From China to America, Lives Collide

The year was 1987. My aunt Kristina, then 20 years old, was with Goshen College’s fourth SST group to China. The group was stationed in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, living in dorms and attending classes at Sichuan University.

China was still nine years fresh from “Reform and Opening,” and the long, slow crawl toward modernity had just begun. Bicycles lined the car-less streets and SSTers relied solely on the tedious process of snail mail.

For her service location, Kristina was assigned to teach English classes at the university. During this time she became especially close to one student in her class, Zhang Xiaowei, or Kathy, a spunky and out-going young woman. Every day Kathy and Kristina would meet after class to eat noodles or walk around the city. Despite their cultural differences the two formed a deep bond of friendship.

“We would talk about everything,” Kathy said.

One Question at a Time

A very pregnant, soon-to-be mom wobbled bow-legged down the hallway as my guide led me on a tour of the Nyarero Health Clinic. We continued our walk down the long, sun-streaked hall until we reached the birthing room. Yelling, she hopped up on a wooden table draped in green plastic, and with not another word, a newborn slid right out onto the table. The nurse and I stood back in shock (though most of the shock was probably mine).

“Don’t touch anything,” she said as she darted out in the pursuit of gloves. I stood alone in the middle of the room. The questions “What’s going on?” and “What do I do?” were racing through my English-speaking head. I just stared at the (thankfully) wailing child still attached to the relieved mother. I was petrified as I watched the birthing juices flow off the table into the bin perched below, apparently placed there for that very purpose. I would later see the pit where this bio waste was disposed, not far off from this very room. I came to think of it as “The Placenta Pit.”

A Morning with Ma Ma

Ma Ma and Ba Ba Wang were an older retired couple — he an ex-military officer, she a rotund local tennis star. I lived in their apartment in Nanchong, China with their dog, Er Wa, and a turtle that mysteriously disappeared after a few weeks. Neither parent spoke a word of English, but their bubbly personalities, the deep bowls of noodles ready each evening, and their strange daily routine of stripping down to their underwear after a long day out on the town — it all became my world for a few months, so dear to me over time.

The Wangs were an odd duo, as many fellow SST friends would attest to after spending an evening with them. They were always eager to teach me everything there was to know, despite the language barrier. They’d tell me where to place my hands when I slept, scolded me for having a pimple on my face, and instructed me on how to correctly sit at the table. What seemed overwhelming at first, I understood later as a way of trying to shelter me, they just wanted me to feel at home with them. They were goofy, and made me feel goofy. We soon made one happy family.

A Moment, Not a Movie

One afternoon in Kemgesi, Serengeti District, Tanzania, I crouched watching elderly men play a local variant of Bao, similar to the game Mancala. They were scooping up beans from the weathered board and counting in Kingoreme, the local language, as they re-deposited them, one by one, into each cavity on the board.

One of my neighbors, a man known as Mwalimu (meaning “teacher,” though he didn’t teach at any school as far as I knew), walked up and started a conversation. He was dressed in a jersey and shorts — usually a no-no for adult men in Tanzania unless actively involved in sports — and held a ball.

“Do you know how to play volleyball?” he asked. A teenager joined us, holding his arms behind his back, who was also dressed for sport.

I followed Mwalimu and the teenager to the village soccer field. We stopped there, but I didn’t see a net. The three of us formed a triangle and Mwalimu started to pass the ball back and forth. Soon, we became a circle as more and more teenage boys congregated, as if drawn by the gravity of the volleyball itself.

To My Mother


On cold and snowy Colorado nights, when with the turn of a knob I can have a hot bath, I think of you. On beautiful sunny days when the sky, framed by evergreens and rugged mountains, is a blue you can’t believe until you see it, I think of you. When it rains and the rivers and streams turn to rust from the rocks and hills around them, I think of you, and the red dirt of Zimbabwe. It’s as if the rocks I climb here wash away until they become the dust that coated my feet as I walked the streets of Bulawayo, where you became my mother.