When I was 6 years old, my dad had a rare and wonderful opportunity to pursue higher education in a different country. Leaving behind my mom and me and everything familiar to him in China, he pursued a graduate degree in Biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, USA. Even as a young child, I was ingrained with the value and importance of a few things: family, education, and hard work. After two years of physical separation, long distance phone calls, and air mail letters, my mother and I finally received visas to visit my dad in the United States. My mother, though stable in her job as an educated and well-paid lab technician, gave up her dream job to reunite her family.
We arrived in the US April 1994, dressed much too out of place for a warm Oklahoma spring. I remember the heat. I remember our itchy wool sweaters in contrast to Dad’s shorts. Dad was living a bachelor life in campus housing and we joined him. He served us hot dogs for breakfast the next morning along with Sunny Delight. It felt delightful.
I couldn’t string a sentence of English together even though I had learned all the primary colors in English along with the numbers and useless anachronistic phrases like “How do you do?” But I had quick immersion into a foreign culture and integrated with my peers in elementary school and in the neighborhood. There were a few things I did that got me in trouble: taking the dictionary home and pulling chairs from out under other kids during Reading Rainbow time. Kids would laugh at my bad English, but taught me through trial and error. My mother however, had a harder time integrating, I imagine. She started attending night English classes, meeting up with other immigrant women in a classroom, reciting words out of a picture dictionary, and practicing sentences. It was shortly after we also started going Sunday School at a Baptist Church. Women who were wives of husbands at the University for higher education met together in small groups. At Trinity Baptist Church, Mom attended a group where a wonderful, God-fearing English teacher named Nella White led them. (Nella would become an integral part of our story, to this date.) They would read in class The Pilgrm’s Progress. Nella went beyond her call of duty and mobilized her English class into her car and took them for practice to Women’s candle making courses, Tupperware sessions, and pampered Chef women’s meetings. Anywhere where community was happening. It wasn’t always warm and pleasant, and at times it was obviously awkward. But, she tried everything to keep those women engaged. I started attending Sunday School around the same time and would get taught songs and Bible stories on felt boards. Zaccheus in a tree. Jesus rising from the dead behind a rock– the usual high-profile felt figures. As a new English learner, I would get confused about things, songs like “Jesus, Prince of PEAS”. Really? The green stuff? Jesus is the prince of peas? I guess so. He IS God as they say… Even as an 8 year old, I was intrigued by Jesus. I specifically remember coloring a picture of Jesus with little children, and their faces were smiling. I thought to myself, this Jesus sure is friendly, and he seemed to be all right. As time passed, my mother gave up Sunday mornings to take odd end jobs to provide for the family. Every imaginable labor she performed: dry cleaning, bakery, housekeeping, office cleaning, babysitting, hotel maid, Chinese restaurant, anything that didn’t require any English speaking skills. She quickly got her learners permit and drove herself to all her jobs. Even so, Nella would take time to visit, inquiring about her absences from church. Along with Nella, a few of “the Americans” had started paying regular visit to our tiny apartment. My father, a (then) staunch member of the Communist Party, would turn a blind eye to what we were doing. But he listened to all of our conversations. Sitting on the couch watching TV as our visitors would inquire into our well being, sharing scripture with us where they felt wisdom led them. Meanwhile, months to years pass, they became our friends and a pillar of our daily lives, whether or not my parents went to church. I still got picked up by the church van and rode in a van with neighborhood children to church every Sunday. The wonderful couple who sacrificed their time to round up a van full of parents-free, rowdy Chinese children definitely got more than they bargained for.
Our group often caused a ruckus, often to the chagrin of many in the main congregation. While the Americans dedicated to the Chinese ministry were exposed to and used to the somewhat brazen, loud, and impolite mannerisms of the Chinese, many of the more insulated Americans were not so keen on these cultural differences. I remember one Fourth of July when services were combined between the Chinese and Americans. Like wild animals we ran around the church pews and giggled in the pews at the very front of the Sanctuary in the middle of service. Some raised eyebrows, others gave us death stares. But Nella, Bill and Pam, Jim and Jeri, the pillars of what had become my community didn’t chide or reproach us. I was ten years old, I knew our wrong, but no one yelled at us. They showed us grace.
As days and seasons passed, we celebrated with the Americans birthdays in the living room of that small apartment, had ample conversations about Jesus, about God, discussed the real meaning of Christmas, went on retreats and learned about God. Dad kept his innocent bystander presence and never participated or discouraged our activities. We spent Thanksgiving in homes of people from Church. They treated us like Family, never separating us from what was close to their heart. I had developed a hunger and thirst for Jesus. I would scribble down notebook full of notes from sermons Jim White gave on Sunday mornings. How I longed for a relationship with God, even as an eleven year old, I knew there was something genuine and real. I had never seen love demonstrated by strangers like this: these who loved us with no demand for anything in return. With nothing to gain from us in return. I accepted Christ on a retreat after the invitation was given to receive Christ at the end of the Jesus Film. My mom did too, and we got baptized together on March 28, 1998, 2 weeks later.
Dad never came to our baptism. But we prayed for him and persisted in inviting him to church, to retreat activites, to Bible study. 5 years after prayer, my dad accepted Jesus. His story would fill up another 3 pages.
My story doesn’t end here. It began here with Jesus, 19 years ago. Every Easter and every opportunity I have to remember Jesus, I am so grateful because I am worth so much to the God of this universe.