the three guys at that first dinner was Daniel, who was soon a close friend – probably my best friend that second semester. He was the person who helped keep me sane. I have a lot of stories about silly things we did – but most of them probably shouldn’t ever be written down! One time he cooked me homemade French toast, the first time I had it American-style, with maple syrup and powdered sugar. We lost touch for a while after he left China the next year, but he later married another good friend from Beijing; I went to their wedding in Texas and later they moved back here. While we don’t see each other much, it’s a blessing to have another long-term friend around – especially one who gets the dark side of my humour!
I can’t talk about the friends who helped me thrive that first year without talking about Tania (唐雪). Tania was a Chinese girl I met through other friends and who became the closest Chinese friend I have ever have. Soon we had dispensed with names, calling each other Jiejie and Meimei (I was, and have remained, Meimei). She is from Chengdu and was the one who told me so long ago that I had to visit Jiuzhaigou – how right she was! We helped each other express ourselves in our non-native languages, constantly flipping back and forth between English and Mandarin. When we first met, her English was better than my Chinese, but over the years that balanced slowly shifted the other way. When she had an American boyfriend I helped her understand, and express herself in, heart-deep written English – which helped me understand her own heart so much better, along with heart-level Mandarin. She met my family a few times, remains fond of my sisters and especially my parents (she cooked for my parents once, which was a great evening). I met and had dinner with her mum and other visiting family members a few times, too. I learned so much from Tania, but the biggest gift she gave me was genuinely caring about me. She didn’t just fuss over me all big-sister-like, she also opened her heart to me, offering her vulnerability. It was one of those friendships that changes you. We saw less of each other after I moved to Langfang, then a year later she got married and moved overseas – but we still keep in touch.
There are so, so many people I could mention from that year. People who influenced me, encouraged me, and made life in Beijing manageable – even fun! Some (like Joe, Sharee, Candy, and Lynn) I met that year but are more connected in my mind to memories from later years. But there are others who were a big part of that first year.
There was Anita, who I happened to meet in Australia a few days before we both moved to China, who gave me so much good advice and was a big blessing to me especially in those early days. There was everyone in my first semester class, especially Patrick, who somehow brought us all together (I’ll never forget our group meals at Sukhothai!)
There was Fidelia, with whom I had a sweet sisterly relationship and would sing a capella duets – it was wonderful. There was Amy, who cooked and laughed and was so warm and welcoming. And rounding out the trio of med students, there was Joan, quick with a quip and a laugh and a warm hug.
Sekedi and Julius each treated me as a younger sister, challenging and encouraging me. Victor teased me sweetly, and made me dance at an African wedding (despite my clear lack of rhythm!) and wouldn’t let me give up until I was having a fantastic time. Michele, Chilperic and Jean-Baptiste taught me simple French words and smiled huge smiles at me when I managed a simple “ça va” or “très bien, merci.”
Rob and Bryce, David’s flatmates, were the ringleaders of so much fun, tellers of stories that brought joy and laughter’ they even surprised me with a big cake when I left at the end of the year. Jo, a fellow Aussie who lived out in Changping (back in the days before the wider subway network) has remained a close friend – become a closer friend, in fact; I went to her wedding in southern China and I love visiting her and her husband and kids whenever I make it to Perth.
And there were so many more! Gordon, Chris, Ros, Helen, Sun, Lori, Shannon, Judy, Vera, Ken, Rita, Norah, Carolyn, Marzia, Sarah, Anna, Joanne, Elinor, Marshall, Stephen, Patrick, Marshall, Nina, Silvia, Kim, Brooke, the other Ken, the other Chris, Christie, Doris, Clarisse, Prisca, Julie, Jacqueline, Israel, Judy, Bethany, Angel, Jesse, Tingyin, Puk, Felanni, Budi… so many names. So many faces. So many nationalities!* So many stories.
* – I wasn’t kidding about the nationalities! The people mentioned in this post come from over 25 countries including Australia, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, China, Costa Rica, DR Congo, Guyana, Hongkong, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, the UK, and the US… and that’s without TRYING to make it multi-cultural…!