When I was a little girl, I did not dream about going to China. China was the fancy white dishes in our china cabinet. When I saw Chinese people around Vancouver I thought they were French. French was the only foreign language that I heard spoken, mostly on Sesame street, and these Asian people looked different than me so it only made sense that they were French. One episode of border town with the blonde French Canadian shattered that perception. Well maybe some French people are blonde… but the other French people look those dark haird folk at the grocery store I stubbornly held my belief until we started hosting homestay students.
Our first student was from Taiwan, he was soon joined by a guy from Japan. I loved the cultural trinkets they brought from home and their valiant efforts in learning English. I also loved correcting them, (ESL teacher in the making!) Over the next ten years, my family hosted students from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Spain, Mexico, West Africa and.. China. The shortest stay was one day, because of a mix up, and the longest stay was a year and a half. Some of the Japanese girls wanted to take me home in their suitcase. I wouldn’t have objected if I had been allowed 😉
Despite the bonding with foreign students, picking up bits of language and loving international food, the desire to travel to Asia did not emerge in my heart. I wanted to go to Scotland, the homeland of my great grandfather and marry some red head guy and live in a castle. When I started studying Spanish my daydreams shifted to Latin America. Perhaps I would find my true love there and live on a tropical beach.
In 2002 I moved to the Comox Valley and felt rather out of place with all these “white people” after being a minority at Gladstone Secondary and calling East Van home. (The valley has developed a lot in the last 15 years and is quite a bit more multicultural now. Ie. they now have more than 1 ethnic food restaurant) The chances of going to Asia or desiring to became even smaller.
In my early college years I studied Spanish at North Island College and kept the Scottish/Latin America dream fairly strong. But then on a sunny weekend in Kelowna, I attended a student leadership camp hosted by IVCF. The students at that camp embraced so profoundly. I remember taking off for an afternoon to visit my uncle thinking that no one would notice my absence. A group of students found me and with open arms declared, “Melody, we missed you! How was your visit?” I had never experienced so many people being interested in me, wanting to journey with me and love me.
On the last day of the camp, Steve Colby, the director stood up and said, “next summer we are going to China.” Immediately, a little nudge in my heart said, “I’m going.”
I didn’t know why they were going or what they would be doing but I made my decision in an instant.
What followed was the terrifying experience of fund raising. Who is going to give me money? I don’t like asking people for money? $3500?! That’s a whole year of nursing school!
Initially, I was the most unenthusiastic fundraiser. I was supposed to write 20 letters and I think I wrote five. I went through my parent’s address book (they were not informed) and picked some nice family friends that I had met at least once.
My letter was really simple. I was going to China with some students for a culture exchange and I needed money. Something like that.
I waited for the first income update with very little hope. When the statement came I nearly fell off my chair. Melody Conchie- $1500 Two couples that I hardly knew had been extremely generous and provided the first $1100.
Now I was motivated. I had always wanted to make a cd and sing in a concert so I downloaded some music softward on a 7 day free trial, borrowed a keyboard from my pastor and made a cd in my mom’s bedroom. I held a concert at my church and about 30 people came. The result $1500. With other donations and cd sales, I had more than enough.
I have noticed in my life, that when something is really meant to happen, it happens no matter how reluctant I may be at first. This fundraising story exemplifies that. It also exemplifies the power of generosity.
A dear Chinese couple gave our team a first lesson in mandarin. My spanish training paid off in learning Mandarin pronouns. “Wo” means “I” “Ni” (pronounced knee) means “you” and “ta” means “he/she” to me it sounded like the name Juanita (Wo-ni-ta)
James and Jenny taught in a way that inspired joy and I started falling in love with China and Mandarin right away. We played a culture game where we were divided into groups and given different languages and customs and the task to communicate with each other. Frustration ensued and a good discussion on how to overcome language and cultural barriers.
Months flew by and I found myself walking down the long hall at YVR puking into a bag.. I hadn’t even boarded the plane yet but I discovered an allergy to Tylenol cold medication that morning. Bad timing. We were enroute to Beijing with a two hour layover in Shanghai. I was so sick during that layover that I lay down on the floor in the airport in order to stretch out. My face, friends said, was a shade of green. “I can’t make it…” I said. Friends gathered around, prayed for me, gave up their seats and spread jackets over me. I slept for the remaining wait time and survived the flight to Beijing. Little did I know that one day I would make a trip to Shanghai again… with my Chinese husband (we are going this May)
The first thing I noticed stepping off the plane was the air, it smelled different. Spices and things… it wasn’t a bad smell. It just told me that I was in another world. The air also slapped me in the face like a warm damp towel. Very hot, very humid. No matter how many times I showered I would be covered with sweat and smelling like it five minutes after leaving the hotel.
I also noticed the people. They were beautiful. They looked at home, more at home than the students that came to us in Vancouver. They were crowding on to buses and riding bicycles, driving outrageously, moving ahead with life with determination. And they were everywhere. Some stood in a square or sat on a bench reading a book or cleaning up the poop of their toddler, (no diapers in China… good for the environment?) Polite waiters stood at attention by our tables waiting for orders. I remember hearing “xie xie” (thank you) for the first time by a server with a vibrant Beijing accent. I was captivated.
As for food, the lunches and dinners were amazing… Island take-out Chinese was not even worthy of being compared to these dishes. Fresh, hot, fragrant, flavourful… indescribable.
The breakfasts were weird.. very salty eggs, seaweed, watery rice with peanuts, spicy cabbage…. I ate a lot of bread.
This was just the beginning of my China journey and I will share more next time for there are many adventures in my memory but I have to go to T&T market to pick up requested groceries for my husband. He said, “the best seafood is the live stuff…” I am a little nervous…
Wo ai 中国 (Zhōngguó) means I love China. I still hope to go to Scotland and Latin America but China has a very special place in my heart.